The Legend of Zelda primarily revolves around three characters: protagonists Princess Zelda (duh) and Link, as well as the villainous Ganondorf. Or is it Ganon?
Ganon is arguably one of the most iconic villains in video game history, which is especially impressive when you consider he was also one of the first. When gamers were introduced to the character in the first Legend of Zelda game, Ganon was just a big, blue, anthropomorphic boar who teleported around the room and shot fireballs at Link. During that fight, Ganon had neither backstory nor personality, but subsequent entries expanded on the character and revealed he used to be a human (retconned to Gerudo) named Ganondorf. Ocarina of Time let players see and fight Ganondorf for the first time, and ever since, the franchise has switched between the two villains, and because of shifting tones, it’s hard to get a beat on the two characters. Or one character. Or 1.5 characters.
Ironically, although Link and Zelda are different characters in almost every entry, their personalities are universal constants throughout the franchise, but Ganondorf/Ganon goes through a much bigger transformation per installment. One entry might include an eloquent Ganon, while in another he’s little more than a feral beast. In Breath of the Wild, he is a more primal evil who engulfs the land of Hyrule in darkness.
So, where does Ganondorf end and Ganon begin? And what separates the two?
Ganondorf, full name Ganondorf Dragmire (according to the A Link to the Past manual), was originally the leader of a band of thieves, according to early Zelda lore. This was later semi-retconned into him being the king of the Gerudos, a race of desert-dwelling thieves. But despite this slight change, Ganondorf’s modus operandi has remained fairly consistent.
Personality-wise, Ganondorf is a megalomaniac. He is single-minded in his quest to conquer Hyrule, and acquire the power he needs to control the land in the process, the mythical Triforce. But with or without the Triforce of Power, Ganondorf is an incredibly skilled swordsman and warlock, and the only people who have ever stand a chance against him are Link and Zelda.
Ironically, even though Ganondorf constantly finds himself in possession of the Triforce of Power, he is no mere brute. If anything, he is one of the most intelligent (and egomaniacal) characters in the franchise. Every interaction with Ganondorf reminds players that he thinks highly of himself and believes everyone else is beneath him. And not only is Ganondorf well-spoken and even sophisticated — at least until his plans are thwarted — but he also often manipulates Link into opening the path to the Triforce without ever actually interacting with him.
If you want to see Ganondorf at his very best/worst, journey inside his castle in Ocarina of Time. As players journey up the final section of his stronghold, Ganondorf plays a pipe organ, which is not only a thematic instrument that instills dread but also one of the hardest instruments to learn and play. And once Link reaches him, Ganondorf claims he is the only one worthy of wielding the Triforce, even though the Triforce itself said otherwise by splitting itself when he touched it.
Most of the time, Ganon is a dastardly anthropomorphic pig, usually wielding a trident. And even when he doesn’t speak, Ganon is capable of casting magic spells, most prominently summoning fireballs and fire bats to take down our little hero. He also sometimes transforms into a thinner monster, such as in Ocarina of Time, or a more bestial pig-like creature, like in Twilight Princess. And that’s not even mentioning his myriad forms in Breath of the Wild. Yet despite these changes, Ganon is still supposed to be an alternate form of Ganondorf — the Hyrule Historia says so. That said, his personality shifts more than the topography of Hyrule.
As previously stated, in the first Legend of Zelda game, Ganon has zero lines or personality; he’s just a gear check to make sure players find the Magic Sword and Silver Arrows, because he can’t be beaten otherwise. In A Link to the Past, he actually receives a few lines and some backstory, but in Ocarina of Time, Ganon is back to being a mute monster…even though he talked when he was Ganondorf. And things get only more confusing from there.
Subsequent Legend of Zelda titles swap between making players fight Ganon, Ganondorf, Ganon and Ganondorf, and completely unrelated villains. While Ganondorf remains largely the same throughout the Zelda timeline, Ganon’s portrayal shifts around. In Four Swords Adventures, Ganon is as eloquent and egotistical as his Ganondorf persona, while the Ganons in Twilight Princess, Oracle of Seasons/Ages, and Breath of the Wild are little more than feral beasts. And then there’s the Ganon from A Link Between Worlds, who is fully capable of speech, but is also merged with evil sorcerer Yuga and seems to be in the driver’s seat.
At first glance, these seemingly random personality shifts might preclude Ganon and Ganondorf from being one and the same, but if you overlay them with the “official” Legend of Zelda timeline, a pattern emerges.
So, How Does Ganondorf Become Ganon and What Separates Them?
Unlike Link and Zelda, Ganondorf and Ganon are technically the same character resurrected again and again throughout the entire series. But when does Ganondorf actually transform into Ganon? We watch this evolution finally happen in the final boss fight of Ocarina of Time, the events of which split the timeline thereafter into three distinct paths. While each path contains different adventures, they all feature the inevitable resurrection of Ganondorf/Ganon after Ocarina in some manner.
But staying alive for so long, combined with a continued cycle of defeat and death, must take its toll, right? This might explain why Ganon doesn’t speak in most Legend of Zelda games — or appears to be less intelligent than his Ganondorf persona from Ocarina. Perhaps the Ganon we meet in the original Zelda is suffering from some form of dementia, not unlike what happens to Ghouls and Super Mutants in the Fallout games. The longer they live, the more feral they become.
Or maybe it’s not so much age as it is the extended use of the Ganon form itself. This could be the answer to why Ganon in A Link to the Past speaks regularly, Ganon in Oracle of Seasons and Oracle of Ages speaks in broken sentences, and the later versions can’t speak at all. The more time has passed since the events of Ocarina of Time — and the more losses Ganon/Ganondorf suffered — the less sane he seems to become.
This isn’t a perfect explanation, though. What about the non-talking Ganon in Twilight Princess, which takes place much earlier in the post-Ocarina timeline when he should still be able to speak?Well, Ganon doesn’t technically speak in Ocarina of Time either so maybe the process of transforming into the Demon King drains the mental faculties.
But this theory also leaves the Four Swords Adventures Ganon unaccounted for…except not really. Even though that version of Ganon came after Twilight Princess, he is as eloquent as Ganondorf. If the theory that Ganon is suffering from dementia brought on by millennia of life and death is true, how has this Ganon avoided the mindlessness of his other versions? One explanation is that Ganon was the form directly resurrected in this game as opposed to Ganondorf, meaning a sanity-robbing transformation into the beast never occurred in this adventure. The resurrected Ganon retained the intelligence of his previous Ganondorf form.
Of course all this might change when the Breath of the Wild sequel finally hits Nintendo Switch. The announcement trailer for the game features a desiccated (but very much alive) person who bears a striking resemblance to Ganondorf. But how can he be buried deep underground when Calamity Ganon was rampaging up on the surface, you are probably asking? With any luck, the game will answer that question — and confirm what made Ganon lose his mind later on in life.