Five of the Best is a weekly series about the small details we rush past when we're playing but which shape a game in our memory for years to come. Details like the way a character jumps or the title screen you load into, or the potions you use and maps you refer back to. We've talked about so many in our Five of the Best series so far. But there are always more.
Five of the Best works like this. Various Eurogamer writers will share their memories in the article and then you - probably outraged we didn't include the thing you're thinking of - can share the thing you're thinking of in the comments below. Your collective memory has never failed to amaze us - don't let that stop now!
Today's Five of the Best is...
Villains, or baddies as I like to call them. For me, everything revolves around the baddie. They're the threat, the goal, the quest, and they have to be convincing. If they're a bit flimsy, the whole thing goes wibbly-wobbly and I'm left thinking what's the point? But if they're on point and menacing and, let's be real, probably quite alluring too, then I'm all in. Take Palpatine in Star Wars: I can't get enough of him. He's irresistibly evil and lights up every scene he's in, sometimes quite literally. His pantomime menace sells (maybe one too many of) the films.
It's the same for games. If the villain is limp we won't feel spurred on to defeat them. So let's celebrate the baddies for a change. Here are five of the best. Happy long weekend!
M. Bison in Street Fighter 2
I broke my fancy see-through SNES pad because of M. bloody Bison. It was in the Street Fighter 2 days and he was the end boss, and whatever I did, I couldn't beat him. It was that jump he did on top of my head and then the backflip back around. And his spinny forward jump, and the frontflip leg kick - I'm pretty sure I'm nailing the technical terms here. I just couldn't get a handle on him.
Again and again he beat me, and you know what he did every time he won? He smiled about it. The arrogant bastard. And one day I just couldn't take it any more. Like a toddler I let loose, jumping up and down on my controller before bending and snapping it my hands like a strongman (or petulant child) bending a metal bar. What a wally. I tried taping it back together but it never worked in the same way again. And it was all M. Bison's fault. I think.
Darth Traya in Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic 2 - The Sith Lords
I almost wrote the Nameless One here, the protagonist from Planescape: Torment, but the more I thought about it, the more I wasn't sure if he actually was a baddie. He definitely did bad things but he wasn't really the baddie.
My gut wants to go with someone else, one of the most memorable characters I've ever come across in a game: Kreia from Knights of the Old Republic 2. Perhaps it's no surprise KOTOR 2 and Planescape: Torment come up in the same breath, given so many of the same people were involved in both games, Chris Avellone in particular.
Kreia begins KOTOR 2 as your friend. In fact she's more than that, she's your mentor. She's the person you look up to and who teaches you in the ways of the Force. But what makes her so unusual in regards to other Star Wars mentors is she's neither good nor evil, not for the longest time. She's the one who chastises you for your charity to a homeless person because they'll get robbed by other homeless people who saw what you did. She makes you think. She is Obsidian making you question how you approach a game like this, and a licence like this.
It's not until you deal with the game's two other, equally memorable villains - Darth Sion, a person whose body is crumbling apart and is in constant pain and rage holding it together; and Darth Nihilus, who's not a person at all but a wound in the Force, sucking everything into itself like a black hole - that the real villain, their former ally, is revealed. And of course it's she who has been beside you the whole game, steering you. It is Kreia, or to use her Sith name, Darth Traya.
Below is a Making Of KOTOR 2 podcast I recorded several years ago now with members of the Obsidian team and the Restored Content Mod team. There's an adjoining article too.
Kefka in Final Fantasy 6
I mean, of course Kefka's on this list. How could he not be? Final Fantasy 6's villain has every right to call himself video game's ultimate baddie, a cackling clown who is a thing of pure evil. Psychotic foes are ten-a-penny in games, of course, but Final Fantasy 6's masterstroke is - spoiler alert - showing you what happens when evil wins out. And boy is it not pretty.
Even before that point, Kefka's wrongdoing takes Final Fantasy 6's adventure to some surprisingly dark places, killing off an entire kingdom by poisoning the water supply - and that's him just getting started. It's like pre-Hays Code cinema, before video game's burgeoning popularity meant a new kind of morality swept across the medium. Even then, there'd never been anyone quite as evil as Kefka in games - and I doubt there ever will.
Mahatma Ghandi in the Civilization series
Nuke-mad Gandhi endures as the ultimate not-a-bug-but-a-feature of video games. But it was a bug once. In the first Civilization game, the story goes, Gandhi's hidden aggression value was set to the lowest possible value on the scale, which was 1. But if he adopted the doctrine of democracy, which lowered his hidden aggression statistic by two points, he accidentally became the antithesis of himself. It's because instead of going falling to -1, his aggression counter would loop back around to the maximum value of 255. (An interesting aside here for the real nerds: 255 is a significant number in a lot of games, like Pokémon's EVs for instance, if you're into competitive training. In my admittedly limited understanding, this is apparently down to storage. A single byte stores 256 different values, but because it begins from zero, 255 regularly occurs as the maximum value, as in our good old friend Gandhi's aggression.)
Anyway! Gandhi, as a result of this little quirk, became the most aggressive Civilization leader ever when adopting democracy. Ever since, he's been intentionally programmed to be nuke-heavy as a nod to the bugs of the past, though Firaxis has made him a bit nicer for the rest of the game, which is probably fair enough.
Loot boxes in everything
Surprise! Or should I say… surprise mechanics?
I bet you weren't expecting to see loot boxes in the mix here, but can you think of a more hated villain in games history? The backlash to EA's implementation of loot boxes in Star Wars: Battlefront 2 was so severe that multiple countries eventually banned them. Players have spent thousands of dollars on them without even realising, and even the NHS has weighed in to say they're "setting kids up for addiction" to gambling. That's quite the portfolio.
For me, and many other players, loot boxes are so hated because they prey on basic human weaknesses rather than just giving the consumer value for money - if you're chasing a particular skin, you'll often end up with duplicates and other guff rather than what you want. Then there's the fact they often exploit those most prone to gambling addiction, relying on big spenders (whales) to sink hundreds into their favourite games. And if you add gameplay-affecting elements into loot boxes, that pressure to spend becomes even more problematic.
You might think we've started to move on from loot boxes towards other forms of monetisation such as battle passes, but unfortunately that's not the case. Loot boxes are still prevalent in our games, with a recent study finding 71.28 per cent of their sample were playing Steam games containing loot boxes as of April 2019. The European games regulator PEGI recently introduced a "paid random items" descriptor for game boxes - a good start - but while the UK Gambling Commission recognises a potential risk to children, it argues loot boxes cannot be classified as gambling as no money can be withdrawn. Will loot boxes ever get their full comeuppance? I guess we're still waiting for that chapter.