Impulse purchases and the Love of Gaming
I'd been on the fence about buying Majora's Mask 3D. No, really. My 3DS was mostly out of SD-card space (stupid memory-hogging Omega Ruby), and I didn't think I could justify an in-person purchase of a physical cartridge as easily as I could a digital download. That being said, when I stepped off the Greyhound bus, I knew that between the terminal and the nearest subway station lay a Game Shack, and my bank account would not likely be passing by unmolested.
So I caved. Oh well. Happy Valentine's Day, me.
Later, at home, I popped the cartridge into my beleaguered 3DS-XL, figuring that, with my 6 year-old half-brother and his friend B distracted by some TV show or another, I would have some privacy to get reacquainted with the (somewhat literal) dark horse of the Zelda franchise. No such luck. Having been the main proponent of getting Noah into video games (going so far as to purchase his 2DS and half his library), I should have realized that he would be glued to my screens before I could even create a save file.
Ohshitohshitohshit, I'm now thinking, These kids are going to get all freaked out and terrified and then they're going to get nightmares and get scared of the moon and then they'll never play video games again and then-
And then nothing. Noah and B were fine with it.
Eerily, in fact. I'd stop and talk to them through the run through the first 3-day cycle and try to gauge their reactions to things that put even me on edge.
"Look, he's surrounded by tree-people. They're piling around him, burying him. Doesn't that freak you out, even just a little?"
"No, it's just silly."
"Now I'm trapped in the body of one of the tree things. (It's not a spoiler if it's 5 minutes into the game.) Isn't that scary?"
"Look at that guy, his weird, stretched smile, his anxiously clasped hands. Isn't he a little creepy?"
"He's just funny."
The only time I elicited some reaction was when I (semi-deliberately) lingered the camera on the creepy-faced moon for several (in-game) minutes. Even then, whatever fear/unease that caused was immediately followed by, "I wonder what'd happen if we let it hit us." Around then, it hit me: I'd expected the scary stuff to hit them harder because they were younger, but maybe it was the opposite; maybe they were too young to even really see why these things were scary.
This is for kids?
My first real attempt at finishing the original version of Majora was around 2012. It had come in the Zelda Master Collection which was packaged with the Gamecube I'd gotten when I was 11, and I'd elected to bring the disc up to my Waterloo apartment alongside my Wii almost as an afterthought. I'd had some time to kill in the gap between the end of classes and starting co-op, so I popped in the collection, deciding not to renew the efforts on Ocarina of Time that I'd made on an emulator (which, if memory serves, were abandoned due to not having the spare time to properly defeat the Water Temple) and, instead, see what the darker younger brother had to offer.
That stopped soon after.
The "official" internal reason was that I needed to concentrate on work, and the game was interfering with restful downtime. The real reason, though, had less to do with other commitments and more to do with the deep, existential fears the game was dredging up in me every time the moon started falling from the sky.
Confused? Let me explain. After the success of Ocarina of Time, Nintendo wanted to continue the new trend in more complex, three-dimensional Zelda games while minimizing the amount of extra work they'd have to do to produce a new title. With these goals in mind, they decided to make a game with an entirely new storyline and as many reused assets from OoT as possible. In Majora's Mask, you play a young Link who is thrust into a new world, Termina, which is populated by doppelgangers of characters from the first game and a very angry moon. Transformed into a herbaceous creature known as a Deku, you have 3 in-game days to find the child who transformed you and return his evil-powered mask to its rightful owner, lest he crash the aforementioned creepy satellite into your new home, killing you and all of the people you know and love in the process.
Spoiler: you fail! But don't worry: you get your magical-time-control flute back from the villain, and, with moments to spare, you send yourself back in time to prevent any of the plot from happening...
Just kidding! You send yourself to the beginning of the first day, so you can start the whole process all over again. And again. And again.
The whole thing works out to something immensely more gruesome than its predecessor. The constant, lunar spectre of death always gazing upon you, inching closer with every second you waste; the overall bizarre, surreal feeling of being in a world that's almost like a dream of the one you know; the frantic race against the clock, eyes always on the countdown so you know when it's time to flee time itself and return to the start of things, abandoning important possessions in the hopes that you might live to reacquire them. Moreover, the original version had no in-game saves; the only way to retain your progress was, ironically, to rewind time and abandon at least a small portion of it. To think that you couldn't even stop playing without abandoning some alternate timeline to be crushed under the sky itself added even more anxiety to even turning the console on.
Or, at least, it did for me.
I think the terrors of Majora's Mask are legion, but most of them can be explained in some way or another to the most prevalent feature: the glaring, falling moon. First and foremost, the moon gives us a sense of the not-quite-right; it's something we recognize (as long as you've ever seen nighttime), and yet it definitely isn't. (Last I checked, the moon had a stable-ish orbit and no anthropomorphic face, be it docile or enraged.) This extends to the game, of course: everyone you meet is almost someone you know (from OoT), but there's just something off about each one of them. A slightly different personality, maybe, or a slightly sadder history, or even just an unexpected voice. Hell, this is the big factor behind the Mask Salesman's vibes: apart from the fact that he always seems to know just a little bit too much (being one of 4 characters immune to the restarting timeline), he just feels...wrong compared to the other Terminans, a touch too much like the masks he wears and not enough like the other people you encounter. It's an Uncanny Valley effect tuned to subtle, subversive note. The player gets the feeling that the world they inhabit is inherently alien despite (or, perhaps, due to) its familiarity, and that lasts throughout the quests and errands.
Then there's the obvious source of panic: the fact that this familiar rock in the sky is no longer staying put, and will in fact destroy everything you (think you) know and love within 72 hours. You get this (perfectly executed) sense that time itself is no longer an ally, or even a neutral observer, but is now a direct and deadly opponent consciously acting against your efforts. Think about those nightmares you get of an assignment deadline approaching far too quickly, the fear of the unfinished essay some people get decades after their last class. The feeling MM gives you is this personified, and I can personally attest to it staying with you hours after the console is turned off. It's an atmosphere of panic and hurry that hasn't really ever been revisited in the Zelda franchise, and it really makes its mark here as something different, something not to be ignored but felt and embraced as a true fear that only this game can provide.
The last kind of fear I'm going to discuss is a bit more of a stretch, but bear with me. In OoT, the writers imply that time travel works off of something like the Many Worlds model: you jump between two parallel universes, one where you were run around as a child and another where you are forced into a seven-year slumber by the biggest asshole in all of gaming's sentient weaponry and act against Gannondorf as an adult. Critically, Nintendo has also officially stated the existence of a third timeline where, at some point in your journey, you die to some minor enemy and don't get back up again. This third timeline is a great way of guilting players who give up on a certain temple and just abandon their savefile to the aether, and it's also a great way out of the bind Nintendo accidentally worked themselves into while trying to tie all the games together.
Now, think about how time travel works in Majora's Mask. Instead of flipping between fixed points in two separate timelines, you are constantly moving back to the beginning of the same timeline, and thereby branching it off. However, there's no reason that the timeline you left would just cease to exist. Sure, you make your way back to the Dawn of the First Day just before the moon fellates Clock Town (ick), but the other villagers? They don't exactly have magical wormhole-generating flutes.
In other words, every time you play that Song of Time, you make another "third timeline". Another universe of people who didn't have the Hero of Time to save them in their time of need, or who didn't quite have the right things set up at the right time. Another entire town of people left to die because you needed one more shot to get it right. See the real terror behind Termina's moon isn't the fear of the passage of time, or the fear that something is just wrong, but the fear that, despite all the power at your disposal, despite every resource you're given and every skill you acquire, despite the universe itself bending to help you succeed, you'll still fail to protect the people you care about, the people who need you, the people crushed beneath an unavoidable and unforgiving rock.
There's another side to this fear that's something a little more personal. See, a cycle in Majora's Mask (if played to full) lasts 3-9 hours (depending on application of certain songs). When you roll back the clock, everyone goes back in age by three days, whatever that means to them. Everyone...except you. With each 6-note song on the Ocarina, you lose those three "days". Each failure to win on a cycle is a death of a little part of yourself, something real to go along with the deaths of all those fictional people in the doomed and forgotten universes. Link can keep playing that song as many times as he pleases, but when your bones are too brittle and weak to move the C-stick, when your eyes are too blurred to see the stave you need to fill, that's when you let down the character who needed you most.
A Terrible Fate
So why don't little kids understand these fears, anyway? What makes these concepts so inaccessible to a 6 year-old. Dammit, why is the Happy Mask Salesman funny to them?
Well, a lot of the fears I mentioned are built into us as we figure out more of the world around us. The Uncanny Valley effect relies on having a solidified model of the world such that it can be subtly violated, and maybe children that young don't have that yet. (It would certainly explain why the horrendous CGI in films like The Polar Express exists.) Fear of short-term progression of time is really a fear of unavoidable responsibilities, and kids definitely don't really have those. Fear of letting down the people who are counting on you is something only the most burdened elementary school children have. And fear of aging, fear of time itself? That's a concept that no child should understand, since, as far as anyone is concerned, time is always on their side.
So, maybe, Majora's Mask actually gets scarier the older you get, despite the general trend in the opposite direction. Maybe you really need to see what time is capable of before learning to fear it. Maybe you need to really know the moon's face before truly understanding why you don't want to see it closer up.
Or maybe I should have spent less time reading about Ben Drowned.
In any case, I need to get back to my game. Or sleep, since it's 3AM.
Either way, I know the moon's staying right where it is if it knows what's good for it.
PS. If your thirst for Majora's Mask-related theorizing isn't sated, one of my favourite videos on the internet is about Link secretly being dead for the entire game. Check it out if you're not planning on sleeping.