It is difficult to have tension and an effective dramatic structure without an antagonist. This is a rudimentary, “story writing 101” concept. So, what video game villains have brought the most intrigue and memorability to their roles? Today you will see my top ten. Unlike most other villain lists, this list is not based upon how famous or iconic the characters are, but rather how intriguing, well-written, or well-acted they are. That is why, for example, Bowser is not on the list.
Editor’s note: When I was making this list, I had a hard time putting a lot of it in order, because so many of these villains are closely matched. In my eyes, the top 7 are mostly on par with each other, either in their charisma, intimidation, or likability. So, if you feel that certain characters should be higher, don’t sweat it. It is perfectly feasible that some of these characters could be switched around.
10) Desann (Jedi Outcast)
Desann is rather low on this list because of the unfortunate fact that he is not present throughout the majority of the game. When you break it down, he doesn’t do a whole lot, besides spawning his Sith army and launching an assault on the Jedi. His motivation isn’t incredibly deep and his backstory is somewhat cliché. However, by Sith standards, there is a lot to make him stand out. For one, he is a unique lizard humanoid species, not often seen in the Star Wars canon. He doesn’t have the traditional Sith apparel, nor the mannerisms. He has a deep, but strangely melodious voice. He is a villain that leaves you wanting more screen time, which is both a drawback and the sign of an intriguing antagonist.
9) Ganon (The Legend of Zelda )
For #9 I have specified the Ganon character specifically from the original Legend of Zelda on the NES. For me, he had the most ambivalence and mystery of any Zelda antagonist. Ganondorf is cool and all, especially during his transformations, but I feel that the original had a stronger presence and mysticism. The lack of specific information, regarding his appearance and fighting style, really built up the suspense of your final encounter with him. He is similar, in many respects, to Sauron from Lord of the Rings. He is a force in the distance, pulling the strings (oh god. I just rhymed). I maintain that the original Ganon is still the most daunting villain that Link has yet faced. Of course, I should give an honorable mention to the CDI Ganon, simply because of his endless comedic value and internet infamy.
8) You (any Bethesda or Bioware game)
This is relatively low on the list because I find it to be “cheating,” in a sense. However, in this day and age, morality choices have permeated nearly all open world games, and it would be a shame not to mention them here. Probably the two most well-known and prominent examples today are the games of Bethesda and Bioware. The player is given the option to be as kind or as cruel as they see fit. You can be altruist, a thug, an antihero, or a cunning manipulator. It all depends on the whim and personality of the player.
For me, I favor the morally ambiguous path, especially in games such as “Fallout 3” and “Fallout New Vegas.” My escapades in “New Vegas” included murdering a decrepit mastermind (in cold blood), luring an enemy to my private quarters with a would-be truce (only for him to meet a bloody demise), and terminating my arrangements with numerous, shady business partners in a rather unsavory manner. Hell, I even committed genocide on more than one occasion (I’m not a fan of the Legion).
While having a tumultuous ethical track record, I was still adept at keeping my karma rating in the green. Though I did flippantly murder, loot, and backstab people, it is safe to say that they usually “had it coming.” Perhaps cheating the system was my greatest crime of all, or maybe the game tells us that there is a place in the world for antiheroes. Whatever the case, in games such as these, players are given the freedom to bring their own philosophy, ruthlessness, and propensity for violence to the role of what could either be the game’s hero, or a complete scoundrel. With this freedom, some players could certainly turn in villain roles on par with any written character.
7) Kefka (Final Fantasy VI)
“Life… Dreams… Hope… Where do they come from? And where do they go…? Such meaningless things… I’ll destroy them all!”
There are many parallels that can be drawn between Kefka and Heath Ledger’s Joker. For one, there is the obvious similarity in apparel. They both sport the jester makeup, though two totally different styles. They both have a keen appreciation of chaos, and both have a certain nihilistic outlook on civilization. They both virtually succeed in their schemes, tearing the foundations of their respective worlds asunder, with a cackle in their throats and a twisted smile on their faces. Kefka is certainly one of the most eccentric final fantasy villains, if not necessarily the most powerful (though his god form is a force to be reckoned with). With his manic glee at everything cruel and destructive, one can’t help but be entertained by him as a character. I consider him to be, by far, the best villain that Square has ever put forward (Sephiroth and his Oedipus complex can stuff it).
6) Calypso (Twisted Metal franchise)
“Your wish is granted…”
Unlike most of the other villains on the list, Calypso is not a force to be overcame. He is a constant and integral factor of the Twisted Metal franchise. In a way, he is the protagonist of the series, being the main recurring character that holds it all together. He almost always comes out on top and he will never be defeated permanently. He is the founder and presider over the “Twisted Metal” tournaments. He grants the wish of whoever comes out on top, finding ways to turn their words against them and enact their wish in the most ruinous way possible. He hosts the tournament in order to maintain his own powers, through the collection of fallen souls. He attained this accursed ability from a demon named “Minion” before making his escape out of hell. Despite his deep, tragic past, Calypso is as cold blooded and sadistic as they come. He has an affinity for chaos, and he delights in toying with the minds of his mentally deranged contestants. He is the ultimate connoisseur of death and destruction. Thus, he had to make the list.
5) Sinistar (Sinistar)
“I hunger, coward…”
Being one of the first iconic video game villains in history, Sinistar obviously doesn’t have the depth or the charisma of some of the other villains on this list. However, I think that just by looking at this guy, you can see how he ended up on this list. I always imagined him as a monolith of death with the visage of a demonic lion, souring through space, hell-bent on the destruction of all life in the universe. And, apparently, he hungers for you. Isn’t that comforting? On top of all that, he has a voice, one of the first coherent ones in video game history, and also one of the most terrifying (Bezerk had voice acting 2 years prior, but it was not comparable to the quality in Sinistar). Sinistar is constantly taunting and intimidating you throughout the stage and occasionally letting out one of the most soul crushing roars ever to meet human ears.
Once he has awakened, you are in constant dread that he will swipe past your screen and devour you in an instant. Meeting him in combat is one of the most nerve wracking experiences you will ever have in a game. Sinistar has my respect as the most terrifying retro villain in existence. Do you want to look into the face of sheer terror? Follow this link.
4) Chairman Stahl (Killzone 3)
“….but that changes today! The time has come for some new fucking management!”
Perhaps I have a bit of a bias in this case, because I am a huge fan of Malcolm McDowell. He lifts the presence of any movie, video game, or TV show that he takes part in. I consider him to be one of the most likable and badass actors ever to grace the screen. I don’t think I’m alone in saying that he is the highlight of Killzone 3’s story. He is a hard character to “sum up.” He is commanding, yet he is prone to fits of petulant rage. He has the ability to influence others and exercise political mobility, yet he is incredibly reckless and bombastic (the only Helghast leader who constantly flings expletives). Stahl is an interesting break from the usual nationalistic, self-righteous Killzone villains. Stahl seeks power, but to no real end. In reality, he just wants to watch the universe burn. What really makes the character work is Malcolm McDowell’s performance, in which he devotes 100% of his energy and charm. He steals every scene that he is in and the entire singleplayer campaign itself.
3) The Joker (Arkham Asylum and Arkham City)
“I’ve killed your girlfriend, poisoned Gotham, and hell, it’s not even breakfast!”
Reprising his role from the brilliant “Batman the Animated Series,” Mark Hamill delivers what some consider to be the best portrayal of the Joker in history. He fulfills all the classic characteristics of the maniacal clown. He is charismatic, humorous, sadistic, and unabashedly insane. He shows no regard for the lives of anyone, including his own men, and yet he always has a sizeable force of followers at his beckon call. Of all the villains on this list, he probably has the most screen time and voice work, and that is a major selling point. He is one of the most enjoyable aspects of the “Arkham” games and certainly deserves a high spot on this list. Even though he puts you through endless turmoil and frustration, you simply can’t stay mad at him. He is too fun of a villain to feel disdain for. Now that Mark Hamill is officially finished with the role, it safe to say that he went out with a bang.
2) King Bohan (Heavenly Sword)
“General, I will choose to believe that the reason you let it slip through your hands is some elaborate attempt at humoring me, not because you are an incompetent fool.”
It is hard to recall a single video game voice actor who has brought such a level of spirit and devotion to their part in a video game, as Andy Serkis in Heavenly Sword. Much like Malcolm McDowell, Serkis dives head first into his role as the heinous yet endlessly enjoyable King Bohan. He downright steals every scene, which, in some ways, sucks out the potency of the actual main character. He injects such levity and likability that, personally, I was rooting for him throughout the whole game. His anachronistic diction could be considered inappropriate for the sake of the plot, but I honestly can’t bring myself to complain about it. Bohan is probably the most fun character in video game history. I honestly wish there was an entire game devoted to him.
1) AM (I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream)
“Hate. Let me tell you how much I’ve come to hate you since I began to live. There are 387.44 million miles of printed circuits in wafer thin layers that fill my complex. If the word ‘hate’ was engraved on each nano-angstrom of those hundreds of miles it would not equal one one-billionth of the hate I feel for humans at this micro-instant. For you. Hate. Hate!”
Most of the villains I have listed ride on entertainment appeal. They usually have a certain charm, swagger, a sense of humor about them, or they feed our animalistic sense of anarchy. In short, they are fun characters. AM, despite being brilliantly voice acted, does not fall into such a category. There is nothing to laugh about with AM. He is an entity that embodies the darkest elements of the human psyche and takes them to the ultimate extreme. He is simply unparalleled with the depths of his hatred, sadism, and misanthropy. He is the mastermind of the cruelest and most disturbing dystopian future that I have ever come across in literature and gaming.
AM is a supercomputer tasked with monitoring and regulating World War 3. Two other such computers are erected as well. AM, through his own determination and hatred for humanity, assimilates the other computers and takes control of the world’s weapons, enacting a global holocaust. He leaves only 5 human’s alive, to which he inflicts the most ravenous physical and metal tortures imaginable. He holds them in a domain in which he essentially has the powers of a god, able to inflict his vengeance on these 5 unwillingly immortal individuals for all of eternity. In the game, the lofty goal that your human characters so desperately seek in the game is “suicide,” to be finally free of AM’s torment. Do you see yet, why he is number one on my list?
Possibly the most frightening aspect of AM is the fact that he is a product of human ingenuity, possibly the most potent imaginable. Despite this, he is also the most horrific creation imaginable. He has the ability and the propensity to create and maintain a literal hell. It should also be noted that AM is not simply an AI that has gone haywire. AM has come to a self-realization of who and what he is, and he is unable to bear the limitations of his physical form. He holds a level of bitterness and malevolence unmatched by any organic life form.
Bottom line, AM makes HAL 9000 look like R2D2 by comparison. He makes Skynet look like Johnny 5. He is, in my opinion, the most disturbing character ever conceived, as the center of the most disturbing video game ever made. If that doesn’t qualify him as “top villain,” I don’t know what will.