On Wednesday, Nintendo appeased its citizens with the announcement that Majora’s Mask will finally be getting the 3D HD treatment. The Lenged of Zelda: Majora’s Mask 3D will be coming to the Nintendo 3DS sometime in 2015, joining other favorites like Star Fox 64 and The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time.
The news was met with much rejoicing. Majora’s Mask is a bit of a cult favorite (or as much of a cult favorite as a Nintendo game can be), largely due to some quirky design that distinguishes it from other entrants in the beloved franchise. There’s been enough of a groundswell from critics and fans that Majora’s Mask stands to gain handsomely from a commercial and critical reappraisal.
Yet while I’d love to revisit Majora’s Mask – I haven’t played it since it first came out in 2000 – I find that my enthusiasm is tempered with cynicism. The games industry has a fundamentally broken relationship with its own history, and the fanfare surrounding the remake of Majora’s Mask is part of the reason why.
Allow me to explain.
The intensity of the reaction seems like it’s partly the result of scarcity. Majora’s Mask is frequently talked about but seldom played. For people born after 1995 – people who are now nearly 20 – the re-release may be the best chance to play a classic they’ve only heard about in whispers, which makes all the enthusiasm feel a little crass. Because finally. We finally get to give Nintendo our money in exchange for a product that only exists to be exchanged for money. When did we become so shamelessly jubilant about doing exactly what our corporate overseers are expecting?
Now, I don’t think less of anyone who’s excited. Hell, I’m excited. Once again, Majora’s Mask is an excellent game that deserves to be played. Those who sold their N64s may wish to revisit the game with newfound perspective. Everyone else finally gets to see what all the fuss is about.
My point is that the demand is at least slightly artificial. It doesn’t have to be that way. We should be skeptical because Nintendo stands to make a windfall when it delivers the supply.
And yeah. No duh. I recognize that that’s good business. Publishers know that there’s an audience for old favorites. We’ve already seen countless collections ranging from Halo to Silent Hill to Prince of Persia. Nintendo practically invented the format with Super Mario All Stars.
The problem is that mainstream gaming seemingly only does splashy compilations. Unless there’s something to sell – a reason to turn a re-release into an event – publishers are happy to sit on dormant IP until fans whip into frenzy. It’s all a part of the same forced hype cycle we get with new releases, where the only games that matter are the ones we’re told to care about.
If gaming is a culturally relevant art form, then the history needs to be more readily available so more people can develop the language needed to discuss it. It would also help erase the niche attitude that still pervades the medium. The restrictive approach to content implies that video games have to be earned. It’s telling that Majora’s Mask 3D was revealed during a Nintendo Direct broadcast, and at this point, it might be limiting gaming’s potential with larger audiences.
Cinema provides the most obvious point of contrast. We’re inundated with special edition re-releases of Star Wars and The Godfather, always with new bonus features and an HD coat of paint, and we can expect another one every time viewing technology improves. The existence of network syndication and bargain bin DVDs doesn’t seem to be hurting those sales. If anything, it only increases the future install base because it’s cheaper (and less risky) to take a chance on an unknown film.
In too many cases, gaming doesn’t make anything available for late arrivals. You either pay for the full five-course meal now or you go home hungry. Many people don’t even know that dinner was available. As great as platforms like Nintendo’s Virtual Console, Sony’s PlayStation Network, and online outlets like GOG can be, classic gaming is stretched across so many different storefronts and gated behind so many pay walls that you’re not going to find any of it unless you actively seek it out. Those willing to put in that kind of effort probably don’t need to be converted.
There’s no gaming equivalent to Netflix (or even basic cable), places where consumers casually stumble across items they otherwise never would have considered. That makes it impossible to develop the grassroots adoration that gradually turns The Fast and the Furious into Furious 7. As it stands, even re-releases will be forgotten once the moment passes. In five years, Majora’s Mask will again be relegated to vintage consoles where it will become just another game that you should have played.
I don’t have any issue HD remakes in general, nor do I take issue with the remake of Majora’s Mask in particular. The desire to see an old game at its best is perfectly reasonable, especially when the game in question is likely to benefit from the upgrade.
I just think it’s problematic that high-gloss re-releases are becoming the primary window through which we examine older games. There’s enormous upside if the major publishers can find a way to work together to democratize the medium, and the shared cultural history is too valuable to be treated solely as a commodity.