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Published November 10, 2018

When designing a video game, there is a good chance that you will need to come up with some enemies and bosses for the player to face. Invariably, the question becomes: what makes a good enemy or boss design? In this post, I will look at some memorable villains of the past and provide some analysis for why I think they stand the test of time.

First, I will look at villains who are memorable for their difficulty. These bad guys are known for being walls, tough adversaries that require all of the player’s skill to get past.

Red Arremer/ Red Devil

The Red Devil is the iconic enemy of the Ghosts n’ Goblins series. He was so famous that he got his own trilogy, the Gargoyle’s Quest trilogy (the hero Firebrand, to be specific).

Why did I choose Red Devil?

It’s hard to deny how much of an impression Red Devil has made on the series. While there are other fearsome foes such as Satan from the NES port, Red Devil makes an appearance in most if not all games with the same design and strategy.

Why is he memorable?

The Red Devil is one of the most difficult enemies in any Ghosts n’ Goblins game as he flies around quickly in the air and takes potshots at poor Arthur. He’s dangerous to fight because your greatest opportunity to strike him is usually when he swoops down, when he is most likely to hit you as well. Not to mention, many people did not make it very far into the brutally challenging Ghosts n’ Goblins games, either in arcade or console. His solid red body contrasts well with the muted colors of blue and gray of his wings. Red Devil was often the first major challenge for players, and many people would not be able to progress past him, cementing his legacy as a quarter stealer.

Tonberry

This choice was difficult, as there are several famous enemies from the Final Fantasy series, such as the Behemoth and Cactuar.

Why did I choose Tonberry?

The Behemoth is a tough fight, but he’s usually fairly simplistic in his attack pattern. The Cactuar is also strong with his 1000 or 10,000 needle attack, but he’s usually not too tough to defeat. I’m placing Tonberry in this list because of his unique, interesting fighting style, deadly weapon and high health.

Why is he memorable?

The Tonberry’s fighting style makes him a tough adversary for unsuspecting players. His simple strategy of moving slowly towards the player and delivering instant death attacks has caught many new players off guard. Not to mention, he takes quite a heavy amount of punishment before falling, which belies his humble appearance. His unassuming character design (most of his body is hidden under a cloak) combined with the deadly knife that he wields in one hand and the lamp in the other makes for an unforgettable battle.

Yellow Devil

There are several devil incarnations in the Mega Man series, but Yellow Devil is the most infamous. I’m also picking him over Vile because even though Vile’s first appearance is amazing, I don’t think he’s as memorable. I will be bringing up Vile in a future post, however, when I talk about using the Hopeless Boss Battle to hook a player into your game.

Why did I choose Yellow Devil?

I feel the Yellow Devil incarnation is the most famous version, and he appeared first in Mega Man. Vile was a close contender, but his battles are not quite as interesting in my opinion (although his signature ride armor usage is famous). The Sigma battles are also good and memorable, but I think Yellow Devil stands tallest for the whole series.

Why is he memorable?

Yellow Devil’s fight is unique in that he splits apart and moves across the screen in small to fight you. This contrasts heavily from the robot masters who hop around to fight. He doesn’t move beyond this; he always retains the same fighting stance. Yellow Devil’s huge yellow body is contrasted by his massive red eye, which telegraphs his weakness to the player. He’s not necessarily the most difficult battle, but his unique fighting style and repeated appearances help to cement his legacy.

Ornstein and Smough

These bad boys need no introduction: they are synonymous with the Dark Souls franchise. Ornstein and Smough are infamous as one of the toughest boss fight duos in video games. After the dlc for Dark Souls 3 was released, there are contenders for the hardest bosses in the series such as Blackflame Friede and Darkeater Midir.  No boss comes close though in terms of how recognizable they are, down to the music and the arena.

Why did I choose Ornstein and Smough?

The Black Knights in Dark Souls were a close second, as they are well known newbie crushers. Honestly, there are a number of other good choices, such as Taurus Demon and Capra Demon, but I think Ornstein and Smough are the best known. I also believe their fight is one of the most interesting because of their juxtaposition with one another.

Why are they memorable?

The Ornstein and Smough fight is one of the first clearly unfair fights in the series (excluding Maneaters, perhaps). Taurus was tough with his small bridge, but at least the player could perform drop attacks, use fireballs and utilize pine resin to gain the upper hand. Capra Demon was also hard with his dogs, but the dogs go down in a couple hits at least, and Capra alone is relatively easy. The Gargoyles are also tough, but they have similar movesets at least. Ornstein and Smough work so well together because they complement their strengths perfectly.

When the fight begins, Ornstein rushes the player immediately and performs a powerful thrust, knocking down unsuspecting players. If the player is knocked down, Smough is given ample time to lumber over and smash his mighty hammer down on the player, often ending the fight within seconds if this is the player’s first time. Their asynchronous fighting styles make them tough contenders.

Everything about this dynamic duo is perfect because of their differences. Ornstein rushes around the stages and provides ranged support, while Smough provides power and sturdiness. The cutscene helps to set the tone magnanimously as well; their differences in size and design immediately tell the player all they need to know about them. Not to mention, Ornstein doesn’t appear immediately, which may have led players to briefly think that Smough was alone. Summoning Solaire or another player is virtually a must for newer players. In addition, this boss fight has the unique trait of having a different phase 2 depending on which boss the player slays first, either giving Smough lightning powers or scaling up Ornstein in size.

Shadow Link

Shadow Link is the infamous last boss from the lesser known Zelda 2: Adventure of Link.

Why did I choose Shadow Link?

The boss fight with Shadow Link in Ocarina of Time is a good fight as well, but I felt the original battle was much more challenging. This is assuming you didn’t cheese the fight and sit in the corner and stab repeatedly. I should mention that I have yet to beat him without employing this strategy. There are a myriad of good choices for tough enemies and bosses from the Zelda franchise, but I feel Shadow Link is one the toughest and most interesting.

Why is he memorable?

Shadow Link can perform the same sword attacks that you can. While he can’t use magic, his skill makes him a formidable foe. Shadow Link works well because it’s a fair fight: he doesn’t possess any particular special abilities over you. By this point, the player has faced many enemies similar to himself, such as the Darknuts and the Fokkas (bird knights), but Shadow Link tops all of them in ability.

Your typical Zelda game pits you against Ganon at the end, but in Zelda 2, you’re forced to face with yourself as the ultimate test of skill. This could be seen as a literary device, depending on how you view the situation. His color scheme is simple, being a black shadow of Link’s sprite. For your own in-game villain, you may want to add in some dark blues or purples to add a small splash of color to a “dark” styled enemy.

The Grim Reaper (Death)

The Grim Reaper, or Death, is an infamous villain from the Castlevania series. He was the most challenging in the first Castlevania game, but he’s no slouch in his other appearances as well.

Why did I choose Death?

Aside from Dracula himself, Death has made the most appearances of any boss in the franchise. His first appearance in Castlevania has you running around frantically trying to dodge his homing scythes as he floats about. He is one of the most challenging bosses in the original game. On top of that, he appears at the end of a hallway besieged with tough axe-throwing knights and endless medusa heads that sap your health at every opportunity.

Why is he memorable?

The fight with the Grim Reaper will have even the most battle-hardened player sweating up a storm. Unless the player takes advantage of the holy water, which can be abused to lock the reaper in place, the player will have their work cut out for them trying to survive. The lead up to the fight helps to set the stage because of its difficulty. It’s as though the game is taunting the player, saying “Hey, there’s a hard boss waiting for you at the end of this extremely challenging hallway. Fight him if you dare.” His muted blue color scheme contrasts nicely with the hanging orange drapes in the background. He has a tall, cloaked body complemented with a long scythe, demonstrating how his scythe is more of a threat than his own frail being.

While most of the bosses seem single-minded in trying to destroy the player, the Grim Reaper seems more relaxed. I like to think he doesn’t consider the player much of a threat, instead letting his sickles do the fighting. Death works as a boss who mainly does indirect combat, which is useful for any boss that may consider the player beneath them. In addition, his ability to pass through solid blocks unhindered betrays his incorporeal nature. A boss that is able to pass through solid walls unhindered may be difficult to balance, but if you design it well, a ghastly foe makes for a truly strenuous and memorable fight.

Special Mention: Slogra and Gaibon

Slogra and Gaibon are the reason I decided to make this post in the first place (mainly after noting their appearance in season 2 of Castlevania for Netflix, much to my delight. Watch that show if you haven’t, by the way. It’s awesome 😀 ). I decided to make them a special mention because they aren’t that difficult in Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, nor are they the most iconic. They are tough in their first appearance in Super Castlevania IV, but they don’t team up in that game. However, I think their teamwork deserves a special shout-out because I think they make a great villainous pair, in the same way as Ornstein and Smough does years later.

Why did I choose Slogra and Gaibon?

Slogra and Gaibon are a boss duo that appear early in Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. While they aren’t the most challenging foes, their unique teamwork strategy is something I feel that I must comment on.

Why are they memorable?

In early video games, it was rare to have a boss matchup that consisted of two unique bosses. Usually, what happened instead is that more than one of the same enemy would attack you at once, such as the triple clone mega mans in Mega Man 3. The reason for this was fairly straightforward: creating more than one of the same boss to fight you simultaneously was easy to design and program. It’s simple for a programmer to add in or remove a copy of a boss to modulate the difficulty.

Developing a boss team with two different bosses is monumentally more challenging to design. Slogra and Gaibon present a unique fight because Gaibon carries Slogra around to drop on the player. This boss fight has many layers to it; for instance, Slogra can lose his spear, forcing him to get in close with a lunge attack. In addition, Gaibon will become overheated when damaged enough, pushing him to release a burst of large fireballs instead of his smaller pellets. If the player defeats one before the other, the player will nullify their carry and drop strategy.

It’s no wonder that Sotn is looked upon as fondly as it is with details such as these. Their color scheme works nicely together: the green of Slogra and the blue of Gaibon have great synergy. They provide great support for one another too: Slogra covers the ground while Gaibon hangs in the air.  One other neat little easter egg is that the players can actually face Slogra and Gaibon early. The player has to do a little backtracking to fight them earlier than normal. While these bad guys will retreat after sustaining some damage, it was interesting to see them appear more than once.

Special Mention: WarMech

WarMech is the first superboss of the Final Fantasy franchise. I am choosing the version from the NES original game because I feel WarMech has the most impact there. In the remakes, the player wields greater power, and WarMech loses some strength, reducing his presence.

Why did I choose WarMech?

Although I already selected Tonberry from the Final Fantasy series, I feel WarMech deserves a special mention. I also liked its introduction as a secret random encounter in the bridge leading to Tiamat in the Flying Fortress. I thought it was a nice bait-and-switch making players think Tiamat was the toughest baddie in the fortress, while in reality, the deadly WarMech lurks about just inches from Tiamat, ready to demolish unsuspecting players.

Why is it memorable?

As I’ve mentioned, WarMech is noted for being the first superboss in Final Fantasy history. In contrast, though, Warmech appears as a random encounter instead of a proper boss. While I like his fight, sometimes the RNG can make things too unfair. WarMech’s standard attack is insanely powerful, dwarfing even the final boss’ strength. In addition, if you’re unlucky, WarMech can open the fight with Nuke, which will devastate players who may be low on health from the trip through the fortress. There are numerous other tough memorable fights in the game, but I personally like the idea of this crazy powerful robot walking around that just obliterates anything in sight. It’s so different in genre tone from the majority of the game that it’s hard to forget.

As much as I like the goofiness of the whole situation, this is really an example of genre dissonance. The sci-fi genre doesn’t mesh well with Final Fantasy‘s high-fantasy setting. The fight isn’t quite as interesting as it could have been, either. If WarMech had a couple easier moves, it would have been a more balanced fight. WarMech was basically rolled into Omega from Final Fantasy V, which is also an interesting boss fight. However, I feel that luck can play too much into the outcomes of these fights.

Next time

Next time, I will look at villains who are infamous for story purposes.