“In the shadows we regressed, so much so that we soon knew neither anger nor hatred…nor even the faintest bloom of desire. And all of it was the fault of a useless, do-nothing royal family that had resigned itself to this miserable half-existence!”
The cliché is that the bigger, badder and scarier the villain, the better. This is especially true in the Action and Adventure genres, notably in any kind of Fantasy, Sci-fi and Horror. It is rare that the main antagonist in a story of those mediums is just like the guy next door.
Yet, it is often the characters that are just as ordinary as the rest of us who always turn out to be most frightening. Freddy Krueger and Michael Myers may have more intimidating looks (and are more marketable), but they are not even remotely as scary as an Annie Wilkes or Max Cady.
The Legend of Zelda franchise has generally preferred an over-the-top approach with its bad guys. Its most iconic villain is, of course, the dark warlord Ganondorf, and just about all of the other antagonists to ever challenge Link have either been other-worldly forces or sorcerers born of devilish magic. Besides Ganondorf’s incarnation in the Wind Waker, Zelda has featured only one antagonist who felt human; the Usurper King, Zant.
He’s no Sauron or Morgoth, and he’s all the more terrifying for it.
Zant can easily be related to an average human being because of what a flawed character he is. He isn’t just cowardly, he’s inept at every endeavor that he sets his mind to. He was given no respect for his ambitions by his people, the Twili, and to his dismay, was rejected as a possible leader of their people, instead being dismissed in favor of Midna. It is only when Ganondorf happens to come upon him that he finally has the ability to succeed in his aspirations.
At first, it may seem strange to describe such an incompetent character as being a great villain, but Zant is an ideal example of the most dreadful thing that a human being can become. On his own, he’s harmless. However, when you hand him power, coupled with a history of failure and a mind that cannot properly deal with it, he’s a living, breathing weapon of destruction.
Zant is a definitive sociopath- the kind of person we see today who goes into a public place and starts shooting a gun wildly because they feel they have been mistreated by society, and want to inflict as much harm on others as possible.
Zant felt disrespected by his peers, and when he has the means to actually do something about it, he takes out his frustration on them. Worst of all, he ends up taking it out on far more than just the people who may have ‘wronged’ him. Zant also has a vendetta against those who dwell in the Light Realm, believing that they victimized the Twili and mercilessly cast them into the Twilight Realm. Thus, when Zant finds a powerful source of magic in his hands thanks to Ganondorf, his reign of terror does not stop with just his own people.
“The people of our tribe…a tribe that mastered the arts of magic…were locked away in this world like insects in a cage”
In the cinematic just before his boss fight in Twilight Princess, we get a real look at just how emotionally unstable Zant is. Even more, it paints a crystal clear picture of how Zant cannot handle adversity. Some fans claim that his infamous mental breakdown is too stark of a contrast from how Zant carried himself earlier in the game. Many believe that it made little sense what with the tough-guy persona he put on at the beginning of Twilight Princess, but the story does suggest before his unraveling that Zant is not in the right mind and not as composed as he initially appears to be. In fact, Zant displays the degeneration of a crazed individual who, at his core, is just a weakling who has turned himself into a bully.
When empowered, Zant yields an imposing, confident demeanor. We see it in the attack on Hyrule Castle and to a lesser extent, his appearance at the Lanayru Spring. However, while confronting Princess Zelda, Zant is totally distant from the audience as to his character. His dialogue is brief and to-the-point, and without audible speech, we have no idea what kind of tone he is speaking in. His mask is another feature which estranges him from the audience, especially when compared to how expressive other character models are in the game’s various cinematics.
On the other hand, when he first encounters Link and Midna at the Lanaryu Spring, Zant’s deranged nature leaks out a bit.
It seems like every other sentence of his during that exchange ends with an exclamation mark. Although we cannot say for sure if he was actually shouting or not, due to the lack of voice acting, we do know that Zant is getting riled up as the scene goes on, even though it appears to be completely unnecessary on his part. At one point, Midna condemns him for “abusing” the magic of their tribe, and Zant responds pretty dramatically-
“How dare you?! Are you implying that my power is…our old magic? Now THAT is a joke!”
Certainly not the symbol of calm, cool, and collected, at all. It starts to add up even more because Zant makes his first ecstatic mention of his “god”, a.k.a. Ganondorf, during this scene, clearly implying that he did not concoct the plan on his own, and does not trust fully in his own capabilities.
“This power is granted to me by my god! It is the magic of the King of Twilight, and you WILL respect it!”
When things begin to go downhill for him, then, the true Zant emerges. It makes sense that as Link and Midna begin to make progress in their adventure and threaten to overcome Zant’s dark plot, the Usurper King goes missing in action for a while, only showing up to taunt Link before resurrecting Stallord.
In all seriousness, Nintendo likely included that scene strictly for gameplay purposes- not because it was intended to coincide with Zant’s character. But it does fit with the concept of his emotional frailty. Just like a bully, he prefers to have a lackey do his dirty work rather than face a potential challenge head on.
The next time that Link and Midna come into contact with him, his entire plan has been shattered, and the result is Zant’s insane tantrum within the Palace of Twilight. During his lengthy exposition where he vents all of his frustrations, we are shown a cutscene of when he first meets Ganondorf. But before he meets face to face with the King of Evil, Zant is shown running out of the palace, falling to his knees, beating at the ground and sobbing because the other Twili did not see him as a suitable king. To take disappointment in such pathetic fashion presents Zant as a seriously troubled individual, both mentally and emotionally.
When you have someone that unstable failing at all of their endeavors and, in their mind, being mocked by all that they know, it’s bound to create a very volatile being. The same kind of volatile being who would be incapable of holding together as he has to watch his dreams slowly fall apart before his eyes after finally seeing them come true.
“I had served and endured in that depraved household for far too long, my impudent princess. And why, you ask? Because I believed that I would be the next to rule our people! THAT is why!”
That’s the case with Zant as Twilight Princess draws to its conclusion. Link and Midna manage to topple Zant’s plot piece by piece until there’s nothing left of it but himself and the chair he sits on in the Palace of Twilight. After a lifetime of disappointment, Zant had at long last seen his goals realized, only to witness them ripped to shreds oh-so shortly after.
And that is what calls for the disturbing breakdown he has in his throne room just before he enters combat with Link and Minda- the tantrum of a traumatized person who had a taste of his dreams, and then had it all torn from him so quickly.
The inclusion of Ganondorf in Twilight Princess will be debated amongst fans for as long as video games are remembered in society, but regardless how whether or not it was a good choice to drop the King of Evil into the story, Zant needed that superior villain to be as unsettling of a villain as he himself turned out to be. Even if it did not need to be another entity, some kind of higher power which he could look to was required to make him the type of character he was.
Zant is not powerful enough to be a threat on his own, but in his mind, he’s as dangerous as they come. Believing that you have been wronged by every other living thing in your world, and being unable to accomplish something that you desire in such an unhealthy manner turns someone into a metaphorical ticking time bomb. When Zant finally has the means to act on his urges, that dark imagination of his is allowed to run wild- with horrifying results.
You could easily replace Zant’s name in the previous description with an incalculable number of individuals who have existed in our lifetime alone, and that’s what makes a skinny, childish, cackling Twili so frightening; we have seen “Zant” unfold before our very eyes so many times before.