A Fantastic Deviation
The previous Zelda game on the Nintendo 64 was Ocarina of Time, the first 3-D Zelda game. That's a hard act to follow, and Nintendo, smartly, didn't make Majora's Mask a direct competitor with Ocarina of Time. Majora's mask keeps the controls from Ocarina, but completely revamps the gameplay. Majoras Mask takes place in the land of Termina; most specifically, Clock Town and the surrounding lands. Entering Termina on a personal journey in search of a beloved friend, Link's journey is quickly interrupted when he encounters the devious, masked Skull Kid. Skull Kid attacks Link, and takes his takes precious Ocarina of Time. Link gives chase, intent on retrieving his treasure, but upon confronting Skull Kid, Link finds himself outmatched, and ends up cursed, encased in a body of a Deku Scrub. After befriending a new fairy, Link sets out into Clock town, where he quickly learns the source of all this trouble. A mask. More specifically, the titular Majora's Mask, whose powers Skull Kid is using to bring destruction to Clock Town. Skull Kid's plans will be completed in three days, giving Link little time to stop him. The length of a day in Majora's Mask has been increased to close to twenty minutes, from the measly 2 or three it took to complete a full day/night cycle in Ocarina. But one hour won't cut it to defeat Skull Kid, and after reclaiming his Ocarina, Link can travel back to the dawn of the first day, or slow the flow of time, so time isn't generally much of a factor. When traveling back in time, the citizens of Skull town forget Link, and he loses minor items, but keeps major ones, such as heart pieces or masks.
Masks are a major factor in Majora's Mask. There are many masks for you to collect, scattered through the game, with functions as varied as allowing you to create a marching band full of animals, to helping you inquire as to the location of a missing boy. There are three main masks that Majora's Mask utilizes prominently. These masks allow you to change form from your normal human shape, to that of another race, such as the Deku Scrub. These new forms have new abilities and weaknesses, and help spruce up the gameplay. Playing in these forms isn't a chore as you might expect, but instead very entertaining and rewarding. Zipping around the Goron racetrack while curled up into a ball is a exhilarating experience, and there are certainly more like it within Majora's Mask.
Majora's Mask features less than half the dungeons found in Ocarina of Time, yet you'll probably still squeeze about the same amount of play time from both. How is this? As has already been mentioned, the central hub of Majora's Mask is Clock Town. Since it is a TOWN, there are many denizens whom you may interact with. And here, we come to what is undoubtedly, the single thing most important aspect of Majora's Mask.
The NPCs all feel real. They have their own schedules, they have their own interactions and motivations. They move about the town doing what they need to do. They comment on the weather. Shops close at night, and shady characters emerge. Majora's Mask achieves what no game has ever done: it breathes life into EVERY. SINGLE. CHARACTER. It's truly something that you must see for yourself to comprehend, but it's an amazing feat, and one which makes the game just amazing to play.
So of course, you'll want to interact with these amazing characters right? And here we encounter the other important thing about the game. Majora's Mask is mostly built around side-quests. You'll unearth these quests by talking to the right person at the right time, or listening to a noteworthy exchange between two NPCs. This is going to be a love it or hate it sort of thing, but Majora is packed full of side-quests for the adventurous soul. Of course, you CAN play the game just for it's dungeons, but your enjoyment and value is going to be severely reduced, since the game only features four dungeons and a smattering of required non-dungeon play.
Majora runs on the same engine that powered Ocarina, and it holds up well. Incremental improvements have been made to keep the game from feeling dated, and they do a good job of it. Majora sports higher-res textures, larger environments, slightly enhanced music, and a large world. And thats not even taking into account that the game must keep track of the whereabouts of 30+ NPCs while you're off gallivanting through the mountains. Sadly, you'll see many of the character models from Ocarina repeated here, one of the few corners Nintendo cut on this ambitious sequel.
As amazing as Zelda is, occasionally the game gets a bit too ambitious. You'll notice some frame-rate drops when the screen gets a bit too crowded, and the sound doesn't match up to the epic score contained in Ocarina of Time. Only occasionally will you run into camera problems, but it will pop up as a problem once or twice. Zelda is a spectacular game, but sometimes a wee bit too ambitious for it's own good.
So, in closing, Zelda: Majora's Mask is an ambitious game, and a game that manages to deliver on nearly all fronts. Amazing characters, great new mechanics, updated presentation, Zelda does not disappoint. While some of the close-minded may not appreciate this game, for those who can accept something new, this is a masterpiece, and undoubtedly one of the greatest games of all time. It's a new level of immersion, and a worthy brother to Ocarina of Time. Play it now. Remember it forever.