While every adventure needs its hero and every kingdom needs its ruler, there is no true journey without opposition to face, and the greatest of stories are only so in part because of its villain. Many evildoers have come and gone over the years, but a few, through their deeds, personality, and sheer gravitas, are able to set themselves apart. Ganon, the great King of Evil of the Zelda series, is obviously one such villain. Over the last 30+ years the great calamity of Hyrule has given adventurers a near overwhelming force to overcome, while his own personal legend has only grown in scope and power.
From general to demon
Much of Ganon’s initial persona is actually absent from the original Legend of Zelda. You only see him at the very end of the game, and even then you can only glimpse him for a few brief frames any time you are lucky enough to stab him. While this is a jarring and frightening mechanic to handle — one not used by any other enemy — there really isn’t much impact on the actual being in front of you. Ganon’s form isn’t much to look at either: just a somewhat large, pig-type beast. Compared to previous bosses, Ganon really isn’t all that intimidating, and, despite the title “Prince of Darkness,” his backstory paints him as an invading military leader. Ambitious, yes, but not much more than that.
It’s when The Adventure of Link takes place that Ganon begins to take on a more ominous role, and ironically he’s not even technically in the game. Despite Ganon’s death at the hands of the hero, his surviving underlings are still causing mayhem, fueled both by their natural desire for chaos and the knowledge that sprinkling Link’s blood on Ganon’s ashes will bring the Prince of Darkness back from the dead. Every time you run out of lives during your adventure (which happens a lot), the black silhouette and haunting laugh of the beast celebrate your failure. The constant shadow of Ganon’s impending return, particularly as an in-game feature, brought a dark and otherworldly aura to the demon king’s persona, making him much more than just an enemy or even a final boss.
Rising ambition and persona
The first section of A Link to the Past is focused on stopping the wizard Agahnim from breaking open the seal on the golden land, but, as you begin to explore the Dark World, Ganon’s name becomes a constant fixture. Nearly every rescued maiden, despite being banished by the wizard, have only the king of darkness’ name on their lips. Compared with the relatively peaceful Light World, the Dark World’s distortions are immense. Even without the grandiose name, the desires of Ganon’s evil heart — displayed and amplified by the Triforce in the Dark World — are easy to discern. Ganon’s Tower in particular displays the evil king’s imposing power and ambitions. It is also in this game’s manual where we learn his full name: Ganondorf Dragmire.
While Ganon again isn’t seen A Link to the past until the end, the repeated references to his ambition builds up his character.
Still, we don’t actually see Ganondorf the man until Ocarina of Time, but that is truly where his persona began to rise to the heights it now enjoys. A large percentage of Zelda players, particularly the older ones, envision the King of the Gerudo as the true King of Evil. They have every reason to do so. Two major differences set this Ganondorf above his previous incarnations. First is his ever-constant presence. In no other title is Ganondorf referenced, shown, and interacted with on such a recurring basis: His is the third face you see in the game and a constant shadow that hangs over everything you try to do from the very beginning. His power, influence, and strategy easily outclass your own, and the game makes sure that you know how much of an underdog you are in this fight. The final battle with the transformed Ganon — arguably the greatest in gaming history — is but a physical representation of the constant battle you’ve had with the King of Evil since the very beginning.
Second, and not as noticeably recognized, is his voice. Before Ocarina of Time, the only thing you ever heard anything directly from Ganon was a few lines before battling either his alter ego Agahnim or himself. Each “conversation” is nothing more than a general declaration of how his plans are coming to fruition and/or how you are about to die. Important and intimidating to be sure, but easily something any bad guy would and should be saying. The Gerudo Ganondorf was the first incarnation to truly have a voice and a personality. Through his actions, you see his methods and his goals. But through his words, you can discern the true levels of evil, desire, and sheer power that comes from every line he speaks. The man succeeded in conquering all, yet he still wasn’t satisfied until the true power of the Goddesses was his. Truly, no version before or since has surpassed the amount of personality that Ocarina of Time’s Ganondorf displayed.
The best Nintendo could do after that triumph was replicate it, which is exactly what they did in The Wind Waker. Releasing the King of Evil and letting him wreak havoc once more provided all the motivation returning players needed to hit the high seas. Once again, Ganondorf’s power and cunning are on full display, but, instead of just putting you up against a rehashed copy of the same villain, The Wind Waker instead deepened our understanding of our foe. From his rage at the gods to the haunting vision of the Gerudo Desert, Ganondorf’s monologues give us a look into his personality and backstory at a level that is rarely seen in video games (short of a full JRPG dissertation).
Demonic origins and influence
The near demonic levels of power, combined with his poignant personality, made Ganondorf not just a fixture in Zelda but a standard to which all villains aspired to. His mythos grew along with the series, and it became almost mandatory to include the evil king in every title in the series — even if he has to be shoehorned into the end as a near afterthought. (One could argue that is what Twilight Princess, Four Swords Adventures, and the Oracle games did.) Ganondorf was here to stay, and it seemed like nothing could change his overarching shadow lurking over Hyrule…
… Nothing, that is, unless something could enhance it even further. Enter Skyward Sword, where, amidst the search for Zelda and the realization of your destiny, a great evil lurks constantly in the back of your mind: the very first creature seen in the game. There is a force of darkness with no reason or restraint that sits just outside your home base on the surface, held back by a holy sealing spike that is losing its power. While your actual battles with The Imprisoned grow a bit predictable by the end, very little about the actual dread regarding this behemoth diminishes over time. All of your efforts focus on keeping Ghirahim’s master bound and eventually destroyed, which makes your failure and Zelda’s fate all the more shocking. Then, when the true Demon King emerged from the shadows, either another groan left your lips, or everything fell into place.
Demise’s resemblance to Ganondorf probably didn’t actually surprise anyone — this is, after all, Zelda’s M.O. — but considering Skyward Sword’s placement in the mythos of the princess and her champion, the implications of Demise’s actions carry far beyond the familiar image. It can best be summed up in his final words:
While previous to this he does claim that he will “rise again” (thus directly foretelling Ganon’s eventual arrival), it’s interesting to note that it isn’t his direct reincarnation that shall forever follow the bloodline of the Goddess and the Hero, but it’s an incarnation of his hatred. As we’ve seen, Ganon’s form changes between reincarnations — going from man, to beast and eventually a force that can only be described as a calamity — so would it not also follow that Demise’s curse would follow the chosen bloodlines even if it doesn’t go by the same name? From the nightmares on Koholint, to the Mask of Majora, to Malladus bound by the Spirit Tracks… if Demise’s influence is truly that powerful and reaching, even those threats not named Ganon or Ganondorf could be the fulfillment of this millennia-old curse.
taken to its extreme, every threat to Hyrule’s hero can ultimately be traced back to ganon’s origin Demise.
It’s a bold claim, one that, if true, places Ganon’s influence on Hyrule beyond that of its hero and princess: an ever-present force of darkness that is not just powerful but also truly demonic. Even if you don’t believe (or don’t want to believe) this theory, what it is certain is that Ganon himself is the true reincarnation to the great Demise. This makes him the heir to that throne, and truly fitting his title as the King of Evil.