I THINK the bad guys contribute more to making a game fun than the protagonist does.
Each enemy you come across is its own individual miniature challenge. Some have mere moments to make a lasting impression so it is important that they have something to make them memorable.
Currently there are too many games that rely on waves of faceless grunts for you to chew on. Instead, whenever some ugly bastard stomps into the fray, you should be thinking “oh hello, it’s one of THOSE guys“, not “oh it’s another guy.“
For this list there are a few ground rules:
- They must be A.I. controlled, a lot of the time it’s the A.I. that’s the memorable part.
- No bosses; mini-bosses at most. Bosses have their own dedicated sequences and only appear once, automatically making them memorable. I want to honor the average villains for their role so there will be no Shadow of the Collossus on this list.
- No fighting games. Technically every character in a fighting game is an enemy and since fighting games exclusively focus on an interaction with an enemy, the genre would simply dominate this list.
- Single player campaigns only.
Okay, so maybe the king of block-building-games doesn’t have the biggest list of baddies; and some of them aren’t very original, the zombies are real basic bitches.
Yet everyone remembers the first time the Sun went down. Being chased by a crude zombie, twocked by a skeleton’s arrow and then blown up by a depressed avocado.
It’s an iconic experience that has become a cult phenomenon. I challenge you to count the sheer number of Youtube videos dedicated to Creepers and/or Endermen.
You can’t do it
9. Dragon Quest
You’re setting out on an epic 100 hour quest to save the land. Striding out of the first town you are confronted by three smiling blue turds.
Enemy varieties escalate beautifully through each Dragon Quest adventure. They get wackier and more dangerous the further you progress along your quest.
First it’s the slimes, then it’s a cat with a 5ft tongue, then you’re fighting some impaled peppers and before you know it you are fending off an obese dragon with a bongo under its arm.
They’re always weird with great twists on the standard monsters you see around, even if a few are just wearing different skins.
Are they enemies? They attack you whenever you step on forlorn shrubbery and some of them have to be stopped from destroying the planet. I’d say so, yes.
Variety is the name of the game here. Everyone knows the franchise and there are so many of the beasts that you’re going to have a favourite.
The reason this is so low on the list is because the series now feels like it is purely relying on sheer quantity for appeal. The majority of encounters I had in Sun saw me wait for the beast to appear, roll me eyes and hammer ‘run’.
Mario has steadily standardised it’s roster of villains, cementing an iconic line up.
Goombas, Koopas, Wrigglers and Bullet Bills have become equally as recognisable as the mustachiod plumber.
Each is mechanically simple, but as the levels progress, their placement and coordination presents an escalating challenge that is a trademark of the side-scrolling series.
My one complaint is that it’s become slightly too familiar. I miss the sphinx and Easter Island Heads from Super Mario World; where’s the flavour gone?
6. The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt
The Northern Kingdoms are infested with hordes of hideous Creepers and archaic forrest spirits.
The first time you encounter most enemies is usually in the form of a contract mission. This verges on breaking my ‘no bosses’ rule, but these creatures can be encountered in the wild so I think they can be counted as general enemies too.
When fulfilling a contract there’s an element of mystery as you track down the monster, following a trail of corpses deep into its lair and slowly figuring out what you’re dealing with.
Then there’s the moment of reveal. These are monsters you can just bump into while adventuring, but the contract missions manage to highlight how terrifying these things can be.
The first time you encounter a Leshen is heart pounding, especially at higher difficulties. These guys can teleport through tree roots and hit like a train.
I got a big surprise when a few hours after a Leshen contract I managed to walk into one in a wood by total accident.
A+ enemy design.
5. Horizon: Zero Dawn
Generally I value gameplay more than I do aesthetics, but I must applaud Guerrila games; the models for their mechanical menagerie are just astounding.
If you get up close to even the smallest creature you can see thousands of individual parts, bunches of copper wiring imitate the sinews of muscles, lenses and torchlights stare back at you from robotic eyes and dozens of hinges or joints work in unison to make these robots move like living creatures.
Along with the great designs is the impressive level of interactivity. Many parts of the beasts can be detached and re-purposed. Each intricate armour plate can be chipped off with a well placed arrow, fuel tanks can be torn off and collected for crafting and laser cannons can be turned on their owners.
Fighting the enemies of Horizon requires understanding them, finding their weakness and exploiting the most effective part of your arsenal.
There is also some good variety to Horizon’s roster, a few too many are simply based on deer or bulls, but each new encounter makes you stop and asses how you’re going to take down the next android animal.
4. Dark Souls
This series is notorious for having enemies that will rearrange your organs and wear your skin in the first level/area.
You must pay attention to their movements, behaviours and patterns to take them down efficiently.
Yet it is not just their vicious nature that makes the enemies stick in your mind.
Many of them are haunting to look at.
Dark Souls II perhaps had too many boring knights, but for every knight there is some twisted manifestation of someone’s nightmare lurking around the corner.
At one point in Dark Souls III I was wandering through a forest when I noticed someone crying under a tree, I approached. The thing went silent for a moment and turned to look at me. It had no eyes and it’s face was contorted into a scream. Horrific crow-wings then burst from its back and it proceeded to stab me 14 times in the face.
Lovely, and very much memorable.
Imagine the original pitch for the Big Daddy.
Pitch – How about a guy in an old diver’s suit?
Dev – Great, it fits the underwater theme and gives him some armour.
Pitch – ..and he carries a 6-year-old girl on his shoulder.
Dev – Okay, bit weird but it could work. She could have a gun or something.
Pitch – No, give her a dirty needle.
Dev – Owhkay… what about the big guy?
Pitch – (looks off into distance, whispers) Something from Black and Decker.
Seems daft at first, that is until you’ve taken a rivet to the eye-socket and had a cavity removed via a hole in your lungs.
The splicers have each got their own mad little quirks too, my favourite being the Houdinis that can teleport in a puff of petals.
Bioshock Infinite went further with giving each enemy a signature design and benefited from it. You constantly had to change your tactics in the presence of a clockwork patriot or a handy-man.
If Dark Souls is on the list, Bloodborne had to be too. I was debating grouping them together, but the monsters of Bloodborne are more stylised than those of Dark Souls.
They are related with a consistent theme. The Lovecraftian influence has allowed Fromsoftware to focus on what really makes a monster disturbing.
Even what would be standard enemies have been made that much creepier. Werewolves twitch and crawl along like goliath spiders while oil-slick crows arduously slither towards you.
Every enemy seems to be suffering, yet they are so bent on seeing your blood they will look past their own torturous existence to crush your skull with a brick, suck your blood out or just straight up eat you.
1. Doom (1993 or 2016, take your pick)
People who have finished Doom can name all the enemies and tell you the defining thing about them. None of them are forgettable.
I remember flicking through the manual of the PSOne version back in 1998. Each enemy had its own little description next to its sprite.
My favourite was that for the Lost Soul: “Dumb. Tough. Flies. On fire. ‘Nuff said.”
For me that sums up the ethos of Doom enemy design; succinct, functional and demonic.
Thirty years ago, id Software knew that the bad guys had to make an impression. Each of them was given a distinct and harrowing battle cry. These things were little more than sprites yet the sound of an Arachnotron’s footsteps in the next room always made you pause for breath while you selected the appropriate plasma rifle.
Aesthetically, the original Doom made great use of colour so that you could distinguish each enemy type at a glance and quickly prioritise what to kill first. The silhouette of each enemy was also unique, so you were never unsure what thing you were about to fill with lead.
The 2016 game is less colourful but remembered to make the baddies impactful and respected their defining attributes.
Additionally I’ve got to give a nod to the death animations.
Watching the old sprites crumple to the ground was always quite satisfying, as was walking back through a room littered with their corpses.
The bodies may disappear in 2016 Doom but the death animations are still as rewarding as ripping out a Mancubus’ throat should be.