Welcome to the Character Column! Each week, I’ll be taking a look at a different character from Nintendo’s long and esteemed history, and I’ll analyze what makes them interesting, nuanced, or just plain memorable. Whether they’re heroes, villains or NPCs, I’ll explain why they deserve respect or love from the fanbase and a place in video game history.
It’s the very first edition of the Character Column, so I thought to choose a character with a certain amount of iconicity behind him, and since we’re doing a Year of Zelda here at Nintendo Inquirer, who better to cover than the King of Evil himself: Ganondorf, one of the most recognizable villains in game history.
WARNING: Spoilers for Ocarina of Time, Twilight Princess and Wind Waker to follow!
Ganondorf – also known as Ganon in his pig-man form – has been around since the very first Zelda game, and is by far the greatest villain the series has to offer. While occasionally another wannabe like Vaati or Ghirahim comes and steals the spotlight, Ganondorf is clearly Link’s arch-nemesis for now and all time. Time and time again he assails Link and Zelda in his quest for power, often manipulating others for his own needs in order to accomplish his goals. He’s cunning, mighty and pragmatic – always making him the greatest obstacle in Link’s journey.
Yet, the number of games where Ganon is a character as opposed to simply a boss to conquer at the end is… rather few, when you get down to it. The main reason for this is that Ganon, in his pig form, doesn’t display many of the interesting qualities that his human self – Ganondorf – possesses. Ganon rarely exhibits the intelligence present in Ganondorf, and as a result most of his appearances are equivalent in character to somebody like Bowser from Mario. That said, I’ll be focusing almost entirely on Ganondorf and the games in which he appears, which only amounts to three (not counting spin-offs): Ocarina of Time, Twilight Princess and Wind Waker. For a man who displays such iconicity, it’s surprising to realize that his human form appears little throughout the franchise’s history.
Before Ocarina of Time, Ganon was more a plot device than a fleshed out character. In the original Zelda he kidnapped Zelda in an attempt to take the Triforce and conquer Hyrule. He was dead in Zelda II (though an attempt at his resurrection was part of the plot), and he didn’t appear at all in Link’s Awakening. A Link to the Past is the only pre-OoT game that offers something somewhat interesting – namely, the fact that Ganon had been manipulating the wizard Agahnim for his own nefarious purposes. This is the first we see him using others for his own purposes, and it wouldn’t be the last: Ganon’s position as puppet master is one of his most consistent character traits, one that is made wonderfully overt in Wind Waker with Link’s battle against Puppet Ganon.
But that’s enough introduction. Let’s get down to the nitty gritty of it, shall we?
Ocarina of Time
Ganondorf wastes no time making an appearance in Ocarina of Time, showing up in Link’s dream in the opening cutscene. A massive man atop a mighty black steed, he immediately radiates power and danger to young, inexperienced Link. While Link awakens from his nightmare quickly, the image of both Ganondorf and the fleeing Zelda stick in his – and the player’s – mind. Without even a hint of dialogue, the player gets everything they need to know about him: He’s menacing, mysterious, and likely a key villain in the plot.
He’s next mentioned by the Great Deku Tree in his dying speech, as the man who caused the old oak to croak in the first place. Here we get fuzzy, unclear shots of Ganon surrounded by darkness and fire – not dissimilar to Sephiroth from Final Fantasy VII – once more making the player feel the threat he poses to Link. But the first proper look we see of Ganon is in the castle courtyard with Zelda, where the Gerudo King is seen bowing before the off-screen King of Hyrule, as Zelda explains his diabolical plots.
What I love about Ganon’s depiction in this game is how he exudes confidence and evil at every turn. He discards Phantom Ganon almost immediately after the ghost is defeated, calling it a “worthless creation.” His character model is perpetually smiling for 90+% of the game, as if he views Link as a pebble in his path towards conquest. Every move that Zelda and the player make is only a step in Ganon’s plan, as he expects Link to open the door to the Temple of Time and thus the Sacred Realm, allowing Ganon to swoop in and seize power for himself. The fact that he always seems one step ahead of Link – kidnapping Zelda when she reveals herself in the future, and preparing a multitude of monsters and obstacles to stop Link’s quest – showcases how terrifying a truly cunning and smart villain can be. Not to mention how, when you finally confront him atop his tower, he’s nonchalantly playing the organ. He’s deliciously malevolent, which makes it all the more satisfying to stop his plans. The final scene of him cursing Zelda, the sages, and Link (or, depending on what you named you save file, something far sillier) is still immensely satisfying to view.
But that doesn’t mean he’s completely without depth. While not very pronounced, the sections in the Gerudo Desert shine a little bit of light on Ganon’s backstory: the only Gerudo man born in a hundred years (which raises the question of how they procreate in the interim…) and also their King, raised by the witch(es) Twinrova. The leader of the thieves (and eventual Sage) Nabooru is said to disagree with his methodology, but not much else is said on the matter. While not a lot is elaborated upon, it does become an important bit of backstory in future games.
Ocarina’s Ganondorf definitely defined the character as we know him today, but his thirst for power was not abated by Link’s thwarting of his plans. Skipping over Wind Waker for the moment (we’ll get back to it momentarily), Twilight Princess is the other major appearance of the King of Thieves, though he doesn’t show up until halfway through the plot, when he’s revealed to be the man behind Zant’s rise to power.
Once again, the first appearance of Ganon within the game is an establishing character moment; the Sages, knowing the evil he possess, attempt to kill him. But he laughs off having a sword driven into his torso and promptly turns the weapon around on his would-be executioners, escaping from his bonds with the help of the Triforce of Power. While exiled to the Twilight Realm, he’s still able to plot, manipulate and scheme his way into power, and by the end of the game the number of people he’s controlled has risen to great quantities.
TP’s Ganondorf doesn’t exhibit quite the same levels of maniacal evil that the Ocarina version of him did, but he’s still clearly not a nice guy. He outright possesses Zelda in the final battle, forcing Link to turn his blade against a common ally, before turning into his familiar beast-Ganon form and doing battle himself. He’s just as dangerous as he was in OoT, but not many new developments within his character are made in the game. While his deviousness is still front and center of his character, not much of his backstory or motivation is explored. Part of the issue is of his role as the secret villain – one he frequently plays in the 2D games as Ganon – as it means he spends most of the game in the shadows. This doesn’t make this depiction of him bad, per say; it more feels like a repeat of what Ocarina did with his character (which I commonly see lobbied as a complaint against Twilight Princess in general, but that’s neither here nor there).
My favorite portrayal of Ganondorf, by far, comes in Wind Waker, which is his most human, matured, and by far interesting appearance. He shows up relatively early on, at the Forsaken Fortress, though his face isn’t shown – the King of Red Lions quickly explains his role the plot soon after, however. In the backstory of the game, Ganon broke the seal put upon him in Ocarina (for those who don’t know, WW and TP take place in separate timelines, but share Ocarina as a divergence point) and set out to conquer Hyrule once more. In response, the Gods flooded the land, creating the Great Sea. While this thwarted Ganon’s ambitions, he still continues to pursue the missing Zelda (who’s magically disguised as the pirate Tetra) and the Triforce as a whole.
Link and Tetra eventually confront Ganon on top of the Forsaken Fortress, where he easily defeats them while revealing that Link has once again played into his hands by pulling the Master Sword and breaking the seal on his magic… all while bringing what Ganon wants (the Triforce holders) directly to him. The two are only able to escape with the help of the dragon Valoo, and the King of Red Lions (actually the King of Hyrule) explains to Link and Tetra/Zelda how to defeat him. As Link seeks to awaken the Master Sword, however, Ganon easily kidnaps Zelda, leading Link to go and rescue her in Ganon’s Castle. So far, a worthy followup to his Ocarina incarnation – still holding wit and relying on Link to do his deeds for him.
After progressing through the castle, Link finds Zelda and Ganon within a room. Here, the Gerudo King monologues about the fate of the land – how the Gods foolishly flooded the world in hopes that the hero would one day reawaken Hyrule. But Ganon sums up his view in a single line: “Your gods destroyed you!” It’s a remarkable bit of sympathy, coming from him – how he almost pities the view that the gods “saved” Hyrule by casting it into a deep blue oblivion. After this, Link fights Puppet Ganon, and ascends to the top of the tower, where he confronts Ganondorf once and for all. And what occurs is one of my favorite bits of writing in any game, ever, as Link stares upon a pensive Ganon:
“My country lay within a vast desert.
When the sun rose into the sky, a burning wind punished my lands, searing the world. And when the moon climbed into the dark of night, a frigid gale pierced our homes. No matter when it came, the wind carried the same thing… Death. But the winds that blew across the green fields of Hyrule brought something other than suffering and ruin.
I… coveted that wind, I suppose.”
In a single, short, simple monologue, a great deal is revealed about Ganondorf’s character. It paints the image of a struggling ruler, one who toiled to bring his people prosperity in a cruel wasteland, and one who envied the peace of greener pastures. It makes him appear as a classic literary character – one who aspired to do good with the power he obtained, but was ultimately corrupted by the unlimited strength he now possessed, losing sight of his ideals in the process. And thus, he gathers the Triforce together, and prepares to make his wish… only to have the King of Hyrule take it away, casting his land forever into the abyss in order to pave the way for Link and Zelda’s future.
And what does Ganon do?
Long and hard… because he realizes he has nothing left. Not honor, nor dignity, nor a wish to restore his ambitions. The Hyrulian King’s wish for hope falls deaf upon Ganon’s ears, because he has no hope of his own. All he can do is battle Link and Zelda one final time, as Hyrule crumbles around them. And his final words are a real heart-wrencher in their own right: “The wind… it is blowing…”
What always struck me about this depiction of Ganon was the fact that he never outright transformed into a pig demon, the only instance where he doesn’t, in fact. I think this is a subtle, but important way of fleshing him out, making him appear more human. This incarnation of Ganon is older, wiser… and ultimately, the most tragic.
What to gather from Ganondorf’s evolution
Ganondorf has evolved as a villain: from a two-dimensional pig-monster, to a hammy, arrogant, and witty opponent, to a man blinded by his own desires. I didn’t even delve into what Skyward Sword’s plot meant for his character, even though it technically didn’t feature him. Regardless of what version of Ganondorf you like the most, there can be no doubt as to his claim as one of the greatest video game villains of all time.
Thanks for reading the first edition of the Character Column! This edition will likely be longer than future entries, due to the scope and breadth of Ganon’s character, so expect slightly shorter pieces in the future. Tune in next week, when we’ll talk about an even more devious scoundrel: Tom Nook, of Animal Crossing infamy. In the meantime, please, feel free to leave suggestions for future entries in the comments, and have a great day!