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The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask was among one of the first Zelda games I ever played, having picked it up as part of the bundle released in the Collector's Edition in 2003. Of course, since I was new to the Zelda franchise at the time (having only played a demo of Wind Waker and an hour of Ocarina), I didn't know anything about the game and I played it like I would any other game. I remember being freaked out at the cutscene where Skull Kid turns Link into a Deku Scrub, and I was pretty disappointed that I couldn't play as regular Link so early on in the game. My disappointment turned into frustration when I couldn't figure out how to turn back into Link's human form and after a prolonged spell of watching the Moon crash into Termina over and over again, I dropped the game out of frustration; only to pick it up years later in middle school. This time, I actually managed to transform back into Link and actually progress through the game. Eager to make up for time that I had lost, I sped through the first two dungeons with relative ease, before academics caught up with me and I stopped playing right around when I started the Great Bay Temple. I left the game once more, this time not really sure if I would ever pick it up again. As fate would have it, in 2014 out of boredom I started playing it again, and this time I finished it for good.
Majora's Mask is unlike any video game I've ever played, let alone unlike any Zelda game. It has a unique atmosphere that contrasts a bright and colourful overworld with dark and depressing storytelling, which makes for a beautiful contradiction. If you're somehow reading this article without being familiar with the game at all, the entire premise of the game is to stop a giant moon crashing into a town and destroying the planet, and you only have three days to do it. You're not trying to stop the moon; you're trying to do everything you can before you have to rewind time and continue where you left off. The only way to win is to destroy the titular Majora's Mask; nothing else you do during the course of the game really matters. The game is full of stories of regrets, death and loneliness, and the uniqueness it holds makes it one of my favourite video games of all time. For this Zelda Month post, I wanted to take the time to go over some of the more sombre elements of Majora's Mask and why they make for such a compelling game, along with stating why the game has a reputation of being one of the darkest games in the Zelda franchise. Please note that these are listed in no particular order, as they are things that I personally feel contribute heavily into making the game the darkest in the Zelda franchise.
1. The Setting of the Game
In the modern era, Zelda games are generally known for their expansive yet intricate overworld that is home to many different characters that Link can interact with. Frequent interactions with these characters often reveal side quests, which have you fulfilling certain objectives that change how the in game world functions. Termina, on paper, is just like most other Zelda overworlds, except something feels a little off about the place from the moment you step into it.
Termina has been described as a 'world parallel to Hyrule', which seems fitting as after you interact with its characters well enough, its easy to identify that Termina does not carry the sense of joy and wonder that Hyrule had within it; instead, it is a living, breathing mass of confusion, misery and despair. Never mind the fact that the name of the place seems to be a direct allusion to "terminal" (a.k.a. Death) but there's also the issue of the colossal Moon hanging over everything, slowly inching its way down to completely obliterate the town and all its inhabitants across the four lands. Most of the people Link meets in Clock Town shrug off the threat of the Moon as they go about preparing for their carnival, even though you can literally see it coming closer every day. People have several different reactions to it, such as the Swordmaster who says he can cut it in half, to the carpenter who laughs in open disdain of the possibility of it falling.
The eeriness of Termina extends beyond Clock Town, however, and into the other areas of Termina. The Deku have their own problems when you first meet them, with a poisoned water supply thanks to the Woodfall Temple's curse, the Princess missing and a monkey about to be boiled alive after being falsely accused of kidnapping her. The Gorons are waiting for their hero, Darmani, to emerge victorious from the Snowhead Temple after Skull Kid cursed it, and the cold is starting to dwindle their numbers and leave them with no means of sustenance. Miaku, a Zora, dies right in front of you and his children are held captive in the land of the pirates, and the water is polluted here as well because of the curse on the Great Bay Temple, leaving them virtually defenceless against death. Over at Ikana Canyon, the dead walk among the living, unable to ease their regrets, and this puts anyone there at enormous risk of joining their ranks. Every place you visit has a distinct air of hopelessness; rarely is there any sense of happiness or respite in the game. And nothing reminds you more painfully of this fact than taking a look up at the sky and staring into the haunting face of the Moon.
2. Romani Ranch ("Them" and the Final Hours)
If you manage to remove the boulder blocking Romani Ranch on the first day and speak to Romani right after, she offers you get the chance to defend the Ranch against mysterious aliens that are simply called 'Them'. According to Romani, they come to the ranch every year during the carnival in search of their cows, and she has to defend against them alone because Cremia doesn't believe her when she tells her of their existence. Should you choose to assist Romani, you must fight off waves of the mysterious foes using your bow and Epona until the crack of dawn.
Now, the creatures themselves are mysterious enough, as the game offers you no explanation who they are or what their goal is, although there are various theories that they work for the Gorman Brothers or that they are linked to the Garo from Ikana Canyon, which doesn't quite help matters. However, what puts them on this list is what happens if you don't show up to Romani Ranch at all or if you fail to prevent "Them" from stealing the cows. You're treated to a harrowing cutscene of the creatures breaking open the barn roof and stealing not only the cows, but also Romani as well. She's absent for the entirety of Day Two and only returns on the final day with no memory of what happened, the inability to speak in coherent sentences, and an oddly vacant expression on her face. Every so often she shakes her head, almost like she's trying to remember something but its blocked. What exactly did the aliens do to her, and what did they do to the cows they stole? The game gives no answers, which makes the possible outcomes varied and chilling.
3. Ikana Canyon
Majora's Mask is home to some of the most unique environments in Zelda history, with so many memorable locations like Clock Town, the Deku Palace, and Romani Ranch. However, while each of these places have their own depressing qualities, they are populated with quirky characters that make the otherwise depressing place seem a little less sombre. Ikana Canyon is not like this.
The fourth major area of Termina is possibly the most depressing place in all of Zelda. No other place comes close to matching the dreary feeling you get when you make your way through what is popularly called 'the valley of the dead'. When you first set foot into it, you realise very quickly that whoever gave it that name was not exaggerating. The entire area is devoid of any life; instead, the undead freely roam the place, their restless spirits wreaking havoc on the land. These spirits are the inhabitants of the ancient kingdom of Ikana, who walk amongst the living and cause disturbances for them. When you reach the first major area in the canyon, you are confronted with the sight of numerous Gibdos surrounding a single house. The water supply is poisoned, and what looks like a giant castle looms in the distance. Not exactly the most pleasant picture, is it? The thing is, it gets so much worse once you start to actually play through the area.
You journey through the once proud castle of Ikana only to encounter the King as an undead skeleton. After defeating him, he teaches you a song that creates a statue of whatever form you're in when you play it; this is the infamous "Elegy of Emptiness," commonly associated with the popular BEN DROWNED Creepypasta. However, while that is just a story, the statues themselves are quite creepy. They all look like funeral effigies; the ones you build for people who are already dead (nor does it help that the forms of the statutes resemble the former spirits of the masks you wear to transform). After this you have to make the climb to the Stone Tower Temple, which is riddled with subtle clues as to the ultimate fate of Ikana and why it's a land that seems to be cursed.
The Stone Tower Temple is not new to theories or controversy due to its mysterious origin and nature. I cannot help but be enraptured by the place as there's a lot of interesting Zelda lore that can be found here, along with a good dose of unsettling imagery. There are paintings of gargoyles' licking the Triforce on various pillars, as if depicting a severe lack of respect for the Goddesses, and outside the Temple there's a hand pointing towards the sky, as if in defiance of some force above. The Temple itself has you fight the Garo Master, one of the ancient races involved in the war that rocked Ikana centuries ago, and Gomess, a creature shrouded in darkness that bears a remarkable similarity to the Grim Reaper. The item of the Temple being the Light Arrow, and you having to hit a gem outside the Temple to flip the tower to fight Twinmold has been compared to changing the path of the tower from ascension to the heavens to descent into hell, due to Light Arrows being the weapon of the Goddesses. This would mean that the Goddesses were aware of the disdain the Terminians showed for them and decided to strike them down from the heavens with their weapon.
Of course, none of this has been confirmed by Nintendo, so that means that its all speculation, but nevertheless less it only serves to amplify the mysterious nature of Ikana Canyon. All the enemies you encounter in this part of Termina are skeletons, zombies or spirits that are seeking revenge on the world. The music is constantly extremely sombre and mellow, with what sounds like chanting constantly ringing in your ears, reminding you that the living are not welcome here. The feeling only intensifies as you venture further and further into the area. Out of all the settings the Zelda series has seen, this is perhaps the darkest, and for that, it gets a spot on this list.
4. The Happy Mask Salesman
Few would deny that the Happy Mask Salesman is one of the most creepy characters in the history of Zelda. He appears seemingly out of nowhere to Link within the first 20 minutes of the game, asking for his help in getting Majora's Mask back from the Skull Kid. His opening line in the game "You've met with a terrible fate, haven't you?" is one of the most iconic lines of the Zelda franchise. What makes him so creepy is his overall demeanour throughout the entire ordeal. He seems way too calm for someone that lost possession of a mask that could potentially destroy the entire world in just three days. Oddly enough, one detail I noticed when I played the 3DS version for the first time was that Tatl actually hides behind Link when he appears for the first time. Now, this could just be because Tatl was with Skull Kid when the mask got stolen, but it could also be that because the Happy Mask Salesman frightens her?
I wouldn't be surprised if it was the latter; he's pretty weird. He changes emotions at random, has the power to conjure an entire organ out of thin air, he has the ability to teleport from one place to the other (as seen in the last cutscene of the game), the even straight up vanishes instead of walking away. Most chilling of all, however, is the fact that he knows way more about Majora's Mask than anyone else in the entire game. He tells Link of its cursed history and how the ancient tribe sealed it away, only for it to wind up in his possession somehow. There are several conspiracy theories that he is, in fact, a member of this tribe and that he wanted to purge the evil from the mask somehow, which is why he had it, but Nintendo hasn't revealed anything about his origins. One thing we know for sure, though, is that his presence makes everything a little uncomfortable, at the very least. His presence isn't overbearing on the overall atmosphere of the game, but its definitely something that springs to mind anytime Majora's Mask is thought of.
5. Majora's Mask
From the moment the title screen of the game is shown, it was pretty obvious that the main enemy of the game was the eponymous mask, but gamers didn’t predict just how creepy it or the game that centered around it would be. The titular Majora's Mask is one of the most disturbing things to come out of the Zelda franchise; not only because of what it causes in the game itself, but also because everything from its backstory to what its purpose is, is shrouded in mystery. All that the game is willing to tell us is that the mask was used by a tribe for its ancient hexing rituals, but that the power of the mask increased to the point where even the tribe feared the damage it could cause. As a result, they sealed it away before catastrophe struck. After that it somehow ended up in the possession of the Happy Mask Salesman (again, the game doesn't tell us how), and then Skull Kid stole it.
A sketchy origin would be reason enough to be wary of the mask, but while journeying through Termina, the player witnesses first hand all the evil things Skull Kid did under the influence of the Mask. Obviously for starters, there's the Moon, but he also stole the life essence of the Deku Butler's son (the hollow tree you see right before you enter Termina... yeah... ), he turned Kafei into a child right before his marriage and he sealed the Four Giants and likely cursed the four areas of Termina, thus preventing them from stopping the Moon. What truly makes Majora's Mask disturbing though, is its demeanour. Most villains, be it a TV show, movie, video game, or any other form of media, have a purpose. They have a reason for doing what they're doing; some kind of rationale that provides the audience a way to understand their motives. Majora on the other hand, has none of this. There is absolutely no reason why it's destroying Termina, other than to just feed off the subsequent misery and chaos caused. It doesn't care that its ruining so many lives, and that to me is truly terrifying; for what could be worse than facing a foe without a conscience?
There are several theories about the origin of the Mask, ranging from the ancient tribe spoken of being the Twii from the Twilight Realm, or the Happy Mask Salesman being the creator of the Mask. Nintendo has not given confirmation on any of thee theories, meaning that the Mask is still as mysterious as ever, which only adds to its creepy nature.
6. Final Hours
Tragedy and horror are both more effective as subtle concepts rather than making it apparent. Sure, you’re probably going to feel horrible after witnessing something as gruesome as say, the Red Wedding from Game of Thrones, but odds are that you’re going to feel even worse after seeing how an episode of Black Mirror plays out: its something gets worse the more you think about it. The sinking feeling that overcomes you when you realize that the technology they showcase in that series might one day become an integral part of our lives, with nothing that you can do to object to it being implemented is downright terrifying.
Kind of like watching the moon fall on Termina after you’ve done everything you could possibly do in an effort to save it.
The final six hours of Termina’s existence is by far the most depressing thing in the entirety of the Zelda series, and definitely one of the most depressing moments in any video game. The final day is hectic enough, with bizarre music that seems to signify insanity playing in Clock Town throughout the day, but not really affecting any other place. When the clock start to count down from 12 am to 6 AM though, no matter which area of Termina you’re in (with the exception of dungeons), you hear an unearthly, ominous tune, as if mankind has just accepted its ultimate fate. The worst place to be during these hours is undoubtedly Clock Town, which is basically deserted by that time. Most of the residents have fled to Romani Ranch seeking refuge from the Moon, and the few that remain have simply chosen to die. Both the postman and the guards know that by staying in Clock Town, they courting death, but since they haven’t been given orders to evacuate, they stay to perform their duties, even though it is evident that they are terrified of the moon falling. The Swordmaster, for all his talk of slicing the moon in half, can be found cowering at the back of his dojo, cowering in fear and exclaiming that he doesn’t want to die.
If you go into the barn at Romani Ranch at this time after saving both Cremia and Romani, you find the sisters talking about how Romani is going to be allowed to drink Chateau Romani for the first time (and judging by the context, its an alcoholic drink that Cremia is giving her in order to dull her senses right before the Moon falls). It’s a sombre scene, and you’re made to feel all the more helpless as Romani innocently laughs at her older sister finally acknowledging her as an adult. If you choose to perform the Anju-Kafei sidequest, they will spend their final moments in each other’s arms, and if not, they’ll spend their last waking minutes in isolation, wondering where the other is.
Perhaps the worst part of the final hours is the fact there's not a whole lot you can do about it, unless you rewind time and go back to the first day, the Moon will fall. Go back to the first day, though, and everything you’ve done so far, all the relationships you’ve built with the residents of Termina, all the good you’ve done for the people there, will be lost to the memory of time.
Majora's Mask has several moments like this, where the player is forced to reflect on the utter hopelessness of the situation in front of them, but no part of the game showcases this better than the final hours of Termina. It forces you to take note of your own reality and possibly even make you re-evaluate what you would choose to if the world was ending all around you.
In my opinion, when a video game is able to make a player think so much about something they have virtually no control over, it's the sign of utter mastery.