Every story in the Zelda series has its villain, and they always play a very significant role. Whether it’s Ganondorf, one of his puppets, or someone else entirely, the games tend to flow the same, leading up to the climatic final battle where the villain is overthrown. Although their roles are significant, their threats as villains are not. Very rarely do they pose a real threat to the hero, or to the whole land itself. In comparison to other villains, those of the Zelda series could be viewed as rather disappointing.
There is one real factor that makes a villain truly threatening. That factor is time. In all too many Zelda games, from The Legend of Zelda to Ocarina of Time to The Wind Waker, from Twilight Princess to Phantom Hourglass, villains lack this threat of time. Link can run around trying to be a hero for as long as he likes, and there is no threat of the land becoming any worse than it is. He has forever to overthrow the villain, because the villain does nothing but sit in their castle waiting to be overthrown. The villain does nothing to cause a real living threat. There is no timeframe for the hero to accomplish his task before it is too late.
Sure, some of the games do have the villain threatening the world. In The Wind Waker, the Great Sea is slowly being overcome by evil, or in Phantom Hourglass, the lifeforce is slowly being sucked from the people. It is only a matter of time before the world is thrown into turmoil and the villain triumphs, but the game doesn’t ever show that. The threat isn’t truly there for the players, it’s just the same old hollow threats.
We can look to any classic tale to see that the predicament of time is what truly makes a villain daunting. In The Lord of The Rings, the Ring must be destroyed before Sauron obtains it, so that he can’t turn the world into darkness. In Harry Potter, Voldemort must be stopped before he accomplishes his goal. Even in The Matrix, Neo must succeed at a stopping the machines, otherwise Zion will be destroyed, along with human existence.
In Zelda it isn’t ‘save Hyrule or else…’, because there rarely is an ‘or else’. If the hero decides to quit, the world won’t suddenly feel the effects. The villains of the Zelda series generally pose no real threat, but on occasions, they have. In The Minish Cap, players must defeat the three Darknuts within the time limit to stop Vaati from obtaining the whole Light Force, and becoming the ruler of the world. Although only for a small moment, Vaati was actually threatening the land of Hyrule through this factor of time, through this factor of ‘stop me or else’. Not only did it make him more of an antagonist, but it also made that part of the game challenging.
The argument is often made that Majora is the ultimate villain, because he simply loves destruction and is the embodiment of pure malevolence itself. Majora’s Mask is the only game in the series where the villain is truly intimidating, because Majora plays to the time factor. ‘Stop me within 72 hours or else I will crush your whole world with my moon’. That seems a lot more threatening than ‘Yeah, I’m up in my castle, I’ve got Zelda, why don’t you come and join us?’ Defeating Majora is a true accomplishment, because players have witnessed the emotions and fears that Majora instills in the people, something Ganondorf doesn’t seem to do.
Maybe it is simply a limitation of the game genre; putting in a ‘do this or else it will be a game over’ variable is too hard to implement. Nintendo worry that it will make the game too frustrating, too hard for the casual players, but in fact, it will actually make the game itself, not break it. Once again, I want to fight a villain like Majora. A villain who, if I don’t succeed at overthrowing, actually poses an active threat to the people. I want to play as a Link who saves the people from what brings them depair, not who simply saves Zelda and prevents Ganondorf from obtaining the whole Triforce once again. I want to feel like I’ve accomplished something, prevented a catastrophe. Only then will I be able to sit back and acknowledge the villain as truly threatening.