With nineteen main games released over the course of over thirty years, The Legend of Zelda has managed to rack up quite the roster of villains. While Ganon ends up the chief antagonist more often than not, the series has never been shy about experimenting with new villains, either in the main antagonistic role or simply as preliminary villains before transitioning into Ganon. Taking into account that there are three distinct timelines all branching from an origin point with a shared history, this means villains who do appear quite often likewise feature many depictions. No two Ganondorfs are the same after all.
As the series jumps around between timelines quite a bit, this does mean that there isn’t a linear progression of power from villain to villain. Some are stronger, some are weaker. The many adventures of the may Links often have different stakes which necessitate villains of varying power. That isn’t to say things don’t get extreme, however. At their best, Zelda villains are downright intense. In an attempt to rank all the Zelda villains, it is important to cover some ground rules. Firstly, only villains who play an active role in the plot can be ranked; secondly, villains who are too weak to pose a threat to Link won’t be ranked; and lastly, no non-canon characters so say goodbye to anyone from Hyrule Warriors.
26 Lady Maud
It’s only fitting that the weakest villain in The Legend of Zelda would also be from the weakest game in the series: Tri-Force Heroes. When it comes down to it, Lady Maud is just your regular old woman. Sure, she can transform, but she never turns into anything particularly dangerous or noteworthy. Her battle itself is also fairly simple, offering little challenge for Link. It’s hard to believe that Lady Maud would be A Link Between Worlds’ Link after defeating Yuga. In that respect, she feels like a filler villain more than anything.
Although not a villain in the traditional sense, the Thunderbird does serve as Zelda II’s penultimate boss, acting as an antagonist of sorts for Link. While not malicious, the Thunderbird does challenge Link to a fearsome battle in order to deem him worthy of the Triforce of Courage. As a test, however, we can assume that the Thunderbird isn’t actually all that powerful. This is reflected in-game where, albeit a bit challenging, the Thunderbird isn’t actually too difficult to fight off should you arrive prepared.
24 Ganon (TLoZ)
The Legend of Zelda’s original Ganon isn’t all that powerful when it comes down to it, and it’s mainly because he isn’t the original Ganon. Rather, the first Ganon the series introduced us to was a Ganon at the end of his rope. Given where TLoZ falls in the timeline, it’s entirely possible that this is the Ganon who ends up becoming Calamity Ganon.
TLoZ’s Ganon is weak due to all his losses. He was defeated in A Link to the Past, the Oracle games, and even ALBW. He’s mindless at this point and only poses a threat to Hyrule on a violent scale. He’s incapable of intelligent thought and his forces exist solely to bring him back. That does make him a rather dangerous opponent, but nowhere near the strongest interpretation of the character.
23 Shadow Link (AoL)
A perfect counterpart of Zelda II’s Link, Shadow Link is about as strong as his non-shadow brethren. Given that both the Thunderbird and Ganon are rather weak villains, both of whom this Link defeated, we can assume that Shadow Link isn’t all that much stronger. Granted, he is one of the hardest final bosses in the series, but that doesn’t mean all too much in-universe.
There's darkness in us all.
What makes Shadow Link such a strong final boss is less that he’s challenging and more that he basically ambushes Link after he’s exhausted most of his resources fighting the Thunderbird. It’s not unrealistic to come into the final boss with virtually no magic or health. Other than that, Shadow Link is a pushover in a pushover’s generation.
As an extension of Ganon, it’s only natural Agahnim inherit some of his powers. Given the events of the first third of A Link to the Past, it’s safe to assume that Agahnim took just enough to thrust Hyrule into shambles, capturing seven maidens and even dethroning the king in a coup. Also, he manipulated the entire Hyrulean army. A bit more political than your average Zelda villain in that regard.
Once Link gets the Master Sword, though, that’s basically it for Agahnim. Unlike Ganon who can only be defeated with Silver Arrows at this point in the series, Agahnim is able to be fought back with just the Master Sword. In fact, all Link has to do is hit his magic back at him. In a fight, Agahnim isn’t all that threatening. It’s on the political scene where he shines.
The incarnation of evil in Spirit Tracks, Malladus doesn’t really hold a candle to Ganon at his best. Or even his most mediocre. It doesn’t help that Malladus is basically fueled by Cole, a villain so weak he couldn’t even make this list. In general, Malladus is also just kind of boring. He’s Ganon’s beast form but blue, and he’s defeated rather simply in-universe. Perhaps it’s a big enough challenge for Spirit Tracks Link, but Malladus is definitely middle of the road as far as main villains go. Even the shackles that bind him are pretty flimsy.
20 Ganondorf (OoT)
It’s important to remember that even before he gained the Triforce of Power, Ganondorf was quite the formidable foe. The King of the Gerudos, Ganondorf had access to Dark Magic long before the Goddesses chose to bless him. He’s able to stage a coup in Hyrule with only his natural Gerudo abilities.
Every villain has to start somewhere.
After the time skip, once he’s king, Ganondorf nearly obliterates both the Zora and Goron while also creating phantoms of himself to fight Link in the Forest Temple. Their final battle literally causes Ganon’s Tower to crumble and even the weight of his castle crushing him isn’t enough to defeat Ganondorf. He is a man beyond what men should be capable of.
19 Ganon (ALttP)
A Link to the Past is basically the last time Ganon has any semblance of intelligence, sentience, or free will in the Downfall Timeline and he puts that fact to great use. Despite being sealed away in the Sacred Realm, Ganon is basically able to turn the land of the Gods into the Dark World while also creating a proxy to overtake Hyrule in the Light World.
Link needs both the Master Sword and the Silver Arrows to ultimately fell him, and it takes a literal wish on the Triforce to restore the worlds to their former glory. Ganon basically did win for a time in ALttP, requiring Link use a mystical artifact to fix the world. Poor Ganon, though. It’s all downhill from here.
Lorule’s Ganon analog in A Link Between Worlds, Yuga is surprisingly far more competent than his counterpart, at least on a whole. Where Ganon continuously gets pushed back by Link, Yuga is able to use his smarts to actually manipulate Hilda into invading Hyrule. Had Ravio not given Link his bracelet, Yuga would have won roughly an hour into the game.
Beware the wrath of Yuganon.
This is to say nothing of the fact that Yuga is such a powerful sorcerer that he’s able to summon a mindless Ganon, merge with him, and ultimately control him for additional power. In that respect, Yuga becomes one of the strongest villains in the franchise. Of course, Link does push him back, but that’s just the danger of fusing with a mindless Ganon.
17 Vaati (FSA)
Chronologically, Vaati actually starts out quite strong, (and we’ll get to that,) but he constantly finds himself getting weaker after every major defeat. By Four Swords Adventures in the Child Timeline, Vaati is so weak that he can’t even muster enough strength to be the final boss. Of course, this is weakness relative to his heights. Compared to other villains, Vaati is still overwhelmingly powerful at his absolute worst, capable of using genuinely twisted and bizarre magic exclusive to him.
The main antagonist of Oracle of Ages, Veran is the weaker of the Oracle villains, but her magic is capable of influencing time in a legitimately intense manner. Her influence on time absolutely shatters the foundation of the world, forcing Link to shift plans just to so much as gain a lead on her. While their final duel itself is nothing to write home about, Veran is like Agahnim in that her powers are more dangerous in regards to the world at large and not in the individual sense. She does still pose a serious a threat, more so than most villains, but Link arrives rather prepared for her.
15 General Onox
The same can’t be said for General Onox. Oracle of Seasons’ main villain, Onox is known for being one of the tougher antagonists in the franchise, causing many the player a great deal of stress in his final battle with Link. Where Veran is proficient at magic, Onox is an absolute powerhouse, using his brute force to demolish everything in his path. He hits hard and takes an extreme amount of damage before falling. He’s rather unique in that sense, being a villain who relies almost exclusively on his own strength to take on Link.
14 Vaati (FS)
Although Vaati can be dealt with rather reliably given how short of a game Four Swords is, Vaati’s depiction in said game isn’t nearly as pitiful as in Four Swords Adventures. He’s the real deal this time around even if he’s not as strong as he can be. His magic is far more fearsome, and the threat he poses over Hyrule is quite real. The Anniversary Edition remake even gives Vaati to presumably alter the very fabric of time, thrusting Link into levels that reference future timelines before the timeline ever even branched. Vaati’s a magician unlike any other.
13 Ganondorf II
Ganondorf II is an interesting character in that he is direct proof that the cycle of reincarnation can indeed put Ganon’s soul into another being also named Ganon. That said, Ganondorf II is not the original Ganondorf and is instead a descendant. Following Ganondorf’s defeat in Twilight Princess, it’s presumed that Ganondorf II is his next reincarnation.
Don't let Ganondorf II end up a one-off villain.
As a villain, Ganondorf II isn’t really hurting more power. It takes four Links just to defeat him and he’s even able to bring Vaati into his control, a villain that should, by all intents and purposes, be stronger than him. It’s genuinely a shame Ganondorf II was one and done in a single game as there’s so much potential in a character like him.
Ghirahim, like Ganondorf II, only appears in one game, but he actually does manage to leave a lasting impact, living up to all his possible potential. For a huge chunk of the game, Ghirahim is Skyward Sword’s chief antagonist. He’s the one who actively fights against Link and he even exists as a rival in that respect.
The battles with Ghirahim are particularly great as they show Link getting stronger over the course of the journey. At first, Ghirahim is almost impossibly, overwhelmingly strong- which he indeed is. It’s only until the end where the two are evenly matched and even their final battle is quite challenging. Ghirahim’s hyper-competence keeps Link’s on his toes for the entirety of his adventure.
The single thing that keeps Bellum so high up on this list is the fact that he’s invincible. It takes Link crafting a special sword just to be able to damage him. Otherwise, Bellum would be able to terrorize the world to his heart’s content. Of course, there is the little caveat of Bellum potentially not even being real, but The Legend of Zelda has always been iffy on the concept of existence. Bellum is literally invincible and Link just has to deal with that.
10 Ganon (OoX)
Despite being Ganon at his absolute lowest point with no capability for intelligent or meaningful thought, Ganon in both Oracle of Ages and Oracle of Seasons is downright ferocious. In losing his mind completely, Ganon has tapped into power far more intense than the series ever depicted him with.
True power is mindless.
No matter how hard he tries, Link will also fail to stop Twinrova’s ritual in the Linked game, resulting in him needing to fight off Ganon. This is easily one of the hardest fights in the franchise, absolutely necessitating a full set of hearts and the best sword upgrades. Without either, Ganon will absolutely tear Link apart.
9 Vaati (TMC)
Vaati, like Ganon, is the kind of villain who tends to get weaker with every reincarnation. Although, unlike Ganon, he doesn’t reincarnate so much as he does just persist in another realm before coming back to fight the next incarnation of Link. That said, while he keeps getting weaker, his chronological first appearance posed a massive threat.
While The Minish Cap’s plot is rather light on stakes, Vaati is easily one of the hardest final bosses in the series with multiple forms to wade through. In and out of universe, Link just can’t get a break. Every time it seems like Vaati’s done for, he comes back stronger than ever. At the end of the game, Link doesn’t even permanently defeat him, leaving it to the next spirit of the hero to fail that job.
Even if Zant doesn’t end up living up to all his potential, he’s still one of the more dangerous villains in the franchise. Absolutely manic and filled with a mix of Ganondorf’s dark magic and his own Twilight powers, it’s no surprise when Zant manages to basically single-handedly take over Hyrule without so much as a struggle.
Madness thy name is Zant.
For Link to ultimately defeat Zant, he ends up relying on basically every skill he’s acquired up to that point, even busting out old weapons for their duel. Zant is genuinely so hard to keep up with as an opponent, that making an educated read on him is basically impossible. At the end of the game, it’s even implied that Zant maintained some semblance of life in the afterlife.
7 Ganondorf (TWW)
This Ganondorf may not be able to turn into Ganon anymore, but he’s also the version of the character who comes the closest to actually winning. In fact, he does win. Before the final fight can even start, he knocks out Link and prepares to make his wish on the Triforce. If Daphnes hadn’t teleported in at the last minute, Ganondorf would have claimed Hyrule for himself.
In the final battle itself, Link just barely manages to beat him, requiring Zelda to keep him distracted long enough for him to deal the final blow. As a swordsman, Ganondorf is better than he’s ever been, throttling Link and barely giving him a chance to attack. Without Zelda there, Link would never have been able to beat Ganondorf.
6 Ganondorf (TP)
While it makes sense for the older and wiser Ganondorf of The Wind Waker to be the stronger of the pair, all signs point to Twilight Princess’ Ganondorf being far more powerful. Where Ganondorf in TWW was an extremely competent swordsman, TP Ganondorf is resilient, tackling everything Link throws at him in an endurance match.
What's a hero to a king?
Plus, this Ganondorf can still turn into Ganon while maintaining his sentience. Not only that, he’s able to fight Link twice over after ditching the Triforce of Power and he’s even implied to be invincible. It takes Link piercing him through a mystical wound to actually end the fight. Even then, it takes Zant snapping his neck from the afterlife to actually take out Ganondorf. This is a man who just will not give up.
5 Ganon (OoT)
In what should have been Ganondorf’s defeat in Ocarina of Time, the Prince of Darkness awakens the Triforce of Power’s latent abilities, transforming him into the beast Ganon. Immediately, Ganon knocks the Master Sword out of Link’s hands leaving the Hero of Time defenseless. While players will likely get their blade back before long, Link suffered a rather intense fate in another timeline.
In the unseen Downfall Timeline, this is actually where Link ultimately falls in battle. Upon losing the Master Sword, Ganon presumably took the Hero of Time’s life, prompting Zelda and the Sages to seal Ganon as he was into the Sacred Realm. As of BotW, OoT Ganon is the only villain to personally defeat a Link.
It may be odd to see what is effectively the antagonist of side game so high on this list, but DethI is genuinely one of the strongest villains in the series. The host of all of Koholint Island’s Nightmares, DethI is what effectively gives the Island sentience. It has infected the Wind Fish’s dream, but it’s also what’s keeping that dream alive.
DethI's your worst Nightmare.
Without DethI, as seen at the end of the game, the Island would disappear and Koholint would cease to exist. DethI is almost ethereal in that regard, giving life to where there was none. He also poses Link a serious challenge, featuring many forms and even tapping into Link’s subconscious for the final battle. It’s also debatable whether or not he can even be defeated given he’s more of a concept than a being.
3 Calamity Ganon
Despite a freshly woken up Link being able to rush Calamity Ganon and defeat him minutes after getting the paraglider, the existence of a true ending in Breath of the Wild seems to imply a different set of events. Specifically, the canonical ending of the game involves Link: completing all the dungeons, obtaining the Master Sword, and regaining his memory.
As a result, this means that Link isn’t able to canonically defeat Calamity Ganon until the Champions fire their Divine Beasts at him, Link has access to the Blade of Evil’s bane, and fully understands his purpose. Plus, just the fact that Calamity Ganon was able to defeat the main heroes 100 years in the past is proof enough that he’s one of the strongest villains in the franchise.
Even though Link ultimately does defeat Majora in their final fight, (with the use of the Fierce Deity mask in-canon,) Majora technically isn’t actually beaten by the end of the game. Majora’s Mask is simply a host for whatever “Majora” is, whether that be a singular entity, a deity, or a tribe. At the end of the game, there’s no indication that whatever was embodying Majora’s Mask is truly gone.
Keep in mind Majora would have won if Link couldn't literally control the flow of time.
The threat is gone, of course, but that’s only because Link subdued the mask, cutting off its hold on the Moon. It’s entirely possible that if someone like the Skull Kid came into possession of the mask again that it would come back to life with a vengeance. More importantly, Majora is one of the few entities in the series to actually threaten the world on a global scale. It is an inherent threat.
It is almost horrifying just how powerful Demise actually is. Despite going into the final fight with a complete Triforce, something not a single Link has managed to make their own in any other game in the series, Link still struggles in his duel with Demise. This isn’t due to Link’s incompetence either; he’s easily one of the best swordsmen in the series. Demise is just that good.
When it comes down to it, like is the case with Majora, Link doesn’t even really defeat Demise. As soon as he strikes the final blow, Link gets locked into a reincarnation cycle where he, Zelda, and Demise reincarnate eternally so he and Link can do battle for the rest of their lives. Demise cannot be defeated. He will not be defeated. He is evil incarnate.