The Legend of Zelda is a franchise that has seen the birth of some of gaming’s most iconic villains. Ganondorf himself is arguably the video game villain, sans Bowser, but the likes of Majora’s Mask and even Zant stick out as faces gamers the world over would recognize. Ghirahim, however, does not meet this level of iconicism, which is a shame, because he’s far and away the most well-done antagonist in the series. And what makes Ghirahim superior to other Zelda antagonists boils down to one key element: presentation.
Think back to when you’re first introduced to Ghirahim: you’ve just made your way through the game’s first dungeon, having unlocked the final door with the boss key. What follows next is a glorious display of averting expectations. At this point anybody with any sort of prior experience playing Zelda would expect to face some sort of Gohma-esque giant beast for their first boss encounter. If you had kept up with the game’s press prior to release, you’d be expecting Moldarach, which had been shown in a forest-themed boss arena, thus misleading many to think he’d be the first boss.
But instead of a giant monster you’re faced with a man, who proceeds to deliver one of the most well-done and memorable cutscenes in the series. I remember watching in awe as Ghirahim completely stole the scene, delivering an introductory monologue stuffed with deliciously sinister dialogue. His model wasn’t static, either: he’d match his words with all sorts of gesticulations and movements that really helped give the character a personality. This first cutscene perfectly sets the stage for the kind of character Ghirahim is: we see that he acts pompous and civil, but can devolve into bloodthirsty rage with even the slightest provocation. And all this while his theme music plays in the background, perfectly projecting the aura of creepiness given off. He’s even got a sadistic streak, clearly getting something out of toying with Link. The cutscene can be viewed here.
And then the fight starts. Having such a lengthy encounter with the villain so early on was already unique, but then one realizes that the game’s first boss fight is a one-on-one battle against the main antagonist. And that’s not the only surprising thing about it: the dungeon item is completely useless! Long-time Zelda fans will be thrown for a loop! And the difficultly level is surprisingly high, not only for a first boss, but for a Zelda boss in general. He can even steal Link’s sword and mock him with in-battle dialogue as he fights with the Goddess Sword before eventually throwing it at Link. Ghirahim was breaking Zelda conventions long before Breath of the Wild! After defeating him he reveals that he was only toying with Link the entire battle before exiting to continue the hunt for Zelda. And it’s not just talk; he didn’t HAVE to give Link his sword back after taking it. He easily could have killed Link right there if he felt like it.
Having been familiar with the Zelda franchise, I was expecting Ghirahim to only make one or two other appearances: one for the game’s climax, and MAYBE one for the middle of the game. That’s how Zelda villains typically function: they don’t have a lot of screentime. But Ghirahim doesn’t play by those rules. Ghirahim continues to show up either during or directly after nearly ever dungeon in the game; the Sandship is the only exception. Whether he’s fighting you himself or summoning bosses to fight you, Ghirahim actually has PRESENCE. You really feel like you’re in a race with him to save Zelda, and as the Demon Lord becomes increasingly infuriated with Link’s intrusions it starts to feel personal.
The main issue I have with Zelda villains is that they lack presence: you only encounter them one or two times over the course of the game(with the exception of Zant, but more on that later) in brief, static cutscenes before the final showdown. It’s often easy to forget about the villains’ existence entirely: Skull Kid just sat on a roof for the entirety of the game so that the Moon felt like more of an antagonist. And where was Ganondorf throughout the entirety of the games he appeared in? Why couldn’t he have taken an active role in the plot instead of passively waiting around for Link to show up?
One of Ghirahim’s greatest strengths is that he follows the mantra of “show, don’t tell”. That’s part of what makes the presentation of the character so strong. You don’t just have all his nefarious actions relayed to you after the fact through dialogue from some NPC, like in Ocarina of Time or Majora’s Mask. He doesn’t sit in his tower doing nothing while his minions do all the capturing of elf-eared girls for him, like in Wind Waker. You actually SEE Ghirahim take action. You SEE Ghirahim burst into the Temple of Time, incapacitate Link, and furiously hack at Impa in an effort to take Zelda(and if you haven’t, do yourself a favor and view the game’s best cutscene here). You SEE Ghirahim’s descent into madness(and the visual changes that accompany it) for yourself as he becomes increasingly deranged in his encounters with Link. You SEE Ghirahim finally infiltrate the Sealed Temple, capture Zelda, and kick Groose and Granny out of the way as he goes back in time to resurrect the Demon King. The active role he plays in the game’s story is on a level unlike any other Zelda villain. Ghirahim easily has more dialogue/screentime within Skyward Sword than any other villain had within their one game, and he might even have more than Ganon does throughout the entire series. That says a lot.
His greatest flaw as a character probably lies in the fact that he isn’t the game’s final boss. As the antithesis to Fi, he ends up becoming Demise’s weapon for the final battle. While this does mean the game’s conclusion feels a little lacking, as it was Ghirahim we spent the entire game growing to love/hate(while Demise spent the game getting swatted back down into a pit), it’s at least done with some tact. It’s made clear from the beginning that Ghirahim is not the end game boss; he’s working to resurrect a greater evil, which will obviously be the last thing you fight. It’s actually this that puts him over Zant; even though Zant showed up quite a bit himself(though not to the same extent), his defeat felt like a cop-out as the game had built him up so that many players were anticipating him to be the final boss, at least before Ganondorf was shoe-horned in a good deal of the way through the game. Another point of criticism for Zant is that his personality completely changes in the final confrontation with him: many were disappointed to find out that this villain who was built to be an utter badass turned out to be a manchild who fights by throwing a temper tantrum, running on borrowed power from Ganondorf. Ghirahim, meanwhile, better balances his goofier and sinister sides, and becomes progressively more serious until he gives up any pretense of flamboyance in the finale as he reveals his true form. Ghirahim builds up to something great, whereas Zant’s characterization falls of a cliff.
And it’s worth mentioning that Ghirahim is the only Zelda villain that actually won: despite his defeat in battle at the hands of a Master Sword-wielding Link, Ghirahim still used Zelda’s soul to resurrect Demise, meaning that Ghirahim fully fulfilled his goal. Contrast this with, say, Ganondorf, who finally had the Triforce in his grasp and then lost it because he was too busy monologuing to reach out and grab it in time(which, amusingly, sounds like the way you’d think Ghirahim might go out). Granted, Demise would go on to totally drop the ball on the victory Ghirahim handed to him, but that’s on Demise.
There’s just so much they give us in their presentation of Ghirahim as an antagonist that the others all sorely lack. Sadly Breath of the Wild gave us by far the worst offender in terms of villains without a pulse: Calamity Ganon was SUCH a non-entity! Hopefully the Zelda franchise manages to deliver another villain in the vein of Ghirahim; one that isn’t passive but proactive. Or heck, even bring Ghirahim back; his “death” was ambiguous enough that he could still be around, and there’s a lot that could still be done with him. But that’s an article for another day.
In the end, Ghirahim stands out as the greatest Zelda villain, and he will continue to hold that title if the series’ plot/character depth continues in the direction it’s going.