Sebastian Deken Interviews Gabe Durham about The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask May 18 2020


This is the fourth in our author-vs.-author Boss Fight Q&A series. Both Sebastian's book on Final Fantasy VI and Gabe's book on Majora's Mask are funding now on Kickstarter.

It feels impossible not to compare Majora's Mask with its older sibling — like it's the Solange to Ocarina of Time's Beyoncé. How does/doesn't it stand on its own, and how does/doesn't it fit into the Zelda canon? Do you even think OoT is even the right reference point, or is there a better game to set beside Majora's Mask as a point of comparison?

I think Ocarina is totally a natural reference point. Majora was built from the parts of Ocarina by many of the same people who made Ocarina. Those developers were thinking about Ocarina constantly because they assumed that most of Majora's players had already played Ocarina, and so they worked hard to differentiate Majora from Ocarina, to deliver a novel experience. I like the Beyonce/Solance comparison -- that tracks for me, especially for how Solange seems to ask of her music, "What is my blockbuster sister NOT doing?"
Link's Awakening is another useful reference: It's the game that first showed that Link can leave Hyrule, Zelda, and Ganon behind -- AND that Link's adventure can contain surreal or mysterious elements -- and we'll all still accept it as a Zelda game. (And in both games, those elements largely came from Yoshiaki Koizumi.)
Last, there's the German movie Run Lola Run, which the part of my book that was excerpted in Polygon brings up. According to different developer interviews, Lola either partially inspired Majora or their similarities are pure coincidence, but either way you can see a bit of Majora in the movie's "hero must replay the scenario until she gets it right" plot. Groundhog's Day gets brought up too, but that movie is more ponderous and less goal-oriented than Lola or Majora -- even if [90s movie SPOILER] it's love that saves him in the end.
The concept of time is at the heart of both N64 Zelda entries, but in very different ways. How else do the games speak to each other?
Ocarina set up Majora really well for how it would play with time. Ocarina already had an in-game clock that switched from day to night, though it only ran in certain locations. And Ocarina already featured an ocarina with the power of time travel. These elements were a boon for a time-strapped development team trying to make a sequel quickly, and they pushed both the in-game clock and time travel much further in Majora.
This is similar to the use of masks. The masks in Ocarina make for a fun quest, but they aren't a huge part of the game. Majora asks, "What if the masks change how everybody treats you?" And, a step further: "What if the masks change YOU? Your body, your size, and your abilities." I don't think the mask mechanic at the core of Majora would exist if there hadn't been some light use of masks in Ocarina.
It was by no means a flop, but why do you think Majora's Mask didn't have the same runaway success of its older sibling? What do you think might have happened if Majora's Mask had been released before Ocarina of Time?
I've thought about this a lot, and here are a few factors that hurt Majora's sales: 
  1. It's a late-gen N64 game. If you look at the list of the top-selling N64 games, they all came out before Majora. And Majora has the dubious honor of "bestselling N64 game released after 1999."
  2. It famously arrived on the same day as the PS2, the console with the greatest slate of launch titles in history, and got a little lost in the shuffle.
  3. Its sales were hurt by the requirement of a RAM upgrade called the Expansion Pak -- which everyone who didn't own Donkey Kong 64 had to buy separately. There were reports of stores that had Majora copies but had run out of Expansion Paks.
A "Majora comes out first" timeline is fun to consider. It definitely would have sold better, but it also would have confused a lot of players because many of its design choices skewed away from over-tutorializing in the early game. The devs envisioned a slightly older player who has already played Ocarina.
It would also be weird to start with a bold experiment in a new land and then return with a relatively safe hero's quest in Hyrule. Majora places itself in the tradition of "we gave you exactly what you wanted the first time -- now here's a darker sequel." Like Bill & Ted's Bogus Journey. Or Babe: A Pig in the City. A lot of people, myself included, are hoping they go in a Majora direction for the BotW sequel. Mostly I think we mean: We hope they use this as an opportunity to surprise us. They gave us the big classic Zelda adventure: Now what else do they have to show us?
Majora's Mask's initial Japanese release date was less than 18 months after Ocarina of Time. What the hell was Nintendo thinking, and how the hell did the development team do it? How did they manage to make something so idiosyncratic—and so right—with so little time and with recycled resources?
Majora's developers were masters of reusing assets. There is a chapter in the book titled "The Art of the Remix" because they did such an incredible job of recontextualizing characters, enemies, items, and music from Ocarina and making it feel... not just fresh but often eerie, turning Termina and its inhabitants into a sort of Bizarro Hyrule. The developers turned the similarities into a strength.
Also, there were not a lot of team meetings. The devs just divvied up the workload and got to work. For instance, Koizumi was more in charge of Clock Town, the game's central hub, whereas Eiji Aonuma was more in charge of the rest of Termina and the dungeons. Composer Koji Kondo got almost no notes and was left to do his thing. Mitsuhiro Takano wrote the dialogue. And we're lucky that a lot of elements worked well on the first try because the team truly didn't have time to go back and change things.
The last answer is kind of a downer: Nintendo was not immune to crunch culture, though nobody called it that yet. I think the team worked too hard. Poor Takano, newly married, didn't see his wife enough and had to wait to take his honeymoon until after the game was done.
Majora's Mask is dark, with constant reminders of the passage of time, mortality, and existential futility. It feels less straightforward—it's no save-the-princess story—and far more cerebral and somber than any previous Zelda game (and most/all of the ones that came after it). How does the game manage this and find some sense of balance and appeal? What does joy look like for the player within the game, and for the people of Termina?
The game does a great job of balancing that somber tone you mention with a lot of classic adventuring.
For the player, I think there's a lot of joy in helping people. The characters in this game feel much more well-rounded than your typical NPC -- perhaps because you catch them in so many different situations and moods throughout each of the three days. They feel antonymous, and you get to know them slowly.
I will say, though, that for me Majora is the most stressful Zelda game to play because of the ticking clock. I'm so scared of screwing something up and having to start all over again! Majora is by far my favorite Zelda game to think about and talk about, but my favorite Zelda games to relax and play for fun are Breath of the Wild and A Link to the Past.
I have been thinking endlessly about Siobhan Thompson's recent tweet: "There are currently three types of video game: 1) you are a special fighting shootboy who shoots things 2) oh I get it, it's a metaphor for depression 3) nintendo." Joke aside, it feels like there is a kernel of truth there, and Majora's Mask seems to fit somewhere between #2 and #3. Do you think the game reflects on depression/mental illness? If so, how? Do you think this was the first major Depression Game?
Interesting! I guess it doesn't feel to me like a game about mental illness so much as it is a game about people dealing in different ways with the approach of death.
 To feel despondent in the wake of an impending apocalypse makes a lot of sense. To me, the least mentally healthy characters in the game are those who refuse to believe what's going on, though they find their way to acceptance eventually.
I think Majora's Mask works nicely as a metaphor for any worldwide disaster: climate change, our current life dealing with COVID-19, or nuclear war. Majora's developers tell the story of being at a colleague's wedding at the same time that a North Korean rocket flew over Japan. It turned out the rocket was a failed attempt to launch a satellite into orbit, but all of Japan wondered if this was a declaration of war. The contrast of the rocket and the wedding informed the game: How weird it is to try to live a normal life with such a grave threat going on in the background. This is explored most literally in Majora in the Anju and Kafei wedding plot.
But to cycle back to that tweet: I think one thing that's really cool about Majora is that it chews on all this heavy stuff, but it is still unapologetically thing #3: Nintendo. Majora may be dark, but it's also silly, sweet, and playful -- and that duality serves it so much better than if it were merely a Serious Art Game. Especially in the year 2000, a time when most game studios were obsessed with nailing the aesthetic of action movies. Majora's devs had their pick of two different Link designs from Ocarina, and could have easily have made Majora starring adult Link. The fact that they chose Kid Link instead says a lot about the kind of game they wanted to make.

Pre-order your copy of Majora's Mask by Gabe Durham.