It's certainly fair to say that nobody really saw Majora's Mask coming. Oh sure, people were definitely aware that Nintendo had a new Zelda game in development but in terms of what it would actually offer them, nobody had a clue.
Previous Zelda games had always had a moody side to them - as shown in Link To The Past's Dark World or Ocarina Of Time's chaotic take on Hyrule's future - but they were still essentially traditional fairy tales; stories of decent people fighting to keep evil at bay and eventually having a happy ending. Majora's Mask, however, is anything but. Indeed, it's probably the most twisted Zelda game yet and that's even after you include Twilight Princess. Not that that's a bad thing.
The primary reason for this bleakness is the game's story, which is far richer and more complex than that of previous Zelda games. Throwing Link into the new land of Termina, things immediately begin on a low note. The world is on the verge of apocalypse thanks to a giant moon threatening to crash into it, Epona has been stolen by the strange child responsible for this impending doom and, worst of all, Link has been transformed into a Deku Scrub.
Obviously, it's up to Link to save the day but how he goes about it isn't nearly as straightforward as his previous adventures. After all, he's only got three days until the end of the world, so time is very much of the essence.
Somewhere In Time
Or at least it would be if the gameplay didn't include one rather important element: time travel. Majora's Mask eventually offers players the chance to undo what's already been done by moving back in time. The biggest problem is working out what can be done in your allotted time.
With the final three days of Termina only amounting to about an hour and a half of real time, you need to complete various tasks and explore dungeons as extensively as possible, then use Link's ocarina to travel back to the beginning of the first day. Leaving tasks unfinished effectively undoes your hard work, so picking and choosing what to do when is as important as actually doing it.
Not surprisingly, this easily makes Majora's Mask the most complex and challenging Zelda title to date. True, it only features four primary dungeons as opposed to more than double that in previous games, but its reliance on time and the pressure it places on the player certainly makes up for it.
And then there's the significant emphasis on side-quests. With almost every side-quest being tied to a particular individual or event, the player is no longer free to complete tasks when they feel like it. They need to be in the right place at the right time to ensure they can interact with the required people. An in-game diary helps keep track of who goes where and at what time, leaving players to work out what to do next - an ingenious addition that brings great depth to the gameplay.
Behind The Mask
Although it's Ocarina Of Time that is often seen as the jewel in the Zelda crown, there are many that would argue that Majora's Mask is the superior title. While the former can be seen as a simple 3D update of the gameplay ideals set out in Link To The Past, it was Majora's Mask that brought new complexity to the series.
Sadly, it didn't do nearly as well as its predecessor although the eventual sales (around three million worldwide) were still more than healthy. The game was re-released on the GameCube as part of the limited Collector's Edition disc but now it's on Virtual Console you simply must download it.
If you've already played it, you can enjoy it all over again but we suspect there's a whole audience of Zelda fans who came in at Wind Waker or Twilight princess and deserve to see just how dark Link's adventures can really be.