by MJ Kuhn
I love a good “bad guy” in fiction.
Obviously, I’m always rooting for the hero, but oftentimes, villains who are objectively Not Good People are the most fascinating characters in a story. The Illusive Man is one of my favorites out of all the baddies in Mass Effect for this reason. Silco from the recent Netflix show Arcane is another great example.
A pure evil villain à la Sauron from The Lord of the Rings can definitely be effective, but sometimes it’s so much more fun to see our heroes go toe-to-toe with someone a little more nuanced—someone who may have characteristics that resemble characteristics in people we’ve actually met in real life (maybe even characteristics we see--and despise--in ourselves).
Ganon/Ganondorf might be the most famous villain of The Legend of Zelda, but the franchise has a whole host of other villains and secondary bad guys to choose from. I wanted to take this opportunity to talk about three of my personal favorites.
What Makes a Villain Compelling?
Before I dive into the list, let me lay out the basics of what I think makes a compelling villain. Let’s be clear: this is 100% my opinion. Some of the things I love in a villain might make you roll your eyes. Here are a few traits many of my favorite villains have in common:
Morally Nuanced: The villain is obviously the bad guy, but a fascinating villain, to me, is a villain who isn’t always the bad guy. Maybe they have a soft spot for their young daughter, or maybe they had a good mission but went off track somewhere. A fascinating villain has the capacity for good… they’re just not using it, for some reason.
Tragic Backstory: This isn’t a must, but I just find it’s there a lot of the time. There’s a reason why the Bad Guy With A Tragic Backstory is such a trope in fiction: it’s because it works. If you can show me why this guy is the way he is—what makes him do the things he does—I’m not going to agree with him any more than I did before… but I might just understand him a little better. That makes him fascinating.
The Hero in Their Own Story: Everyone’s the hero in their own story. I’m sure you’ve heard that before. What makes a villain particularly compelling to me is when I can 100% see why they believe they’re the hero. Think of Erik Killmonger in Marvel’s Black Panther. Are we rooting for T’Challa to win the day? Absolutely. Does Killmonger also kinda have a point? Definitely. That’s what makes him fascinating.
And now for my favorite villains in Zelda.
Skull Kid: Majora’s Mask
I love Majora’s Mask. I haven’t played through it as many times as I’d like just because starting it up is such a project every time, but I consistently list it in my Top 3 Zelda Games of All Time for several reasons.
One of those reasons is because of Skull Kid.
Skull Kid is ostensibly the villain of Majora’s Mask (until *SPOILER* you realize the titular mask itself is actually the villain). He steals the mask from the (terrifying) Happy Mask Salesman at the beginning of the game, proceeding to use the magical powers the mask grants to cause mayhem in Termina (ultimately, you know, trying to smash it to bits with the literal moon).
I’m not in support of crashing the moon into Termina, but, honestly, I don’t think Skull Kid really is, either.
Later in the game, you learn Skull Kid’s sad backstory. He was friends with the Four Giants. They left him alone and scared… and yeah, he acted like an obnoxious, mischievous fool in response. But then the giants betrayed him by kicking him out of Termina altogether at the villagers’ request. In the end, his mischievous behavior left him with only two friends—Tael and Tatl—and a bit of an ax to grind with the giants and the people of Termina.
Does what happened to Skull Kid warrant dropping a literal moon on the people of Termina? Obviously not. That’s why he’s the villain! But does he also suffer from a little bit of classic I’m not really a bad guy, I’m just possessed-itis? Yes.
Overall, I think Skull Kid’s story and learning the reasons for his deeds and his “pranks” are what push the entire story of Majora’s Mask forward, which in my mind, lands Skull Kid a place on this list.
Zant: Twilight Princess
Twilight Princess is one of the darkest Zelda games, so you might think it would have one of the most cartoonishly evil villains in the franchise… right? I’d argue "wrong." Let’s take a look at why.
Again, let’s be clear: Zant isn’t a good guy. He turns his own people into Shadow Beasts, he usurps Midna’s throne, he ruthlessly tries to take over all of Hyrule… the list goes on. However, Zant isn’t just a mustache-twirling villain tying Link to the train tracks. He’s a complicated character who’s been brainwashed by a powerful being (*cough* Ganondorf *cough*) into believing he’s destined to rule the Twilight and the Realm of Light.
When we look into his backstory, we see that this quest for power didn’t just spring up out of nowhere. Zant was promised the throne, only to have it pulled away at the last minute and given to Midna instead (I mean, for good reason from the sound of it, to be fair). Instead of taking this lying down, Zant looks for another power to align himself with to take back the throne he was promised and lead his people.
Phrased this way, you can definitely see how Zant is the hero in his own story, right? I mean, it’s arguably kind of similar to Simba’s story in The Lion King when you boil it down: Youngster is promised the throne. Doesn’t get the throne. Comes back to usurp the “false” ruler and take their rightful place.
Obviously, the details of the story are very different… but the same bones are there!
Another thing I find fascinating about Zant is that he is smart (or at least he presents himself as such). Until the reveal near the end of the game, he kind of reminds me of Thrawn from the Star Wars franchise: Cold, emotionless, tactical, and dangerous.
Then, of course, we learn he’s just been brainwashed and driven mad by Ganondorf… but hey, the early appearances of Zant are compelling enough to win him a spot on my list.
The Yiga Clan: Breath of the Wild
All right, this one is a bit of a cheat. This isn’t just a single villain: it’s a whole host of people. But, honestly, I think that is what makes the Yiga clan from Breath of the Wild so compelling to me. This isn’t just one rogue baddie on a journey to meet his own selfish goals… this is an entire movement.
The Yiga are descendants of the Sheikah who were exiled. Instead of taking their exile and leaving town, the Yiga stuck around to fight back against the kingdom that tried to kick them out. That kingdom had another enemy with whom the Yiga decided to align themselves: Calamity Ganon.
Of course, aligning yourself with Ganon is an easy way to put yourself in the “bad guys” column, and the Yiga definitely do a lot of other things that help to keep them in that camp. Their entire mission is to destroy anyone who wants to stop Ganon, which clearly sets them directly opposite Link in the game. There’s also that whole troubling storyline with Dorian the spy where the Yiga murder his wife and keep his children hostage in order to force him to keep spying for them. Yikes. Not a good look, Yiga.
As much as we don’t like the Yiga in Breath of the Wild (I literally just stopped talking to travelers in my first play-through because I got so sick of them popping up everywhere), we can see how they are the hero in their own story. They believe they’re fighting for what’s right. Instead of forsaking their culture and assimilating into life in Hyrule like some of the other Sheikah did when they were cast out, the Yiga wanted to strike back against the old King’s assertion that all Sheikah must be evil because their tech was a threat to him.
I don’t agree with the way the Yiga went about things, but I can understand their unwillingness to support a kingdom whose ancestors shunned their ancestors. Wars have been fought over less.
What Compelling Villains Did I Miss?
Obviously, we all know several incarnations of Ganon that are fascinating (Ganondorf from The Wind Waker comes to mind, in particular), but I wanted to shine the spotlight on some of the less-talked-about villains from the franchise for this post.
What smaller villains did I miss? Who are your favorite baddies in The Legend of Zelda? Chat with me online @mjkuhnbooks on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, or TikTok!
Additionally, if you like bad guys and morally grey characters as much as I do, you may want to check out my book, Among Thieves, a fantasy heist that centers around six thieves teaming up to steal a magical artifact… while each secretly plots their own betrayal.