This past weekend, the videogame stars aligned and I finally had the chance to play two games that have long been on my videogame checklist, Majora's Mask and Mr. Mosquito. What really defines both of these games, and most of the games on my yet to be played list, is that they're pretty demanding experiences. Majora's Mask is not another breezy romp through Hyrule, it's a carefully paced and demanding exercise in time travel. Similarly, Mr. Mosquito is not a cute platformer, it's a descent into suburban hell that is only occasionally amusing. When I sit down and think about them, it's not clear to me how either of these games came into existence. But they made it, and after this past weekend I think we're all better for it.
With the exception of Mario and his abstract environments, it's safe to say that you can't go home again when Nintendo 64 graphics are involved. For those acquainted with modern videogame visuals, the first ten minutes or so of Majora's Mask look like the lo fidelity dream of a madman, with strange blurry textures and hard geometric lines. But, after another five minutes I found myself acclimated to the strange graphics, kind of like when you're able to believe that a fist with lips painted on it is actually a talking character and not just an appendage with lipstick on it. It looks dated, but I wouldn't call Majora's Mask a visual mess. Despite the years, the game is still genuinely creepy, between a moon with a face that doesn't look merely angry but homicidal, a strange mask merchant who sits just outside of the main town, Termina, most likely because he's a registered sex offender, and a gruesome transformation sequence when Link puts on a mask that seems to reference Jekyll and Hyde. The Legend of Zelda series usually has a fairly liberal dose of cuteness thrown into the mix, but between the peculiarities of N64 graphics and the recurring motif of doom, doom and more doom, Majora's Mask strays about as far from the Nintendo party line as possible.
The other thing that's interesting about this game is the time mechanic, especially the idea that you're constantly rewinding or pushing time forward on a three day cycle. The first of many times that you travel back to the beginning of the three day period of the game is definitely a "What the hell were they thinking!?" moment. It's pretty conceptual stuff, especially as the game forces you to control the process at a granular level. I haven't played enough to say how the whole exercise will coalesce, but the amount of design a game like this requires is impressive. Not only must the game be intricately designed, but even believing a player can be guided through a puzzle box of that scope takes a leap of faith on the part of the developers. I don't think I would've enjoyed this game in junior high the way I enjoyed A Link to the Past. It strikes me as a game that, without the Zelda brand, exists for some as of yet undefined audience. There are some games you've got to have moxie to make, and Majora's Mask is definitely on my short list.