For its seventh game, the Vintage Game Club chose The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask. Which I was really excited about: aside from being a Zelda fan in general, I was curious to see if my memory of the sidequests held up. (Margaret Robinson’s GDC talk was an influence here.)

The short answer: yes and no. For those who aren’t familiar with the game: when you start the game, the world will end in three days, so you’re constantly looping back in time to the beginning of that period. This means that you’re constantly returning to the central town, and seeing the same people doing the same actions at the same times; this is reinforced by a notebook you acquire, the Bombers’ Notebook, which lists people who need help and the days/times at which you can help them.

And, indeed, checking off Bombers’ Notebook tasks was probably my favorite part of the game. But the problem is: there just aren’t that many of them, and you can get a lot of them done on a single cycle. So I probably had a third of the tasks done before I’d ventured out of town for the first time; another nice batch opened up after I finished the second dungeon, but in general I didn’t spend nearly as much time with the notebook as I’d liked.

The Kafei/Anju plot is the crown jewel of the notebook, weaving together several townspeople’s requests; but I made it almost to the end of the plot on my first full cycle in town (possibly aided by my dim memories of playing the game when it came out, I’m not sure I made it so far so quickly last time), and I knew I wasn’t going to be able to do the last part until right before the end of the game, putting quite a damper on my momentum. And, by the time I did get around to doing the last part, I was annoyed enough at the game’s requiring you to replay significant chunks if you miss a time slot that I didn’t take any chances: rather than trying to figure it all out again myself, I looked in a FAQ to make sure I wasn’t going too far off course. So, doubtless largely because of that, the experience wasn’t as fulfilling as I would have hoped. Which, to be sure, is partially my fault; but the game also throws a timed block-pushing puzzle at you in a context where, if you fail, it will take half an hour to get back to your current state! I can’t imagine art works in other media putting a barrier in front of you like that to get the emotional impact out of the work; I don’t think it was the right choice here, either.

Actually, my favorite notebook sidequest this time was one that I’d completely forgotten about. There’s a postman in the town who is constantly running around delivering mail. It turns out that, beneath his tireless worker facade, he’s terrified by the moon coming down from the sky, and that his overdeveloped sense of duty is the only thing keeping him from getting as far away as he possibly can. And you save him from this by, on the very last night, waking him up to deliver an urgent piece of mail to somebody who has the authority to tell him that, yes, he can and should get the hell out of there.

So: the notebook is a great idea, but it’s minor enough in terms of time spent that most of my feelings about the game came from elsewhere. Which raises the question: how does the time loop affect that?

Unfortunately, the effects of the time loop on your progress through the rest of the game is almost exclusively either neutral or negative. The neutral far outweighs the negative, and the negatives are mostly small, but I ended up liking the game less than I expected because of this.

I’d remembered that your consumables went away at the end of each time loop. In general, this isn’t a big deal: money and arrows are easy to come by, and the fact that you can optionally deposit money in the bank and that chests are restocked each loop means that the money situation in particular isn’t bad at all. Though I was annoyed by consumables disappearing on one or two occasions: I was actively excited to go explore one of the spider houses only to discover that I needed to go somewhere else and buy some magic beans first, which rather deflated my enthusiasm. And, in general, having to warp back and forth collecting fairies before venturing into a dungeon is a waste of time. Still, a minor annoyance all things considered.

What is a less minor annoyance is that the dungeon state resets on each loop. So woe be unto the player who starts a dungeon late in the loop and isn’t able to finish it in time! Fortunately, you’ll only make that mistake once at most; and the game’s designers put warp points at the entrance to each dungeon, making it easy to get to the mouth of the dungeon, loop back in time, and then play through the dungeon.

But the main boss isn’t the only thing to do in a dungeon: there are fifteen fairies sprinkled throughout each dungeon. In a normal game, I’d be happy to find most of the fairies on my first trip through, go and beat the boss, and then come back some other time, wandering through the unlocked doors of the dungeon at my leisure, to grab the rest of them. But the time loop makes that impossible: if I don’t get all the fairies in a single loop, then I’ll have to go through the whole dungeon solving every puzzle again when I want to get them all! (And the benefits from getting them all are pretty substantial, too, except for the last dungeon.) Which, again, turns what could be a pleasant challenge into a reason to go running to gamefaqs when things get at all tricky.

Don’t get me wrong: I still enjoyed the dungeons, still enjoyed the main quest line. (Though quite a few VGC members didn’t—I was surprised by how many people dropped out over the course of the game.) But the game does put some structural barriers in the way of that enjoyment.

And then there are the little touches. In Ocarina, it was the music; there’s nothing in this game like that (in particular, most of the new ocarina music isn’t very good), but I’d completely forgotten the giants who appear after each dungeon. And they’re wonderful: these huge melancholy figures shrouded in mist with haunting music playing. Also, the tree in front of the final save-the-world battle was very soothing, grounding, refreshing. (Is there some archetypal game with a tree on a hill like that that both Majora’s Mask and Flower were borrowing from?)

And, when all is said and done: it’s still a Zelda game and a noble experiment, and those are both very good things. But, like many of the most productive experiments, its value comes as much from the hypothesis that are found wanting as the hypothesis that it supports.

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