“Oh man, he’s a bad guy? I can’t believe it!”
These are the words spoken by absolutely no one while playing any Zelda game. Though it may be a surprise from the perspective of the characters, events such as Agahnim’s coup or Chancellor Cole’s betrayal never really shock the person behind the controller.
But despite the utter lack of surprise and almost cliché-at-this-point nature of such a plot device, it still works incredibly well and is used frequently throughout the series. The trusted ally or adviser revealing their true colors and attacking a supposed friend or conquering an innocent group of people. It’s the Lion King set in Hyrule, and Legend of Zelda games have a special way of making it their own.
I was thinking about Yuga when this topic first came to mind. When I first played A Link Between Worlds, I was amused by Princess Hilda’s surprise regarding his treacherous actions. Here was another character in a Zelda game that filled the description of “Obvious traitorous villain is obvious” to a tee. The thing is, I wasn’t annoyed by what on the surface is a bland plot twist. I think the reason it wasn’t a problem for me is the same reason why this trope gets reused so often in these games: it just works so well.
Agahnim, Ganondorf, Chancellor Cole, and Yuga. These are big names to know regarding shifty antagonists. They all follow the same premise, but also individually exemplify something unique about the characterization of a traitor, which accommodates their respective games.
So how exactly do these characters affect the games they appear in? Well, it’s not easy to narrow down. I can only explore what stands out the most to me personally. These areas would be the following: how the villains interact and serve as a counter to Link, how they influence a game’s world, their impact the other characters and overall plot, and what they do to motivate the player.
It’s personal, kid
Link has faced many types of foes throughout the years, but the aforementioned villains are unique due to the dichotomy between them and the Hero of Time. They are not merely monsters looking to cause trouble. They are much more human in terms of their motivations and personalities, which always end up at odds with Link’s.
Chancellor Cole is the best example of this. Cole dreams of resurrecting his fallen master Malladus and helping bring New Hyrule under his rule. He is heartless, manipulative, and will use anyone to get what he wants. It is also very important to note the position of power and authority his role as Zelda’s adviser grants him, and how that has made it much easier to control people and events in order to mount his attack on the princess and the kingdom.
He is in direct opposition to Link in all these regards. Link is shown to be modest, loyal to Hyrule, kind, and from a simple background. He wields no authority, and in normal situations cannot possibly have the influence Cole does. This sets the stage for these two characters to be at odds with each other, and for Link to overcome Cole’s natural advantages.
This is a contrast seen with the other traitors as well. Not to the extreme and obvious degree as seen with Cole, due to it being more central to the plot, but it is still often present and very fitting. Villains like these become a more personal obstacle for Link to overcome.
Pulling the strings
Agahnim is responsible for everything that happens to Hyrule in A Link to the Past. Everyone and everything that harasses Link. Every dangerous locale or puzzling dungeon. Agahnim orchestrates it all from behind the scenes. Every villain in every game does this, sure, but not even close to the premediated degree this deranged wizard did. Monsters swarm every area, but they are doing more than just conquering the land. They are patrolling, searching for Link. This is especially apparent for the knights. They have fallen under Agahnim’s control and relentlessly pursue the hero. This is made worse by the fact that most of the residents of Hyrule are unaware of Agahnim’s treachery, so when they see that Link is wanted for the abduction of Zelda, they believe it. Link, and by extension the player, are now forced to be outsiders in their own homeland.
Lastly, Agahnim’s close proximity to his targets allows him to thoroughly devise his plans to overthrow the king, capture all the maidens, and seize control of Hyrule Castle. Having control over all of the Dark World also gave him the option to carefully select where to keep the maidens, and who to guard them. He takes his time planning everything out. He is in close proximity to his victims. He has free access to Hyrule Castle thanks to the trust he earned from the king. And as if handed over on a silver platter, he takes every opportunity to carry out his nefarious goals. Everyone and everything operates as Agahnim desires, leaving him basically the Senator Palpatine of this game.
Side note: I guess I should make it clear, but I do consider Agahnim a separate character from Ganondorf, much in the same way Sheik can be seen as separate from Zelda. On the inside they are the same, but to the outside world they must behave as two distinct individuals.
Left to pick up the pieces
Link isn’t the only person to encounter problems thanks to these villains. The urgency of the plot and the player’s experience is amplified by the severe impact the antagonists have on the supporting characters and overall narrative.
Everything I mentioned about Agahnim before is already proof of this, but to go a little deeper: Ganondorf, particularly his portrayal in Ocarina of Time, is the man you want to see.
Princess Zelda tries to warn her father. He doesn’t listen, which leads to Ganondorf’s opportunity to freely search Hyrule for the Spiritual Stones; allowing him and his forces to gain close access to the sanctuary, the Ocarina of Time, and Zelda herself. Outside of the intervention of the goddesses, Ganon gets everything he wants, and the lives of everyone living in Hyrule are changed, or more likely ruined, forever.
It is so much more personal compared to the actions of an enemy such as Skull Kid or Ghirahim. These villains make no effort to hide their intentions and merely wage war. Thus, the characters simply react to them, and once it is all over, essentially forget them. Being close enough to viciously betray a person (or a group of people) cuts deep and leaves lasting scars.
In the Adult Timeline of Ocarina of Time, when you think about it, Zelda is basically left alone to salvage her ruined kingdom. Her father is presumedly dead, and seven years of being forced to hide as Sheik will not be easily forgotten. All because a supposedly trustworthy ally was able to get too close and manipulate everyone.
Finally, the effect the traitor has on the player themselves helps mold the overall experience of a game.
Yuga. I’ve always hated Yuga. Yuga is the epitome of arrogance. Yuga is a coward who hides behind his magic. Yuga shows no regard for others. I’ve written “Yuga” too many times and am now stuck thinking about his theme song. I’ll admit it, he’s got a great one.
Seriously though, by the time Yuga turns on Hilda, which happens late in the game, I myself was already committed to taking him down. Once they threw in that he’s a double-crosser, even to the villainous, albeit sympathetic Hilda, the fire just got stoked for me. It’s a little addition at the end of the game, but it did a lot to intensify the finale and help me feel even more invested. That’s what matters most: A villain who has such an effect on the heroes or the other central characters, especially at a personal level, will transfer that dramatic tension to the player, at least partly.
Say someone cuts you off in traffic, you may curse them out, but you immediately forget about their existence a minute later. Your best friend tells everyone about something humiliating you did, and you find out about it later from someone else, you don’t forget that for a long time. You might confront your friend about it. There’s a strong desire to find resolution and for things to be made right.
The same goes for what a player experiences in a story. Showing a relationship between characters creates a depth that a player will recognize. Thus, the player is forced into an emotionally familiar situation by means of a game’s narrative, which gives them a very good reason to keep playing and see things through to the end.
Love to hate them
There they are, the most important and most prevalent talking points about the franchise’s most treacherous antagonists, at least as I see them. This type of antagonists is used frequently but always welcomed. They give the game’s story more meaning, and award the player a greater experience. We love to hate them, hate to love them, and we enjoy every minute of it.