The Legend of Zelda franchise is famous for setting players on sprawling adventures that culminate in a climactic battle against the main villain—usually against Ganondorf, the King of Evil. In the 3D entries, this is accomplished with layered boss fights, atmospheric dungeons, thrilling set pieces, and iconic music to elevate the story and game design together. However, few accomplish a cohesive final encounter better than 2002’s The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker.
The GameCube’s first Zelda was a swashbuckling adventure across an open ocean with islands scattered throughout. It carried the core gameplay built in the N64 classic Ocarina of Time, but with more movement freedom and full 3D camera control. It introduced a parry system in sword combat, a sea chart to navigate for treasures, and story beats recalling Zelda’s franchise history. All of these elements were complemented by a minimalistic and charming cel-shaded art style that exchanged textural detail for creating an awe-inspiring sense of scale that ages the game beautifully, despite the original criticism of the fandom.
Wind Waker opens with approachable stakes as Link crosses the sea to rescue his sister, but his bigger call to adventure puts him against the ancient villain Ganondorf. The game’s prologue conveys that he broke free of imprisonment in the Sacred Realm after the events of Ocarina, and the Hero of Time traveled back to the past never to be seen again. In the words of the game’s companion, the King of Red Lions, this Ganondorf is “the very same” that was sealed away by the Hero and Princess Zelda with the Master Sword.
Twenty hours later, Wind Waker’s final act begins when Link returns to a Hyrule buried under the sea and frozen in time to stop Ganondorf before he acquires the full power of the Triforce. What follows is a perfect vertical slice of gameplay elements (sans the sailing), giving us the most relatable characterization of Ganondorf and delivering a thematically and emotionally-charged finale to the game that puts its story at the top of the series.
The game’s bright and uplifting tone is contrasted by the heavy history of Hyrule, turning Link’s quest to save his sister into a coming of age tale deeply rooted in the franchises’ expansive lore. The hints of this history are found across the Great Sea, whose inhabitants are revealed to be descendants of Hyrule’s races that were scattered by the goddesses’ rapturous flood. The result is a somber tone when Link finally encounters the submerged Hyrule Castle. The kingdom is frozen in time, as the structure and music of the castle callback to the SNES classic A Link to the Past but with key differences: it is Ganondorf’s minions who swarm the area, and the statue of the Hero of Time is toppled.
Beneath the statue is a chamber that housed Master Sword, surrounded by stained glass windows of the sages saved by the Hero of Time, and who helped defeat Ganon. Despite Link’s personal stakes, Wind Waker is filled out with a rich backstory for fans to piece together once they discover Tetra’s true identity as Princess Zelda’s heir, and they set off to resurrect her and Link’s powers. In this very same chamber, the final act begins upon Link’s return.
After a somewhat tedious quest for the pieces of the Triforce of Courage, Link returns to the buried Hyrule with the restored Master Sword only to find Ganondorf has captured Tetra. A trap awaits him with two Darknuts, among the game’s most difficult enemies. The scenario tests familiarity with the game’s core swordplay, which has unique pacing for parrying enemies and they react depending on if you’ve struck their helmets, their armor, or their sword. Later games have expanded upon this swordplay, but the flow of this Z-targeted action feels concise and syncs with the game’s battle music with percussive hits in an adaptive soundtrack, creating some of the series’ most satisfying sword fights.
Once players trek Link up the hill into Ganon’s Tower, the bottom floor presents some simple item refreshers in the form of boss rush rooms. Following these retreads, Link moves on to the finale by ending business with Phantom Ganon. The ghost’s labyrinth combines the original Legend of Zelda’s dungeons with the mysterious maze structure of Ocarina’s Lost Woods. Following a chase through the maze whilst fighting Phantom Ganon and meticulously following the way his sword falls to the ground, Link finally finds the game’s most powerful item: the Light Arrow. One more encounter shows players how powerful the bow is, as it destroys Phantom Ganon in one hit. In its wake, the foreboding stairs leading to Ganondorf are scattered with Moblins and Darknuts to show that the Light Arrow has this powerful effect on any lesser enemy in the game.
Link finds Ganondorf and a sleeping Tetra in a high-ceiling chamber with a reflection pool on the floor and the villain monologues. Here, players get a glimpse of Ganondorf’s disillusionment centuries after the washing away of Hyrule. He sees Tetra’s dreams of oceans and conveys his spite for King Daphnes and the goddesses for taking Hyrule away, and patronizes the world’s current descendants.
“[The seas] yield no fish to catch… what can they possibly hope to achieve? Your Gods destroyed you.”
The scene builds upon Ganondorf’s characterization, clarifying that his only vision of the future exists in the past: wanting to remake the world how he once imagined it. His delusions cloud his ability to see Hyrule’s flooding was his own doing. Ganon’s specter grows to reveal a massive marionette—a boar is a puppet on strings from the rafters above. Puppet Ganon is the largest boss in the game and a three-phase fight. The third phase most directly reminisces the serpent Moldrum from A Link to the Past as he speedily slithers across the stage, but redesigned in a 3D perspective.
It is on the roof of the tower that the game culminates thematically. Ganon finally gathers all three pieces of the Triforce to grant his wish to the Gods. In a fit of reminiscing over the desert he was raised in, clearly the Gerudo Desert from Ocarina of Time, he muses between nostalgia, disdain, and then jealousy over Hyrule’s prosperity while the winds of fate stripped his world away from him twice over—one in a sea of sand, the other in an ocean.
In a moment when all seems lost in Link’s journey, King Daphnes—the King of Red Lions as he is known to the players—intervenes and makes a wish upon the Triforce before Ganon. The King recognizes his hubris and the devil he helped to create by preserving Hyrule under the ocean, thus creating an opening for Ganondorf’s return. When he sees his desires matching Ganondorf’s and that, eventually, it would destroy the lives in The Great Sea, King Daphnes makes the ultimate sacrifice with his wish upon the Triforce asking for the protection of the children of the new world.
The Triforce makes an ethereal response and the barrier over Hyrule begins to break, water cascading down from the ocean above them. Link and Tetra stir awake to fight him with the Master Sword and the Light Arrow and begin one of the most memorable final battles of the Zelda series begins.
Ganondorf, the King of Evil, is always very meticulously makes his plans to keep the Hero at bay, but this version is the smartest version of the character to date. Not only is this Ganondorf canonically the same as a past game, but he is also the one imprisoned in the sacred realm after already conquering Hyrule. Stewing in his anger and wisdom, Ganondorf returned in a rampage that caused the great flood.
He gathers girls with blonde hair and pointed ears from across the ocean until he found the heir to Princess Zelda. He destroyed the foundations of the Greatfish Isle in an attempt to keep Nayru’s Pearl from being found. The King of Evil also kew the Master Sword was the bane of his existence and stripped it of its power by sending demons to attack and kill the Earth and Wind sages that protected its power, and sealed away the Light Arrow within his keep. While Ganondorf historically used demons to corrupt the world, this wiser Ganondorf acts with rage and vengeance.
As his tower is surrounded by a torrent of seawater, utterly dooming him to drown with Hyrule, he does not merely duplicate Phantom Ganon’s attack style as he did in Ocarina. He uses two blades to defend himself, each engraved with the names Kotake and Koume, two legendary witches who were leaders of the Gerudo Tribe, and his surrogate mothers. In a final attempt to destroy his adversaries, he defends his wicked vision of Hyrule and the honor of his heritage with these swords.
Here, Ganondorf fights slowly and methodically, taking the time to laugh at Link as he recomposes. Players need to exercise patience, only using parries or striking head-on when Ganon is hit with Tetra’s light arrows. He quickly adjusts to the heroes’ strategies, striking Zelda down temporarily, dodging her light arrows, and moving his blades behind his back when Link tries to parry. It is only when Tetra wisely plans to use Link’s Mirror Shield to aim the Light Arrow at Link instead, reflecting it onto Ganon, that they find victory. With the evil king once again stunned, Link performs one final parry and cleaves the Master Sword into Ganon’s head. The villain turns to stone, becoming one with the foundation of Hyrule.
The King admits to Tetra and Link that he had been living in the past and was finally prepared to face it. In honor of his wish to the Triforce, he asks the two children to live for their future and shed the weights of Hyrule’s past, hoping his sacrifice will remove the burden. As he says goodbye, the water finally caves in above them. Link and Tetra are protected by the Triforce’s power. As they resurface, the King and Hyrule are lost to the haze of blue ocean depths. Link reaches out to the King, not wanting to lose his companion. The king raises his hand and lowers it, turning away the past and admitting his fate.
Link and Tetra awaken floating on the open ocean at sunrise as their friends greet them at a new dawn. As they allow the wind to guide them, future games hold to King Daphnes’ wish—they find a new world across the Great Sea and lay the foundations for New Hyrule, which players get to explore for themselves “centuries later” in the 2009 DS game The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks. Both DS games taking place after The Wind Waker feature different villains, meaning that this version of Ganon and Hyrule recalled from Ocarina of Time truly had their arc completed in The Wind Waker for the series’ Adult Timeline.
The final act of a game can make or break the player’s reflection on their journey. The cumulative tension that becomes Ganondorf’s last stand in The Wind Waker remains memorable for how it uses the franchise lore, the game’s visual language, and a perfect vertical slice of gameplay, resulting in an ending that has the most mature, thematically-tied resonance in any game in the series to date.
The Zelda team worked to make one of the most truly terrible and famous villains in video games not sympathetic, but empathic. His corrupt sense of pride, valor, and his wisdom are visible from his deeds in Ocarina of Time through to his bitter end as Hyrule is submerged in the bedrock of the ocean. Wind Waker not only gives new and returning players a rewarding scope and history of the franchise—it defines its story beyond a tale of good and evil, instead grappling with the fates of the future.
Featured image credit: Nintendo of America