Death pervades mainstream gaming. Health bars and the cycle of dying and respawning are seemingly inescapable tropes that video games have been structured around since the earliest days of the arcade. Yet very few games are actually about death. Dying in a video game rarely means more than “well shit, time to try again.”

The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask 3D

3DS Exclusive

In the year 2000, one Nintendo game dared to explore death as the mysterious, terrifying thing it really is. In doing so, it created one of the greatest video games ever made.

“The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask” is the definitive black sheep of the Nintendo library — a dark, mature, offbeat side story that takes the excellent core gameplay the “Zelda” franchise is known for and twists it, using a unique time travel mechanic to explore the concepts of the passage of time and mortality itself.

This 2015 release is its 3DS remake, the same game with a graphical overhaul and numerous improvements to its gameplay and save system.

Sent back in time after the events of “Ocarina of Time” to relive his childhood, player surrogate Link sets out on a quest to reunite with his fairy companion, Navi. Mysteriously, he ends up stumbling upon Termina, a dreamlike parallel world to his homeland of Hyrule. Soon, he discovers that a bullied, Gollum-like creature named Skull Kid accidentally attained great power with the help of a magical mask and is intent on crashing the moon into the earth, ending all life.

“Majora’s Mask” bends this classic “end of the world” fantasy trope to its will, using a countdown timer and a world whose denizens go through real-life daily schedules to give the incoming apocalypse a real sense of imminent doom. In the three days prior to the world’s end, the game’s characters begin to figure out that they will soon die. The player watches in horror as the townsfolk go from cheerful to cautious to cowering and crying, helpless in avoiding their own demise.

However, there is hope — using his trusty magic ocarina, Link can restart the three-day cycle at will, appearing at the beginning of the first day, “Groundhog Day”-style. The player must live these three days over and over again in order to figure out how to stop the moon from crashing. While the citizens of Termina are unaware of these three days repeating again and again, the player slowly but surely gains knowledge and power. By helping the people of Termina and completing dungeons, Link obtains helpful equipment as well as magical masks that grant him unique powers. It’s a genius, rewarding gameplay mechanic that has not been replicated in the fifteen years the game has been out.

While the original release’s genius was somewhat hampered by instances of rather obtuse logic in its puzzle solutions and a weak save system, this 3DS remake addresses those problems excellently. It implements an improved quest-log system that more closely resembles one of a western RPG like “Skyrim,” a hint system to help with the more confusing puzzles, and adds tons of extra places to hard-save the game. IGN’s excellent article detailing the full extent of the improvements and changes can be found here. Most of these improvements are excellent, lessening the game’s structural issues and bringing its thematic and philosophical elements to the forefront.

“Majora’s Mask 3D,” like its original release, isn’t perfect. One of the game’s four lengthy dungeons is significantly more tedious to complete than the rest, and a mandatory late-game trading sequence quest serves to annoy instead of entertain. In addition, a helpful swimming ability gained halfway through the game is inexplicably made less effective in the 3DS version. Weird.

Despite this, “Majora’s Mask 3D” stands as an excellent improvement to one of the most daring games in history, a vast departure from its franchise that explores the human condition in a way no other video game has.

”The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask 3D” was reviewed using an advance digital copy provided by Nintendo.

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