The Nintendo Switch is almost upon it, and with it, a new Zelda game. A new sandbox Zelda game featuring better looking tunics, hang-gliding, and an intense enough story to make our beloved princess do this:
It just looks so damned good, to the point where some of us here think it could be the best in the entire franchise.
Yet which game would it actually be dethroning? Sure there’s plenty of Link to the Past-stans, and who doesn’t have at least fond memories of Wind Waker? (There was an island of Tingles, for crying out loud!) But from what I can tell, the consensus is almost unanimously on Ocarina of Time (OOT). I say “almost” because there is a small, though vociferous group that argues its direct successor, Majora’s Mask (MM), should hold that honor. For full disclosure, the latter is my personal favorite in the franchise, though I’m not sure if I’d consider it “better” than OOT.
So let’s see if there’s an objective way we can hash this out, examining the strengths of the stories and gameplay, and come away with a decisive winner. DECISIVE, I say!
The Hero of Time
In the off-chance someone doesn’t know the first thing about this game, let’s begin with a quick recap of the plot.
In OOT, a 9 or 10-year-old Link is being raised by the Kokiri, a sort of woodland sprite-ish race that all stay as children forever and have guardian fairies (none for Link, how sad). The Kokiri are all watched by the Great Deku Tree, who is feeling green in the gills lately, so he sends Navi the fairy off to get Link, since the guy has a magical destiny. Link defeats a monster inside the tree, but it turns out he was doomed anyway since some schmuck named Ganondorf cursed him. You see, the Great Deku tree held a spiritual stone, and Ganondorf wants that along with two others so he can open the Door of Time in the Temple of Time and enter the Sacred Realm where he can steal the Triforce for power!
Link learns about this and goes to warn the royal family, succeeding in telling Zelda, who immediately believes him since she’s prophetic and thinks Ganondorf is the worst anyway. She tells Link to get the other two spiritual stones while she protects the Ocarina of Time (this is also needed to open the Door of Time), so that way they can get to the Triforce first and protect it. Unfortunately, they missed the part where Link is too young to be doing any of this shit, so when he gets the stones and opens the door, he ends up getting sealed by the Sage of Light inside the Chamber of Secrets (within the Sacred Realm), while Ganondorf skips on through and grabs the Triforce, casting darkness over the land. The only silver lining is that Ganondorf is such a baddie, he couldn’t take the Triforce whole: it split into thirds, and while he did a lot of damage with one piece, the other two fell safely in possession of Link and Zelda.
The Sage of Light puts Link into a seven year sleep, so he can mature enough to fill his role as the Hero of Time. When Link is pulled out of this stasis, he’s given instructions to go and wake up the other sages so they can all bring down Ganondorf, who has since become King of Hyrule. Link does this with the help of a mysterious Sheikah (a sort of ninja-like people) named…Sheik (clever), who turns out to be Zelda, because she might feel a little responsible for the awfulness in Hyrule.
With the help of now-awake sages and Zelda (who is actually the Goddess of Time and head sage, which means she has some healing and gate-opening powers), Link is able to defeat Ganondorf. Zelda thanks him by sending him back in time to his 9-year-old self so they can just…not do the thing. Just ignore the time paradox it creates, okay?
What’s funny is that before writing that out, I always had thought of OOT’s narrative as a straightforward hero adventure tale. It’s true that there’s the “chosen one” aspect of this, but the importance of Zelda being just as inextricable a piece shouldn’t be understated. OOT took the “defeat the bad guy to save the princess” trope and made it “defeat the bad guy and the princess will help, too.”
There’s also how each geographical area and each sage feels fleshed out and has their own issues. Ruto had to sort of quickly shape up as the sage of water after being rather self-involved and carefree as a kid. Darunia throws himself into the Fire Temple to the point of self-harm as a way of trying to save his people. Nabooru is the second-in-command of the Gerudo who realizes the danger Ganondorf poses and does what she can to subvert his plans even before darkness falls over Hyrule. It’s not Citizen Kane or anything, but these characters, along with Link and Sheik/Zelda, hammer home the theme of responsibility, and does so in a rather compelling way. Even Malon insists on staying in a bad situation for the good of the animals of Lon Lon Ranch helps to support this. There aren’t many pieces that feel extraneous, and this is the game where you spend a fair amount of time running across the map to deliver eye-drops.
Truly, it’s the dramatic irony that’s probably my favorite piece of this: had Link and Zelda not tried to open the Door of Time, none of this would have happened. So then seeing the darkness and how each region turned uniquely to shit (the Zoras getting trapped in ice was probably the most affecting) had more of an underlying tragedy to it besides “evil guy does evil things.”
The ending is rather beautiful in this regard too… Zelda sends Link back in time to subvert this in a different timeline, while she herself has to try and pick up the pieces of the world that has now fallen apart. Her background arc is almost mind-boggling when you think about it, given the way she spent seven years training as a Sheikah, ultimately to sneak into Hyrule and do what she could until Link was ready to take up the mantle of Hero of Time. We’re not talking small things either—Sheik saved Ruto’s life!
All in all, though the story does lead the player from Dungeon A to Dungeon B without much hesitation, the tale it tells to do so is one that creates a sense of urgency, and a deeply felt sense of loss, too. It’s upsetting to see ReDeads wandering through the town market, and I’ll be damned to find a player who didn’t want Kokiri Forest free of monsters as soon as possible.
Hero who’s got no time
Then there’s Majora’s Mask. It’s a bizarre tale, there’s no two ways about it.
Following the events of OOT in the “child” branch of the now-split timeline (thanks, Zelda), a 9/10-year-old Link realizes he really misses Navi, so he goes off to look for her in the neighboring land of Termina. Unfortunately he gets mugged on the road, his horse gets stolen, and he gets turned into a Deku scrub. Could happen to anyone. He meets a mask salesman who tells him that the same thief (a Skull Kid) stole his really cool, really evil and dangerous mask (Majora’s Mask). If Link gets it back for him, he’ll make him a human again, so long as Link also gets his ocarina back (he needs it to fix him).
Small problem: the mask, with the help of the Skull Kid, is somehow making it so the moon falls into Termina after three days and everyone’s going to die. And just before they can throw a really fun festival!
Link manages to get the ocarina and remembers Zelda teaching him the Song of Time. He plays it and finds himself back at the “dawn of the first day” (three days remaining until the moon crash). The mask salesman fixes him up, but Link forgot to get Majora’s Mask, so he gets sent back into the world and has to figure out a way to retrieve it and stop the moon crashing, making as much progress in three days as he can, before traveling back in time and resetting the moon fall over and over.
Much like Groundhog’s Day, Link ends up solving the minor problems of everyone in town, while he ultimately figures out that there are four guardian giants of Termina who are trapped in temples being guarded by masked monsters. Link must defeat these monsters and summon the four giants when the moon is falling so they can catch it and hold it up. Once they do, he’s able to warp onto the moon, fight the now-sentient Majora’s Mask that ditched the Skull Kid (it’s got no strings), and save the day.
It’s weird. I’ve heard it described as “dark and creepy” too, and it’s a little hard to argue with that.
What’s weirdest of all is how none of this should have worked, and yet it all does.
For Link, it boils down to him fighting an evil mask to avoid the destruction of a town. However, he actually takes a surprising backseat in the context of the narrative, which is instead all about Skull Kid, his former friendship to the giants, and the way his friendship to the two fairies Tatl and Tael started out as sharing fun pranks, but took a dark turn aided by the mask. We learn from a story within a story (thanks, Anju’s Grandmother) that the Skull Kid had been super tight with the four giants, but when they announced they were leaving Clock Town to protect Termina from its four geographic regions, he felt abandoned and “spread darkness” before he was banished. The mask allowed him to return, and it all feels very much like the Ring of Power calling out. In many ways the Skull Kid was primed to take it, and the tragedy that unfolded was in line with his former insecurities and latent dark tendencies.
In a move of poetic justice, the Skull Kid gets scrapped by Majora’s Mask to do its own bidding, leaving him completely alone. The end credits focus on the giants telling the Skull Kid that they do care about him, but they still have to go do their protector thing. He proposes to Link that maybe they could be friends, and the final shot we get is this:
Link is, you know, there for these events. But it’s the Skull Kid’s story as he works to understand the concept of friendship while seeing how loneliness manifesting in fear is a dangerous road to walk. “Forgive your friends” is more or less the tagline of the game, and it sure as heck wasn’t Link forgiving Dampe for his formerly terrible tour guide skills.
Still, even if you’re not playing as the story protagonist, does that really matter? Link’s actions certainly make an impact, and the many quests he goes on in Termina play into the central themes anyway. Time and futility stand out the most for the player, but even subplots such as Anju/Kafei or the Gorman Brothers touch on the forgiveness and friendship aspects we see in the A-plot.
Oh, and responsibility strikes again! It’s not Link’s responsibility, oddly, though he’s able to don the forms of those who feel it keenly. The Deku Princess attempts to take on the troubles in her kingdom alone thanks to her ineffectual father (Dutiful Princess alert), both the Goron Elder and Darmani are so determined to stop the endless winter that they fall into near and actual death (respectively), Mikau dies trying to get Lulu’s eggs back, Pamela shields her half-monster father from any potential threat despite the danger he poses to her, Cremia devotes herself to the ranch despite her father’s death and the whole yearly alien abduction of the cows thing… Heck, even Jim, a small child, starts a gang dedicated to helping those in Clock Town because of neighborly duty.
In fact, collective communal responsibility is one of the biggest takeaways given how the Carnival of Time and the potential moon disaster serve as two unifying efforts. We see how the characters of this world relate to one another, often in surprising ways (the receptionist at the mayor’s office has a crush on Kafei, Cremia shelters Anju’s entire family and might be low-key in love with her, and Anju’s grandmother may have been the mayor’s teacher, just to name a few), and Mayor Dotour’s struggle to weigh the risks of staying and the potential losses of fleeing the town in the wake of the carnival only too well frames the way each person’s individual drama influences full picture.
In some ways it’s a masterpiece and in others, it’s completely absurd and downright silly. I have to imagine it is a story that most players find deeply engaging, especially given how self-referential it is, and how far down rabbit holes you can get. For those willing to explore the world in its entirety, the reward is there. Only issue is the willingness to do so without feeling like you’re making the moon crash.
Compared against OOT, I do think MM has the richer tale, though it might be one harder to relate to, especially given Link’s secondary status within it. Zelda’s plotline in OOT will destroy me in a way nothing can in MM, though what is actually on-screen during the game is less compelling than its successor. For these reasons, it’s likely best to call the strength of the stories a draw, and determine the winner of this battle by gameplay merits alone.
What Ocarina of Time did better
Both OOT and MM used very similar mechanics and were released on the same console. However, there are enough differences in game play to set them apart.
1. The superior map
This isn’t just about Termina making no dang sense politically and economically. It’s more that Hyrule feels like a complete world rather than a hodgepodge of disparate zones. Part of that may be the transition areas: you head up Death Mountain Trail before you get to the rocky Goron Village, you’re slowly eased into the Gerudo’s desert setting, little-by-little, there’s the bridge you take to get out of the forest. In MM, Termina Field just has patches of snow randomly existing about twenty feet away from the very temperate-looking beach.
Hyrule also feels less constrained in travel, likely because so much of the map stays closed off to you for so much longer in MM. OOT gives a grander “free roaming” feel, while MM makes you sit around wondering when you’ll come across the item to get you to the next zone. It’s true this can be mitigated by getting out of Woodfall with only the Hero’s Bow, and then damage boosting yourself over the Great Bay fence after getting the Goron mask, but it doesn’t exactly compare to being able to get your Gerudo Membership Card without even having to beat a single temple as an adult.
2. A better warping system
In OOT, you can warp across the map by learning a location-specific song at some point in the game.
In MM, a random owl statue has a song transcribed on it, and if you play that you can travel to anywhere another owl statue exists, as long as you’ve opened it already. They’re both fine. Fine.
This might seem like an odd point to give to OOT, since I was just kvetching about the limits in MM’s travel, and there are some songs you don’t learn until frustratingly late in the game (looking at you, “Nocturne of Shadows”). In MM, you more or less can immediately revisit any area you’ve been to. However, OOT’s travel system felt integrated into the story, and there was a genuine delight in learning the next warp song, especially given how they were composed to evoke the area you were heading. In MM, while Kaepora Gaebora, is a familiar sight for those who played OOT, it’s still just a random owl with random statues in random locations, randomly. Give me a duet with Sheik any day.
3. Better sword upgrade & Epona quests
It might be unfair to lump these in together, but I tend to associate freeing Epona from Lon Lon Ranch with the mad dash across Hyrule to get Biggoron’s Sword, likely because that would be the first thing I’d do after becoming an adult. Both quests were incredibly fun, and actually felt like there were stakes to them, given the countdown clock for most stages of the sword, and what felt like personal stakes in helping Malon.
In MM, you pay a blacksmith for a better sword, and if you happen to have gold dust, he can upgrade it one more time so that it will never break. That’s it. Just…go into a shop twice. Sure, you have to figure out where to get the gold dust from, and you go two full days without a sword while he works but it’s not exactly engaging.
Epona, however, is nothing but frustrating. You can find her pretty quickly once you visit Milk Road, but until you defeat the second dungeon, there’s no getting to her on the first day, when you actually need to be there for Romani to help you. Once you manage that, there’s a small minigame, but it’s nowhere nearly as satisfying as defeating Ingo.
4. Better dungeon design
Speaking of those dungeons, OOT definitely has the edge here, for the simple reason that you can actually figure them out. Yeah, I know the reputation the Water Temple has and that you can get stuck without small keys, but here’s a hint: just move through the rooms counterclockwise, lowest level to highest. It doesn’t require the goddamned civil engineering degree that makes Great Bay comprehensible, and don’t even get me started on Stone Tower Temple. I refuse to believe people were actually able to find all fifteen stray fairies in that one without outside help.
5. The save button
I don’t know why MM didn’t allow for a save and quit whenever the player wanted. I’m guessing it has something to do with the function of the three-day cycle, but truly, it’s a mystery. In OOT, if you wanted to stop playing, you could save wherever you were and it would be fine. Sure, you’d start back in Link’s house, or at the beginning of a dungeon, but it was never a big problem, truly. This was also very nice if you wanted to try something risky out.
In MM, playing the Song of Time and going back to the first day was an automatic save. Otherwise, you’d have to find a dang owl statue. However, the worst part was that if you saved at an owl statue, played for a little, then stopped playing without saving (maybe you messed something up, even), you would be taken back to the last time you played the Song of Time. As a kid who’d only be able to play for a limited amount of time, this was highly stressful.
6. Gold skulltula quest
I am a completionist. Why would I fight Ganondorf with anything less than 20 fortified hearts and the biggest possible quiver? For that reason, the little scritch-scrtich-scritch of the skulltulas was both the bane of my existence, and the delight when playing these games. I lived to get that spider icon on my mini-map in OOT, and there was something immensely satisfying about figuring out all the areas they could hide.
In MM there’s two hellish spider houses, and woe betide you if you defeat one on the wrong day. Learning the speedrunning routes through them are kind of fun, but it’s more or less twenty minutes of the spider noise driving you bananas while you curse yourself for not bottling more bugs.
What Majora’s Mask did better
It’s very important to say something first: MM is a sequel to OOT. For that reason the game could address common complaints. Yes, Tatl is less annoying in her noises than Navi (though she’s also less useful). The text speed is also much faster and you can skip more of it. Sure, these fixes produce a “better” game, but it does seem unfair to hold against OOT all the same.
1. The Great Fairy rewards system
I’m sure this is going to be divisive, but to me there was nothing more delightful than having Link don the Great Fairy mask and plunging into the dungeons. The rewards were more or less the same in both games, at least for three of the fairies, but rather than finding random rocks to blow up or stumbling across the fountains, MM’s integration of them into the dungeon system felt much more organic, and gave the dungeons replay value they might not have otherwise had.
Also, I’m pretty sure the only spell I used in OOT was Din’s Fire in the two cases where I had to. I may have used Farore’s Wind once when I ran out of time to finish a dungeon. But thanks for nothing, half of you Great Fairies. Meanwhile MM has the Great Fairy’s sword, which is ridiculously overpowered. Try the Wart fight using just quick-spins of it…trust me.
2. Masks & movement
It’s really hard to tell if this was a “fix” to OOT’s system, but getting around the world in MM is just a delight. A lot of that is due to the transformation masks, especially given the ridiculous speed the Goron Mask allows you. In fact, it’s almost to the point where Epona feels a little useless. And I’d be remiss not to mention the Bunny Hood, even though you’re unlikely to see it much in speedruns.
In OOT, there’s Epona and back-walking.
The thing is, the masks and the way they affect gameplay are just fun, no other way about it. It’s delightful to get a new mask and try and see where you can use it in some way. Sure, there’s a few lemons, but for every Circus Leader’s Mask, there’s a Bremen mask.
3. Challenging mini-games
Okay, in fairness, Bombchu Bowling is a goddamn nightmare that you can get stuck at for a long time in OOT. But otherwise the mini-games are not the most difficult. Stand and shoot your slingshot at these slowly moving rupees. Fish for ten hours until that really fat one by the log bites. The Horseback Archery presents the biggest challenge, but even there it doesn’t take long to master.
Compare that to MM where you’re racing beavers, playing basketball with bombs, and shooting octorocts faster than you knew was even possible. These are incredibly fun games, and yeah, can trip you up. But boy do those pieces of heart feel well-earned.
4. A less aggravating Dampe quest
OOT fans should give out a collective groan when Dampe is mentioned, because the Heart-Pounding Gravedigging Tour is anything but. It’s more like the tour where you have to turn your damn brightness up all the way, listen for the sound of dirt or stones, and wait for a guy moving slower than the speed of death to charge you money that might eventually lead to a piece of heart.
In MM he’s not faring much better, by the way. In fact, he can’t even see anymore, so you have to use Tatl’s light to guide him. But there’s only six possible dig locations, they’re all very obvious, and you get a bottle at the end rather than just a piece of heart. It’s also a very fun way to close out your first cycle as a human, if you play your cards right.
5. One pair of boots
I’m not sure if this is a result of MM needing a full menu pane for the masks, but goodbye are the days of futzing around with tunic and boot selections. It was kind of fun for a little in OOT, but once the choice was taken away from me in MM, my quality of life was better. This goes for Link getting a functional and non-flammable shield to use at all times. Just…why Deku Shield, why?
I think the biggest source of my frustration with this system in OOT was how awful the hover boots felt for movement, and how dang slow the iron boots were. I realize that was the point so that the Kokiri Boots would remain the default, but it just made me dread the moment I had to put the other ones on. Just give me Link and let me run around without burning up.
And the winner is…
Well, technically I gave OOT one more positive than MM, though I should point out that “mask mechanics and movement” were so fundamental to the game that they should count for a bit more.
The thing is, while I thought I’d end this arguing passionately for MM and being willing to die on that hill, I’m really not sure that either one comes out on top. MM took OOT’s formula and added mechanics on top of it with a focus on fun and difficulty, but none of that would have been possible without OOT’s formula in the first place. Conversely, OOT was a near-perfect game out of the box, though it’s impossible to ignore the ways it was improved.
As much as I’d love to give the crown to one or the other, I can’t. They’re both phenomenal games that have earned a place of affection in Zelda fans’ hearts for a reason. Breath of the Wild has its work cut out for it.