About two months ago, I wrote an article about The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask. In that article, I intimated that there was a specific quest in the game that warranted a second article in itself. Suffice it to say, I received a large quantity of positive reception for the original piece, and multiple requests to actually write the proposed second article. So, two months later, after purchasing a New Nintendo 3DS and recently completing Majora's Mask 3D, I present my thoughts on what I consider to be Majora's Mask's greatest achievement - and what, in my opinion, is the best side quest in the entirety of the Zelda franchise.
Ask anyone how many dungeons there are in The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask, and they'll probably answer "four".
This is, of course, true. Most people look at Majora's Mask and see one of the most minimalist Zelda games ever created. Majora's Mask features an astoundingly low amount of dungeons, totaling at four. For perspective, that's four less dungeons than the game's predecessor, the critically acclaimed Ocarina of Time, possessed. This number increases by one, of course, depending on whether you choose to count the Moon as a "dungeon", but odds are that "four" will be the most common answer you receive.
However, if one truly chooses to stretch the definition of what a Zelda dungeon actually is, that number could be rounded up to five or six, depending on whether one chooses to acknowledge the game's central hub, Clock Town, as a dungeon unto itself.
Just like every typical Zelda dungeon ever made, Clock Town features a variety of puzzles to solve, all of which reap different rewards such as heart pieces or empty bottles. Unlike typical dungeons, however, these puzzles center not around pushing a block into a conveniently shaped groove or flipping a temple upside-down, but rather upon aiding Clock Town's residents in achieving a measure of emotional catharsis. There are damaged souls of all sorts located within the five geographical divisions of the hub city, be they dancers struggling to hone their craft or a despondent leader of a troupe of carnival entertainers, struggling with the cancellation of their performance. Assisting each of these citizens in coming to terms with their sorrow is one of the only ways for Link to obtain several optional and key items that will aid him along his journey to save Termina from annihilation. Most of the game's 24 collectible masks can be obtained in Clock Town as well, each of which plays an important role in Link's ultimate quest to slay Majora - especially once all 24 are obtained.
So, if one is operating under the assumption that Clock Town is, in its own way, a dungeon, then by Zelda logic, every dungeon must have a boss.
In Clock Town's case, that "boss" is the saga of Anju and Kafei.
The story of Anju and Kafei (known as "Anju's Anguish" in the 3DS version of the game) is one of the last tasks that can be completed prior to the final battle against the Skull Kid. It tests almost every skill the player has learned up to this point in the game, as well as their knowledge of Clock Town's persistent in-game schedule and their overall ability to manipulate time to their advantage. It's painfully difficult if you don't know exactly what you're doing, and if you're not using a walkthrough, odds are that it'll take you multiple resets of the three-day cycle to complete. It is also one of the most emotional, almost heart-wrenching tales ever told in a Zelda game. It's Majora's Mask's greatest achievement, and the beauty of it is that it's completely optional.
It's also the greatest side quest in the history of the Zelda franchise.
The earliest at which one can play "Anju's Anguish" to completion is prior to taking on the game's fourth temple, for the journey to said temple unlocks the area in which the quest's climax takes place. As a result of the developers' strategic placement of the quest within the larger scheme of the game, by the point in time at which the player can choose to tackle "Anju's Anguish", they've likely lived through at least ten or twenty three-day cycles throughout the game, and are aware of the predetermined schedules that each citizen of Clock Town follows throughout each cycle.
Which makes it ironic that, in order to begin "Anju's Anguish", the player must first travel to the one location that the game has given them no other reason to visit - the Mayor's Residence in East Clock Town. There, the player meets Madame Aroma, the Mayor's wife, whose son, Kafei, has recently gone missing under mysterious circumstances. Given that Link is clearly the most qualified ten-year-old Hylian to be investigating missing persons cases in Clock Town, she bestows upon him a mask carved in the shape of Kafei's face - wearing this and talking to most Clock Town NPCs will cause them to provide some measure of commentary on Kafei's disappearance. Kafei's Mask is the first of many masks obtained over the course of "Anju's Anguish", which is one of the few side quests that spans the entirety of a three-day cycle.
"Anju's Anguish" is also notable because, if one pays close enough attention, depth is added to the tales of other Clock Town citizens Link has aided over the course of his adventure. For example, shortly after obtaining Kafei's Mask, the aforementioned troupe leader storms into Madame Aroma's office. If the player chooses to stay and witness their conversation, they can observe the precise moment that the troupe leader is met with the discovery that his group's performance at the Carnival of Time has been cancelled. Little moments like this bring the world of Clock Town to life, as characters who Link has met (or will meet in future cycles) are granted additional backstory and characterization.
The next stop on Link's quest to locate Kafei is another location with little significance until the events of "Anju's Anguish" - the Stock Pot Inn, also located in East Clock Town. The inn's receptionist, Anju, is Kafei's fiancee, and when confronting her while wearing Kafei's Mask, expresses dismay at having no clue as to her future husband's whereabouts. They were meant to be married on the first day of the Carnival of Time - the first day following the completion of the three-day cycle, upon which the Moon will slam into Termina and obliterate Clock Town and the surrounding regions.
If the player is shrewd, they can obtain a reservation at the inn, but this is simply optional, as are multiple occurrences in this quest. Retrieving a reservation simply makes accessing the inn easier going forward, but it ends up displacing a previously reserved guest - a Goron that goes by the same name as your Link. Not even halfway through the quest, and the player's actions are already having consequences. The benefits of displacing this Goron, however, are apparent: 24/7 access to the Stock Pot Inn, even after closing, and a chest containing a Silver Rupee. Choices like these add texture to the already nuanced side quest that is "Anju's Anguish."
At around 2:00 on the first day, the Postman will deliver an unmarked letter to Anju. After he departs, speaking with her using Kafei's Mask prompts her to request that you meet at 11:30 in the Inn's kitchens (which you can access without much trouble provided that you stole the Goron's reservation). There, Anju gives you her own letter to place in the nearest postbox, in the hopes that it will reach Kafei. This next section of the game requires that the player have that most crucial skill of all - common sense.
The Second Day begins, and this is where the game's notorious lack of direction can come back to haunt the player, as everything that occurs from here on out happens in somewhat rapid succession. Whereas for some, the natural inclination might be to sit and wait to see if Anju ever receives a reply from Kafei, the right move is actually to await the Postman's retrieval of the message, and then follow him in the hopes that the postman might lead you straight to Kafei - and it's once this goal has been achieved that several narrative pieces that have been laid out not just across "Anju's Anguish", but also the entirety of the game, begin to click into place.
Every three-day cycle begins in the same place - South Clock Town, directly outside the Clock Tower. Nearby, at around 7:00 on the First Day during every cycle, a boy dressed in blue garb wearing a fox mask checks the postbox near the entrance to the Laundry Pool, then returns to the Pool, and enters a door that immediately locks behind him. No matter how many times you reset, odds are that this is a visual you'll witness almost every time you start a new three-day cycle in Majora's Mask. There is no way to interact with the child, no way to infiltrate his home - he is simply an NPC on a set path.
Which makes it somewhat jarring when the Postman ends up traveling to the Laundry Pool, ringing a nearby bell, and delivering Anju's letter to this very child on the Second Day.
Here, the game once again relies on your intuition. The player is expected to know at this point that the child automatically locks the door behind him. So, the only way to further progress in Anju's Anguish is to enter the child's home while he's speaking to the Postman, then wait within the house for him to return.
Once the child returns, you're given the full story. The child is actually Kafei, who, at some point prior to your arrival in Termina, ran afoul of the Skull Kid and ended up on the receiving end of a spell that reverted him to a youthful state. Embarrassed, he fled to seek a cure from the nearby Great Fairy, and had his Sun's Mask - one of two masks used in Terminian wedding ceremonies - stolen from him by a thief. Kafei then went into hiding until he could find a way to retrieve the Sun's Mask and return to his normal, adult form.
Kafei entrusts you with the Pendant of Memories, requesting that you deliver it to Anju as a sign of his enduring affection for her. Meanwhile, he awaits the thief's return - it turns out that Kafei's hideout is the back room of Clock Town's Curiosity Shop, which sells stolen goods for exorbitant prices. From here, he can spy on the shop's patrons, hoping to one day discover the thief that stole his Sun's Mask.
You return the Pendant of Memories to Anju, which motivates her to remain in town on the third day rather than leave with the rest of her family for Romani Ranch. At this point, her role in the quest is over. All that's left now is to help Kafei, which, again, if you're not using a walkthrough, becomes exorbitantly more complicated than one would expect.
On the Third Day, the player can enter the Curiosity Shop's back room of their own free will to find that Kafei has left, and the Curiosity Shop's owner remains in his place. The owner explains that the thief that stole Kafei's mask actually came to the store on the Second Night to sell the owner a stolen Big Bomb Bag. Following the thief's departure, Kafei left the store in hot pursuit, leaving behind his mask (revealed to be a Keaton Mask, the second mask obtained during this quest) and a letter for his mother, Madame Aroma. Both of these items are entrusted to you. The owner then informs you that the thief's name is Sakon, and he resides somewhere in Ikana Village.
This is where yet another seemingly peripheral character suddenly takes on a radically more important role in the context of Majora's Mask's story. Sakon can actually be encountered much earlier in the game, and, in another side quest, can be prevented from stealing the Big Bomb Bag from the old lady who runs Clock Town's bomb shop. In this alternate cycle, the Big Bomb Bag goes on sale at the bomb shop for a much more reasonable fee, and Sakon is sent running back to Ikana Canyon. Sakon is also encountered the very first time you enter Ikana Village, and makes an effort to steal your sword before being rebuked by Tatl, your fairy companion.
So, at this point, the reveal of Sakon as the main villain of Anju's Anguish isn't so much surprising as it is illuminating. If that bomb bag never gets stolen, Sakon never comes to the Curiosity Shop, and Kafei never runs off in pursuit of his foe. Thus, in an alternate timeline where you stop Sakon from stealing the bomb bag, "Anju's Anguish" cannot be completed. This is just another example of one of the multitudes of conditions that need to line up perfectly for "Anju's Anguish" to reach completion. It also exemplifies the amount of thought and care the developers put into Majora's Mask, creating a world where the slightest action taken can have a ripple effect that renders multiple other side quests defunct.
Obviously, the letter needs to be delivered, but the first thing to do is actually to pursue Kafei to Ikana Village, where you find him crouched behind a rock outside of a misshapen wall. (Again, the only hint the game gives you that this is the proper action to take is in the Curiosity Shop owner's initial dialogue.) This wall is actually the door to Sakon's hideout, and can only be opened by Sakon himself. Therefore, the player ends up waiting until the Night of the Third Day for Sakon to arrive and open his Hideout, upon which the player and Kafei sneak in after him.
Kafei, immediately upon entering, spots the Sun's Mask, rushes in blind, and ends up tripping a switch that initiates a conveyor belt pulling the mask further and further from his grasp. There's a second switch that opens a door to the next room, but it needs to be held down. Link steps on the switch, the door opens, and it's at that point that, at the climax of "Anju's Anguish", a Zelda game does something that, at the time Majora's Mask was released, was absolutely unprecedented.
The player is given control of Kafei.
The race to stop the Sun's Mask from reaching the end of the Conveyor Belt functions rather simply. The player first controls Kafei, pushing blocks onto switches to open Link's door in the previous room. The player can also press blocks onto yellow switches to slow the conveyor belt down, but must avoid touching red switches, which increase the belt's speech. Once Link's door is open, the player then resumes control of Link, who fights an enemy in his corresponding room. Once the enemy is killed, the player resumes control of Kafei, and enters another room with another block puzzle. From there, it's a race against time for both Kafei and Link to reach the end of the conveyor belt, where they can press the final two switches to halt the conveyor and retrieve the Sun's Mask.
Once that's done, Kafei flees for Clock Town to be with Anju before the moon eradicates Termina. No resolution is provided in terms of bringing Sakon to justice, but that isn't the point of this story. Before "Anju's Anguish" can conclude, however, there's one last piece of business to take care of: The letter to Madame Aroma.
The letter is the turning point in this quest's narrative, for, in order to retrieve every item that can be obtained during "Anju's Anguish", the letter must be delivered to two different people in two different three-day cycles. The first person, obviously, is Madame Aroma herself, who's spending her last hours on earth drowning her sorrows at the local Milk Bar. Upon being presented with Kafei's letter, she's overcome with relief that her son is alive and safe, and rewards you with a bottle of Chateau Romani (a milk variant that imbues you with unlimited magic).
The second person, which requires the player to complete the quest again in an entirely different cycle, is the Postman. Once the letter is retrieved from the Curiosity Shop Owner, instead of rushing to help Kafei, the player can deliver the letter to the Postman, who is currently in crisis, for the Postmaster has not given him a schedule for the night of the Third Day. Given this unfortunate chain of events, the Postman is forced to remain in his office, awaiting further orders. However, once the player arrives with the letter to Madame Aroma, the Postman quickly dons his garb and proceeds to the Milk Bar to deliver it to her ASAP.
In an ironic turn of events, Madame Aroma turns out to be the Postmistress, and is horrified when she learns that the Postman has not fled from the moon. She immediately relieves the Postman of his duties and orders him to flee. The public servant is then overcome with relief, and thanks you by bestowing upon you his Postman's Hat, yet another mask that can only be obtained through this quest. (In what might be the one case where this game's lack of explicit directions harms "Anju's Anguish", the player is given no indication that the letter can even be given to the Postman in the first place, meaning that, without a walkthrough, the only way one could stumble upon this second scenario is via pure luck.)
From there, only one task remains in "Anju's Anguish" - the story's emotional denouement. The player finds Anju awaiting Kafei's arrival in her room on the top floor of the Stock Pot Inn. Despite the several hours that have passed since you and Kafei have parted ways, he has still not arrived, and the clock is ticking ever close to annihilation. In that instant, it seems as though the moon might fall before the two lovers are reunited.
And then, with one hour and thirty minutes to spare, Kafei arrives at the Stock Pot Inn.
"Anju... I'm sorry I was late." Kafei says.
But in that moment, Anju couldn't care less.
"... Welcome home."
The betrothed embrace, and then set out to achieve one last piece of business. In Terminian culture, the exchanging of masks during a wedding is the equivalent of exchanging vows. So Anju and Kafei take their masks, the Moon and the Sun masks respectively, and fuse them into one - the Couple's Mask, which they then pass on to you. In that moment, they have no need for trivial possessions or trinkets. All they need in that moment in each other. And so it is that, with nigh upon an hour left until the moon obliterates Termina, they make one final request of Link.
"Please take refuge. We are fine here. We shall greet the morning... together."
And so, after a tumultuous three-day cycle in which the player has moved heaven, earth, and time itself to bring these two lovers back together, they are left with nothing left to do except initiate the most poignant reset of all. Just before the moon falls, the player initiates the Song of Time...
And suddenly, all is as it was before. It's the first day once again, and the boy clothed in a Keaton Mask and blue garb once again races to the postbox just outside the laundry pool, unaware that in another life, he had just been reunited with his true love at last. In that moment, it is never more evident that the only way to end this cycle of emotional misery and death once and for all is to defeat the Skull Kid and restore Termina to a peaceful state. Clock Town has been conquered. All that is left is the moon.
It's this emotional poignancy, along with the sheer knowledge of Clock Town's scheduling required to complete "Anju's Anguish", as well as the incessant amount of trial and error (and reset cycles) necessary to reach this conclusion, that makes "Anju's Anguish" one of the most profound side quests in all of gaming. It's certainly one of the most rewarding. By the end, the player walks away with four masks and an empty bottle to aid them on their quest. Few Zeldas have been able to top the emotional zenith of this quest's story arc, which has cemented itself as one of the defining moments in the history of the franchise.
It's a testament to the impact of this completely optional, rigorous side quest, that the sole image of a woman in her wedding gown, awaiting her husband on the greatest day of their life, is the most powerful image of any that plays during Majora's Mask's credits.
In that moment, love truly has conquered all.