Behind every great hero, there is a great villain to test their limits. Superman has Lex Luthor, Batman has the Joker, Super Mario has Bowser, Harry Potter has Voldemort… The list could go on and on. The video game industry is full of incredible stories with memorable protagonists, many of whom have gone on to be household names and help their franchises into the annals of gaming history, but very few of them have done it alone: this month, the Doublejump Staff takes a look back at some of the best, most memorable antagonists they’ve seen in their time as gamers, and why they were so important. Enjoy!
Given the nature of this discussion, some spoilers could not be avoided, so tread carefully!
Alex: Ganondorf (The Legend of Zelda series)
I grew up loving The Legend of Zelda, but not simply for protagonist Link’s heroic acts, his wondrous array of items and magical abilities, or his status as The Chosen One, the Hero of Time, and so forth. A lot went into defining those games for me, but what connected every single factor was the sheer fact that I had the single purpose of taking down an epic villain; no villain has ever stood out to me more than Zelda’s own Demon King, Ganondorf.
On the surface, he’s a monstrous human being at a whopping 7’6”, with a profoundly strong figure and dark, red hair that has somewhat surprisingly become one of his most defining characteristics, lasting even to Breath of the Wild in the form of Calamity Ganon. Symbolically, he was a literal plague upon the fictional land of Hyrule who would sacrifice anything and anyone in his quest for power. While the significance of Ganondorf’s character is portrayed quite similarly across each game that he’s been a part of, there are noticeable instances where fans have been granted unique insights into the Gerudo King’s psyche, such as Wind Waker’s depiction of him as someone who endured the vile winds of the Gerudo desert before coveting the pure winds of Hyrule.
Above all, Ganondorf has such a strong reputation for delivering memorable boss battles. Ocarina of Time was the first game I ever completed in its entirety, and I’ll never forget how spectacular it was volleying spells between he and I. Even as a seven year old, it was a real “OH SHIT” moment seeing him transform into an even larger beast — it truly captured the villain’s immense power and destructive personality in one physical form, and it literally made me want to crap my pants. Overcoming such an intimidating opponent was completely gratifying, and remains as one of my fondest childhood gaming memories to this very day. Stepping into the boots of the Hero of Time will always be great, but knowing that another epic Ganondorf showdown lies in wait for me at the end of my journey is a feeling that will never be anything short of exciting.
Honourable mention: Sephiroth (Final Fantasy VII)
For a long time I only knew Sephiroth for his incredibly difficult boss battles in the Kingdom Hearts franchise. Once I finally worked my way through Final Fantasy VII, I understood just how significant the One-Winged Angel truly is. His story stood out as a unique fall from grace, as a man of great pride, strength and intelligence discovers deeper and darker meanings behind his own existence. In the process of adopting a twisted saviour complex, Sephiroth’s personality adapts into something far more ruthless and sinister. Witness this stunningly-detailed character unhinge was nothing short of epic, culminating in a final confrontation that was visually breathtaking. Needless to say, I’m greatly looking forward to getting my hands on the upcoming Final Fantasy VII Remake.
Ayden: Gravemind/Prophet of Truth (Halo)
As a child, nothing excited me more than the proposition of battling against a tyrannical alien warlord with a vast vocabulary who wanted to, inadvertently, end all life in the galaxy. That is until you added that I would come toe-to-toe with a malevolent and manipulative hivemind that controlled and willed hordes upon hordes of alien zombies. At that point, I would hardly be able to contain myself.
The Prophet of Truth, what a name. This limp, chair-riding ruler directly engaged with the Master Chief once in the entire Halo series — there were passing moments, but only one confrontation — one that resulted in the Prophet’s death. We crossed galaxies, blew up rings, boarded High Charity and fought on the streets on New Mombassa, but only once did the Chief and Truth face off in the median point of Halo 3. This arch-enemy of the humans wasn’t just a delusional religious leader; he was a well-versed monument of the Covenant’s Great Journey. His voice and face were broadcast to the humans to scare them before he launched a full-scale attack on one of their headquarters — numerous times. He endorses the public torture of his own Elites and then he takes those Elites and makes them want to earn their right back into the Covenant. He fled High Charity as one of his close friends was infected by the Flood. He was crafty, and he was ruthless. What makes his story arc even cooler is that he was murdered by the other enemy: The Flood, the Gravemind.
The Gravemind’s title really says it all: it isn’t scared of death, it is death. The Gravemind brought the Master Chief and the Arbiter back to life midway through Halo 2 just to ensure that they falter the Covenant’s Great Journey — even convincing the Chief to help it even whilst it murdered his men. The speech it delivers to the two protagonists is so memorable, not just in the words or how it says them, but in the fact that a space zombie hivemind has brought them back to life to, essentially, use them. It personifies the Flood and gives them a leader. It centers the Chief’s fight against the Flood, it gives the player a voice to the masses of reanimated corpses that are thrown at us. For me, the Gravemind personified the T. S. Eliot quote used for Halo 3: “This is the way the world ends. Not with a bang but a whimper”. I’ve also got to mention the gravelly, dirty voice they gave it — it was an audio match made in Heaven.
Cav: Edgar Ross (Red Dead Redemption)
Few villains in video game history have managed to boil the blood like Edgar Ross, the unscrupulous Fed who blackmails and torments repentant bandit John Marston in Rockstar’s classic Red Dead Redemption. Ross kidnaps Marston’s family in order to force him into hunting down his former gang mates for The Man, treats him with unequivocal scorn throughout, and ultimately (SPOILERS FOR ANYONE STILL LIVING IN 2010) betrays and murders our hero just as he seems to attain the quiet life for which he has fought and bled.
This makes Ross eminently hateable, for sure. What makes him a great villain, is the fact that as deceitful and corrupt as he may be, he’s also not entirely wrong about our hero. Marston’s character arc revolves around his efforts to rehabilitate himself, to walk away from a life of violence to become a regular family man. What Ross recognizes, and exploits, is the underlying savagery that Marston believes that he has rejected, but is still very much a part of him. Not only do we get to play out his undimmed proficiency in violence in the game’s combat, but in his aggressive and often outright bullying behaviour towards the game’s comic reliefs, bumbling snake-oil salesman Nigel West Dickens and roguish drunkard Irish. While Marston has perfectly valid reasons to dislike these characters, the way he makes a meal out of threatening them belies the imitation of gentility he tries to act out with others. The story of Red Dead Redemption is a tragedy of a man who can never escape his past, and nobody understands this better than Edgar Ross.
Even as you riddle him with bullets at the game’s climax, the euphoria of the moment dissipates as you realize that in avenging John, you also fulfil the ruination of the one good thing he brought into the world: his son Jack, whose trigger finger you control. Even in the game’s most cathartic moment Ross is proved right, sealing Marston’s failure not just as a man, but as a father. Much more than a simple antagonist, Edgar Ross is key to Red Dead Redemption’s thematic weight in a way that makes him stand alone in the pantheon of video game villains. You don’t see Generic European Antagonist in the latest COD du jour packing shit this heavy.
Honourable Mention: GLaDOS (Portal/Portal 2)
While the Portal games’ innovative puzzle gameplay would’ve made them stand out on its own, it’s their writing that made them a cultural phenomenon. Key to this is the games’ antagonist, GLaDOS, the murderously catty AI determined to prevent player character Chell from escaping Aperture Science. Devious, endlessly quotable yet oddly sensitive in her own arrogant, passive-aggressive way, GLaDOS is a source of near-endless, deliciously scathing one-liners (Example: “Look at you, soaring through the air like an eagle… piloting a blimp”). While her status as a villain per se is debatable (show me someone who dislikes GLaDOS, and I’ll show you a joyless monster) she endures as one of the funniest and most memorable antagonists in gaming.
Damon: Vaas (Far Cry 3)
“Did I ever tell you what the definition of insanity is? Insanity is doing the exact… same fucking thing… over and over again expecting… shit to change… That. Is. Crazy.”
That’s Vaas Montenegro’s best-known line in Far Cry 3, and it makes me think that I’m halfway to insane myself; I could play that game over and over again and because of Vaas, I wouldn’t want a damn thing to change. From the moment Vaas steps onto the screen he gives off this vast aura of creepiness, and a feeling of mystery because he’s entirely unhinged as a character. From that moment on, Vaas shows himself to be as unpredictable as they come, and the player is left guessing what he will do next and whether any characters will survive in his presence. You genuinely feel the danger you’re in when you’re face to face with him. One moment he’s a calm sociopath telling you his plan and giving a monologue on what insanity is, or how he’s going to kill you, and then without a moment’s notice he’s a raging psychopath screaming at you at the top of his lungs.
I’ve played plenty of games where the villains are completely outlandish and just want world domination, and yet none of them came close to being as intriguing as Vaas, or making me feel as though the stakes were high at all — they’re bad just for the sake of being bad. No mystery, no mystique, and no depth to them. Vaas blew me away because he felt like an intensely personal villain with layers to him, where his motivation didn’t lie in some grand scheme to destroy or take over the world. They were grounded and simple and he just felt dangerous and threatening to you. Couple that with his searing brutality, both in his demeanour and tactics that he uses throughout the game that genuinely can make you cringe, and he collectively makes for a unique villain.
What sold me on this character being one of the best villains in gaming is that whenever I was playing the game I was yearning for Vaas to make another appearance, wanting to get through the game story as quick as I could just so I could experience more of him. It’s fitting that once Vaas was rather questionably killed off, the game as a whole lost a lot of the intrigue and “pizzazz” that it had with Vaas alive and menacing. This truly speaks volumes to just how large an impact Vaas has on screen, and the presence that he has. His character set the tone for not just himself, but for the overall game at an early stage — and is maintained throughout. His character was extremely memorable and kept me wanting more.
Far Cry 3 competes for the title of my favourite game ever, not just because it has sound gameplay and fantastic graphics for its time, but almost entirely because I enjoyed Vaas a very great deal. It’s a great game, and there’s no doubt that Vaas is the flame that ignites it.
Honourable Mention: The Joker (Batman: Arkham Knight)
Although the game is named after the Arkham Knight — a previous Robin turned bad — one can’t help but see the Joker as the more impactful of the game’s villains; not the biggest by any stretch of the world, but certainly the worst. I thought the utilisation of the Joker, even in death, was pure genius. He’s constantly haunting Batman, completely invading his mind, body and soul. After dealing with his sick and twisted antics for so long, it wouldn’t come as much of a surprise to see that Batman is constantly experiencing Joker-fuelled hallucinations, but I thought that his blood “infecting” Batman to turn him into an apex Joker was a bit of a cop-out; it would have made far more sense, and been far smarter, to have that transformation occur strictly as a result of Joker’s sustained mental torture.
The Arkham Knight Joker was a very welcome new take on the classic Batman-Joker feud, and I will always remember Arkham Knight for having some of the most fantastic Joker moments in video game history.
Emily: Albert Wesker (Resident Evil series)
Albert Wesker is a badass with slicked-back blonde hair, a pair of sunglasses and an array of different viruses who wants nothing more than to dominate the human race and ultimately end the world. By constantly using newer, stranger viruses to try and become more powerful, Wesker embodies the “no pain, no gain” school of thought; his determination to become an all-powerful super-being is actually really admirable, even if it means getting knocked down a few times in the process. With that being said, knocking him down is never an easy task…
Wesker is fast and almost indestructible, which makes him one of the hardest villains players will face in any Resident Evil title. Despite how annoyingly difficult he is to put down (temporarily), though, I can’t help but like the guy: no matter how many times you kill him, he just keeps on coming back, releasing more and more deadly viruses and becoming stronger and more durable every time. He starts off as an ally in the original Resident Evil title, right up until he betrays his fellow S.T.A.R.S. members, tries to kill them all by forcing them to fight a mutated supersoldier, and then disappears until Code: Veronica, when he returns with superhuman powers to make the player’s life a living hell.
Wesker’s most memorable appearance, though, is his final one, in Resident Evil 5, where he plans to release the disgusting Uroboros virus into the atmosphere in order to create a perfect human race that he can rule over. Of course, after S.T.A.R.S. legend Chris Redfield and his partner foil his plan, Wesker ends up exposing himself to the Uroboros virus, turning himself into a horribly mutated beast… Because that’s just what Albert Wesker does.
Albert Wesker is one truly evil bastard, and although he looks like a badass when he’s plotting to end the world, there’s no greater feeling of satisfaction to be found in the Resident Evil series than when he’s finally dead; it’s just such a joy to defeat a villain who wants to essentially end the world.
Jake: Ryder and Big Smoke (GTA: San Andreas)
Considering all the time Rockstar Games spent delving into the lifelong familial relationship between the Grove Street OGs and their utter contempt for the Ballas and officers Tenpenny and Pulaski, it was hard to see this one coming. Even after fourteen long years, it’s still difficult to find the right adjectives to describe the betrayal I felt when I watched Ryder and Big Smoke emerge from that lockup in Verdant Bluffs and realised — right along with CJ — just what that meant in the grander scheme of things. It was a heartbreaking thing to see, a lesson about true friends, and it lit a fire not only under CJ but under me too; San Andreas is the GTA title that I’ve come closest to 100% completing, just because I wanted to rub it into the bastards, even though they were both dead.
The most poignant and most difficult thing about battling Ryder, Smoke and the rest of the Grove Street Families wasn’t their strength — which CJ very rapidly exceeds through his exploits in San Fierro and Las Venturas — or their proficiency in basically anything. It wasn’t even the numbers game, which CJ never even came close to winning. Instead, it was the fact that I knew that every green-shirted snake I laid out was once a friend or an ally, the many memorable quotes and adventures Ryder and Smoke had produced in their short time, and my sympathy for a man who’d just been betrayed to the point of attempted murder by his closest and most treasured friends. As much as I hated them, it was still hard to go through with it when the time came to kill each one, simply because of all the fun I’d had running around the streets of Los Santos with them in the first place.
I’ve played two generations’ worth of video games with a whole hell of a lot of brilliant, immersive stories since San Andreas, but nothing pulled me in quite like San Andreas was able to… All because of Ryder, Smoke, and that green Sabre.
Honourable mention: Through the Fire and the Flames (Guitar Hero III)
If I didn’t know better, I’d think that Dragonforce’s Through the Fire and the Flames was conceived, written and recorded for the sole purpose of horrifying gamers around the world. What was meant to be a reward for completing Guitar Hero III was more like a seven-minute torture session, its quickening pace and frantic duelling solos teaching people the world over that, yes, video games can physically hurt people. The worst part, though? We all kept on going back for more, because even finishing the song (on Hard or Expert modes) was a God-damn status symbol — the one we coveted above any other. No pain, no gain, I suppose…
Rhys: Tohru Adachi (Persona 4)
The best villains are usually the ones you least expect. Labelled the “egocentric police dick” in Persona 4: Arena Ultimax, there are no truer words when describing the villainy that is Tohru Adachi. Firstly introduced to the player as the work partner of their uncle, Ryotaro Dojima, Adachi fills the role of the bumbling detective stereotype. So much so, that his constant incompetence is actually charming and funny. Adachi spends most of the game being nothing more than a bumbling idiot, but his personality takes a major turn once it’s revealed that he was the one behind the first two murders and, therefore, the instigator of the entire plot.
Cruel, sadistic and just plain sociopathic, Adachi becomes a true monster of the Persona universe. Believing the world to be “full of shit” — a belief he holds after being forced to work in such a “backward” place as Inaba and for being rejected by Mayumi Yamano — Adachi accidentally discovers the Midnight Channel and murders Mayumi Amano. Continuing in his sadistic ways, Adachi convinces Yamano’s former lover that the Midnight Channel is in fact attempting to save people instead of killing them. Believing that he had covered all bases so no one would suspect him, Adachi becomes a sort of selfish child when his true nature is revealed to the party.
What I adore about Adachi, though, is how placid he manages to be until his cover is eventually blown, where he responds with a great (albeit biased) critique of the world and society as a whole. This juxtaposition and transformation into a vile and cruel human being came as a real shock to the system. I, alongside the protagonist and his friends, saw Adachi as an innocent and fulfilling comedic character; but it stays true to the talented writing staff at Atlus to make such a reveal a memorable and heartbreaking one at the same time.
Honourable mention: Ardyn Izunia (Final Fantasy XV)
We all knew it was coming upon his reveal in Final Fantasy XV’s E3 2013 trailer. The suave smirk he gave and the overall composure Ardyn emitted was immediately a hit on the “I’m a villain!” scale, but no fan could prepare themselves for just how well Ardyn was written. Charismatic as all hell, Ardyn’s goal throughout the game is to see Noctis rise, only to crumble at his own hands, and crumble he does. Throughout my time playing Final Fantasy XV, I got giddy whenever Ardyn was on the screen, curious to see what he was up to next and what kind of fiendish activity he will convince the party to do. Hiding a deep, dark secret that I hope is explored further in some DLC or, heck, even another game (Final Fantasy XV is the only Final Fantasy game I believe needs a sequel/prequel), Ardyn is on a whole other level and immediately becomes one of my all time favourite Final Fantasy villains.
If you’re still with us, we hope that you enjoyed our little peek into the darker side of gaming’s past! Of course, we’ve all got a finite amount of choices and a finite amount of space to write about them, so we’re sure you’ve got a villain or two that you think deserved a spot on this list; if so, let us know over on Facebook, or join our Discord server and have a chat with us about it in real time!