You've met with a terrible fate, haven't you? Those grim words hang over the entirety of Majora Mask, the sixth entry in the Legend of Zelda series. In his darkest adventure, Link must relive the same three days over and over again to prevent the moon from colliding into the kingdom of Termina and ending the world.
Made with a small team in a single year for the Nintendo 64 from the assets of its predecessor, Majora's Mask could have been a shameless cash-in—but instead has gained wide recognition as the most mysterious, mature, and touching game in the series. It's also the Zelda game that has inspired more inventive fan theories and bone-chilling internet horror stories than might be expected from a high-fantasy adventure.
Through rigorous research and a new in-depth interview with Majora's North American localizer, Jason Leung, writer and editor Gabe Durham investigates the relationship between Majora's fast-paced, adaptive development and the meaning projected onto its story by players—and shines a light on the strange and tumultuous romance between art and fandom.
MAJORA'S MASK is not only the most thorough examination of the making of the titular game, it's the most thorough, thoughtful, and thought-provoking examination of the game's fandom and of fandom in general. No matter your level of familiarity with Majora's Mask the Zelda franchise, you will learn something, and Durham will make you smile and laugh while you do it. – David L. Craddock
"Highly recommend."– 5/5, The Newest Rant
"If you're a fan of this game, you NEED to read this book!"– All N: a Nintendo Podcast
"I've read all 26 of the Boss Fight Books books, including both of Gabe's own books. This newest entry in the publisher's catalog has become my favorite."– Caleb J. Ross
"MAJORA'S MASK is not only the most thorough examination of the making of the titular game, it's the most thorough, thoughtful, and thought-provoking examination of the game's fandom and of fandom in general. [...] You will learn something (probably more than one something) as you read MAJORA'S MASK, and Durham will make you smile and laugh while you do it."– David L. Craddock
Majora's Mask was never supposed to exist.
Shigeru Miyamoto had a modest plan to squeeze a little more juice out of Ocarina of Time. He did not want to develop a new Zelda game, but instead a "Second Quest" remixed version of Ocarina much like the Second Quest in the original Zelda. The overworld would be a mirror image of the original, enemies would do double damage, and, most significantly, the dungeons would be completely rearranged. Most of the work for this Second Quest would naturally fall on the shoulders of Ocarina's dungeon designer, Eiji Aonuma.
But Aonuma wasn't interested in remixing his own dungeons immediately after making them, and he said as much to Miyamoto. So, according to Aonuma's telling in an "Iwata Asks" interview, Miyamoto offered Aonuma a far greater challenge: He wouldn't have to work on the Second Quest if he and a new team used the existing Ocarina engine and assets to build an entirely new Zelda game for the N64 in one year.
"Well!" Iwata replied in the interview, possibly hearing this part of the story for the first time. "So you're saying Majora's Mask was the result of your team picking up the gauntlet he'd thrown down?"
"Yes," said Aonuma. "That was the deal."
However, in a different "Iwata Asks" interview, Aonuma tells it this way: Miyamoto asked Aonuma to work on the Second Quest and Aonuma "hesitantly obliged" at first, but then "couldn't really get into it." So instead of working on the Second Quest, Aonuma began designing all-new dungeons that went way beyond remixes of existing Ocarina dungeons. "And that was much more fun to me," said Aonuma. "So I built up the courage to ask Miyamoto-san whether I could make a new game, and he replied by saying it's okay if I can make it in a year."
Despite his big ideas for a new game built from the Ocarina engine, Aonuma didn't know that he was talking his way into the role of the game's director. According to Aonuma in his GDC talk, the job kind of naturally fell into his lap. If Miyamoto himself was not going to direct the game (and he didn't want to), it was important that the job go to someone who already knew Ocarina inside and out.
As soon as he got the job, Aonuma felt the weight of it. "We were faced with the very difficult question," Aonuma said in his GDC talk, "of just what kind of game could follow Ocarina of Time and its worldwide sales of seven million units."
Because he had a much smaller team on the new game, Aonuma understood that the game would need to be smaller in scope than Ocarina. But he also knew that fans would be disappointed with a less ambitious game. Aonuma needed what he called "some clever idea" to bridge the distance between fan expectations and the team's limited resources.
Overwhelmed, Aonuma reached out to one of his fellow Ocarina directors. Yoshiaki Koizumi was already in the early stages of developing an exciting new board game for Nintendo about cops trying to catch robbers in a limited amount of time, "one where," as Aonuma put it, "you would play in a compact game world over and over again." Aonuma pitched the new Zelda game to him anyway.
According to Aonuma, Koizumi replied that he'd work on the new Zelda game "only if you let me do whatever I want to do." Aonuma agreed.
Immediately, Koizumi had ideas for how his cops-and-robbers game might solve Aonuma's problem of how to make a satisfying game in just one year. "I wanted to make it so that you technically had to catch the criminal within a week, but, in reality, you could finish the game in an hour," Koizumi explained in an interview with Hobo Nikkan Itoi Shinbun (aka "Hobonichi"), the online newspaper of EarthBound creator Shigesato Itoi. "I figured I'd just throw what I already had into Majora's Mask."
Aonuma liked Koizumi's idea. "If you played in the same places and enjoyed the same events over and over," Aonuma said, "we thought you might be able to create an entertaining game by giving it depth rather than breadth."
According to Aonuma in an interview with Famitsu (and eventually translated by VG Facts user Kewl0210), Koizumi's game was influenced by Tom Twyker's 1998 German mind-trip thriller Run Lola Run. In fact, Aonuma said that Koizumi's pitch was simply, "What if we made something like [Lola] into a game?"
In the movie, a woman named Lola races through the streets of Berlin (over a charming and very European techno score) to come up with 100,000 Deutschmarks in twenty minutes to save her boyfriend Manni's life. When Lola is shot and killed in the process, she inexplicably gets another shot at it, starting the clock over with twenty minutes to save Manni and memory enough of her last attempt to try a new tactic. When her second attempt gets Manni killed, she gets a third and final shot at it. It's like an old-school platformer brought to life: three chances to save the helpless boyfriend from a Big Bad.
Here, again, different interviews tell slightly different versions. In the Hobonichi interview, Miyamoto remembers seeing a trailer for Lola while Majora was already deep in development and thinking, "Oh, this is crazy!" because the idea was so close to theirs. When he watched the movie and found it to be much different than Majora, he relaxed.
Whether or not the movie directly inspired the game, it's interesting that Lola influenced Majora when video games themselves have so clearly influenced more recent time loop movies like Source Code and Edge of Tomorrow, in which a character must perform the same mission over and over until he or she finally succeeds. Movies inspire games that inspire movies that inspire more games as the wheel of influence continues to turn.
Conveniently, Ocarina already had a basic time system: The overworld had an internal clock with a sun that rose and set, causing different enemies to spawn depending on whether it was day or night. So Koizumi and Aonuma developed the concept of a cycle in which the game loops through the same three days over and over again.
Miyamoto was supportive of their idea and liked how the "replaying" mechanic squared with his belief that all games should be replayable. "It's useless to make something that the audience just skims over in one viewing, like a movie. The full flavor of a creation gradually emerges with each viewing, as all the subtleties reveal themselves."
At first, the team planned for an entire week to loop, but discovered that keeping track of the days would be a chore for players. "In this game the townspeople do different things each day and many different things happen," Aonuma said in "Iwata Asks," "but when the timespan becomes a week, that's just too much to remember. You can't simply remember who's where doing what on which day. [...] When you returned to the first day, it was like, 'Do I have to go through an entire week again?'"
For a little while, Koizumi was still trying to divide time between Majora and other work. "At the time I started working on Majora's Mask," Koizumi said in the Hobonichi interview, "I had already been busy designing another game. I'm incredibly ambitious, you see. But then, Miyamoto…"
"Recalled you [to the Majora project]," said Miyamoto.
"I heard the whispers," Koizumi said. "Zelda… Zelda… Zelda… ! And my game was canned! I was in shock."
Koizumi and Miyamoto are laughing as they tell it, but I get the sense that the game's cancellation was less funny to Koizumi when it happened. A challenge of telling a story based on interviews with Japanese game developers is that Japanese game developers are almost unfailingly polite. If you want to find examples of a current Nintendo employee being despondent over a cancelled game, all you can do is try to read between the lines of his "jokes."
It was not even clear at first what Koizumi's role would be. "When my other game design got scrapped and I was stuck back with the development team," he said, "I asked Miyamoto what I was supposed to do." Miyamoto's reply: "Do whatever you can!" Koizumi thought to himself, That's not helpful at all!
"I tried to work on things all by myself, but I had no choice [but to keep asking Koizumi to come back for more help]," Aonuma said in the same interview. "I couldn't have done it alone."
"The designs just got bigger and bigger," said Miyamoto.
Whether Koizumi liked it or not, Zelda was Nintendo's second biggest property—and a new Zelda game took precedence over other projects. So, if Aonuma needed Koizumi, he got him. This could be one of the reasons Koizumi went on to take charge of Nintendo's first biggest property. When you're creating a Mario game, nobody is pulling you off your project to work on something more important.
It took Koizumi and Aonuma a while to discover that Miyamoto was going to make good on his decision not to involve himself in the day-to-day work on Majora's Mask. This was partly because Miyamoto's role at Nintendo was changing so that he oversaw many simultaneous projects instead of focusing on one at a time. The year of Majora's release, Miyamoto's name also appeared as either a producer or supervisor on Kirby 64: The Crystal Shards, Mario Tennis, Paper Mario, Mario Party 3, and Pokémon Stadium 2, and already he was at work on Nintendo's next console: the GameCube.
Nobody was used to this new arrangement, especially after the close daily attention Miyamoto gave to Ocarina. According to Koizumi, the team would whisper among themselves, "Miyamoto hasn't said a thing. He will eventually, right?" After all, Miyamoto had a history of suddenly demanding major changes, even late in development.
In his GDC talk, Aonuma speaks of Miyamoto as one who "upends the tea table"—a phrase he says is taken from a Japanese manga famous for a scene in which a stern, old-school Japanese father smacks his son so hard that the food flies off the table. Here, it's the game that gets smacked and the code that flies everywhere. "Whenever a game nears completion with only the final polish remaining," Aonuma said, "with no fail Mr. Miyamoto upends our tea table and the direction that we all thought we were going in suddenly changes dramatically."
Aonuma welcomes the input. "The time I have spent working with [Miyamoto] is even longer than my relationship with my father, so I really should be able to read his mind by now," he said in an interview, sourced by Nintendo Everything as originally appearing in GamesTM. "I am still surprised by his opinions, and I am far away from reaching Mr. Miyamoto's level of perspective. When you get to my age, the number of people pointing out your faults becomes quite limited. So in this sense too, I would like him to forever give opinions on the products that we create."
Miyamoto didn't always nail the balance of encouragement and criticism. At times, Miyamoto was the sort of "father" who withheld praise to keep his team working to impress him. "He never says, 'This is good' in the field," Aonuma told Dragon Quest's Jin Fujisawa in their conversation. "When Mr. Iwata was here, he would tell me that Mr. Miyamoto loved the game. But then I would go, 'What? He never told me that!'" It was not Aonuma's preferred way to be managed. "When I get a compliment, it would be reassurance and a relief for me. So I think there are pros to getting a compliment on your work."
But on this game, Miyamoto instead approached Aonuma and his team with trust and ease. If Miyamoto's presence can still be felt playing Majora, perhaps it is because he had already trained his staff well on previous games. Having worked with Miyamoto on Ocarina, Aonuma and his team were now upending their own tea tables.