Majora's Mask has the unfortunate luck of being the younger brother to one of the most beloved, classic games of all time. Ocarina of Time gets all the love and attention, from GameCube re-releases, Master Quest re-makes, and 3DS releases, while MM sits alone in the corner, an under-appreciated gem. Which is sad, because MM is the better game, and deserves at least a little bit of attention. So let's break it down point-by-point to examine why Majora's Mask is better than Ocarina of Time.
Before I begin, I should say that OOT is a fantastic game. It was a revolution for the series and for gaming in general. For its time, OOT was basically flawless, and we wouldn't have MM if OOT didn't pave the way with its success. (Can you imagine anyone taking a risk with such a weird, gimmicky time-control mechanic if it weren't following OOT?) These remarks are in no way meant to belittle OOT. These are just the ways that MM built upon OOT, that often go overlooked simply because OOT was more monumental for its time.
- Deeper Story: OOT's story is a traditional, straight-forward fantasy affair: stop an evil tyrant and save the day. There's no explanation for Ganondorf's motives, all you know is that he's evil and wants to take over the world. MM takes more time to explore the background of its villain (the Skull Kid) and gives him a reason to be doing what he's doing. The story therefore is about more than just saving the day; it's about friendship, betrayal, revenge, death, salvation, and redemption. There's also more at stake with more variables fluctuating depending on what you do.
- Richer Characters: Most of the characters in OOT are basically cardboard cutouts that stand around occupying space. They generally don't contribute much to the atmosphere or your engagement with the environment. Many of the side characters in MM have more personality, and/or more involvement with the story and setting than even OOT's best characters. The characters each have troubles which you help them resolve; they're more than just static NPCs making idle chatter. They have relationships and functional interactions with other characters. Helping Anju and Kafei is almost as engaging and rewarding as the main story line.
- More Emotional Involvement: OOT doesn't do much to pull on your heartstrings. There are some sad moments or characters, but they aren't necessarily emotional (the death of the Great Deku Tree, leaving Kokiri Forest for the first time), because they don't involve you in the emotion as much. In MM, you interact with characters more closely and become more involved with their very livelihood. There's more reason to care about what happens to Termina because you watch things develop and change over the course of three days, while the themes it explores (see point #1) endear us more to what's going on.
The Anju and Kafei quest line, for example, is especially poignant. There are so many different ways for it to end, each one tragic. Even when you succeed and bring them back together, they realize that they're still going to die in a matter of a few hours. Nevertheless, they accept their fate lovingly, happy to die together than to survive apart from one another. There's just nothing like this in OOT.
- More Complex Gameplay: OOT is fine for what it is, after all it established the basic gameplay that we see in MM. But MM takes it one step further and ups the ante. Controlling the flow of time and reliving the same days adds a lot of depth and nuance to the gameplay. There are certain sequences and orders in which you have to do things, meeting people at different times on different days, and it's possible to fail or miss an appointment and have to start over. The dungeons are bigger with more puzzles to solve, and the masks give you a lot more ways to interact with things. The game doesn't just blatantly lead you from dungeon to dungeon, it lets you loose to figure things out on your own.
- More Side-Quests: OOT has a couple of side-attraction like fishing, shooting galleries, golden skultullas, or the biggoron's sword. But MM ramps this aspect up even further by reprising most of OOT's side activities in interesting, new ways, but by adding tons of new side content. A majority of the game is actually spent completing side quests (every mask has its own quest), exploring the surrounding areas, and doing preliminary tasks to get into each dungeon. Instead of just chain-gunning through dungeons, you get a lot of freedom to do things in whatever order you want, and it also gives you more opportunity to feel like a part of the game world.
- More Evocative Music: OOT has some very memorable music that fits its environments and sets the tone for them. I listen to the soundtrack and can easily visualize running through areas doing things, which is quite an accomplishment on its own. But the music by itself doesn't conjure emotion like MM does. An ordinary moment that ordinarily wouldn't bother me makes me feel for the characters just because of the music. I listen to the MM soundtrack and remember deeper things than just running through areas; I remember specific characters suffering and then I feel a weight on my chest. The OOT soundtrack doesn't do that as much for me.
- A More Lively Setting: Except for the whole seven year time difference as young Link and adult Link, OOT's world feels fairly static. You can change a couple of things here and there, but most of the NPCs seem indifferent to the plight of the world and nothing really feels at stake, because Ganon seems to sit around waiting for you to do everything. Termina, on the other hand, feels much more lived-in. Most NPCs have a daily routine and do different things throughout the day. You see Termina change and evolve (or devolve, as it may) over the course of three days. NPCs actually respond and react to the presence of the moon as time goes by. People are scared for their lives and you can feel that emotion. The fact that you have three days to save the world adds a sense of importance to what you do.
- A Darker Atmosphere: After you've been sealed away for seven years, Hyrule is supposed to be this dark, ravaged land devoid of life. Except for the fact that Hyrule Castle Town has been completely destroyed, not much else does anything to convey that. Most places and NPCs are basically the same, except with very superficial changes that just make Hyrule seem different, not darker. Everything about MM is dark and moody. Characters actually die and suffer. Everything drips with melancholy and despair, you actually feel the turmoil of the characters and of the setting. There's a lot of tragedy and sadness involved, which is all amplified by each of the above points.
- It's Completely Unique in the Series: OOT is basically a re-telling of the same Zelda story that's been told a number of different times in basically every game: Link saving Hyrule from Ganon. It tells it a little differently than the previous games, and it was certainly a refreshing experience at the time, but MM is totally distinct in that it has nothing to do with Ganon or Hyrule or Prophecies or Triforces or Master Swords or Princesses. Even Wind Waker and Twilight Princess are secretly about Ganon and Hyrule. MM has the guts to do something different (in gameplay and setting); after all of these years I've grown to appreciate its distinctness even more.
The whole effect is that Majora's Mask is simply a more poignant game. It's so remarkable, and the fact that it's so easily compared to OOT only improves its status. In terms of the "OOT vs MM" debate, OOT only wins because of the fact that it came first. It was unprecedented at the time, we had no expectations and were completely overwhelmed with how awesome it was. But then going from OOT to MM is much less of a jump, and MM therefore doesn't seem as "revolutionary" and doesn't hold as much nostalgia.
There's something to be said for nostalgia. OOT deserves its praise, because any game that can evoke such lasting memories and longterm appeal must have done something right. In the grand scheme of things, OOT is the more important game, but MM is definitively better. It built upon the incredible foundation that OOT laid, and improved on it in nearly every way. There are fewer dungeons, yes, but I feel like this is compensated by the fact that the dungeons themselves are a lot bigger, and because there's more to do in general.
The only way that MM fails compared to OOT is that it's much less accessible. The opening sequence is highly demanding; you have to play through the entire three day sequence before you can even save your progress. The bigger dungeons require more patience and dedication, especially if you're trying to get all of the fairies. It's not as clear what you need to do or where you need to go. In the end, MM is harder to play. It's more challenging, certainly, but beyond that it just takes more effort and commitment to get through, because it's not as accessible as OOT. But I'll take higher art over accessibility most any day of the week.
So there you have it. Majora's Mask is better than Ocarina of Time.