Three Days Remain: The Majora Effect
Since Nintendo’s beloved The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask was released, its defining hallmark was the fact that the game ran on a steady three-day timer. Your objective, as the young Link, is to save the world and return a powerful, evil mask to the Happy Mask Salesman. In three whole days. At 6 AM, on each day you experience in-game, you’re presented with a screen that ominously reminds you just how many hours you have to complete whatever you’re doing, save the world, and return the mask. With a whopping four dungeons, a multitude of side quests, and a great trouble thrust upon your shoulders, three days seems like… not long enough.
The main thing is that as Link, you gain access to the Ocarina of Time after completing the first cycle. After all, this game wouldn’t be a true sequel without some callbacks to the first. After you get the ocarina, you’re free to control the flow of time. The Song of Time allows you to skip forward, slow the passing of time, or return to the beginning of the three-day cycle. You can now use time to your advantage. Anything you collect or progress will be reset upon returning to the beginning of the cycle, though if you’ve beaten a dungeon you don’t have to do it all again, just the boss battle.
So let’s say, in your first play through, you’re in the final hours on the third day, and the timer is counting down the minutes until midnight. You’ve completed a dungeon and helped Anju and Kafei out with their quest, but there’s still more to do. You’re not done calling out to the four giants just yet. So you warp back to day one. Save the game, start over. Your restockable items like bombs and rupees fly out of your pockets as you fall through a spiral of clocks, winding backwards.
You go up to any NPC you helped out or at least talked to in your previous cycle and they spit back that same first line of dialogue. To them, those three days didn’t happen. You didn’t help them out. For all they know, this is your first time in Termina, and you’re just stopping by for the carnival. You’re not here to save them. They don’t even know they’re in danger. Majora is still out there, in mask form, and for all they know, it’s having a nice picnic in the mountains.
For years, I’ve been trying to wrap my mind around this situation. To me, Majora’s Mask holds some of the most intricately designed backstories in The Legend of Zelda‘s in-game universe. Clock Town feels like the small, rural town that I imagined I’d grow up in. Everyone knows each other and for the most part, they’re pretty friendly towards one another. Then Link, an outsider, swoops in and saves this tiny town from an imminent doom that they don’t know about.
And after everything, even during the time that Link is scrambling around to try and fix whatever problems everyone’s going through, he’s forgotten about. After the carnival, nobody remembers him, though he’s collected the masks as tokens of the memories he’s shared with the townsfolk. In the long run, it’s not even about saving the world for Link. Termina is just a pit stop on the road to finding his friend. He didn’t have to help the Happy Mask Salesman, he didn’t even have to care about anyone in the town. He could have called it a day and left.
Majora’s Mask forces players to think about things other than them in the game. Sure, you could ignore the side quests and focus on the four dungeons, but no matter what you do, there will always be someone that needs help. They may not always remember, and you may not even gain anything from it, but you will remember. Even now as I play through the game, I do my best to memorize the steps I have to take for every single side quest so that I won’t forget anyone next time. Majora’s Mask is the only game to ever give me characters I care about so much that I’d draft an entire game guide in my memory for their sake.
The fact that the game is on a timer makes your decisions have more weight. Regardless of your course of action, it’s impossible to help everyone in one cycle. Someone will be left behind, and someone will be forgotten about. In the end, I’d much rather finish the game and have Link be forgotten by the citizens of Clock Town than fail to help them when I’m able.