What makes a character a “good” villain? In many ways, the most compelling villains in video games often share a lot of characteristics with their heroic counterparts:
Drive, ambition, and adherence to some kind of goal above all else.
But the best villains often transcend the other characters in the cast and make for interesting, if somewhat tortured, figures on their own. These are the villains we want to know more about, those that make us look up Internet lore, and perhaps even haunt our dreams.
That is why in this list of the top 10 best villains in video games, I am not talking about difficulty. Sure, some end bosses can be nightmares in terms of difficulty but that does not make them a good candidate for this list. I will rank the hardest bosses at a later date, but for now I am focusing on what makes a villain the “best” in a video game sense.
You should recognize most of these names on this list but, just in case you do not, I will provide a heft amount of background in each one.
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10. Heihachi Mishima (Tekken Series)
Appearing in the first game as the “bad guy,” Heihachi and his family have found themselves at the center of the King of Iron Fist tournament drama ever since. Head of the powerful and rich Mishima Zaibatsu – a multinational conglomerate that does just about everything you can imagine – Heihachi has traditionally controlled events from on high for much of the series until he found himself fading from glory after the fifth game.
The father of Kazuya Mishima (the Ryu-clone of the Tekken series) and grandfather of Kazuya’s son Jin Kazama, the feud that has torn the Mishima family apart figures prominently in most if not all of the Tekken storylines. What makes him an absolutely exceptional bad guy is that it is questionable just how bad he is.
Outside of being Kazuya’s dad and the organizer of the massive King of Iron Fist Tournament, Heihachi’s actions do not really strike anyone as “evil” or even faintly diabolical. The softening of his character as he has aged has also helped things somewhat as well as his really fun play style that is often beloved by fans.
Heihachi represents that awesome combination of murky qualities that makes someone human, interesting, and exceptional.
9. Doctor Neo Cortex (Crash Bandicoot Series)
The creator of Crash Bandicoot himself, Doctor Neo Cortex operates under the bad influence of the tiki mask Uka Uka who helps him with his plans for world domination and vengeance. Apparently, Cortex is mad because of some past slights and, as is rational, he thinks the best way to solve these problems is to take his rage out on the world – specifically the animals that inhabit the world of Crash Bandicoot.
Kind of like Dr. Robotnik but with a really twisted psyche, Doctor Neo Cortex is iconic because he is so singularly helpless and pretty worthless. Truly, he has reasons to be insecure and, as Crash Bandicoot often shows him, he’s not the world dominating type. Best of all is that * Doctor Neo Cortex is that rare bad guy, like the Joker, who creates his foil.
Cortex thought Crash unworthy of joining his animal slave army so he banished him from this castle. He has come to rue that day ever since.
8. Kuja (Final Fantasy IX)
Kuja is what happens if Kefka took lithium. Thoroughly medicated, but completely tapped nonetheless, Kuja speaks in metaphors and riddles but wants something quite clearly defined: World domination.
He’s willing to work with whoever or whatever to achieve it, but he never pretends they are more than a means to an end. This sociopathic tendency makes him hard to sympathize with and, instead, makes him creepy beyond belief.
The fact that he supplants the supposed main bad of Final Fantasy IX without a lot of fanfare just underscores his subtle, understated approach to killing people and ruling the world. Designed with a kind of “deadly beauty,” Kuja is not meant to be relatable but is instead, the embodiment of irrational evil, the kind that does things for their own sake and without regard for consequences outside of his own ambitions.
7. The Queen (Ico)
Of all of the characters on this list, The Queen most belongs on a list of classic Disney villains as well because she looks like she was ripped straight from the pages of a fairy tale. And that makes sense given Ico’s look and general themes.
The fact that she predates on characters like the main character only makes her that much more terrifying and repulsive as a person. Yet she is also hauntingly beautiful and enigmatic.
In true Disney form, once you finish her off, the castle around you collapses into the earth thus solidifying her status as the most understated dramatic villain on this list, but also one of its most haunting.
6. Ganondorf (Legend of Zelda series)
The persistent evil that plagues the land of Hyrule, Ganondorf is often a misunderstood character but, lest you fool yourself into thinking he is anything but evil, he is rarely a redeemable character. No matter how you cut it, Ganondorf’s frequent attempts (some successful) at plunging the entire kingdom into darkness and chaos is not the work of a good guy.
He is not doing it to make Hyrule a better place and, indeed, The Legend of Zelda is often quite clear that Ganon wants nothing but power in its rawest form – everything else be damned. And it is this indomitable quality that makes him one of the best villains of all time.
Kind of like the video game version of Sauron from the Lord of the Rings, Ganondorf is so intrinsically tied to what it means to be a Zelda game, that it is hard to imagine someone taking his place. Others have tried, but few have succeeded.
In a way, Ganon is such a good bad guy that he puts Nintendo in a bind: How do you evolve Zelda as a series if you cannot really abandon Ganon as a central evil? Some games have tended to explore Ganondorf’s humanity while others have showed him as a kind of corrupting, semi-omniscient force that plagues the land.
No matter what guise he takes, Ganon is never a joke and he is not interested in peace, compromise, or taking second place. As long as the wheel of time turns in the land of Hyrule, Ganon will attempt to take control of the world.
5. Liquid Snake (Metal Gear Solid)
Twin of Solid Snake and fellow clone of Big Boss, Liquid Snake’s blond hair and sadistic demeanor mark him out as a very different guy entirely from the series hero. In this way, Liquid Snake is the classic bad guy because he is a perfect foil for the protagonist and is his opposite in every conceivable way.
Providing every conceivable roadblock to preventing Snake’s success on Shadow Moses’ island, Liquid’s eventually death by FOXDIE is both perfect and frustrating. We never get that resolution we need between the two brothers but instead, we get Solid Snake questioning his mortality and, in many ways, injecting a bit of existential reality into the game.
Portrayed as a fairly indomitable foe, the fact that Liquid Snake keels over randomly and then forces Solid Snake to come to terms with his own FOXDIE is some heady stuff done in a masterful way. It is almost as if the drama that compels the game forward ceases to be epic for just a few moments and instead focuses on the very specific.
Because FOXDIE is coded into the person’s DNA, with each having a different expiration date, it very much mirrors the reality we live in where anyone could die at any time – no matter how powerful.
4. Luca Blight (Suikoden II)
Some people become Batman, others become Luca Blight. The son of the inept King of Highland, Luca’s family entourage is attacked when he is young and he ends up developing some PTSD after seeing his mother raped by the brigands, while his father ran away in fear.
Working to avenge this slight ever since, Luca revels in cruelty and sadism. Indeed, he is every bit the psychopath and is not ashamed of it. Calling into question the whole nurture versus nature thing, Luca is shown as unrelentingly irredeemable and the struggle against him is one of unmatched justice.
Bent on inflicting pain on anything and anyone, Luca is never meant to be relatable, likeable, or to survive. He is a flame of vengeance that turned towards the darkness and it is your job to vanquish him. It is that simple.
3. Lynx (Chrono Cross)
The living emissary of the FATE supercomputer, Lynx murders a bunch of children a la Anakin Skywalker and the rest, as they say, is history. What makes him so compelling is that he is the perfect sidekick to the big bad guy but ends up becoming his very own threat in the end.
Following up on Lavos and Magus is a tough sell, but Lynx handles it well with a cool, reasoned approach to handling his enemies that never leaves him once in the game. Without spoiling too much, his powers are gradually revealed over the course of the game such that the threat he poses was never initially understood, but becomes clearer as the narrative unfolds.
2. Bowser (Mario Bros Series)
Bowser, King Koopa, or, originally, Great Demon King Koopa, no matter what name you use, everyone that has ever touched a Nintendo property knows who you are talking about.
Replacing Donkey Kong as Mario’s central antagonist, Bowser terrorizes the Mushroom Kingdom on a persistent basis just like Ganondorf with Hyrule yet Bowser’s motivations are often nothing more than besting Mario and showing the world that he can get away with kidnapping the MK’s head of state.
Heck, he is so successful at capturing Princess Toadstool that some have questioned what is going on there exactly. Mario, you might want to ask some existential questions. In the original game, Bowser’s magic transformed the denizens of the Mushroom Kingdom into the blocks that you find throughout the game.
So, just in case you worried about him being “evil enough,” just think about all of that Toad genocide you participated in on the NES. But, to be clear, it is not like he has changed, even if Nintendo has tried to move away from the Great Demon King aesthetic.
Bowser will not hesitate to toss his minions into battle without so much as a thought for their welfare. He even puts his own children on the line against a hero that has defeated him on a consistent basis. “Hey kids, meet the guy that sent dad into the pit of lava. I cannot wait to see how you do!” This is why we love you Bowser.
M. Bison (Street Fighter series)
Known as Dictator in the original concept work for Street Fighter II and as Vega in the Japanese version of the game, M. Bison is such an iconic figure in fighting games that many, many final bosses have mimicked his look and style but few can come close to pulling it off.
Head of the mysterious and nefarious Shadaloo organization, M. Bison is a mixture of nation-state dictator and global terrorist. Often figuring prominently in any and all Street Fighter drama, M. Bison’s pursuit of greater power is what motivates him to challenge fighters like Ryu and Ken but, his sadistic streak is what makes him such a compelling bad guy.
Unlike Akuma, a living embodiment of rage, Bison is cool and calculating. He plays the long game and is ever confident of his abilities if not those of his organization. Indeed, in many ways Bison is ill served by the people he calls his minions as he is, without a doubt, far beyond their abilities.
Yet M. Bison is also human, showing shades of strange and weird humanity in the backstory lore involving Rose and Cammy, among others. More of a traditional comic book villain than many bad guys on this list, M. Bison looks like he belongs in pretty much any gaming or media universe and that is what makes him timeless and hallowed.
Galcian (Skies of Arcadia)
A total narcissist who does not fail to command the loyalty of his men, Galcian is out for himself and only himself. He will step on anyone to get where he is going but, rather than being some malevolent threat, he is often more of a comical Disney buffoon than anything else.
Trust me, he does it well, but he is never some overarching, existence threatening power that the player has to overcome. He is just a jerk with a gigantic airship and an even bigger ego.
Ultimecia (Final Fantasy VIII)
You thought Edea was the bad guy, but it turns out there is an even greater, bigger sorceress behind it all and that is Ultimecia. Seeking to control time and all possible timelines within FFVIII’s universe, Ultimecia is both mysterious and really cool.
A bad guy in the classic vein, the sorceress’s desire to control time itself is a high bar for the villains on this list but it is one she is capable of climbing over – if only it were not for those darn kids!
1. Sephiroth (Final Fantasy VII)
There are many, many villains in the Final Fantasy pantheon but few of them have the pull that Sephiroth does. Whether it is his long mane of silver hair, oversized, reed-thin katana, or his unrelenting grudge against the world, Final Fantasy VII’s bad guy makes a maniacal corporation like Shinra and a world-destroying meteor look like small threats to the world.
Merciless and unsentimental, this iceberg of a character is “tortured” and “pained” but he is also utterly demented. Twisted by half knowledge of a past he thinks he understands, Sephiroth kills anyone who stands in his way and seems to have a deep, deep well of evil to draw upon when it comes to getting the job done.
His descent into madness is portrayed as a gradual thing though, really, he was never the most “normal” of characters even before that. Players who have experienced Crisis Core know what I am talking about here.
Sephiroth is complex but he is not “undecided.” He is evil without being the embodiment of some kind of generalized force. He is a particular kind of evil that is idiosyncratic, disturbing, somewhat relatable in a strange way, and utterly unforgettable.
[Fanboy Mode ON]
And on top of that, you killed Aerith, you b*****d!
[/Fanboy Mode OFF]
Sorry, I had to say that, lol.
Alright retro folks, another list is about to be in the books, but not before hearing your thoughts. Do you have any favorite villains you would like to add? Please do not hesitate to let me know in the comments below.
Till next retro article!