10. Dracula – Castlevania
Castlevania is basically a hodgepodge series of ghosts and monsters from every mythology ever, and sitting atop all of them sipping his wine is Bram Stoker’s original vampire himself. Dracula’s appearance and mannerisms may vary a lot across the franchise, but one thing he’s always been is a lot of fun. Whether he’s a voiceless sprite who just appears at the end of a Castlevania game or some voice-acted ham who chews the scenery in overly dramatic dialogue, it’s always a treat when Dracula is onscreen.
The “What is a man?” speech from Castlevania: Symphony of the Night remains one of the most memorable dialogue exchanges in all of gaming history, and the quote is still thrown around plenty today. Factor this in with an ancient Gothic aesthetic and a lineup of buff Belmonts to fight against and you have a recipe for a great and memorable villain. Considering all of this, then, why is he so low on our list? Well, quite simply, it’s because he’s Dracula. A big part of what makes this villain so iconic is the entire mythos outside of video games. His lore was already well-established before Castlevania, so he’s got a significant head start over the other villains on our list who have forged their own unique legacy through gaming alone.
9. Ghosts – Pac-Man
Sometimes you just get credit for being one of the first. Inky, Blinky, Pinky, and Clyde aren’t really anything more than foes that chase after you as you play Pac-Man. They don’t offer any deep insight into some deep lore or interesting backstory. In fact, their personalities border on non-existent; they’re just ghosts who really don’t like Pac-Man. Yet, you’d be hard-pressed to find a gamer who doesn’t know who these little guys are. There’s a bit of an elegant simplicity to their designs that leaves a surprising impact despite their lack of actual depth beyond just obstacles for the player. You take one look at these guys and you’ll remember them.
Iconic doesn’t necessarily mean the best or most interesting. Sometimes it just means important, and the ghosts are very important, indeed. They were one of the first groups of villains to be featured in a widely successful game. Collectively they’ve appeared on almost every gaming platform imaginable. While that might not make them the most thoughtful choice out there, it certainly does make them iconic.
8. Ridley – Metroid
It’s a giant space pirate dragon, what more is there to say?
Like Pac-Man’s ghosts, Ridley is not a particularly deep character. Arguably, he’s not a character at all. In the games he appears in, he’s usually little more than a ferocious enemy for Samus to overcome. Yet, like with the ghosts, people remember Ridley. They remember the tense battles in Super Metroid or the huge public demand that he become a playable fighter for Super Smash Bros. or even that moment he swoops in during Metroid Prime. For a franchise that often features minimal dialogue, Ridley is actually very appropriate as a villain with little to say.
He does have a character of course and an important role in the series, but to the average fan, they just see a big space dragon. That’s all you really need sometimes.
7. Vaas Montenegro – Far Cry 3
It’s kind of funny now to think about, but it wasn’t too long ago that Far Cry wasn’t a terribly big franchise. The games were good and they had their fans, but there was never really a huge spot in the mainstream gaming public for it. That is, until Far Cry 3, and you can credit a lot of that success to the game’s antagonist Vaas.
Vaas is fascinating because, despite being a sociopath, he’s actually a very interesting character. It’s rare to get a genuinely psychotic villain who feels both cartoonish and real and Vaas walks that line very well. One moment he’s giving the player his own thoughtful, twisted outlook on life. The next he’s gleefully torturing people and it’s hard not to kinda love him in spite of himself.
Despite, or perhaps because of, the fact that Vaas is so demented, he’s always entertaining to watch. He filled a niche in gaming villains that hadn’t been filled in a good long while and really, the results speak for themselves. Ever since Vaas, the Far Cry series has made a similarly twisted person the main antagonist in each subsequent game, always trying to capture the magic that made Vaas the iconic villain he’s now remembered as.
6. Team Rocket – Pokemon
Sometimes you wanna be the best like no one ever was, and sometimes you’re just not. Team Rocket definitely is not. When compared to other teams in the Pokemon franchise, Team Rocket isn’t particularly deep, meaningful, or even especially villainous. They’re basically just a bunch of crooks who use Pokemon for petty crimes and nothing else.
Still, Team Rocket is a fan favorite team of the Pokemon community to date and they helped to lay the ground work for a lot of what the series would one day become. Sure, they weren’t deep, but they also didn’t need to be. They’re the video game equivalent of a bad guy from a silent era film. They’re so cartoonishly evil and yet also pathetic in such a way that it’s hard not to like them. They were the perfect basic villains for the perfectly basic first generation of Pokemon games.
Their iconic status is thanks in large part to just being the first and their prominent role in the anime, but even then, when taken on their own terms, Team Rocket is still a lot of fun as a group of villains.
5. Ocelot – Metal Gear
Kept you waiting, huh?
The Metal Gear franchise is arguably one of the most complicated in all of gaming. There are countless characters, clones of characters, characters at radically different points in their lives, and it’s all told through one of the most alarmingly comprehensive narratives out there. Ocelot alone can refer to a number of characters across the franchise technically speaking, but one thing is absolutely certain; he’s a damn good and iconic villain.
It’s actually a bit difficult to fully explain what makes Ocelot great given Metal Gear’s complexity, but suffice to say he a masterclass in espionage, manipulation, combat, philosophy and an overall perfect foil for Snake across the many games. The battles against him, particularly the climactic encounter in Metal Gear Solid 4, are all fun and brilliant in their own ways and the series would be lesser for not having him in it.
4. Ganon – Legend of Zelda
It’s kind of funny to think that one of gaming’s most iconic villains is a giant boar with a penchant for tridents but here we are. Ganon is nothing if not memorable, having been a part of almost every mainline Zelda game since the franchise’s inception. Whether you know him as the Gerudo Ganondorf or the great hulking boar monster Ganon, the point is that you know who he is; and you probably love fighting him every time you see him.
Depending on your preferred Zelda, Ganon can vary wildly in terms of appearance and personality. Sometimes he’s a mindless brute. Other times he’s a calculating, manipulative vizier. Perhaps he’s a samurai who’s envious of a land far better than his own; or maybe he’s just evil incarnate. There have been almost as many different iterations of Ganon as there have been Zelda games and they all weirdly fit together. They help to paint this image of a power mad tyrant and how that power both literally and figuratively corrupts him. Which, for a series like Zelda, makes him a perfect villain.
3. Dr. Ivo “Eggman” Robotnik – Sonic the Hedgehog
Sonic has always been a weirdly persistent franchise despite having more than its fair share of hiccups over the years; so in a lot of ways it’s only fitting that Dr. Ivo “Eggman” Robotnik is a weirdly iconic villain.
Weird because when you get right down to it, Robotnik is probably one of the most underplayed villains in any major gaming franchise. Oh, he’s always there, but almost every time he’s undercut or pushed to the background by another, usually far less interesting villain. Despite being Sonic’s archenemy, more often than not Robotnik is a secondary antagonist or a flat out joke. Though in a lot of ways that’s also part of what makes him as iconic as he is.
Fans have been demanding for years that Sonic games simply focus on the rivalry between Robotnik and Sonic; and when the focus is strictly on that dynamic great things usually happen. His lack of screen time as an actual major villain in his own games has become a part of his identity over the years. Plus he’s just a fun design. A tall, egg-shaped man with an outlandish mustache and a penchant for kidnapping cute animals to turn into robots. You take one look at Robotnik and you remember him. He’s gaming’s de facto evil scientist and one of the most iconic villains in the business.
2. Sephiroth – Final Fantasy VII
And here we have the original JRPG pretty boy. For a generation of gamers, Sephiroth was quite possibly the coolest character any of them had ever seen. Unlike most video game villains of the era, his design was lean and beautiful while still somehow pulling off his absurdly long sword. It’s a good blend of the sillier design sensibilities of Final Fantasy and the more easy on the eyes character designs of Tetsuya Nomura, resulting in a character who has remained one of gaming’s all-time greatest villains.
There are tons of moments one could pick from Final Fantasy VII to highlight with almost all of them remaining well-remembered to this very day. Sephiroth standing in the fires of Nibelheim, his final battle with Cloud in the dark abyss, his rampage across the Shinra Building… we could go on. While he technically didn’t even appear in most of Final Fantasy VII he still left a mark on the franchise, and gaming as a whole, that Final Fantasy has spent decades trying to recreate.
1. Bowser – Mario
Who else could it have been?
Bowser isn’t so much a villain as he is an institution. He’s always there. If there’a Mario game, he is in it. If you try to think of a villain from a video game, he comes up. He isn’t just iconic, he’s inescapable. Bowser’s the sort of character you would see next to a dictionary definition of villain because that’s how ingrained he is into the public consciousness of gamers.
There are people who have never touched a video game who could give you a reasonable approximation of who Bowser is and what he does. There’s not even much of a point in explaining who he is. Everyone knows he tries to kidnap Princess Peach and battles Mario, and like everything else about Mario he can be funny or menacing whenever the time calls for it. Is he terribly complicated? No, but he doesn’t need to be. He’s Bowser. He wrote the book on being a video game villain.