Wed
Apr 20 2011 5:17pm

Top Five Greatest Video Game Villains

Portal 2

Portal 2 came out April 19th, and in honor of the return of GLaDOS, the most iconic and diabolical villain in recent video games, Tor.com presents the Top Five Greatest Villains in Video Game History.

A few things to consider about this list. I omitted Bowser from Super Mario Bros. for a few reasons. First, Bowser is The Beatles of video game villains. Of course he would be on the list. Boring! Rather than take up a slot, check out the analysis I did of King Koopa for Mario’s 25th anniversary.

I also omitted all licensed games, limiting this list to villains who originated in video games. I could probably make another list exclusively of villains in licensed games. Special mention goes to the Shredder Squad in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Arcade, the Doctor Octopus/Carnage symbiote in Spider-Man for N64, and Boba Fett in Dark Forces.

5. GLaDOS - Portal

There is a valuable lesson here for video game designers. What makes a good game? It isn’t tons of content. It certainly isn’t fetch quests. It isn’t a big license. All it takes to make a huge splash is one unique gameplay mechanic (portals) and one unique character (the queen bitch herself). GLaDOS—part nursery school teacher and part HAL from 2001—slays you with a smile. The casting notice for GLaDOS called for an actor who could mimic a computer generated voice while infusing it with real character. It also required a good singing voice. The voice performer Ellen McLain is a classically trained operatic soprano. Go figure.

As the hero Chell breaks free from GLaDOS’s twisted test chambers, the artificial intelligence becomes increasingly desperate, going so far as to flood her own control room with the deadly neurotoxin she used to kill everyone in the Aperture Science facility. In a fitting climax, Chell uses portals to redirect missiles into GLaDOS and incinerate the personality nodes that fall off of her. All of this is fitting revenge for an earlier injustice, when GLaDOS forced Chell to destroy her beloved companion cube.

Some critics compare GLaDOS to S.H.O.D.O.N., the villainous AI from System Shock. There is something about good code gone bad that has always appealed to gamers.

Players love to hate GLaDOS and keep coming back for more, even if they know the cake is a lie.

 

4. Wild Dog - Time Crisis

Time Crisis

In the first Time Crisis game, an effete ousted prince named Sherudo Garo kidnaps the daughter of the president of a country in an attempt to regain political power. To help him in this task, he hires a mercenary with fashionable shades and a trenchcoat who goes by the handle “Wild Dog.” After penetrating a fortified island headquarters, the hero squares off against Sherudo Garo in a climactic battle. It is an intense gun vs. knife fight, which ends when the hero shoots the prince dead. But there’s just one problem—Wild Dog is still standing. “How could you? You killed my boss…” he mutters resentfully. “What do I do now?”

What he does is run away, shoot the girl, fight in a necktie, and blow up half the island. Blowing himself up starts as a mistake, but Wild Dog returns in every main game in the Time Crisis franchise, using self-detonation as one of the many tricks in his arsenal.

 

Katamari Damacy3. The World - Katamari Damacy

Katamari games are twisted. They are like Pac-Man on crack. If you have never played one, here is the basic idea: you are a teeny tiny little dude, this green thing, called the Prince of the Cosmos. Your totally insane father (the King of the Cosmos) orders you to use a sticky bobble ball called a katamari to roll things up. The katamari can only roll up objects smaller than itself, so the more stuff you stick to the katamari, the bigger stuff you can roll. While at the beginning of the game you can roll up paperclips, buttons, and thumbtacks, soon enough, you’re rolling up cars, houses, cruise ships, and islands. The end goal of the game? Roll up the whole world! This final test is an act of true endurance (in listening to infernal j-pop) and accumulating enough crap to attach a planet to your katamari before the time runs out. This would probably be on my Worst list if it wasn’t so hilariously ridiculous.

 

Kefka2. Kefka - Final Fantasy VI

In a series known for fighting evil aliens, gods, and a white-haired dude with an Oedipus Complex, Kefka is the Final Fantasy villain who truly takes the cake (which is not a lie). Kefka is the mad clown, the forces of anarchy, a wild card that cannot be controlled. Often Final Fantasy villains appear in the 11th hour (think Zemus or Necron), but Kefka doggedly pursues our heroes from Act I: Scene II, causing all sorts of mayhem along the way. Most shockingly, Kefka commits bioterrorism against the kingdom of Doma, poisoning the castle’s water supply and killing hundreds, including the king a main character’s wife and young son. He then goes so far as to stab his boss (the evil emperor) in the back and assume the duties of main antagonist.

Most villains threaten to destroy the world, but Kefka ACTUALLY DESTROYS THE WORLD. In the end, all the heroes can do is save the broken pieces.

In the final battle, Kefka’s body becomes as twisted as his mind.

Kefka

And that laugh. Oh how we hate that laugh.

For an in-depth look at Kefka’s character (as viewed through the climactic battle music “Dancing Mad,” check out this awesome essay).

 

1. Malus/Dormin - Shadow of the Colossus

Shadow of the Colossus

Shadow of the Colossus is one of the greatest video games of all time, and so naturally its bosses stand out. The game play is essentially one long series of boss fights. Its villains are not only cruel, but majestic and empathetic. There are intense battles on land, sea, and air against fifteen bizarre and enormous creatures. Then, the lone hero Wander gears up for the final battle against the last colossus, Malus. After a long journey across a barren land and a treacherous mountain climb, Wander’s beloved horse Agro falls into a deep ravine. Alone, Wander reaches the top of the mountain. He discovers a battlefield, the site of a siege long ago. Battlements are in ruin. at the far end of the field, he sees a twisted black tower. Is the colossus on top of it? Something shoots white fire down at Wander. He has to dodge these attacks, making his way along cliffs and through tunnels, until he reaches the base of the tower. At some point Wander, and the player, realize that this tower is not a tower at all, but the final colossus! Bigger than anything Wander has faced before, Malus is a devil so gigantic he can crush Wander in the palm of his hand. When Wander manages to reach Malus’s head, he stabs the dark tower in the brain, slaying him.

But the story does not end there. The god Dormin who instructed Wander to slay the colossi reveals its true intent. Now that the colossi are gone, Dormin is free. The corruption released by each dead colossus consumes Wander, transforming him into a colossal beast of shadow. Take that, hero.

There you have it. The five greatest villains in video game history. Disagree? Want to share your own list? Drop it in the comments. Special no-prize to anyone who says their favorite villain is Queen Slug-for-a-butt from Earthworm Jim.

Check back tomorrow for my list of the top five worst, disappointing, and/or overrated villains in video game history!


Matt London is an author and filmmaker who lives in New York City. He is a graduate of the Clarion Writer’s Workshop. He writes about video games and other stuff for Tor.com, Fantasy Magazine, Lightspeed, and Realms of Fantasy. His fiction is out right this second in the anthology The Living Dead 2. Follow him on Twitter.

28 comments
Abigail Johnson
1. AbigailJohnson
Glad to see Kefka, but what about Sephiroth? And Ganon?
Sim Tambem
2. Daedos
I'm so glad Kefka made the list.

What about fellow FF villain Sephiroth?

See what you made me do @1? Now I have to think up another villain to add (Ganon was a good addition, by the way).

Sinistrals, anyone?
JeffR23
3. JeffR23
Old school, here: Give me Lord Blackthorn (Ultima V), Death (Gauntlet), Jaffar (Prince of Persia, the 2D ones) and Ghandi (Civilization II)
Ashe Armstrong
4. AsheSaoirse
Sephiroth is the go-to villain for FF fans. Ganon is basically on par with Bowser. What about President Eden from Fallout 3? Malcolm McDowell as an AI with plans of returning the US to its former glory...without all those pesky wastelanders?
William Fettes
5. Wolfmage
IMO too arcade heavy and not enough respect given to the PC classics.

Shodan - System Shock 2
Irenicus - BGII
Ravel - Torment
The Transcendent One - Torment
Atlas/Fontane - Bioshock
Kerrigan and the Zerg - Starcraft
JeffR23
6. Jexral
That's a pretty good list, really. I have trouble thinking of any of the colossi as villans, though. Dormin is a good fit.

I do wonder, though, why the Queen from ICO isn't on here. But still - good list.
Thomas Di Paolo
7. Pattom
I feel like Saren, from Mass Effect, deserves a mention. The conflict between him and Shepard is a jumping-off point for so many aspects of the plot: the Council's role in the galaxy, the powers of the Spectres, humanity's relations with other races, and the unconventional approach to morality. It seems unlikely that Mass Effect as a franchise would have taken off without such a strong, immediate antagonist giving you motivation to immerse yourself in that world. Plus, he's just such a jerk and it's amazingly satisfying to foil his plans for genocide, etc.
Matt London
8. MattLondon
It's great to see these other recommendations. It's a little scary that four of the five games on my worst/overrated list have been mentioned in the comments. I tried to choose objectionable villains featured in otherwise great games. I know I'm going to be in the minority on a lot of these -- but anyhoo we will hash that all out tomorrow.

If I was doing a top ten list, or a PC-exclusive list, there are some other games whose villians I love, like the evil wizards in the King's Quest series and Thrakhath from Wing Commander.

@5 David Warner is pretty awesome as the voice of Irenicus.
JeffR23
9. terrible_t
@1 & 2:
a white-haired dude with an Oedipus Complex

Found it for you. ^__^
A.J. Bobo
11. Daedylus
Galoot@10: Yes. Yes. A thousand times yes!
JeffR23
12. andrewv
The Master from Fallout 1 has to be on any list of greatest game villians. President Eden wasn't bad, but the Master set the bar.
JeffR23
14. Doug M.
Montezuma, from Civilization. The one AI who will always, always attack.

He doesn't understand technology, so eventually you can roll over his longbows and muskets with your tanks. But in the early game? Grooooaaan. He builds nothing but units, so wars with him turn into incredibly bloody slugging matches that leave you far behind even if you win.

Your only hope: share a religion, pay him tribute, and hope he attacks someone else.


Doug M.
Ian Gazzotti
15. Atrus
Gehn, from Riven. A ruthless dictator with a god complex pretending to be victim of circumstances, an engineering genius, a creator of mad puzzles, a big brother figure, and -in the easter eggs- also a good singer: basically a flesh-and-blood ancestor of GLaDOS.
He also managed to make holding a book look threatening; that takes skill.
JeffR23
17. CorwinOfAmber
Sephiroth was never nearly as good a villian as Kefka. Sephiroth was given too much sympathy. Yeah, he kills your girl, almost destroys the world, but the hate you can feel for him at the end of the day is tempered by the tragic light they paint him in. Kefka, on the other hand, is a total DB, and crazy. After Doma, there is no room for anything but hate, and it gets worse from there. No way Sephiroth measures up, no matter how long his sword is.
JeffR23
18. joe heron
i do agree, Kefka. original troll face too?
Sim Tambem
19. Daedos
How about Lavos? He's a villain to space/time itself.
That's pretty serious.
Chris Hawks
20. SaltManZ
M. Bison, perhaps? Ganon definitely needs to be on this list.
Derek Dominquez
22. fomartorch
@Pendragon. It wasn't really a villian, despite being rather annoying to destroy.
Danelle Mallen
23. astrophilia
@7: Saren is pretty absent throughout the game, though. He's also pretty flat when you follow the renegade story line. It's only when you're a paragon that his character starts to get some depth. Benezia was better. I love the game, so it kind of pains me to say it: Saren just doesn't make the top five. Besides he's just a tool. The Reapers are the real villains.
seth johnson
24. seth
No love for Death=Adder from GoldenAxe?



Seth
Fake Name
25. ThePendragon
@27fomartorch

That was just the easiest picture to find. Dark Force has been around for decades in various incarnations. He is the villian in every Phantasy Star game beginning in 1987 and still to this very day. Although online games do give him less of a speaking role.

Thomas Di Paolo
26. Pattom
@23: True, Saren doesn't get a huge amount of screentime, but that makes every time he does appear more effective. Every major planet you visit, you see people suffering from his lust for power (I'm not gonna explain exactly why, to avoid quest-specific spoilers). When he's present, it's a moment of panic where he poses a direct threat to you and your crew; when he's not, you get to pull back and see the rest of humanity burn because of him.

As for the Reapers: their reveal doesn't come until around halfway through the game, and by that point, he's had plenty of time to work up a hate-reflex in the player. Besides, his indoctrination is fairly weak up until Virmire. They're giving him motivation for his actions, but it's ultimately his initiative and resources that cause so much damage.
JeffR23
27. Veldryn
She is awesome but GLADoS wouldn't be anything without the influence of the even more awesome SHODAN. GLADos has nothing on the twist she pulls in System Shock 2
JeffR23
28. Horrigan
Phew! No Sephiroth here, thank god! I don't understand what's so special in one-dimensional character.

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