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:
- 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."
- 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.
- 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.
This is the third in our author-vs.-author Boss Fight Q&A series. Both Sebastian's book on Final Fantasy VI and Matt's book on Red Dead Redemption are funding now on Kickstarter.
First off: what's your personal history with FFVI -- and, more specifically, with FFVI's music? What made you want to embark on this unique critical project?
I actually didn't know Final Fantasy III had come out before I got it. When I was in grade school, I was absolutely obsessed with Final Fantasy and Final Fantasy II. I owned Final Fantasy, but only rented Final Fantasy II (from Blockbuster, of course) — and I rented it over and over and over again, over a period of a year or so. I never wanted to return it, because that meant losing my save data, so we racked up unimaginable late fees. I'm pretty sure it got to the point that Blockbuster froze my dad's account and would no longer let him rent movies or games. By the time I hit fifth grade, my parents had had enough, threw up their hands, and decided to eat the up-front cost and buy it for me. When my dad got to Toys R Us, though, they didn't have it — But they did have Final Fantasy III. When my dad brought it home and I plopped the cartridge in, I was immediately in love.
I loved music as a kid, but didn't live in a house of melomaniacs — we didn't have a family stereo or album collection. Most of the music I knew came from a.) church, b.) oldies we listened to in the car, or c.), and most importantly, video games. I remember crying a little bit when I first heard the overture sequence of FFVI—the part with the oboe, where the Magitek armor is walking across the tundra. The opera sequence made me want to be an opera singer — and I was, for most of my twenties.
I wanted to take this project on because I think this game's three-CD soundtrack holds up against modern game soundtracks recorded by live musicians. There's some kind of magic to it. I wanted to figure out what that magic was, and figure out, from a critical distance, why I was so obsessed with the music, and why I returned to it over and over throughout high school, college, and in the post-college real-world of my 20's and, now, my 30's.
From a musician's perspective, what makes Uematsu interesting as a composer? What did he do in this game -- or what has he done, in general -- that other composers of video game scores haven't done?
Woof, what a question. To my ear, he's interesting and unique in that he hammers out melodies so effortlessly. This was the sixth Final Fantasy game, each soundtrack larger than the last, and he hadn't run out of juice! He also walks a very thin line between "classical"-sounding music and "pop"-sounding music. Almost all of his music has a string section, often brass and/or woodwinds, but it also might have an electric bass and a steady rock-like beat from a virtual drum kit. He also jerks around very clearly in other genres that do not sound anything like this: Celtic, industrial, jazz, ragtime, techno, there's a pretty big laundry list. I'm sure other composers/games do this — but I can't come up with any off the top of my head, so to me Uematsu obviously does it most memorably. Other games seem to stick to one sound without bouncing around so much—Mario's a little kooky, Zelda had its dramatic "classical" sound, Mega Man had this synth-rock thing going, etc. I don't think Uematsu even does this intentionally; I think he does it instinctively because he's so into prog rock, and pretty omnivorous (maybe as a result of the prog rock).
The opera sequence in FFVI rightfully gets a lot of attention from critics and fans, but I've always been drawn even more to the complexity of "Dancing Mad," the amazing multi-movement battle music that plays during the final fight with Kefka. I remember being obsessed with the rock version of it that Uematsu played with The Black Mages, his FF music cover band (which still owns). I'm sure this is a big topic in your book, but what's your take on "Dancing Mad"? What do you think Uematsu was trying to do with that track?
"Dancing Mad" does get some attention in my book, but not nearly as much as the opera scene. It probably could be its own chapter, though! I didn't get too deep into analyzing it while I was researching/writing, I bet a musicologist could come up with some really fascinating stuff about it. My take on it is that Uematsu took this mentally shattered character and shows us four of the shards. Each movement takes a piece or pieces of Kefka's theme and transforms or elaborates on it/them. The first movement feels pretty straightforward, hopping back and forth between grief and anger. The second is militant and unhinged. The third is fascinating to me: it's all organ. It nods a little toward baroque and early classical church music — it starts off with a bell, for god's sake, and he ramps up the reverb on the organ to give it a sense of space. It's Kefka's desire for self-apotheosis. And that final movement is just killer—the off-kilter meter, the sick bassline, the jammin' rock organ. Man—it's fun to listen to! The fact that "Dancing Mad" is in four movements may have been a choice the developers made, not Uematsu, but it's worth noting that pieces with four movements are pretty common in classical music. It's fun to think of this as a mini-masterwork.
The Black Mages version is really cool too, but amped up just slightly — it actually sticks pretty close to the original and even uses similar, but higher-quality, synth sounds for the organs (man, it would have been great if they had hired an actual organist. That would have been sick as hell.). Until it gets to that wild guitar solo at the end, I imagine this is what "Dancing Mad" would have sounded like if it had been used in FF7. Maybe with some more intense choral action, though, given what Uematsu did in "One Winged Angel."
One of the things I love about FFVI is the fact that the world ends halfway through the game: Kefka succeeds in destroying the "World of Balance" and creating the "World of Ruin," scattering the 14 heroes across a postapocalyptic landscape. Do you find that there's a big difference between WoB music and WoR music? How does Uematsu complement the game's sudden tonal shift?
By the time you hit the World of Ruin, I'd ballpark that about 75–80% of the game's music has been introduced in one form or another—but a lot of it is recycled/repurposed/massaged, so the stats are pretty subjective. Because of that, there's a limit on how much the tone can really shift. There are some clear contrasts, though. The airship music in the World of Balance sounds like a Showcase Showdown on The Price is Right, but in the World of Ruin it's a melancholy number featuring a pan flute instead of a brass section. The town music is almost performatively mopey. The overworld music is probably the starkest contrast; it, more than anything, has that post-apocalyptic Pure Moods vibe. I think the way the change is really hit home is in the music direction (i.e., the cues/placement): the strongest reminders of the World of Balance come when you reunite with friends — when their theme music plays — and when you beat the game. Other than that, things are relatively static.
As a longtime JRPG fan, I can think of a lot of great music besides Uematsu's work on the FF games: Yasunori Mitsuda's score for Chrono Trigger (which Uematsu also worked on); Yoko Shimomura's work on Kingdom Hearts, Xenoblade Chronicles, etc.; Toby Fox's music for Undertale. All bangers. Do you think JRPGs tend to have better music than other game genres? If so, why? Is it just that the genre has always attracted singular talents, or is there something about the genre that enables a different approach to composition?
So I need to come clean here: I largely fell off the JRPG train after Final Fantasy VII (for a number of reasons not related to JRPGs or video games at all). As I researched this book, though, I did touch on a lot of really great JRPG scores — and I agree with you that there are tons of amazing ones out there. These scores are memorable — I think— because of the purpose they serve and the needs the games have. JRPGs traditionally have pretty linear storylines and predefined characters, so the music has to tell a linear story, and the composer can plan ahead for how the music and characters converse. Our reception of the music is necessarily tangled up in our reception of the story; it's supposed to be. In a lot of ways, that makes the music more powerful, and I think that's why JRPG's feel like such a fount of amazing music. (Don't get me wrong, though, there are a few real clunkers in this genre.)
That said, there are so many bangers out there that aren't JRPGs—the comparison between JRPGs and other genres may be apples-and-oranges, because the music functions differently, because the games' needs are different.
If you could do a book like this about another game's music, what game would it be?
Argh, I hate to list another 16-bit JRPG here because I would love to branch into another genre and era, but it would absolutely have to be Super Mario RPG. There's a lot of rich material there! The music is really idiosyncratic, memorable, and effective — it really does feel like a mash-up of 16-bit Nintendo and 16-bit Squaresoft. I would want to explore its relationship to the Mario franchise and to its 16-bit contemporaries — FFIV–VI, of course, but also Chrono Trigger, Secret of Mana, Breath of Fire, etc. I also want to get in Yoko Shimomura's head. She did Street Fighter II and Breath of Fire in this era, but this really feels like an important moment in her career: a real mark in the 16-bit JRPG world, where the expectations/standards are so high — especially at Squaresoft! — and in the Mario franchise. It's really wild to think about that 2-in-1. Also—Women in video game music are forgotten/marginalized in history a way that's really similar to women in classical music (and other kinds of music). Yoko Shimomura is a big exception here, and I want to know about what it was like to break in, and how she managed to break through.
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