A hero is only as great as the villain they are up against, and you can’t find stronger antagonists than in video games. Only through games can you feel a true, personal rivalry and a drive to overcome a villain, as you become far more attached to the world and characters. The best villains aren’t just an ambiguous force or cartoonish monster doing evil for evil’s sake — they’re just as deep and complex as the hero. They have personality, goals, and agency within the narrative that inspires you to overcome all the challenges ahead to take them down. Some have been around for decades, while others made a single, powerful impression, but all the best villains stood out for one reason or another. It was a tough challenge to narrow it down, but here are the best video game villains of all time.
It could easily be argued that we wouldn’t have gotten all the expanded Final Fantasy 7 content and games if it weren’t for Sephiroth. Yes, Cloud and his buster sword are iconic, but when people think of FF7, they think of the man with long, silver hair and an absurdly long katana standing in the flames of a burning village. Being visually striking and intimidating is one thing, but this was many players’ first time experiencing a villain who actually impacted their game. We won’t spoil it directly since the trilogy of remake titles is ongoing, but Sephiroth cemented his place among the most love-to-hate villains partway through the adventure with a single thrust of his sword.
Sometimes a strong first impression is enough to fully invest you in a character. For Vaas, he manages to not only fully grip you with his insanity speech, but also tell you everything you need to know about this dangerous man. He sets himself, his mindset, and his morality up in a short but compelling sequence before kicking you off into the world to find a way to deal with him. You get more from him sprinkled throughout your time, but it’s his introduction that turned the entire Far Cry franchise into a game about villains over protagonists. Each following game has attempted to recreate what the series found with Vaas, but never quite managed to hit that same level of quality.
A simple, but effective method for building up a great villain is to first introduce them as a teammate. In the first Resident Evil, Albert Wesker is part of your special unit trapped in the zombie-infested mansion, but only later do you realize he’s actually on the side of the evil Umbrella Corporation behind the entire thing. That’s only the start, however, as Wesker remains a growing and persistent villain behind the scenes throughout the entire series. His slick, Matrix-inspired look makes him an intimidating figure already, but his superhuman powers and abilities constantly keep Chris and company on the back foot. The only knock against him has to be the way he was killed off in RE5 after the infamous boulder-punching moment, but with the recent string of remakes making tweaks to the timeline, we might finally get a worthy final confrontation with Wesker.
A villain doesn’t need to be a person if they have a strong personality and presence. GLaDOS from both Portal games is both the villain and arguably the main character as well. It’s their voice taunting and mocking you through every test chamber, ramping up your desire to break free and finally get a shot at the AI in person. What makes GLaDOS so memorable and effective is that it really believes itself to be superior and above humanity, which drives you to want to prove it wrong. The way it patronizes and mocks you with cake and jokes is a perfect mix of humor and motivation. The fact that the game would completely fall apart without their robotic commentary speaks volumes about how well-written GLaDOS is as a villain.
Nintendo games usually keep their villains — and their motivations — basic. Bowser usually has the most threadbare plot that kicks off Mario’s adventures, and even Ganon is more of an evil force than a complex villain. However, Skull Kid in The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask breaks this trend in the best way. Here, we have an outcast, shunned from the world and left all alone until two fairies happen upon him. He’s overjoyed to have friends, but still harbors that resentment for others that’s been impressed upon him. When he steals the titular mask, it uses his deep-seated anger to amplify its magic and exact the revenge on Termina he was so sure he wanted. While he has to be stopped for the sake of the world, there’s still a sense of sadness and understanding behind Skull Kid’s actions. He was wronged by the world, so his mental state is understandable. This is just a pathetic child, who only wishes to be accepted, acting out in the worst way possible.
If turning a former ally into a villain is a good way to introduce a villain, turning your former character into one is even greater. Big Boss isn’t the first character you control in the Metal Gear Solid series, but the third. Prior to that, he’s been mentioned and hinted at mostly as the greatest soldier who turned against his country. But why did he do this? Well, you get an entire game to understand the motivations and the series of events that pushed this man to abandon the system that he once swore to protect and create his own military outside the constraints of any singular nation. What’s most impressive is that it works; you may not agree with Big Boss’s conclusions, but by the time you see his final salute at the graveyard, you completely understand his trajectory to the villain you’ve been hearing about all along.
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