Forgetting trailers, toys and boxart, my first glimpse of a Guardian is a ruined chassis outside the temple of time. Rusted, overgrown with moss, the once-mighty machine is more like a terracotta artefact unearthed by Tony Robinson. These ruins are ubiquitous throughout Breath of the Wild’s Hyrule, marking the sites of historic battles and giving Link an opportunity to get a good look at their intricate design.
These burned out husks establish the canonical significance of the Guardians, but it is slightly later, on the approach to Ja Baij Shrine that I took notice of them. As I got close to one, it sprung to life. The light winked on, and the most terrifying and tense music kicked in. A laser sight tracked Link whichever way he ran. Just in time, I ducked behind cover before the explosive force of the laser beam came at me.
At this stage in the game, the Guardian is more or less untouchable. Like the War Machines of HG Wells’ War of the Worlds, they stride over the countryside on their tentacular legs as though the feudal weaponry is nothing to them. Their red eye focuses on Link and they pursue like a Terminator. Among Hyrule’s copious rogues gallery, the Guardians are something else entirely.
One early expedition to Hyrule Castle is one of the most ominous, terrifying experiences in all of gaming. They unnatural movements and constant threat of the Guardians is oppressive. The burned out shells of towns and homes are apocalyptic. Smoke rolls over the land and searchlights sweep from the sky. How is a young man with a sword supposed to overcome all of this?
Videogame villains are the stars of the show. Much more so than even television’s Daleks and cinema’s Stormtroopers. In an action game, where player is cameraman, enemies are constantly centre of the frame. Even in third person, a player can’t afford, no matter how lovingly it is crafted, to keep their eye on their character’s bum but must look ahead to the next enemy or obstacle.
For this reason, the pantheon of game enemies from Pac-Man’s ghosts and Mario’s goombas, through all of Doom’s demonic horde, are burned forever into memory. Even among this memorable array of beasties, baddies and buff dudes, there is a top tier of unforgettable villains.
These are the Black Knights of Dark Souls and the Big Daddies of Bioshock. These are the monsters who haunt our nightmares, the one constant, the at first insurmountable obstacle that acts as a tangible marker of game progress. Like the flagship beasts in the best Monster Hunter games, sometimes what at first feels like a force of nature is slowly understood, then matched and finally tamed.
This, too, is the fate of the Guardian. After a desperately tense mission to transport a blue flame, made more difficult by rain and monsters as well as the watchful eye of another injured Guardian, I unlocked the glowing blue arrows seen in that first E3 reveal. Suddenly, with a brave forward assault and a well placed shot to the eye, I could kill the bastards. It cost me an expensive, limited arrow but they didn’t feel invincible any more.
From there, I began to toy and tease at them. Some shields will reflect the laser, destroying the machine at the cost of killing the shield. With practice I discover that any shield can safely deflect the beam with a perfectly timed parry. Interestingly, mastering the parry was the way I finally got the better of Dark Souls’ Black Knights. Climbing on top them, they can’t reach me. Risking a close range assault, I discover the legs can be severed and any Guardian can be rendered as immobile as the ruined old models lying around the fields.
By the time I’ve clocked up 70 hours of Zelda, I’ve slaughtered and farmed so many Guardians I wear a suit of armour made from their parts. I have understood, conquered and mastered them. I am one with the Guardians, but I will never stop being terrified by that first string of music when one spots me.
The Guardians will live with me forever, like the very best villains.
By Luke Summerhayes