I've got kind of a confession to make here: I'm DEFINITELY a fan of the monsters in the Zelda universe, but I've probably played less than half of a single Zelda game. I don't know what it is that's always stopped me, but back in the 80's, this was just another of those games I spent more time drawing and reading about than actually playing. It was the monsters, of course, that captured my attention the most, and I read their single-sentence profiles in the original game manual dozens of times over. I spent hours doodling them on paper, sculpting them out of modeling clay, even making up my own stories where Tektites and Octoroks were major heroes instead of mindless mooks.
Of course, if you've read much of this site, none of this really comes as a surprise at all. I've always been a bigger fan of the creative side of games than games themselves, and while you can certainly find a wealth of information on the Zelda series and its monsters, it's not often I've seen anyone sit down and really pick them apart as designs.
SO LET'S START WITH THE OCTOROK
Why wouldn't we? The Octorok remains one of the most distinct and recognizable creatures in the franchise, and in fact, the very first monster Link can ever possibly encounter here in the very first game; the Goomba of the Zelda franchise, sort of. A giant octopus that not only walks around on land is a simple concept, but this giant octopus also fires rocks out of its mouth at deadly velocity, which is just unexpected enough to be immediately iconic. The original manual art does not, however, do much justice to the Octorok's in-game sprite, which is almost more bug-like and emphasizes a huge, tubular, gun-like siphon. This makes significantly more sense than the boulder simply flying from the throat of a gaping toothy maw, though on the other hand, it's not half as funny.
Now, around the time this game debuted, at least a couple different third-party strategy guides showd up in Japan with their own completely original sets of artwork, and we're going to use the Octorok as an example of their different styles, but there's only one we're going to look at through most of this article...and you'll see why.
This Octorok came to use from Kadokawa Shoten publishing, and as you can see, this book didn't vary a whole lot from Nintendo's own artwork. If you're still curious to see its take on every monster, then you'll want to check out the Game Art Gallery section over at History of Hyrule, where you can also see the remaining art from our other two guides!
One of those other two came to us by Million Publishing, and this one we're also going to skip for the most part, because they basically just traced over the in-game sprites. Cute and fun, but nothing artistically ambitious...
...Certainly not like this off-the-wall interpretation of the Octorok as some sort of dinosaur-frog-head with tentacle legs. This game guide was published by a company going only by "3," as I understand it, and whoever designed its monsters often took startling liberty with their designs, someone I imagine would have rather been concocting creatures for their own original project. A kindred spirit. Almost every one of 3's monsters will be worth showing off here; when they aren't, they're still pretty nice illustrations, so be sure to hit up that History of Hyrule link and thank Melora for doing all the real work.
Leevers are a personal favorite of mine, creatures who tunnel up from the soil, constantly spin, supposedly "drain energy" from their victims, and most importantly of all, don't look like anything. They're scaly, warty gumdrops with four "horns" or "blades" and that's it. They're like one of those abstract Ediacaran fossils we find and can't place into any particular phylum, and I feel like that's something of a lost art when it comes to video game monsters.
It will be pretty rare that my favorite version actually comes from Kadokawa Shoten, but their Leevers are actually the most intriguing to me, retaining the simplicity while turning the "spikes" into feathery antennae.
"3 Game Guide," meanwhile, gives the Leever what appears to be a mouth on the top of its body, and I can't say I'm a fan of Leevers with any obvious, readable anatomy. It's cool, but it feels almost too believable, like this Leever is basically just a big sea cucumber.
A recognizable "mouth" would sadly become a norm for Leevers in later titles, and in some cases, they would appear to be the head ends of larger, burrowing worms or even flower-like carnivorous plants. None of these concepts are anywhere near as interesting as the Leever being its own distinct, oddly shaped, energy-draining animal, but I do appreciate some aspects of this one from the N64 games. It's not too plantlike, not too wormlike. Still not my favorite, but certainly not bad.
The peahat has a lot in common with the Leever, to the point that it was probably just modified from the same base. This whirling gumdrop, however, is said to be a "flower ghost" in the original game manual. I'm sure the original Japanese was just "obake" rather than "ghost," which is not the same thing, but I still like the idea that maybe the souls of dead plants become helicopter-pineapples of death. I also really like the name "peahat." It's the kind of quirky, cute thing we really name some plants and animals, whether or not they can fly and chop our heads off.
In the Peahat's case, I don't really have a favorite among newer incarnations, but they're all more or less decent. I kinda miss the simple fuzzy, yellow cone with a big white daisy on top, but these are a;; some pretty cool vegetable UFO's, and that last one from Twilight Princess is even kinda "friendly!" You can use them to swing across gaps and they never try to harm you. Maybe they're finally at peace with their afterlife.
3 Game Guide's peahat, however, is the coolest of them all; it has the cute, white flower petals, but the rest is an entirely unpleasant, gelatinous mass of boils and cilia. Maybe not the kind of thing people would give a pretty name like "peahat," but it goes darker and grittier without losing the spirit of the concept.
Perhaps the other most iconic monster in the franchise after Octoroks, Moblins are Zelda's go-to monstrous humanoids - the "orcs" or "trolls" or, obviously, "goblins" of Hyrule - but with a mix of pig-like and bulldog-like characters. I always loved just how sad the original Moblin looks, like it really doesn't want to be doing what it's doing, but maybe it really doesn't know any other way of life.
If you think THAT'S precious, though...
3's Moblin, as you can see, retains the original gloominess of the Manual Moblin in an even lazier, dumpier, goblinier monster than ever, and one that would have to waddle around like a fat, piggish penguin to get anywhere. This thing seems like it would fall over and fall asleep just as soon as it might run you through with its spear...or like it would do all the three in practically one action. A relatable evil minion and obviously one of the most huggable things on this page, provided it's in too lazy a mood to bite your arms off first, which is probably common enough that a hug is worth the risk.
So in real life, a "Tektite" is a tiny hunk of glass expelled by a meteor strike. In Hyrule, a Tektite is a leaping, four-limbed eyeball with a chitinous looking shell. I rather like that the original artwork, once again, does not resemble any particular kind of animal. It's just a shelled eye with four spindly, clawed limbs. Frankly almost perfect.
This perfection would be lost in subsequent appearances, which almost always make the Tektites into arthropods. Yes, I love arthropods, but here it feels so obvious that I'm sharing it more to complain about it than anything else. The original Tektite felt like something stranger than just a one-eyed crustacean, and our two favorite strategy guides seemed to understand that:
Kadokawa Shoten's Tektite loses the single, giant eye and isn't really as cute, but I still respect the four-eyed ogre head they're going for here. It's spider-like, but still not just an actual "bug."
...And then, there's 3's take on it. Look at that. That is beautiful. It's even less like a bug than the original, and now some sort of slimy-skinned eye creature whose giant eyeball houses multiple, stalked lenses. An absolutely magnificent design, and just plain well-illustrated. Who DID these?!
The last common "overworld" monster we'll be looking at, Zora is a simple humanoid fish monster who pops its head out from the water and spits at passersby, impossible to defeat without a ranged attack.
Weirdly, the 3-d Zelda titles would reinvent the Zora as a whole civilization of largely peaceful fish-people, while sprite-based Zelda games would continue to feature the more monstrous, spitting variety as "river Zoras." I'm glad, at least, that the goofy, friendly varieties still include some more fish-like individuals.
Our first underworld-only monster, "Bubble" is an awfully cute, nonthreatening name for a floating, flaming skull, though in some games, the bubble doesn't even cause damage; its touch just renders you unable to wield your sword or use other items for a period of time.
3 takes the "bubble" a bit more literally, but that's also a whole lot more interesting. An actual mass of bubbles as a monster is something I haven't seen nearly as often as flaming, floating skulls, and it's even more interesting that these bubble-creatures render you powerless, as though whatever they're made of is incredibly sickening.
"Armos" is easily the most boring "monster" in the game, at least in the official artwork. The manual states them to be soldiers transformed into stone statues who spring to life when touched, but the sprite makes them appear to have one big, giant eye, and in later games, they're treated as a sort of magical "robot" or armored golem.
Darknut, likewise, is pretty much just a guy in a suit of armor, and unlike Armos, Darknut seems to stay that way. Never really a monster, always just...a Knight. At least its name is funny.
Another enemy that's not really my thing, Goriya is basically just a dog man who throws boomerangs, or maybe he's a fox. A badger? I do like the big mustache, anyway, that's cute!
Not content to just draw a furry and call it a day, 3 Game Guide gives the Goriya an awesome animal skull mask - or head? - and accidentally invents Marowak almost two decades before Pokemon.
VIRE & KEESE
"Keese" are some of the first enemies you ever encounter in a dungeon setting, and they're really just a funny Hyrule name for big, aggressive bats. You'll later run into their "masters," or maybe mothers, I don't know; fat, four-eyed gargoyles called Vire. When you kill a Vire, it somehow splits into a couple of Keese, but why would you want to? They look just cool and menacing in the artwork, sure, but in the sprite, just look at how much fun they're having!
3's Vire is exceptionally nice, with bony, spindly fingers, flabby legs and a wickedly cool, divided eyelid structure rather than vanilla-style multiple eyes. You can see how this artist really made these monsters their own with little details like these.
Our last really bland one, even 3 doesn't do anything noteworthy to save poor Lynel from mediocrity. In a game with things like Peahats and Vires, a centaur man that's also a lion man isn't much to write home about.
3, at least, does quite a bit more justice to Lynel with a face more like a skinned baboon, feet almost off of an insect and weapons seemingly fused directly to its arms!
But then, there's Wizzrobe, which is an interesting little guy because, originally, I'm sure most of us kids assumed he just had glowing eyes peering out of a darkened hood. Even the manual artwork looked that way, since it was kind of oversaturated and dark, but zoomed in like this you can clearly see the little goblinoid nose, and then...something funny happened:
For whatever reason, some larger, cleaner versions of the same Nintendo artwork replaced Wizzrobe's nose with a bird beak. Was this actually the original? Did it get redrawn and misunderstood? I have no idea, but I definitely like Wizzrobe better as a horrible, robed bird-wizard, and apparently so did Nintendo, since later, 3-d Wizzrobes would sometimes take on even more overtly avian forms. In some games they're even giant toucan people.
Every fantasy setting has to have skeletons, of course, but The Legend of Zelda has to give everything its own weird, original name, so an animated skeleton is specifically called a "Stalfos." I always liked that. Reanimated corpses get names like "zombie" or "ghoul" or "revenant" in other stuff so why were skeletons always just "skeletons?"
As usual, 3 Game Guide goes a few steps farther, making the Stalfos into a strangely proportioned bone monster instead of just a human skeleton, although it's entirely possible the artist just didn't have the patience to draw every bone in the human body.
Our next undead with its own funny nickname is what we would usually call a "mummy," but once again I really like giving the undead version a name all its own. It's not as if the word "mummy" actually specifies something wrapped in bandages anyway.
Better yet, Game Guide Gibdo pushes weirdness even farther than the Stalfos. This was either never human or significantly warped by whatever magic reanimated its remains, now with eerie branch-like arms and eyes as oddly skewed as a flatfish. This thing may not even be "mummified," just bandaged for some totally different reason.
The last of our undead are the "Ghini," what we would usually just think of as "ghosts," which sometimes hide in gravestones until Link blunders into them. It's interesting how the sprite, and in fact all subsequent Ghini sprites, obviously has only one eye, but the manual artist gives the Ghini two of them.
Child's play, says Game Guide artist:
I feel like this, without a doubt, is the single raddest piece of art in this series. That one eye shining behind at least a dozen sockets is an AWESOME visual and it's nicely framed by that big, tattered smile. I also really like just how high up those spooky little hands are on its overall "body," and the whole thing really just reminds me of the better designs from the Ghostbusters cartoon. It feels downright criminal that this artist, whoever they may have been, never got a job redesigning enemies for actual Zelda titles.
ZOL & GEL
You gotta have slimes! Working just like Vire and Keese, a single fat Zol will split into two Gels when it's been damaged enough. In-game, they look like cute, simple goo blobs but I always loved the heck out of their manual artwork. The level of attention to these dripping, waxy details is just lovely, and I remember trying over and over to copy them down perfectly as a kid...though I actually missed the presence of their eyes for the longest time.
Sadly, this is one time 3's mystery artist falls shorter than Nintendo's chosen illustrator. This is certainly some very pretty looking ooze, but where's the personality? Maybe if they'd just included the eyes somewhere, I'd feel differently.
Sometimes, nothing brightens a child's day quite like a little grotesque sadism, and the eyes of many players practically lit up when they stepped into a roomful of poor Dodongos; giant, subterranean dinosaurs so dumb that you could defeat them by planting a bomb in front of their face and watching them swallow it. An enemy created almost entirely to suffer an almost comically horrifying weakness.
Once again I might have expected a bit stranger from 3's Dodongo, but I guess the Ghini spoiled me. This is certainly still quite cool, it has a really cute, sad sort of eye placement I like, and its anatomy really looks like something that evolved like a triceratops or a rhinoceros without actually being either kind of animal.
Poor Patra. A flock of simple, fly-winged eyeballs is a darling visual, but this is one of the few monsters to never again reappear in a Zelda game. There are certainly many other eyeball creatures in the Zelda franchise, even other flying and swarming eyeball creatures, but none are exactly Patra. How can you not love these?!
3-Guide Patra still isn't as charming as just a plucked-out human eye with insect wings on it, but they did make an effort to come up with something distinctive. For whatever reason, I'm inclined to find eyeball creatures slightly less cute the more flesh they have around the main event - the eye - but this certainly isn't a bad job.
You can't go wrong with just a big, deadly earthworm. Especially not when you're programming an 8-bit video game and a big, deadly earthworm means you can just slap a series of orbs in a row and call it a day. It's got a great name though, doesn't it? I'm not sure if it's supposed to really be "mold" or "molder" and "worm" slapped together since none of the other monsters have that sort of naming convention, but it sounds like it, and it's pretty satisfying to say.
One-upping Nintendo once more, 3's Moldorm appears to have an eye in the back of its fancy new tooth-lined maw, which is great. You all know how I feel about eyes in mouths. The segmentation is also kind of interesting, like each segment is fairly tough and solid, but with stretchy, soft flesh connecting them together. This sort of nicely illustrates the in-game mechanic you've probably already guessed; that you can hack Moldorms apart into smaller and smaller pieces that just keep slithering around.
We're now getting into boss and mini-boss territory, and naturally, they had to include at least one dragon-like enemy, though Aquamentus is only ever referred to as a unicorn in game text. Personally I've always been a fan of the more goat-like but brutally vicious unicorns in older folklore, but the idea of a unicorn as a scaly dragon is also pretty cool.
I really like 3's Aquamentus though, it's somehow both much more dragon-like but also much more unicorn-like, and it just has a lot of character.
Our other, more full-blown dragon boss is also totally just a knockoff of King Ghidora, what with its Wyvern body, three heads and classical Eastern dragon faces. Not really my kind of thing, but it's really cool - and creepy! - that its heads can actually come off and still keep attacking.
3's Gleeok is much more to my taste, with its big, fishy, almost adorable eyes and toadlike, diseased looking body. The blisters and the slimier-looking skin, to me, just mesh better with its undying heads, right? I just kinda associate "regenerating" creatures more with that sort of amphibian gooiness than anything else.
I also appreciate how closely related this Gleeok looks to the Aquamentus.
I kinda think of Ghoma as one of the "main" bosses of the original Zelda, though I'm not entirely sure way. Maybe it's just the simplicity, or the fact that it feels like a giant grown-up Tektite. I do love the original artwork's lovely eye, complete with lashes. That's adorable!
For once, it's Kadokawa Shoten's Ghoma that runs hog-wild, truly resembling a more monstrous, mutated take on their Tektites with unsettlingly lopsided eyes and crab-like pincers sticking straight up from its globular head. This is downright terrifying, and fits in well with the eeriness of other Underworld entities.
It feels kind of disappointing, then, how little 3 decided to stray from the source this time, though I really like how concave the entire eye seems to be, something that occurs in the natural world in only certain deep-sea organisms. This obviously wouldn't have been something readily known to the artist, but it accidentally makes perfect sense for a monster that lives in limited light conditions!
Kind of an upgrade of Moldorm, Lanmola's artwork also makes it look remarkably like a relative of Ghoma, whose sprite at least looks like the Tektites, so I always assumed they were all part of one genus or maybe even one species. As one of the larger monsters, it's also another I always thought of as the very face of the franchise, despite the fact that it's very rarely ever reappeared.
Lanmola is another case where the Kadokawa art is my favorite. It's fundamentally almost the same creature, but it looks significantly more like a giant silverfish than anything else, and that's awesome. When something has a single, eerie eye I'm also a big fan of that eye being completely red.
3 Game Guide Lanmola is also pretty interesting, not my favorite of the three we've seen, but the blunt, chitinous spikes protecting its eyeball are a nice detail, and I like the legs made up of almost spherical joints as well as the sore, angry color scheme.
One of my favorites, Digdogger is describes as a "giant urchin," but it's an urchin with a lot of thorns, tentacles and a single eyeball. Perhaps surprisingly though, I'm not quite as into its artwork as I am its sprite. I think the smaller eye is a little cooler, making the monster feel like something more than just a big eyeball, and what I REALLY love are the spines arranged in a semicircle...like a smile!
Kadokawa Shoten's Digdogger is alright I guess, but it also lacks the smile, and it's sort of a knockoff of Backbeard from Gegege no Kitarou. At least that eye is wonderfully frightening.
3's fleshy blob is the coolest interpretation if I had to pick one, I guess, but they didn't care about the happy smile either, even replacing the spines with a scattering of smaller eyes. I guess this is just one monster still best represented in 8-bit pixels. Does that mean I have to turn to Million Publishing and its sprite-traces?
ET TU, Million!? Really?!! NOBODY saw the jolly cyclops face that I did? What do you all have against Digdogger's happiness!? LET. HIM. SMILE.
...At least Digdogger would get to do something even cuter in a rare reappearance. Oracle of Seasons Digdogger isn't too remarkable at first glance, but upon taking enough damage, it actually splits apart into multiple little googly-eyed, walking urchins I just positively love to pieces. You might think I find a scary one-eyed monster cooler than an adorable two-eyed version, but you're surprisingly off base there. Still, you can't have one without the other here; the little goofball doggers and their single giant form are each dramatically improved by the very existence of the other.
Here he is, the utter bastard, the most hated enemy of the original game and significantly disliked wherever it has reared its ugly head...hand...self. Why it's called "Wallmaster," we still don't really know, but this enemy exists exclusively to grab Link and carry him all the way back to the beginning of the damn dungeon. Wonderfully insidious, and just plain weird as heck.
Wallmaster remains a simple, monstrous, severed hand in all but 3's illustration; here, a fleshy sucker-like base implies that Wallmaster is naturally only hand-shaped...and an EYE on the tip of every finger indicates that it's a more superficial resemblance, that what we're seeing is just a five-eye-stalked monster that's like a hand. Superb.
Another favorite, Manhandla has an excellent name that, like many of my favorite names, barely has anything to do with what Manhandla actually is. Its so-called "hands" are a bunch of snapping, beaky mouths, arranged evenly around a fleshy, dome-shaped body with dozens of squirming little root-legs. It's actually referred to as a gigantic "flower," and it looks like truly no other plant monster I've ever seen. I especially appreciate the fact that it is not green, which would absolutely be the case for a completely subterranean carnivorous plant!
3 decides to swap Manhandla's ghostly blue for purple, drop the teeth in favor of just rubbery, gaping beaks, and add a clump of eyes to a blobbier, more stalk-like core. It's an interesting take worth sharing, though in all honesty, not as cool looking to me as the original. As for any later game appearances...well...they all pretty much make it more overtly plant-like, sometimes even green, and that is totally totally boring in comparison to my horrible blue mouth-flower. I guess I'm a real purist for this one.
I like Like-Like. Who wouldn't? It's got an adorable name and it looks like a big stack of donuts. The manual artwork is kind of nondescript, but you can see how it's basically a cup-shaped fleshy glob with lots of little eyes and veins, and what's fascinating about this monster is that it eats your damn shield. It doesn't WANT to hurt you and it doesn't eat anything else, but it sucks you in and spits you out minus your only defense against the attacks of countless other monsters. I guess this makes Like-Like the Hyrulean equivalent to D&D's Rust Monsters, though I always wondered how the heck it actually even identifies "shields" well enough to eat nothing else. Are all shields made of the same material that these things just so happen to feed on? Shouldn't they be made out of something else, then, or is it just THAT good for making shields? Maybe it's simply that they really love metal, and Link's shield is often the largest concentration of metal he carries around? If that's the case, shouldn't they also eat swords, or do they not like the sharp edges?
3's Like-Like is another one worth sharing, but not quite as interesting to me as the original. The addition of teeth just seems unnecessary to me, but I do like the color scheme, the red scales with yellow frills, and the more anemone-like fleshy base.
And here it is, my favorite monster in the game. What's not to love? From the sprite, it just seems as if some sort of giant, awful rabbit is one of Hyrule's grisly dungeon-dwellers, but in more "life like" detail we see that this is absolutely not a rabbit, probably not even a real mammal. It's just a thing. An awful, sickly yellow, fleshy lump with giant, goofy ears and whiskers that probably help it find prey in the darkness, and I especially love those terrible little close-set eyes.
The name, too, is a point of fascination for me. Who is "Pol?" Why was this monster named after Pol's "Voice?" It's kind of a hint that these creatures are actually vulnerable to sound, and could be instantly defeated by blowing or shouting into the Japanese Famicom's microphone. America's Nintendo Entertainment System, unfortunately, didn't include the microphone, so the manual's hint that "Pol's Voice hates loud noise" was useless to us.
Kadokawa Shoten's got an excellent take on this creature, emphasizing its bag-like blobbiness, looking all the more like some terrible rabbity Mollusk.
3 Guide Pol's Voice, on the other hand, I've got mixed feelings about. The fur seems a little conventional, as does the presence of a recognizable mouth beneath its eyes. On the other hand, it's still quite monstrous looking, its seemingly boneless maw and flabby jowls nicely contrasting the cuter expectations we might have from the in-game graphic.
Another Pol's voice I'd like to talk about actually doesn't come from any of the strategy guides, but from an otherwise underwhelming Zelda Board Game I found at a thrift shop sometime in the 90's, actually during a vacation to Ocean City Maryland with my parents. This single cardboard tile of Pol's Voice is all I've got left of it, but I've held onto it all this time in a scrapbook. This, to me, is the best looking Pol's Voice and the illustration I keep going back to when I think about this monster. I guess the more human-like eyes stand out to me as extra creepy, the body looks gooier and blobbier than usual, and I even love how the whiskers are a radiating fan of fleshier-looking tendrils, less like literal mammalian whiskers.
The bad news is, Pol's Voice has reappeared only a couple measly times in this series. The good news is, its first and only 3-d incarnation showed off where its mouth really is:
HELL YEAH do I like Pol's Voice with one big, gigantic mouth under it! No wonder it attacks by leaping!! Why isn't this creature of utter supreme beauty not in EVERY Zelda game?! Why can't I just be one of these in Smash Brothers? Why can't I be one of these for real?
Anyway, we've got only one monster left from the original game, and you guessed it, it's the main villain!
Poor, poor Ganon. When this franchise started up, he was just an evil wizard who happened to look like a gigantic pig, and that was pretty cool. It wasn't an animal we were really expecting for the form of a fantasy villain we were supposed to find frightening, but it worked, beautifully, and made it seem like maybe he was the same species as the Moblins, to boot.
If you're reading this, of course, you probably know that Ganon was later reimagined as the more humanoid Ganondorf, and given a more complex, sometimes sympathetic backstory. I've got mixed feelings about this, and really wish pig-monster Ganon was still prominent, but it is at least recognized as a dark magical "beast form" Ganon takes, so that's pretty cool.
3 Game Guide, and many other books, actually opted to leave Ganon entirely unseen...but not the guide by Kudokawa Shoten Publishing, the one so often shown up by 3's kickass illustrator.
And what, exactly, did Kudokawa Shoten think we were looking at in those roughly pig-shaped pixels?