It's been a while now since I originally made a list of the best 5 villains in RPGs--long enough that I've encountered enough villains since that I really should expand this list to 10. So here it is, the updated list of the best villains in the RPG genre. Ahem...
If there's anything that's hard to define about RPGs (and just story-telling in general), it's what constitutes a "good" villain. Everyone's got their own opinions on what a decent villain should be and do. So, a lot of this is gut feeling. I'm gonna stand by my picks pretty adamantly (unless I play games in the future and find new villains that outclass even these ones), but I admit that there's no real set of rules about what makes them great--they just are. I've been mulling over what makes a great RPG villain for quite a while now, and had some good conversations with Queelez about the subject, so I hope to someday have a rant about that. But for now, here are the 10 best RPG villains I've come across, in ascending order.
Oh, and be warned: this list obviously contains major spoilers. At this point, I'm sure you expect that sort of thing with these rants, but even so, it bears mentioning.
UPDATE 11/09/2015: Flowey added; Delita has been bumped off.
10. Loghain (Dragon Age 1)
Loghain is a very interesting and complex character, a former hero who falls to the side of villainy because of poor choice of advisers and an overpowering paranoia of former enemies. Loghain descends so far into his obsession with keeping his country safe from the imagined threat of the neighboring country whose former occupation of his country he helped lead a revolution against, he commits unspeakable atrocities and all but ignores the true threat to his nation, the army of Darkspawn spreading over his lands like a plague. While Loghain appears for most of the game to be no more than a power-mad tyrant, making certain choices during the game can allow the player to come to a better understanding of him, and see each of his poor decisions, each of his evil deeds, as more than just the acts of a mindlessly evil villain...the pieces fall into place to instead show a man who simply can't let the past rest and let his old paranoia color his vision of reality and blind him to true danger.
9. The Master (Fallout 1)
RPGs these days have an overabundance of lackluster Misguided Villains. You know the type--they come up with these big, elaborate plans to change or destroy the world that are way, way more contrived and dependent on chance and unlikely magical bullshit than is necessary, all because they believe, thanks to illogical thinking and sheer stupidity, that their fucking everyone in the world over is somehow what everyone really needs because the villain wasn't hugged enough by daddy. Like, literally, in many cases--Volsung of Wild Arms 5 and Seymour of Final Fantasy 10 come to mind. It's an old favorite of anime--Japan seems to be nuts about the sheer idiocy of having supposedly noble, pure, misguided wholesale-genocide-supporting maniacs. It's gotten old. Hell, it was old before it was in RPGs.
The Master is misguided. But he is not misguided in the way that I have mentioned. He does have a noble goal--finding a permanent solution to human nature's supposedly irrepressible urge to kill and destroy itself, leading to lasting peace. But see, The Master is misguided in a way that is fucking creepy; there's none of that Noble Pretty Boy stuff going on with him. To create world peace, he mutates regular human beings into huge, obedient mutants to serve him, creates an army of these mutants and tamed, freakish genetic monsters to sweep across the wasteland's towns and tribes, to collect more people for mutation and brutally massacre all others. He also creates a false religion to draw in unwitting believers to be experiments in mind control experiments, breaking their minds and creating utterly insane mental shells devoted to his cause. He's insane and freaky like few other villains--you find him in a hellish cathedral full of gun-toting mutants, broken-minded psychotic prisoners, and messy, grisly biological experiments on human beings, and when you talk to him, you can hear the madness in his words--literally, as he speaks with several different voices that interrupt each other.
I'm not really gifted enough verbally to properly describe it to you, a problem I had with a previous rant about Fallout's soundtrack--the series is all about the actual experience of viewing and hearing it, and reproducing that experience in text just isn't possible, I think. But trust me, once you're familiar with The Master, you can definitely agree that he's got the sheer misguided, malicious madness and chillingly creepy words, voice, appearance, goals, and methods to earn him a spot on this list.
8. Flowey (Undertale)
Flowey's a great combination of a villain who's incredibly creepy, like The Master, and really annoying, like 1 of the villains below, yet he's also a villain who's got a really interesting backstory that explains how and why he is very well. It's hard not to sympathize with this infuriating little psychopath once you know how he became what he is...even though he still revolts your sensibilities. As a representation of the player of RPGs, Flowey is insightful, as a character he has depth and pathos, as an adversary he's downright disturbing, and as a concept, he's intriguing...yeah, Flowey's a pretty excellently crafted villain, no doubt about it.
7. The Transcendent One (Planescape: Torment)
The Transcendent One's greatness as a villain comes less from who he is and what he does than it does simply from what he is and what role he fulfills. Without spoiling too much (because I never, ever want to discourage anyone in any way from playing Planescape: Torment), I can say that The Transcendent One, as a remnant of the protagonist's past, is the perfect ultimate obstacle in a game focused on the protagonist's journey of self-discovery and recovery of that which has been forgotten. With a great presence (helped in no small way by solid voice acting), heavy philosophical weight in his mere existence, the menacing threat of an unknowable hunter slowly closing in on its prey throughout the game's course, and the fact that he's the perfect culmination of the unusual journey of a nameless man across the planes of reality in search of himself, The Transcendent One is a character of great storytelling power that should serve as an example to game developers everywhere of how excellently connected great heroes and villains should be.
6. Pokey/Porky (Earthbound and Mother 3)
Most of the evildoers on this list are here because they're deep and interesting examples of villains, giving the player insight on how a person can turn to bad ends and lose themselves to their darker emotions.
Porky is not that kind of villain. Porky is just an obnoxious little shit.
Porky is a selfish, rude, irredeemable brat. While he's not a character with any depth per say, he's nonetheless an incredibly well-made bad guy for how realistic he is and how consistently true to character he stays. He's the essential bad kid. He's spoiled, he's selfish, he jeers and taunts everyone, he's petty, he's convinced that he's the center of all creation, and he demands absolute adulation from everyone around him. Never before have I seen the nastiest traits of children portrayed so completely and convincingly. Despite the fact that he manipulates his way to the top of an evil organization, guides the embodiment of all evil, and creates an army with which he invades and corrupts what amounts to the entire world, he's never more than a rotten child.
He also deserves mention for the fact that he very successfully makes the player hate his heinous little guts. Hate. Every time he opens his pudgy little mouth, I wish I could reach through the screen and choke the life out of him. He's always arrogant, maddeningly condescending, totally unfeeling, and he has an obsession with one-upping Earthbound's main character, Ness, that leads him to insist that he's still the cooler one even when he's running away like a sniveling coward--which happens a lot. Porky flees almost as much as those gutless Turks in Final Fantasy 7, and the fact that he refuses to adjust his narcissistic self-image at all regardless of how sorely the weak, pitiful little bastard's been pummeled just adds to how irritating he is. Porky's the perfect child villain, folks--it's that simple.
5. Wylfred (Valkyrie Profile: Covenant of the Plume) (Normal and Bad Ending Versions)
The best villains are often the ones you spend time with during their fall, the ones whose turn to dark means and objectives you can see for yourself. In 2 of the 3 endings of VPCotP (including the Normal Ending, which is canonically factual), Wylfred shows us this. Chosen for his resentment against the goddess of death, Lenneth, to fight and destroy her, Wylfred can be seen throughout the game to develop as a character along the path you set for him by the actions you make him take. Along the Bad Ending path, Wylfred becomes consumed by his rage against Lenneth and the other gods, encountering situations that further infuriate him as he lets his hatred for Lenneth and her kind completely engulf him, becoming, by the end, a spiteful, wrathful man obsessed with vengeance at any cost--a goal emphasized by the player's decision to have Wylfred sacrifice his companions through the game's course to gain power for himself.
Along the Normal Ending path, Wylfred instead develops as a more tragic villain, viewing the same events that the Bad Ending path showed through different eyes. While the Bad Ending path's view of these events encouraged utter submersion into the cause of hate and revenge, the Normal Ending path shows Wylfred perspectives that emphasize inevitable necessity, proving to him that he must carry out his objective of killing the Valkyrie even if the methods for doing so are distasteful. In this path, Wylfred develops into a man resigned to the necessity of his fate, knowing that his sins have committed him to his path and trying to do something right (or at least, what he believes is right) to make the evil deeds he's done to get to the game's finale meaningful.
Whether raging or resigned, Wylfred is a very well-crafted villainous protagonist, and the fact that he can be successfully developed into either version of the bad guy role is a testament to the skill of the game's writers.
4. Orsted (Live-A-Live)
Knowing a villain's motivation and background, their personality and beliefs, is, to me, perhaps the most important aspect in separating an excellent villain from a crowd of mediocre ones. Let's face it, the number of villains we see whose writers have put any strong effort into developing is shockingly small--and of the ones who do have strong backgrounds and motives we can see, many are just those annoying Good Intentions, Stupid Methods misguided anime losers I mentioned above at number 8. Knowing the villain as a character, seeing what he/she thinks, why he/she acts as he/she does, and how he/she got to this point in the story is what can really distinguish a villain as great--because really, how great can any character be if you don't know him or her? And yet, knowing a villain well is sadly pretty uncommon--most I've seen in RPGs are empty, meaningless plot vehicles, doing evil for barely any reason because it's needed for their to be a game at all.
This is why Orsted is so extraordinary. In Orsted's chapter of Live-A-Live, the player controls him as any of the other 7 (or 9, depending on how you view it) protagonists of LAL as he goes through a small, personal quest as the rest of them do. Thus, the player has a front row seat to all the events that result in Orsted falling from a national hero to a hated, pitiable fiend. Orsted loses everything important to him thanks to the petty vices of the people he trusted most--his fame, his honor, his hero, his friend, his love, and his aspirations. In the space of two days, the man who had everything to live for instead has everything he wanted and cared for, everything he desired to be a hero for, either taken violently from him, or worse, turned against him. By the time this horrible series of events conclude, you find no surprise at all as he bitterly curses the human race for its sin and weakness, and pledges to become a demon and eradicate it from existence utterly. This is a more powerful fall than Wylfred's was--Wylfred's descent into villainy is begun by his own feelings of bitterness and resentment against the deity of mortality; he was already facing the wrong moral direction before fate gave him the push down the villain's path. Orsted's fall is sheer and shocking, knocking him from the top of the world down to the very bottom and then rubbing his face in the dirt. You know exactly why he's doing this, but more than that, you even feel a great degree of sympathy to his position--because you've seen all that led him to this moment, and it was tragically unfair. Square very uncharacteristically* takes the time to show and develop their villain in Live-A-Live, and it really pays off with one of the best to grace the genre to date.
3. Luca Blight (Suikoden 2)
Now, I value creativity a lot. This is tied in with viewing villains as better when they're well-developed characters--it is, after all, a lot more creative to see a villain with a story than just some empty idiot who does bad things for the sake of it. As a rule of thumb, I want to see originality in my plots and characters first and foremost. But, as casts of games like Grandia 2 and Tales of Legendia have taught me, excellence really is all in the execution. Sometimes, if you do a damn fine job of portraying something well-known and typical, you still can make it excellent.
This is the case of Luca Blight. Luca is a power-hungry, war-mongering, bloodthirsty, genocidal madman out to personally kill everything he can--in other words, nothing new to the world of video games. He doesn't really have much character development, you don't know much about his back story that has any significance (even Final Fantasy 6's Kefka gets more background, and Square certainly didn't even put in their usual minimal efforts on villain background with him)*, and goals for his conquests certainly don't seem much more evolved than those of typical character-lacking RPG villains like Star Ocean 2's Wise Men, or Pokemon Generation 1's Giovanni.
But Luca is very, very different. Because Konami really sells you on how nasty this guy is, how great and terrible his rage and hatred is. You don't just get vague acts of destruction out of him. The game doesn't just show you some pretty cinemas of towns burning, things blowing up, maybe an NPC or two getting tidily struck down or laser beamed. You see him doing his thing, and you feel a chill at how utterly, unmistakably evil he is. He doesn't just order the slaughter of helpless civilians he's captured, he lines them up and personally kills each one with his own hand, laughing at them, insulting them, brutally humiliating them in their last, terrified moments. They mean nothing to him, yet he all the same makes their murders into a personal joy. He's vicious, willing to kill youths of his own army for his gain, and has the general demeanor when speaking, even to his own allies, of a rabid dog only barely held back by his leash.
He's also insanely powerful, and it seems that his power comes from nothing more than his all-consuming hatred and rage. In a world where magical Runes are more or less the be-all end-all of high power, Luca Blight surpasses most holders of True Runes with his strength of will and sheer evil alone. His death comes after:
1. Archers send a volley of arrows into him.
2. Archers send more arrows into him.
3. 6 of the best warriors that the good guys have attack him with all their might.
4. Archers shoot him a bunch more.
5. 6 more of the good guys' best fighters hit'im with all they've got.
6. He attracts another wave of arrows.
7. Another 6 of the good guys' best fighters give him all they have.
8. MORE ARROWS
9. Riou, the main character, has to finish him off in a one-on-one duel.
It's crazy. This kind of evil-fueled immortality would do Rasputin proud. And after all that, he still has the strength left to him to stand, laugh insanely, and deliver this immortal quote that shows you just how remorseless he is:
"Listen, Riou!!!!!!!!! It took hundreds to kill me, but I killed humans by the thousands!!!!! Look at me!!!! I am sublime!!!!!! I am the true face of evil!!!!"
Indeed he is.
2. Fou-Lu (Breath of Fire 4)
Honestly, it's hard for me to decide on who's the greater villain, Fou-Lu or Luca. But in the end, I think it has to be Fou-Lu.
Like Orsted, the major aspect of Fou-Lu that makes him such a remarkable RPG villain is how well you know him. Although most of BoF4 has you playing as Ryu, the hero, the game also has you often control Fou-Lu as he makes his own journey. As with Orsted, you come to understand Fou-Lu by his actions and words, and to understand why he comes to his beliefs and resolution, for you experience the events that drive him to his path as they happen, instead of just in some rushed flashback or spoken back story.
What sets Fou-Lu apart as a superior villain to even Orsted, though, is another aspect of what I believe really makes a great villain: the reflection he is to the main hero. Orsted is a villain in and of himself; Fou-Lu, however, is a villain who stands directly opposed to the hero, linked with him as two parts of a whole. Both Fou-Lu and Ryu see good examples of human nature in their travels--yet each also sees many tragedies brought on by the ugly parts of the human spirit. In the end, what Fou-Lu takes from his experiences is that humanity is too fundamentally corrupt and dark to deserve to live, while Ryu sees the good of some of the people he's met that surpasses the evil of the others (well, presumably; you actually have the option to choose how Ryu feels in the end, but the "real" ending has Ryu stand against Fou-Lu). Fou-Lu is great because the player can understand him and perhaps even sympathize with him, but the fact that you can see the contrast between his perspective and Ryu's over virtually the same experiences and evidence adds an extra aspect of excellence to him.
1. Kreia (Knights of the Old Republic 2)
Actually, sorry to disappoint you, but I don't really have much to say here--I already did a rant on Kreia a while back that had pretty much all I needed to say about her here. Check back on it if you want to know the scoop on the best RPG Villain of all. Suffice to say, Kreia has unparalleled character development, brilliant execution as a villain, and is pretty much a step up in every significant way from just about every other villain I know of, RPG or not.
Honorable Mention: Lavos (Chrono Trigger)
We're all familiar with the more humanized RPG villain, the one that talks and plots and menaces, but there's a whole other category of major RPG villains that I haven't gone into--the big, unnatural disaster-type villains. These are the huge, world-threatening catastrophic world-ending villains that quite often aren't even sentient--huge beasts like Gaia in Grandia 1 or the Archdemon in Dragon Age 1, godlike avatars of destruction like Nyx of Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3 or Malpercio of the Baten Kaitos series, and otherworldly menaces like Dark Force from the Phantasy Star series or Sulpher from Phantom Brave. They're world-ending monsters that often don't even seem self-aware, going about their destructive business by instinct or unconscious obedience to another villain's demands. As such, they're not that interesting as villains, being more like obstacles than any significant part of the story's intellectual aspect, but they deserve some mention all the same.
Of these doomsday beasts, I think Lavos is the best to me. For starters, once it gets started destroying, Lavos gets the job done in record time, bringing the ruin of the entire world about in, what, hours? Minutes? There's no steady progressing destruction like with Grandia 1's Gaia or anything. It's just over as soon as it begins. I also think Lavos's design is really pretty neat and appropriate, because it really LOOKS like the alien monstrosity it's supposed to be. Method of world-destroying's pretty neat, too, shooting out explosive spines so fast, high, and wide that they rain absolute destruction across the globe.
What makes Lavos stand out to me, though, is its motivation for its habits. From what little can be gleaned about this beast, it's a member of some immense alien species for whom the destruction of the world it infests is simply a natural part of the life cycle. It lands on a planet, digs deep down within its surface, and simply waits for aeons, somehow feeding on the evolutionary changes of the world's life over countless years, perhaps even directing some of them itself. Eventually it rises from the ground to bring about apocalyptic doom to the world's life (presumably to spark a huge feast of evolutionary energy in the world's few surviving organisms as they have to adapt to a radically different environment), and soon after spawns its own offspring (perhaps fertilized by the combined genetic data of all the planet's biological history) which will eventually leave the dead planet to find another and begin the cycle anew.
A planetary parasite that drains, affects, and kills an entire world's life like a disease-ridden tick spreads Lyme Disease to the host it sucks blood out of, so immensely powerful and steeped in the life essence of its planetary host that it distorts and rips the fabric of time itself--and never any indication or even hint that this could be anything but a non-self-aware animal acting solely on instinct. You can't tell me that isn't a damn cool idea.
...And here I thought that List Rants would be shorter and quicker than regular ones. So much for that idea.
* Yes, I know, Squaresoft/SquareEnix DOES actually have 3 villains on this list, so my comment here doesn't appear very fair, but I'd like to stress that these good villains are VERY much the exception to the rule with the company. While really good villains are rare all around, few RPG makers so consistently make terrible villains as Square does. Yeah, you've got Delita (formerly on this list), Lavos, Wylfred, and Orsted on one side...but the other side has maniacal idiots with less character depth than a Care Bears villain (X-Death of Final Fantasy 5, Ultimecia of Final Fantasy 8, Magic Emperor of Final Fantasy Mystic Quest), misguided nitwits who have the most idiotic reasoning for their actions that you can possibly conceive (Seymour of Final Fantasy 10, Feolthanos of Final Fantasy 12: Revenant Wings, Krelian of Xenogears), and puzzling dolts whose motivations and methods are so ridiculously complicated, contrived, and outright dumb that they just come off as silly and annoying (Vayne of Final Fantasy 12, Mydia of Final Fantasy 12: Revenant Wings, every single original villain of the Kingdom Hearts series besides Dark Riku). And there's also Sephiroth, who is basically a combination of all of those types. Oh, and did I forget the groups of completely ineffectual, lame, and annoying minor villains that never shut the hell up and remain cocky despite having never succeeded at anything, ever (The Turks of Final Fantasy 7, Organization 13 of Kingdom Hearts 2, Id of Xenogears--okay, he's not a group, but he does the same thing)? With Square, you breathe a sigh of relief when you just get a standard bland, uninteresting villain whose motivations are never adequately explored (Carltron of The Secret of Evermore, Thanatos of The Secret of Mana, the Omnidragon of Chrono Cross) because you know it could have been so much worse.