How Good is Majora’s Mask?
Seriously. It’s so good…
I’ve been dusting off the classic consoles recently, dabbling in a few N64 games from way back. What can I say – nostalgia is powerful. A lot of the games are not quite as I remember them. Certainly, the graphics are less impressive. But in terms of plot, atmosphere, gameplay, a precious few are even better than I recall.
I remember Zelda: Majora’s Mask as being beautiful and surreal. It is those. Yet it is far darker and more disturbing than I remember. Even just playing through the first three-day cycle – your quest to reclaim the Ocarina of Time – exposes you to a lot that makes you forget that this is, at its heart, a kids’ game.
The game starts with Link searching for someone. He is alone except for his loyal horse – a hero separated from most of his allies and friends. It is pretty bleak. This bleakness is only intensified when his horse is stolen by the Skull Kid.
Now, let’s talk about the Skull Kid. On the first day we know little. He is sinister and powerful. He discards one of his friends – the fairy, Tatl – needlessly and callously. When Link tries to follow him, the Skull Kid curses him, transforming him into a Deku scrub. Within minutes, Link is robbed of everything – his ocarina, his horse, even his body. And without his normal body, he can’t use his sword or shield… he can’t even defend himself from the town’s playful dog. The Skull Kid cripples him, reducing him to a shadow of his former self – seemingly out of boredom.
Everywhere you go, you see people suffering. The Skull Kid caused all sorts of mischief – stealing things, blocking roads with boulders, shattering the great fairy spirits. But these are just inconveniences compared to the real damage he’s doing. There is a sense of doom throughout the land. The moon is falling towards the earth, right towards the largest town in the area, expected to collide at the start of an annual carnival. What should be a time of anticipation and excitement is instead marred by despair and anger. Even the characters that seem happy seem like they are that way out of defiance.
There is true hopelessness here. Ganondorf merely conquered the land; the Skull Kid is slowly, visibly destroying it. The Sword of Damocles is there whenever anyone looks at the sky. It is cruel and tormenting, and the despair only grows as the days progress.
And yet, for all the subtle evil of wiping out the world in such a slow and dramatic way, the Skull Kid is still just a child. Yes, he will throw asteroids at you when you spot him through the telescope – but then he will moon you. As in, he will wave his butt at you. (A few days later he will moon you, as in drop the moon on your head.)
This is classic villain design. The villain is the same-but-opposite of the hero – after all, Link is a child, but hardly an immature one. He is a hero filled with determination and courage, who slowly earns his power by helping people in need. The Skull Kid is a lonely child who stole his power from an innocent (if eccentric) man.
So, what does all this mean for Dungeons and Dragons?
D&D and the Zelda series map quite well to each other. It helps that they are both high-fantasy settings. Zoras are aquatic elves; Gorons are reskinned goliaths; Dekus are halflings with fire vulnerability… hell, there are even fire-breathing dinosaur people in the Zelda games. Link himself is something like a bard/ranger. Mechanically, it would require little work to run a Zelda game using 5e.
Thematically, such a campaign would be all the things we discussed above: there would be surreal beauty intermingled with apocalyptic despair. There would be elaborate puzzles and long fetch-quests. There would be a huge variety of terrains populated by a range of species, each suffering because of the story’s villain. The larger dungeons would be non-linear, requiring characters to retrace their steps as they unlock new pathways.
I’ve stolen Majora’s Mask’s style for a 5 Room Dungeon. It embraces the themes of the game mentioned here, plus a few more. Having said that, it works well with many fantasy campaigns. This can be a stand-alone adventure, the beginning of a side quest or the launching point of the central campaign. All you need in your setting is magic, mystery and a sense that the world is ancient and strange…