In the spring of 2002, for two weeks straight, I did nothing but play The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask.
And when I say nothing, I mean nothing. That month, a freak storm on the last day of school before spring break had suddenly dumped 8 inches of snow on my tiny hometown in less than three hours. It doesn’t snow much in Western Washington, and when it does, it doesn’t last long. The city was ill equipped to plow everyone out in a timely fashion, so I was stuck indoors for two weeks, with several bags of Cadbury mini-eggs, a copy of Majora’s Mask, and the entire walkthrough printed off of GameFAQs from the school library, all 200 doublesided pages. I told the librarian it was for English class.
Over the years, it’s become my ritual: every spring, when the Cadbury mini-eggs show up in the aisles at Safeway, I hunker down with Majora’s Mask—whatever format I can get my hands on—and play from start to finish. For several years, I used that same walkthrough. When the special edition Gamecube disc came out, featuring the first two Legend of Zelda games, Ocarina of Time, and Majora’s Mask, I moved heaven and hell to get my own copy. I experienced the joy of purchasing it on the Wii in the eShop, and later, on the 3DS, for my daughter. I told her she could only play it after she finished Ocarina of Time.
There are probably many reasons why Majora’s Mask commanded my attention as it did; it was bizarre, and dark, and in many ways embraced the completionism that would come to drive game design in the following decades. In Majora’s Mask, not only did you need to visit an area or dungeon over and over (like many games with Easter Eggs, special items, or collectibles), in fact, that was the entire point. Link is trapped in a repeating 3-day cycle that allows him to piece together key information that logistics and time constraints would have otherwise made him miss. With his journal, he’s able to keep track of these details and use them to solve puzzles and gain whatever tool is needed to access the next part of his journey. If the player missed something or needed to witness a certain conversation, it wasn’t truly gone. They could always play the Song of Time and give it another go. At a time when not nearly as many games had a save system that allowed the player to correct any mistakes or early game mishaps, Majora’s Mask let you rewind, go back, and try again. Majora’s Mask gave you a do-over.
In a medium driven by player fantasy, it makes sense why this is so appealing. It reminds me of all the childish revisionism I indulged when I read books as a kid. Growing up, I spent most or all of my time reading to escape from my unhappy home life, and it was hard for me when sad or irreversibly tragic things happened to characters in the stories I loved. Children in general have difficulty accepting consequences; it’s why they invented “take backs”. Often I would mentally rewrite certain passages or chapters. In my head canon, no one was allowed to have a bad ending.
Later, as an adult, I grew out of it, and learned to accept, even appreciate, tragedy in literature. But in a way I transitioned to viewing certain things with wishful revisionist goggles in real life, especially my childhood. There are moments I still get caught up in wondering if I could have made things better if I had just been a better child or sister. Maybe if I had tried harder, I could have overcompensated for my parent’s neglect, and my sisters and I would have come out in one piece. If I could just go back and find that one moment where everything went wrong, I could fix it. Sometimes you just want a do-over.
I still have problems with finality sometimes. I play so many open world exploration games, and all of them have almost too much content to ever experience fully. I started putting off the endings because I knew once I finished the game, I wouldn’t be interested in getting all the collectibles and completing all the side quests anymore. This has morphed into a strange phobia of ending a game even when there’s nothing more to do, simply because I don’t want it to be over. Sure I could go back into an earlier file, but it isn’t the same. My brain would know. Once it’s over, it’s over. And when you want the chance to change something in case it all goes wrong, that can be hard to accept—even if it’s irrational.
The “real” ending of Majora’s Mask is truly spectacular if you embrace its kooky save system. I always hold out until I’ve collected every last mask and seen the heartwarming reunion between Kafei and Anju, the star crossed lovers whose separation is the subplot to the labyrinthian series of sidequests in the game. In life we rarely get do-overs, and even rarer is the perfect happy ending. But in Majora’s Mask at least, I get to have both, no matter how many tries it takes.
I can’t wait until the spring.
Holly Green is the assistant editor of Paste Games and a reporter and semiprofessional photographer. She is also the author of Fry Scores: An Unofficial Guide To Video Game Grub. You can find her work at Gamasutra, Polygon, Unwinnable, and other videogame news publications.