In January last year, Guinness listed the Top 50 Video Game Villains of All Time, as decided by a poll of its users. It saw Bowser – the arch-nemesis of everyone’s favourite portly plumber – claim top spot over all others.
When I saw the results, I personally took a big sigh and rolled my eyes. First, I checked that my Nintendo fanboy microchip was still lodged firmly up my jacksy – because for a second I feared I had become neutral – and luckily for me it was still wedged right up where it should be. So I asked myself why I was so disappointed with a result that felt so obvious and above all, downright wrong.
It got me thinking about what actually makes a great villain in videogames, and as I started to think about the entry criteria for my own personal Villain Hall of Fame, it became clear very quickly that Bowser failed on most points. He’s a lousy villain and a poor choice for greatest of all time, and against my better judgment, I’m going to spend some time explaining why you should feel the same.
Firstly, it’s quite clear that a villain needs to instill a certain amount of fear. If you’re not even remotely afraid of the villain, then there has to be something inherently wrong with them in the first place. When they appear on screen, a player should be worried about what they’re going to do to you and how they are going to react. Without fear, there’s clearly a lack of danger; and without danger, there really isn’t a problem for your hero to solve. When we put Bowser in the spotlight, it’s clear that he just isn’t scary. Sure, he provides a challenge for Mario due to his size and strength, but Bowser almost feels like more of a nuisance when he kidnaps the Princess – a job to do, rather than a specific danger to overcome.
A villain also needs intelligence to be considered truly great. It needs to be clear that the nemesis of our player has thought things through thoroughly before acting out their diabolical scheme. They will have thought ahead, and will have put actions in place to prevent failure – the obvious solutions just won’t cut the mustard against this enemy. They are smart, and they have thought of every detail. And it’s going to take a significant effort to beat them as a result. Now, I ask you honestly to look at Bowser and give him an intelligence rating out of 10 – and be honest.
Done that? Good.
I bet you’ve given him a 3, at a push. It could be the fact that he positions himself on a bridge over lava that can be demolished by a single axe and then keeps jumping to give our plumber enough time to run underneath. Or maybe it’s the fact that he thinks sending enemies that can all be defeated by being jumped on was a good idea. Or, because he always gives Mario the opportunity of defeating him, rather than – ooh, I don’t know – put him in a prison cell at the start of the kidnapping? It’s this display of a lack of intelligence which further calls into question Bowser’s status as a great villain.
The previous point leads nicely onto this next point: a truly great villain needs to learn from their mistakes. Most gaming villains worth their salt will attempt to be truly villainous more than once and are likely to appear in multiple games. And whilst there’s not a prerequisite that all villains cover their past failures with their new strategy, a truly great villain will appear to have progressed and developed their plan so that they don’t fail in the same manner to which they have before. Simply trying the same plan over and over again undermines a villain’s greatness straight away. It almost sets them up to fail. Bowser’s probably had more bites at the cherry than most when it comes to opportunities to get his own way in a videogame. But even the most charitable onlooker would struggle to praise Bowser’s variety in his plan of capturing the Princess and then simply waiting for Mario to defeat him. Sure he sometimes goes about this in slightly different ways, but never in a way that ever makes you think that he’s finally got his head screwed on and he’s learned from his mistakes.
Without fail, we know all Mario will have to do is traverse a load of levels to reach him, and then defeat him in a manner that is either very simple, or worse, a way that Bowser himself facilitates by providing the means of his defeat in the form of projectiles etc. It all reeks of a stubborn villain that is convinced his simple plan will one day come to fruition, but it’s that lack of flexibility which makes him come across as an ultimately flawed villain.
Villains also need to be terrible – have that inherent evil nature that makes them villainous in the first place. They need to display characteristics that make them feel terrible and a complete apathy for everything that is deemed good and proper in the world – a disregard for law and order and a lover of utter chaos. A terrible and evil villain not only gives us something meaty to go after as the hero, but by playing as the hero – by its very nature the antithesis of our villain – it makes we the player seem more relevant. More of a harbinger of goodwill in an hour of need, it gives us more a sense of purpose when you are battling against a villain that is truly wicked. Now cast your mind to Bowser once more – a villain whose dastardly plans amount to kidnapping a Princess (admittedly unlawful) and then keeping her in relative safety before our plumber turns up. Now aside from the fact that he probably has stalker tendencies – or likes her cakes maybe – Bowser never really does anything else that could be construed as terrible. He just really likes the Princess, that’s all. And it’s this that takes the Hollywood shine off of the situation, and brings his villain credentials into question.
Finally, a really good villain is one that we truly hate. We talked about fear as an emotion that is required from the player earlier, but another emotion that will point to a good villain is if we as the player truly cannot wait to kick their ass. Truly hated villains will no doubt have displayed some of the earlier mentioned characteristics, but may also display arrogance, self-righteousness or narcissism. Either way, their underlying attitude, character and actions make us as the player want to take control of the hero immediately. We want to progress the game and get to that final boss to give them a piece of our mind. A truly hated villain makes the victory all the sweeter, and the feeling of accomplishment and fallout of success all the more relevant. In effect the hero has not only saved the day, but removed a particularly hated character from existence. And so to Bowser again – do any of you honestly hate him? Have you ever played a Mario game, swearing to avenge the kidnapping of the Princess and bring Bowser to justice for his heinous crimes? No, of course you haven’t, if anything I’d say that a lot of the time you probably feel sorry for Bowser rather than despise him. It’s impossible to hate someone who is so useless; someone who doesn’t really pose a threat to anyone and whose total arrogance amounts to a generic BWHAHAHAHA at various points during the rescue mission.
So there you have it, these are not only my key characteristics that a villain must have to be considered truly great, but also reasons why Bowser really isn’t cut of that cloth.
However, what this ramble has not done is defined who the top villain in videogame history should be; but I think that is very much a personal thing. What this article has hopefully done for you, is establish some guardrails for villain standards everywhere. Remember peeps: when you’re weighing up how great a villain is, all you need to remember are the characteristics shown above.