Majora’s Mask: Aonuma’s Terrible Fate

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The Legends Behind the Legend of Zelda Series: Part 2! This “Audio Documentary” tells the story of Eiji Aonuma and how he created the Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask. From stress, to nightmares, to an impossible deadline, this episode explains how Eiji Aonuma and his team overcame an impossible deadline, managed to create the game in just one year, and changed the fate of the Zelda franchise. In addition to explaining the creation of Majora’s Mask, this episode also provides a fan theory on the true meanings and intentions behind this bizarre game.

Episode Transcript

Hello and welcome to Level Zero! This is the show that…sometimes inadvertently turns into a documentary on one specific game. I’m your host, Greg Griffith and on this Part 2 of the Legends behind the Legend of Zelda series: Eiji Anouma and the creation of Majora’s Mask!

I believe in you.

Has anyone ever said that to you before? Maybe a coach or a teacher or a mentor? if so, what was your reaction?

I believe in you.

Clearly it’s encouraging and uplifting,  and it’s nice to hear, but it also caries a lot of weight. Maybe for you it carries some stress, because… something is expected of you. Someone believes in you, so not only do you owe it to yourself, but you might feel the need to prove that person right.

And this phrase in particular was a major driving force that led to the creation of the game that is the topic of this episode.

I do need to mention that this episode is Part 2 of a special mini-series on the Legend of Zelda, the games themselves, and the Legends who created them.  I’m doing this series as part of the celebration of the 35th anniversary of the series. The original game came out in February of 1986, three and a half decades ago, and it is a series worth celebrating.

If you haven’t listened to Part 1, and you want to get the full story, I recommend going back and checking that episode out. It covers the history of how Zelda came to be, the first 5 games in the series up to Ocarina of Time, and the dream team that created these games. So pause this episode and check out Part 1 first for the full story

I had originally planned to cover the next 5 games in the series here on Part 2, but instead, this episode is just covering one game. And it’s not just because it is the strangest and most unique game in the series with a lot of fun and interesting talking points, but it’s also because it marks a clear turning point in the Zelda series. A new legend in the legend of Zelda series set a name for himself and would have a direct impact on every Zelda game that came after.

If you’ve never played this game or you aren’t familiar with it, that’s OK because there is an interesting story to tell surrounding it.

So when we left off Part 1, the year is 1998 and Shigura Miyamoto and his dream team of Koji Kondo and Tekashi Tezuka, along with several other talented developers had just wrapped production on what some call the greatest video game of all time, it sounds like a hyperbole, but it isn’t!
The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time.
It was a complicated and ever changing development and had one of the longest development cycles of any Nintendo game up to that point. The team worked tirelessly and of course there was a lot of pressure that Nintendo was putting on the team to ensure the game was a success. The game had to generate sales to help sell hardware! The N64 was counting on it.
During development of this game, the team had to pivot several times due to hardware limitations and complications, and as a result, a lot of ideas got left on the table that never made it into the game. Fortunately, when that game did release in 1998, it was as good, if not better, than anyone had hoped.

So that was great and all, but the problem was, after completing such a successful game, the question that was on the top of everyone’s mind, “Where do we go from here?”
This was a difficult question and not one that everyone agreed on. 
Where normally teams were excited to work on Miyamoto’s next big idea, there was a lot less enthusiasm for what Miyamoto wanted to make next. There was distention in the ranks, if you will.
In particular, one team member was so unhappy with his new task, that he decided to stand up to Miyamoto, the creator and mastermind behind Both Mario and Zelda and tell him, “I don’t think this is the next Zelda game we should make. I think we should make something else.”
That team member, is a man called  Eiji Aonuma.

Now If you are a fan of the legend of Zelda series, or if you follow video game announcements or conferences at all, you know who that this is a big name. If you don’t know the name at all, that’s ok, you will by the time you finish listening to this.

But Aonuma’s decision to say this to Miyamoto would eventually lead to the creation of the next game in the Zelda franchise, but not without a long grueling year that included  nightmare inducing levels of stress, and I mean that literally.

If you know the Zelda series, or you read the title of the episode, you know the game that came next after Ocarina of Time, and I am eager to talk about this one because it is by far the strangest game in the series. Although it looked very similar to Ocarina of Time, it couldn’t be more different than the previous 5 Zelda games that came before it. Rather than rescuing Princess Zelda from the clutches of Gannon, this game involving a ticking clock, a repeating three day cycle, a bunch of different masks that you collect and wear that give you different abilities, a looming scary faced moon, and the impeding doom of the end of the world that you experience over an over with that moon crashing into the world, ending all life. Rather than the typical heroes journey of defeating evil through courage and strength, this game would question existence itself. A game about helping others with small tasks in the midst of impending doom.

It’s a game, that 20 + years later, people are still creating hundreds of YouTube videos full of fan theories, attempting to explain the true meaning and intentions behind this bizzare game. It has gained a cult following. If you go look up videos abouto this game, you will find hundreds of recent video essays about it.
In fact, ….I even have my own fan theory i will share with you in a little bit.
But first I want to tell you about the History that led up to this game and why nintnedo decided that The Legend of Zelda: Majoras Mask would be the next entry in its flagship series.

In order to give that full story, I need to go back in time. To give you the full picture and to introduce the legend behind this game. Let’s go back.

The year in 1961 in Nagano Japan and little baby Eiji Aonuma was born….

Whoops that was too far back. Let’s skip ahead.

The year  is 1988 and a young Eiji Aonuma had just graduated with a degree in composition design and he was looking for a full time now. Now Aonuma’s background is that his father was a carpenter and Aonuma also really liked working with his hands and woodworking. Specially creating things from scratch. One of the things he liked to create were Karakuri puppets. Karakuri puppets were these little wooden puppets that did basic actions like serving tea or shooting a little bow and arrow. So not this simple wooden puppet, but something that had to be specifically designed, that got very complex.

After graduating, he was looking for a job where he could create things. He was good with his hands, and he liked art, the problem was, he wasn’t very good at drawing with his hands. So he looked for a job in graphic design on the computer and he ended up interviewing for a job with Nintendo. It must have been somewhat embarrassing to interview for a video game company for a job in graphic design when he …. had never played a video game before and he had no real experience with computers. So all he really could bring into the interview were his karakuri puppets puppets. I cannot imagine bringing toys into an interview, but remember that Nintendo was a card and toy company at that point, so its not that crazy. Still he was applying for a graphic design position, and he brought in …. wooden puppets. Lucky for Aonuma he interviewed with Miyamoto. when Miyamoto himself interviewed for Nintendo a decade earlier, he was in the exact same position and he brought in his homemade toys he designed as part of his portfolio. Miyamoto was very impressed with Aonuma’s puppets he designed.

Miyamoto decided to higher Aonuma and he was hired on as a graphic designer, in 1988. but the thing was, he didn’t know anything about video games. So he had to play catch up, and quick!

It was only after he was hired that Aonuma decided it would be a good idea to try some video games. Luckily, his girlfriend at the time was well versed, so she showed him Dragon Quest for the NES. A good entry point because it was story based, had turn based combat, and didn’t require any fast reflexes. And Aonuma, he ended up really liking video games, to the point of pulling all nighters to play through the game.

His first jobs at Nintendo were to create “sprites” for NES games. Sprites are 2D bitmaps, basically computer graphics. His first game he worked on was Open tournament golf and other games. Aonuma worked hard and began working his way up the company. He also kept up his research on video games and tried out the original Legends of Zelda. And…. he honestly didn’t really like it at first. He was inexperienced with games, and it proved to be a bit too challenging. Still he really looked up to Miyamoto’s work. In 1991, when Link to the Past came out for the Super Nintendo, this marked a huge turning point for Aonuma. He was completely enamored with the game. Specifically the non-combat parts, like exploration, cutting grass and acquiring items that allowed him to get to a new section of the game. Aonuma was so enamored with the game, that he vowed to create a game like it. To work on a Zelda game one day would be the dream.

So a few years later, Aonuma was able to create his own game. A game called Marvelous! This game was heavily inspired by Link to the Past. It looked a whole lot like it from an art prospective and even had similar features, like running shoes that make you go fast. It was very similar to Link to the Past, but also had a ton of new things like, a pirate ship to explore and a magic item that shrunk the payer down to smaller size.

And Marvelous ended up living up to its name.  It was super well received! The only problem was that it came out for the super Nintendo in 1996, the same year the N64 released. And as a result, it was never translated or released outside of Japan. Still, it gained the attention of Miyamoto. So when creating the next big Zelda game in 1995, Miyamoto went up to Aonuma and said, “Hey….if you want to make a game like Zelda, why don’t you come on our team and actually help make a Zelda game,” So Aonuma was put on the team and named Assistant Director, specifically to create the dungeons for the next Zelda game!

Finally, the chance to work on a Zelda game. Aonuma’s dream was being realized, but the thing was, he could never have guessed how complicated and messy the development would be.The name of the game would be called Zelda 64 and it would release as the premier exclusive title for the Nintendo 64 Disc Drive attachment.

Huh?

Ok let me explain.

On part 1, we discussed that the original Legend of Zelda game didn’t originally come out for the NES, it was developed exclusively for the FamiCom Disc System. It was a launch title for that disc based attachment  in 1986.  It first came out on a floppy disc type device rather  than on a cartridge. The game was a huge success and helped to sell a lot of disc systems, but ultimately that attachment failed for Nintendo due to reliability issues. So a year later they put The original Zelda on a cartridge for the NES and the disc drive system was forgotten.

But You know what they say, if it doesn’t work the first time, try try again.

A decade later, Nintendo attempted the exact same thing. Just like the FamiCom Disc System, Nintendo was working to develop an attachment for the N64. One that would also attach to the the  base and play Disc based software!  And along side it, they would launch A Zelda game! What could possibly go wrong?!

Now there is a whole history  with Nintendo and discs that I won’t go into it here because I’ve already gone through it in previous episodes. Just know the N64 had cartridges, but they also wanted to use discs with the use of this attachment.  So they attempted to make what was to be called the Nintendo 64 Disc Drive. Or N64 DD, that would attached to the base of the console and play games off of…CDs right? This was the mid to late 90s, so surely CDs or even DVDs?

Uhhh nope! Floppy discs! Well I guess they we’re more like zip discs if you know those, but  At any rate The N64 DD would provide improved graphics and bigger games, allow it to connect online, allow for game updates and better game saving.

Initially, Nintendo’s plan was to have all the big games come out for the N64 DD. Sure, you could just have the base N64 and get some good games, but to get the best games like  Mario 64 2, Banjo Kazooie 2, Earthbound 64, Kirby 64 and  of course Zelda 64, you needed the N64 DD!

The attachment was suppose to come out Holiday 1996, the same year the console would release, nut after some developmental difficulties, it was pushed back to 1998. It was OK though because “Zelda 64” would be a launch title for the Disc Drive system.

Well no actually, the Disc Drive system wasn’t working the way they wanted to. The magnetic discs couldn’t spin fast enough and the game just looked choppy.

So In 1997, the decision was made to release Zelda 64 on a cartridge as Ocarina of time. The problem was, the Disc Drive games had a lot more space, so to get Ocarina of Time to fit on a cartridge, they had to “Scale back” the content. Miyamoto had a lot of ideas that the team had already developed. Basically there were a whole lot of extra features for Ocarina of Time that never got to see the light of day. But still, Ocarina of Time released in 1998 and you would never know it was missing anything

And over the course of 3 years, through a lot of ups and down, Eiji Aonuma was able to design 6 of the dungeons for the game. He was also instrumental in coming up with “themes” for each of the dungeons, like chasing Po sisters in the Forest Temple and carrying the young Zorra princess around in Jabu Jabu’s belly. Aonuma’s work on this game was instrumental in helping to create a masterpiece of a game.

So again, the year is 1998 and after the success of Ocarina of Time, what next?

Well like we discussed, there was a lot of work for the team accomplished that that went unnoticed, due to going from a disc to a cartridge. Also, even though this game didn’t work out, Nintendo STILL needed a Zelda game to release exclusively for the N64 Disc Drive. Which was still going to come out, and SOON.

So Miyamoto need to make another Zelda game. He decided to create an expansion to Ocarina of Time called, URA Zelda, which translated to “Other Zelda.” All of that extra stuff could go into this version of the game! Although i can’t confirm it, it really sound like the executives at Nintendo were pushing Miyamoto to put a Zelda out exclusively for the DD. Nintendo needed a Zelda game on the DD, and they needed it quick! So Miyamoto’s idea made sense. Create a better version of Zelda Ocarina of Time. One with “Different dungeons, new locations for treasures. New maps and scenarios, Extra dungeons, new areas and new challenges.”If people wanted the original standard edition, they could get that on the base N64 with the cartridge of Ocarina of Time, but they could also release the very best version of Zelda on the N64DD Disc Drive System. People who wanted the best Zelda experience, needed this add-on hardware.

Ura Zelda! A new version of Ocarina of Time with more feature, better sound quality, a bigger world, and the pivotal thing, new versions of the original dungeons! That is what it would hinge on! The dungeons!

The thing is, who would have to develop and direct these new versions of dungeons for Ura Zelda? Well obviously the very same guy who made the dungeons for the base game. This is where Aonuma would change the fate of the Zelda franchise.

Miyamoto went to Aonuma and told him, “hey, you know all those dungeons you made for Ocarina of Time? I want you to make them again, but this time, different and more challenging. “Aonuma had been working tirelessly on the dungeons of Ocarina of time for over three years, creating the very best dungeons he could. he had to have been exhausted, and he said in an interview,  “We were told to repurpose the dungeons from Ocarina of Time and make a game out of it, and I was handed the baton to make that happen. However, when we made Ocarina of Time, we made those dungeons thinking they were the best we could make. That’s when Miyamoto-san asked me to remake them, so I hesitantly obliged… but I couldn’t really get into it. … So I secretly started making new dungeons that weren’t in Ocarina of Time, and that was much more fun to me. So, I built up the courage to ask Miyamoto-san whether I could make a new game.”

Remember that Aonuma’s dream had always been to work on a Zelda game and there was noone he looked up to more than Miyamoto. Its also important to note that in Japanese culture, it is not common place to contradict authority in the work place. So going up to Miyamoto and telling him, “Hey, I don’t want to do this job you gave me. I think we should do something else instead,” it couldn’t have been easy.

I wish i could find out Miyamoto’s exact reaction to this. Whether Miyamoto was frustrated by Aonuma for not doing what he was told or whether he was impressed by his gusto. At any rate, Miyamoto had a strict and short deadline to release a Zelda game for the N64 DD!

So ultimately, Miyamoto told Aonuma, “Yes! you can absolutely make a brand new Zelda game! As long as you make it in ONE YEAR”

In a somewhat recent interview, Aonuma was asked if he was excited by the opportunity. Aonuma said, “No, I was Holding my head! I rolled and turned thinking what kind of software I should make.”

It took more than 3 years to make OoT, how could he possibly make a new Zelda game in one year? It was a ridiculous task. You might a say, “a terrible fate he had been met with”

This extremely short deadline cause Aonuma a ton of stress! Luckily he wasn’t alone. He requested the help of a co-worked who he worked with on Ocarina of Time, Yoshiaki Koizumi. I not going to give you Koizumi’s full back story, but just know he had worked on several Zelda games up to that point, including Link to the Past and Link’s Awakening.

Koizumi was working on another game at the time, one where you would play in a compact game world over and over again. What he thought was a super interesting concept that he came up with after watching some weird German movie called Run Lola Run. So when Aonuma asked Koizumi to help him on his new Zelda Adventure, Koizumi said, “Yes! I’ll help you, but only if I can use this concept I’m working on.”

Aonuma didn’t have time to figure out a story or type of game on his own. He needed help! So he told Koizumi, “Sure! Whatever. We will use your idea. Please help!”

Miyamoto gave Aonuma a difficult Task, but he didn’t leave him high and dry. In addition to agreeing to have Koizumi and Aonuma co-direct this new Zelda game together, he also gave him the tools too. He could use all of the design and art aspects from OoT.

So there was a split in the teams to create a new Zelda game. One would create Ura Zelda (another zelda) and Aonuma and Koizumi would create a separate project called Zelda: Gieden, which just translates to “Zelda: Side story”

So Miyamoto would have two options to pull from depending on how things developed. Only problem was, both teams had about half the resources they needed.

This was Aonuma’s big chance! His chance to finally make a Zelda game! A chance to prove himself as a game designer to not only MIyamoto, but to himself. He could do this, but…that time! that impossible ticking clock!

Aonuma even said in an interview that the stress he felt in creating this game gave him nightmares. His thoughts were consumed with the game day and night. The stress even made way into his dreams. And in one particular nightmare, a deku, one of the creatures in the game, was chasing him and it caused him to wake up screaming!

The very next morning, after a long and sleepless night, Aonuma went into the office and one of the cut scene designers was eager to show him the scene he had been working hard on. So Aonuma sat down to watch it and….and the scene featured Link being chased by a giant deku. It was just like Aonuma’s dream! he even asked the guy, “HOW DID YOU KNOW MY DREAM?” That is how on edge he was at the time.

Clearly Aonuma was under a lot of stress, but it was very much self induced. This was his big shot and during development, he couldn’t stop thinking about how great of an accomplishment it would be to develop a great Zelda game in just one year. So he kept pushing forward.

Meanwhile, Miyamoto himself was still working on Ura Zelda project, but would check in on Aonuma from time to time to see how his progress was going.

*peter, what’s happening?*

No no! I am sure it was supportive. I can’t prove it, but based on interviews and what I hear about Miyamoto, I am willing to bet he was kind. Giving advice to Aonuma as he could and encouraging him to continue. Telling him that he believed in his strength. Telling him, “I believe in you.”

Still, I am sure that every time Miyamoto came to check on Aonuma and how the project was progressing, it served as a constant reminder of that impending deadline. The only person that Aonuma had to please was Miyamoto. He couldn’t disappoint him.

The team, as a whole, was dedicated to the project too, and they worked hard on it. so hard that often the development team didn’t even go home. Working late hours and even sleeping in the office. Working more and more on the game and seeing their family less and less.

The hard work was paying off and the game was shaping up well. Koizumi’s idea of a repeating time cycle that you experienced over and over again worked well with the short time to develop the game. Originally they planned to have a repeating 7 day cycle, but a week proved a bit too challenging and they were afraid it would be a bit too boring for players. Maybe being a bit too close to reality. Imagine starting that week long cycle over and over again and every time a player would hear, “Uh oh! Looks like someone’s having a case of the Mondays.”

So to avoid that, they went with a repeating three day cycle. At first you were at the mercy of that cycle, but as the player progressed they gained control over the time. Eventually being able to move forward and backwards through time with the help of the ocarina.

They were able to reuse a lot of things from Ocarina of Time like the combat, art assets, the entire graphics engine, and many of the weapons, but there were also a lot of new and exciting ideas too! You could acquire masks. Masks were one thing that they planned to implement in Ocarina of Time, but didn’t have the space or time, so they fully realized it in this game. But in this game, the different masks would give you different abilities and even completely change your form! For the first time in a Zelda game, you could be other creatures like a deku sprout who could fly through the air, a powerful goron that could roll on the ground, or an agile Zora who could swim through lakes! Giving you access to air, ground, and water, but experiences these elements in new ways.

And of course there was Majoras Mask itself. The magic, demonic mask that possesses and controls whoever wears it, and the center of the disaster that’s taking place. The antagonist of the game as a whole.

Where did the name Majora come from, anyway?

Well according to Zeldapedia (yes that’s the real name of awebsite)

“The name Majora may have been inspired by the ancient Brazilian society of a similar name, Marajoara, a culture that created masks, some of which look strikingly similar to Majora’s Mask.”

Another theory on there states, “Majou” is also the Japanese word for “Witch”, something that could hint at the mask’s evil magical powers. 

But Aonuma Clarifies all this when he said  that is was the art director, Takaya Imamura, who designed the look of the mask, that named the mask. And according to Aonuma,

According to series director Eiji Aonuma, it was [takaya] Imamura that came up with the titular mask’s moniker (Mujura in Japanese) by mashing his own name with the title of the 1995 hit Robin Williams movie, Jumanji.”

*what year is it?!*

It’s 1999 and there isn’t long to finish the game.

Luckily development was going very well, so much so that Miyamoto was starting to direct more and more people away from his Ura Zelda project and instead, putting them with Aonuma and Koizumi’s team.

What about the “Dream Team” from the previous Zelda games? Yes! Tekashi Tezuka was put on as a senior supervisor and Koji Kondo was even put on to do the music for the game!

Obviously Kondo didn’t have as long to write the music as he did for Ocarina, so he ended up re-using some of the same music from that game. There was also another composer that wrote a handful of songs, but most of the soundtrack was the work of Koji Kondo.

In addition to reusing some Ocarina of Time music, he wrote new songs too! 

He made sure to include the one thing that Miyamoto criticized about the Ocarina of Time sound track. Miyamoto didn’t like that the traditional Overworld Theme wasnt included. So for this game, Koji Kondo made sure to include it. When the player stepped outside of the main Clocktown hub, they were greeted with this song.

And Koji Kondo worked with Aonuma and Koizumi to make music that fit the theme and plot of the game. That repeating three day cycle? He had a great idea for it. As the time reached closer to the end and each day past, the theme song of the game would increase in speed.

The first day was relaxed and whimsical. Enjoy yourself in this fun clock town! Talk to the people! There’s lots of time.

The second day: Ok there’s not a whole lot of time left! Better knock off those “to do list” items while I can. Not quite as cozy and comfortable.

And the third day?

Very little time left! An uncomfortable feeling that your time is almost up! It’s the same theme, but it’s urgent and there’s something else there too.  The feeling of dread and foreboding is worked right in the middle of the music, playing disharmonies underneath that whimsical melody.

In addition to the same “ocarina motif” from the previous game, Koji Kondo helped to expand on that with Link’s different forms each having different instruments. A deku sprout would have horns, gorons would have bongo drums, and Link’s Zora form would have a sweet electric guitar!

As always, Koji Kondo added music to the game that was integral to invoking the feelings  you were meant to experience.

With the repeating three day cycle, and the masks to change forms, this game was very different from the other worlds we had seen in the previous console titles. So because it felt different, they made it different. Instead of Hyrule, this would would be called Termina. It would be centered around a town called clocktown where you would interact with most of the people as they went about their business, doing different tasks on different days in the cycle. Soon you could venture out of clocktown into the larger world of the game world of Termina. And the different areas around the central hub, with lakes, mountains, forests, and desert areas.

Miayomoto was really impress with how Zelda: Giaden (Majora’s Mask) was coming together. So much so, that he decided to cancel the Ura Zelda project and put all the eggs in this basket. He added the rest of his team members to this project and eventually Aonuma was in charge of about 70% of the original Ocarina of Time development team! About 40 full time Nintendo employees.

But the deadline was getting closer. So seeing the stress that Aonuma was under, Miyamoto went up to Aonuma and told him, “Surely you will release a great Zelda game! I believe in you. In fact, this is going so well, if you need more time, we can extend the deadline.”

So after months and months of stress, How do you think Aonuma responded to this generous extension?

He was furious! For the last 10 months it had been nothing but the deadline and that ticking clock! The team had stayed late working hard for so many nights. It was too late for an extension! He would hit that deadline! I’m sure he was so mad, he wanted to pick Miyamoto up and shake him!

But where did this random deadline extension come from? Well I believe it had a lot to do with the N64 Disc Drive, or lack there of.

Oh ya, Majoras Mask was supposed to be an exclusive launch title for the N64DD. That was the whole point of the tight deadline. But ….where was that device?

Well, turns out Nintendo had a lot of problems with the disc drive. there were more and more delays. So games kept getting put on cartridges and when it finally released, it seemed like was dead upon arrival.

Nintendo quietly released the DD attachment in December 1999, only in japan. You could only buy it through a weird mail order subscription. For $22 / month for 12 months, you could get the device, along with the online services, a keyboard and mouse attachment for your N64, the N64 expansion pack, which would increase the Ram of the N64, and 6 games, one every other month. As quietly as it released, it was canceled.

So, Majoras Mask was made for an N64 cartridge, but the only way to get it to run properly was to utilize the N64 expansion pack. Even though the disc drive attachment failed, the expansion pack, the little red thing that goes in the front slot of the N64, became an important attachment that was necessary to run later N64 games.

Eventually, through all odds and against a relentless deadline, Koizumi and Aounuma hit that deadline! In April of 2000, The Legend of Zelda: Majoras Mask was released. And just like Ocarina of Time, it received critical acclaim! It reviewed very well. Andrew Reiner, the current head of Game Informer, called the three-day cycle “one of the most inventive premises in all of gaming,” and also stated that “[w]ithout question, Majora’s Mask is the finest adventure the Nintendo 64 has to offer.”

Despite the excellent reception, and selling very well,  Majoras mask didn’t sell quite as well as other Zelda games. Mostly due to the fact that it was a little more challenging than other Zelda games. Still, this game has gained a cult following and even 20 years later, remains a unique game that will always be remembered fondly.

BREAK

Now that you know the full story,  and a lot about the game, it’s time to share my theory with you. The very first LEVEL ZERO FAN THEORY! I am going to add my own theory into the vast ocean of YouTube fan theories.

Everything in the game Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask is a direct reflection of the game’s development and the conditions of the development team when they were making the game.

Basically, everything a player experiences when they play the game, from the joy, to the sense of tension, to the feeling of stress and existential dread, are same feelings Aonuma and the development team went through.

Let’s start simple. Obviously we already spoke about Aonuma’s nightmare made it into the game, even though that scene was somehow mostly made before the dream took place. His nightmare did have an influence on that finished cut scene. But here is a better, more obvious example.

The ticking clock! One of The game’s core mechanics is that it revolves around a 3 day cycle. Specifically the last 3 days before the world ended. And these same three days repeat over and over. And in the mist of the game, at the bottom center of the screen, is an unrelenting clock, telling you exactly how much time is left before the moon crashes  into the world. Of course it serves as a core game play mechanic, but its also there because…..of Aonuma’s very real ticking clock to finish the game. 

Well that one is pretty obvious, so here’s another example.

Just before development started on the game, in August of 1998, several Nintendo staff members were attending a wedding in Japan and, during the celebration, North Korea made a demonstration and launched missiles overhead during the wedding. It gave this serine feeling of experiencing joy in the midst of impending doom. missiles could destroy everything at any moment. This had a pretty strong impact on the development team.

There was a wedding in the game that was inspired by this event, but this event also had a direct impact to the entire tone of the game itself. The idea of joy and celebration in the midst of doom overhead.

Another example, the dialogue.

We discussed, that during development, the team worked extremely long hours, to the point of often not going home at all to see their wives and family for a few days. This had an impact and it can be seen in the game through the lens of different characters

Throughout Majora’s Mask, you interact and talk with several different characters. A lot of the dialogue was somewhat bleak due to the impending doom of the encroaching moon, but I feel like that is just the nature of the game. So it’s a bit unfair to read into everything like that. But more specifically, when it comes to some of the characters and how they talk about their family, I think it’s pretty clear.

One character you find in Clock Town says, “I’m thinking of closing up shop so I can buy a gift for my wife and return to her in my village,” which starts a quest. But that one is pretty normal for a side quest in a video game, so maybe not a direct correlation. Let’s looks at another example.

At one point in the game, you come across a deku shrub who says to you, “Actually, when I see you, I am reminded of my son who left home long ago… Somehow, I feel as if I am once again racing with my son…”

Here is another example.
You come across a frozen Elder goron, that you unfreeze. When you unfreeze him, he says this, “My son is crying because he misses me?? Why do you know that? My son misses me… Ulp! Forgive me, my child! Your father has work to do!” That character then teaches you a song to play to his crying son to get him to stop crying.”

Do ya kinda see one I mean? Ok one last example.

You meet the mayor of Clock Town, and one thing the Mayor says  when some workers bring up his wife,  Mayor Dotour says, “…Let’s not bring my wife into this”

If you’re not sure about this line, developers did actually confirm that this line was indeed an inside joke between the team. Many of whom had upset wives. Also, if you look at a board in the Mayors office, it says, “The Week’s Motto: Don’t slack off –the heavens and the wife are watching. –Mayor Dotour.”

So a lot of the dialogue was a reflection of the  teams experience making the game and how it impacted their home lives. And it wasn’t just the dialogue that reflected real life, there is a certain central character to the game that directly reflects a very real person.

And this is the crux of the Level Zero fan Theory! I will mention, I’m not the first to make this connection or theorize this, but I’ll add more fuel to the theory here and tie it  together with the rest of the theory as a while.

The Happy Mask Salesman! So many theories and YouTube videos ares specifically about the Happy Mask Salesman, who he is, and what’s his deal, man!

He’s a strange character with a big smile. He carries a sack full of different masks, And he’s the central character to the game. Sort of  this omnipotent force who explains to you what is going on and what you must do. He gives you your quest and seems to be pulling the strings behind the scenes.

Ultimately, he needs you to recover Majora’s Mask if the world is to be saved. Recover the mystic mask and ocarina, and everything will return to normal. The Smiling Mask Salesman is always there in the clock tower. He checks on your progress and encourages you. But at one point early on, when he learns you haven’t recovered the mask,  he shows immediate anguish! He picks up link and shakes him in anger and frustration.

Now let’s look at his dialogue and the things he tells Link in the game.

“You’ve met with a terrible fate, haven’t you?” and keeps asking “How did you do? Surely, you should  be able to recover Majora’s Mask. I believe in you. Ah, but time passes even as we speak.”

“Except, the thing is, i’m a very busy fellow. How grateful i would be if you could bring it back to me before my Time here is up”

“Now no time remains… and time is not eternal. Please value your time.”

“You’ll be fine. Surely, you should be able to recover Majora’s Mask. I believe in you.”

I think you see where I’m going with this. That phrase, “I believe in you…” The Happy Mask Salesman is very much Shigura Miyamoto. He even has one particular mask you can see on the back of his sack that looks a lot like Mario.

Whether subconsciously or directly, I’m not sure. It might have been some big inside joke between the team poking fun at the boss in a subtle way. Maybe Miyamoto was completely aware and thought it was funny. I’m not sure.

Heck, maybe I’m completely wrong about all of this. But for me, I’ll never be able to look at this game the same way again.  After researching the development of this game, I can see so many of the conditions of the creation of the game bleed directly into the game itself.

From the Happy Mask Salesman, to the dialogue in the game, to the plot, to the tone, all of these things had a directly influenced by the conditions during development.

It truly was an amazing feet that the team accomplished. They didn’t just create a Zelda game in one year, in about a third of the time it should have taken, but they created a truly unique game. One that gained a cult following and one that people are still talking about to this day.

But I do need to take a second and talk about something though. I hate to sit here and glorify this game’s development story without spending some time to  talk about this.

There is a very real problem with that is pervasive throughout the video game industry, specifically with developers and publishers of games. And that is crunch. Crunch is when a team is forced to hit a deadline, but it’s not possible at the current pace,  so the workload is increased. Meaning that the entire development team is forced to work long and tedious hours to hit that deadline. And often times there is contract labor or salaried positions that are not compensated for the extra hours of work. Not only are they not compensated, but the team often never receives the credit they deserve.

I would love to say that this was an issue  20 years ago, but it’s gotten better, but it’s not the case. Video games are incredibly challenging to make. They cost a lot of money and a ton of man hours, which are often underestimated by publishers. 

The development of Majora’s Mask was very much a full year of crunch.  And the turmoil and stress can be seen directly in the game itself because it bled right through. There is no better example and if you need to see what it does to a person to have to work extremely long hours without being able to spend time with their families, pick up Majora’s Mask and pay attention to the dialogue and the stress you feel when playing the game and looking at the ticking clock.

Crunch is a problem when it comes to video games. In general, most projects are underestimated. Especially when it comes to construction or remodeling. Things take more time and cost more money than was expected. And hey, that’s fine! As long as workers are properly compensated and recognized for the extra work they put in.

Pay attention to crunch and listen for it. We are seeing more and more stories come out about it with video game development and it really shouldn’t be ignored.

Ok I’ll hop off of this soap box.

With the original Majoras mask, Aonuma was given an extension and he didn’t take it. It came too late, but at the end of the day, he was really working to prove himself, and his efforts on Majoras Mask were absolutely seen and he was amply rewarded.  Aonuma would get the opportunity to direct to oversee the development of 12 more mainline Zelda games plus a few more spin-offs, and worked his way up to become the Franchise Supervisor of all Zelda related work. Meaning he has a direct influence on every Zelda related project. He even has more authority than Miyamoto does on Zelda projects.

That is all for this episode, on the next episode, those 12 more games and the rest of Aonuma’s story!

Thank you so much for listening…

Show Links:

Ask a question or leave a comment and have it featured on the show!

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For more information on Majora’s Mask, check out these sources!

Text:
Iawata Asks: Majora’s Mask 3D Eiji Aonuma Interview
Aonuma talks Majora’s Mask

Videos:

Did You Know Gaming: Eiji Aonuma Bio

Did You Know Gaming: Majora’s Mask

Gaming Historian – N64DD

Fun Video with Aonuma and Koizumi

Majora’s Mask Documentary

“SWEET ELECTRIC GUITAR!”

1 Comment

  1. Alex Allison says:

    Very interesting. This has been my favourite game for decades but there’s quite a bit here I didn’t know, or hadn’t thought of. The thing about the nightmare for instance. Also interesting about characters missing their families. I’ll never play this now without feeling sorry for Aonuma!

    Liked by 1 person

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