There’s something intrinsically bewitching about Nintendo’s storied franchise, The Legend of Zelda. Each title has something that makes it unique in the grand tapestry of the series, and perhaps none so much as The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask.
Desperation is something many games try to evoke: a feeling of utter helplessness and the motivation for one last-ditch effort to improve your standings in the virtual world. Few games ever take the concept to its natural outcome: futility. Majora’s Mask’s world of Termina is filled melancholy, misery and mourning. It exudes feelings of hopelessness; the citizens see the celestial crisis advancing, bringing them ever closer to doomsday, and react accordingly.
But the bizarre alternate universe of Termina doesn’t start out that way. When Link first stumbles into Clock Town, the village is bustling with life, preparing for their annual Carnival of Time. It’s a celebration in which the townsfolk pay homage to the passage of time and its balance with nature. It’s in these festivities that Majora’s Mask first plays with various schools of philosophy. Clock Town and its inhabitants begin the game loosely following the ideas of Taoism — belief that humanity should find balance and live in harmony with the “tao,” which is the driving force behind all things. Within the context of the game, both to the players and the characters living within Termina, the tao is time itself — the unique hook of Majora’s Mask, its 72-Hour Cycle.
As players guide a transformed Deku Link through the game’s first Three Day cycle, a gradual shift occurs. The Moon, a monstrous planetoid displaying an ominous, crazed grin, bears down upon the land and creating panic. Folk throughout Termina begin to question their beliefs in living according to the tao of their universe, ultimately rejecting Taoism completely toward the Final Day. In its place, existential nihilism reigns. Its shadow lies within the moon’s own, corrupting the world. The general atmosphere of Clock Town mirrors Link’s own outward appearance. Sad, and devoid of hope, the people of Termina are resigned to their fate, knowing many things to be pointless in the face of certain death.
If Clock Town’s residents represent the transformation from taoism to existential nihilism, the main antagonist — ostensibly — of the game, Skull Kid, is the full embodiment of hedonism. Prone to following his desires and achieving personal pleasure, even at the expense of others — as seen when Skull Kid spooks Epona and steals Link’s Ocarina of Time — everything Skull Kid does in the beginning of the game is for himself. Upon robbing the Happy Mask Salesman of the titular mask, Skull Kid fully embraces the hedonistic philosophy, using the mask’s dark powers to further his own selfish goals.
Unfortunately, Skull Kid quickly falls into the “pleasure paradox,” which states that happiness cannot be gained directly, but rather from an ancillary origination. During the course of Link’s adventure, Skull Kid becomes more and more frustrated. The simple pranks and curses he plagues Clock Town and its people with become less exciting. It’s apparent that he longs for simpler times. Believing his friends, the Four Giants and wardens of Termina, have abandoned him, he retreats into the relative safety of Majora’s hateful influence. Hedonism and its trappings shape him into a pawn for the mask’s true purpose.
There’s one other philosophical viewpoint Majora’s Mask explores, though Nintendo makes players truly work for it by introducing the characters of Kafei and Anju, a couple who were engaged to marry during the Carnival of Time. Prior to the narrative’s start, Skull Kid and his new found powers curse Kafei, turning the man into a young boy. Ashamed of his situation and afraid Anju may not love him anymore, he flees. Meanwhile, a brokenhearted Anju wonders where her betrothed has gone. During the 72-Hour Cycle, players can begin a series of events, resulting in the couple reuniting.
Within the Zelda series, the Reunion of Kafei and Anju is perhaps the most complex side-quest, with almost no discernible benefit to Link or his journey. However, within the thematic and philosophical overtures of Majora’s Mask, it serves a single, beautiful purpose: to highlight the power of optimism. It’s in stark contrast to the rest of the game’s pessimistic, almost defeatist attitude. At the end of the sidequest, players are not able to truly savor the moment, having to either go and confront Skull Kid or restart the 3 Day Cycle using the Song of Time. Either choice leaves Anju and Kafei alone, with them deciding to forgo any attempts to flee Clock Town. They stay to greet the new day, hopeful that their new life together will continue.
Majora’s Mask is a game with a lot to say, from philosophical quandaries to the indescribable bleakness of needing to use the bathroom, but having no toilet paper. The Day Cycle provides an in-depth look at the people of Termina, taking wildly different approach to its predecessor and creating some of the most atmospheric, emotional and intense moments in the entire franchise. If philosophy is “love of wisdom,” then Nayru must be proud. The next time you take Epona out for a stroll along the Great Bay, take a moment to contemplate the world Link’s saving and its inhabitants.