I love The Legend of Zelda. Some of my earliest memories are of putting Link’s Awakening into my brothers tapped up old Game Boy and firing it up, exploring my way through the peculiar Koholint Island. I remember watching my cousins play through The Ocarina of Time, enthralled when Young Link finally obtained the Master Sword, only to age seven years and end up in an apocalyptic hell-scape. Almost one year ago now, I remember paragliding off the Great Plateau for the first time, taking in the masterpiece that is Breath of the Wild, which I now confidently consider my favorite game.
Throughout the series, Link is a silent hero, stoic but relatable. Zelda is an ever-changing scholar, sometimes daring and sometimes insecure. And Ganon is stupid. Well, at least lately he is.
Out of the nineteen mainline entries into The Legend of Zelda series, thirteen include Ganon in some way, shape or form. Of course, even more include Zelda, and they all star Link, but Link and Zelda feel like characters in a story, whereas Ganon almost always just comes off as an evil, menacing force to be reckoned with. It’s getting old.
The Forms of Ganon
Chronologically, Ganon’s origins lay with Demise, a king of demons that long ago laid waste to the lands that would become Hyrule. Upon being defeated by Link in Skyward Sword, he vowed that his hatred would allow him to be reborn in subsequent ages – ultimately explaining why Ganon manages to come back time and time again, regardless of if he’s the Gerudo Ganondorf or the monstrosity that is Calamity Ganon. Zelda similarly reappears regularly along the royal line, as she is the reincarnated spirit of the Goddess Hylia. Link isn’t of any particular bloodline, but possesses the spirit of the hero and is chosen by Zelda in times of need. There are twelve distinct “Links” that appear throughout the series, and they’re all characterized by their courage, but they possess few other attributes – this is intentional, as he’s supposed to be a “link” between the player and character and his personality is blank so players can project themselves onto him.
The dynamic between Ganon, Zelda and Link is clear: Ganon, the villain that lusts to take over Hyrule, holds the Triforce of Power. Zelda, the princess that aims to guide her kingdom, is aligned with the Triforce of Wisdom. Link, the warrior that protects Zelda, the Triforce, Hyrule and everything in between, wields the Triforce of Courage. Because of all this reincarnation and alignment of fate, the balance between the three is epic and intriguing. Unfortunately, this has been played out over the majority of the Zelda games. It’s growing more and more stale as time passes – but there have been twists to this trinity that remain interesting, even after the series has been around for over thirty years.
Following Demise’s introduction in Skyward Sword, the next chronological incarnation of Ganon is Ganondorf in The Ocarina of Time. Ganondorf is the sole male born to the desert-confined Gerudo: a reclusive tribe of women often depicted as warriors or thieves. This near-human version of Ganon is perhaps his most famous form. He is cunning in his villainy, and connives his way into the good graces of the King of Hyrule. Using the Triforce of Power, he takes over Hyrule, and seven years later, takes on Link in an epic battle. The events of this battle created a three-way split in the timeline. One timeline is created by Link returning to his childhood and convincing the King to convict Ganon, resulting in Ganondorf’s imprisonment and eventual return in Twilight Princess. Another timeline is left without Link after he’s sent back to his childhood – this world is eventually flooded in order to keep a reincarnated version of Ganon at bay, explaining the Great Sea present in The Wind Waker and Phantom Hourglass. The last timeline is one where Link is defeated and killed by Ganon, resulting in a world ruled by his evil over the course of various games like A Link to the Past and the original two Legend of Zelda games.
Ganondorf – the Gerudo human-like form of Ganon – is typically somewhat interesting. He feels like a real character. However, Ganon’s “true” form is that of a beast – typically a massive boar. This Ganon is neither cunning nor interesting – he’s simply an evil beast that Link must overtake, like any other boss in a Zelda game. In more recent installments in The Legend of Zelda series, he’s only gotten less interesting and more beast-like. Most recently, his incarnation as Calamity Ganon is simply that of a presence. He’s a force of evil that has destroyed Hyrule and looms over its lands as his blight takes over Hyrule Castle. He’s a constant visual reminder of what Link must face, but not much else. There isn’t a huge push from the game to force the player to take on Ganon as quickly as possible, which is great from an open-world gameplay perspective, but disappointing for the narrative. He appears as four bosses in each of the Devine Beasts, but really only as permutations of his black and pink blight, imbued with water, electricity, fire or wind respectively. There are basically no character traits to Calamity Ganon, as he’s not a character – he’s simply a force.
Interestingly, in various Zelda games, Ganon isn’t revealed as the primary antagonist until late in the game. He often has zany, over-the-top henchmen do his deeds for him, acting as puppets while Ganon pulls the strings from behind the scenes. Sometimes these henchmen are trying to bring him back into Hyrule from some sealed off realm, some are trying to resurrect him entirely, but they’re almost universally more interesting than Ganon himself.
In Skyward Sword, the villain that Link encounters frequently is Ghirahim – a strange, flamboyant, Power-Rangers-looking dude with a serious knack for sword fighting. This makes sense, as it’s eventually revealed that Ghirahim is actually Ganon/Demise’s sword slowly gaining power to bring his master back to Hyrule – much like Fi is really the Master Sword in training. Once Demise comes into the picture, Ghirahim is unfortunately objectified – literally, he’s just a sword from that point on. In comparison to Ghirahim’s unbalanced, theatrical insanity, Demise is decidedly plain and grim – though his fire hair is admittedly pretty cool.
Then there’s Zant, a resident of the Twilight Realm who usurps the throne from Midna (the titular Twilight Princess) and invades Hyrule with twilight in order to free his master Ganondorf from the Twilight Realm and bring him back to Hyrule. Ganondorf gives Zant enough power to accomplish this, but only just enough – he is defeated by Link and Midna, and is never resurrected by his master. He’s a cruel and unusual character, power-hungry enough to transform his own race of people into Shadow Beasts for his own gain. He remains calm and collected when donning a metal mask, but when his true self is shown, he becomes a petulant child, uncaring for the world around him. For some time, he appears to be the primary antagonist of Twilight princess, but once Ganondorf (the same Ganondorf sealed by the Seven Sages after Link rats him out at the end of Ocarina of Time) comes into the picture, the same old routine comes back into play. Link fights him, partially as the boar form of Ganon, and with the help of the Master Sword and Zelda’s light arrows, he’s bested once again. Yawn.
There are various other interesting henchmen similar to Ghirahim and Zant. There’s Yuga from A Link Between Worlds, a powerful sorcerer and artist obsessed with beauty who resurrects Ganon in order to obtain the Triforce of Power. Then there’s Twinrova, a reoccurring pair of witches that in Oracle of Ages and Seasons plot to resurrect their defeated master. And then there are some Zelda games that don’t feature Ganon at all and instead focus on decidedly more interesting villains, like Skull Kid possessed by the titular Majora’s Mask, or the dark mage Vaati present in The Minish Cap, Four Swords and Four Swords Adventures. All of these feel like real, developed (albeit lightly developed) characters. They’re villains that players can invest in, with motivations, quirks and meaningful backstories.
The Legend of Zelda is a series with an intriguing overarching plot when looked at as a whole. It’s a sweeping epic filled with reincarnation, fatal battles and gods forcing their powers upon the world. And though many of the individual entries hold intricate twists to the basic reoccurring plot, that core narrative remains the same. At the crux of this is Ganon, constantly upsetting the balance of Hyrule, spurring Zelda and Link into action to defeat him once more. Every time, the stakes are paramount to the world’s survival. What was once enthralling is slowly getting boring, and frankly, there are really only two general ways to get around this. Nintendo can either stop injecting Ganon into Zelda’s stories or they can make him more interesting.
The follow up to Breath of the Wild is already being worked on by the same team, and series producer Eiji Aonuma even suggested the team that worked on 2D Zelda games like A Link Between Worlds may continue to work on those types of Zelda experiences on the Switch. But the direct follow up is sure to keep the sense of freedom present in Breath of the Wild, and as such, will hopefully run on the same technology that Breath of the Wild used – this strategy paid off quickly and in spades when Nintendo released Majora’s Mask just over one year after The Ocarina of Time. If the next game follows suit, chronologically succeeding Breath of the Wild, perhaps Ganon will stay on the sidelines – Link and Zelda did, after all, defeat him, and he would theoretically be gone until he’s reincarnated somewhere down the line. This would leave a new open-world Zelda game without Ganon, and thinking of another Zant or Ghirahim, but without the driving force of Ganon pulling the strings, is an exciting idea.
Of course, Nintendo would be remiss if they were to ignore Ganon forever – the dynamic between him, Link and Zelda remains intrinsically interesting. But to keep Ganon himself interesting, he needs to be a real character again. The cunningly evil Ganondorf of The Ocarina of Time, or the honor-bound Ganondorf of The Wind Waker are both decent starting points. Breath of the Wild characterized Zelda more than ever before, and even gave a bit of perspective on Link as well. Nintendo could once again make Ganon – or more specifically, Ganondorf – an interesting character. Not just a quintessentially evil, powerful caricature, but a real character with a nuanced back story, specific motivations and even meaningful interactions with other characters that don’t just involve wanting to rule or destroy them. Ganon can very well become a great villain once more, pushing the plot forward and driving Link and Zelda’s actions with purpose. Nintendo just needs to make him a real character again.