Week Five: The Big Bad
SPOILER ALERT!! This feature by its very nature contains spoilers for every Final Fantasy game. If you don’t want your cherry popped, make sure to skip the bits about games you haven’t played yet.
About half the games in the Final Fantasy series pull this stunt where you spend most of the game hating on one villain only to have the game drop some new one on you in the eleventh hour. Whether or not this works in the context of the story is irrelevant: players feel cheated when the bad guy turns out to not really be the bad guy. Nobody really cares about the man behind the curtain. Right?
So let’s forget about who actually turns out to be the end boss. There are some end bosses on this list, sure, but what I’d really like to look at here is the main antagonist from each game. What are their motivations and triumphs? How well do they fit the plot? How intoxicatingly evil are they? After all, the most effective villains are the ones you love to hate.
Final Fantasy V: Exdeath
A thousand years ago the good people of the world decided to seal a powerful warlock and some other miscellaneous demons and evil spirits inside a massive forest of terrors. Evil spirits aren’t known for staying sealed, however, and that much concentrated terror just isn’t good for anyone, least of which a giant tree. So this tree, now fortified with evil energy, up and decides to put on a suit of periwinkle blue armor and conquer the world.
Also, since trees are neither creative nor articulate, the best name it could come up with for itself was “Exdeath”.
There’s a strong desire to just go “evil tree lol” and put a cap on it, but Exdeath’s ridiculous backstory isn’t the reason he’s slumming it at the ass-end of my list. Rather, it’s his evil scheme: Exdeath wants control of a primal destructive force called the Void, which he intends to use to consume all of existence. Including himself. His ultimate goal is to completely erase everything that is or was. Which, in and of itself, isn’t a bad plan if you’re an entity of pure evil. An endless expanse of nothingness is the logical endpoint for a few other end bosses in this series.
However, Exdeath isn’t an otherworldly force of nature like FF9’s Necron. Nor is he the personification of the upsetting of some cosmic balance, like FF3’s Cloud of Darkness. And he’s certainly not simply insane like FF6’s Kefka. Exdeath is cocky and boisterous. He is confident, focused, and committed to his goal. He knows exactly what he’s doing and exactly what he wants. It’s just, as a conglomerate of some uncountable mass of evil power, what he wants is really stupid.
I’m all about cosmic horrors and reality-eating entities. It’s one thing when the “bad guy” is an unknowable, untouchable being who exists on a plane above mere good or evil. Exdeath’s not that guy, though; he is very much just a run-of-the-mill warlock of ancient unsealed power. He should want to conquer the world, to rule it — not destroy it. Then he would be merely boring, instead of boring and dumb.
Final Fantasy XIII: Barthandelus
It took me about 85 hours to complete Final Fantasy XIII… and I’m still not entirely clear on what the heroes or villains were trying to accomplish. They each look to be protecting or destroying Cocoon and/or the Sanctum at varying points in the story. At one point, Lightning decides to destroy the Sanctum only to randomly change her mind, and then later randomly change it back. Which of course turns out to be one of Barthandelus’s manipulations all along, because he wants her to destroy the Sanctum. Except, when she and her gang show up to make good, he attacks them. Then taunts them, then manipulates them again, then manipulates them again, then becomes the thing he wanted destroyed all along because… he was ready to meet God?
Wait, am I playing Final Fantasy or Xenogears?
The real crux of it all comes down to whether or not Cocoon, the artificial paradise created for mankind, should be destroyed. The heroes sure can’t seem to make up their mind, and the villain is no better. I can’t even say what happened to Cocoon in the end. Barthandelus is gone, that much is certain, so I suppose if his whole plan was to commit suicide-by-hero then mission accomplished.
I admit this is not solely Barthandelus’s fault. FF13’s plot as a whole is a muddled bog of confusion. Trying to accurately gauge anyone’s motivation is a crapshoot, so we have to find some other metric by which to judge the villain. Which, as far as I can tell, leaves: 1) he’s the pope, and 2) he transforms into a giant metal abomination with five faces. Pssh, what? No angel wings? Bottom of the list, pal.
Final Fantasy II: The Emperor of Palamecia
“If Exdeath wanted to rule the world,” I said, “he would be merely boring, instead of boring and dumb.” Final Fantasy II‘s Emperor is the guy who is merely boring.
The evil empire trying to conquer the world is a classic RPG trope dating back to… well, FF2 I guess. Never before, though, has there been an evil empire as aimless as this one. Resources are seized, but not defended. An entire town is enslaved to build a massive warship, which is used to attack several other towns for no clearly discernable reason. The empire is described in some aspects as being utterly unstoppable, and in others as being totally incompetent. I’d love to sit down with a military tactician with a map of FF2’s world, point out the location and order of Palamecia’s targets, and have him try to make some logical sense out of it.
The list of atrocities commited by the Emperor himself are… well, baffling. He adopts one of the heroes’ best pals and makes him a high-ranking officer for no logical reason whatsoever. Remember, FF2’s heroes are just regular joes. They aren’t crystal-bearing warriors of legend or the descendants of some mythical god-king. The Emperor has no reason to interact with these kids at all, let alone even acknowledge their existence. Why make one of them his right-hand knight? If it makes sense, it’s not the kind of sense I’m used to.
The Emperor does do one cool thing, though: when the good guys finally take him out, he comes right back to life as the lord of Hell. That’s pretty hardcore, even if all it means is that it must be ridiculously easy to take over Hell.
Final Fantasy I: Chaos
In the original Final Fantasy the player spends most of the game hunting down the four fiends. (Or FIENDs, if you’re playing on the NES.) It’s clear, though, that these four monsters are just mooks, and there is some uniting force controlling them from behind the scenes. “Collect the four macguffins then win the game” was pretty standard for video game stories back in the day. So even though Chaos is a last-minute addition to the FF1 landscape, he’s not likely to really surprise anyone.
Especially considering his silhouette made it onto the pack-in with all the monster stats on it. D’oh.
Chaos’s plan is… questionable, at best. See, he’s really the fallen knight Garland who, at the beginning of the game, kidnaps the Cornelian princess and then fails to knock the Light Warriors down. Story goes, after his defeat, he is summoned 2000 years into the past by the four FIENDs. His job there is to send the FIENDs into the future so they can consume the world. This creates a really wonky time loop where Garland is sent back so he can send the guys forward who will eventually send him back again… and after decades with this game’s plot I still can’t figure what good this does anybody. I suppose, for Garland, it means a kind of poor man’s immortality. Nothing to sneeze at, certainly, but let’s examine Garland’s eternity: he hangs out in a decrepit shrine for 2000 years, then tries and fails to kidnap a princess. Second verse, same as the first. His inevitable defeat probably strikes him as a welcome change of pace.
What Chaos really has going for him is this: he’s probably the most wicked-evil-looking bad guy in the series. It takes a special kind of crazy to transform into something with a face on your crotch and another on your kneecap. Chaos (or, rather, CHAOS) is the only monster in the game that takes up the entire monster box, which back then was enough to prove what a threat he was.
Final Fantasy VII: Sephiroth
I’ll admit it: I don’t understand the internet’s infatuation with Sephiroth. Is it his silver hair and long, slender sword striking the right notes at a time when anime fandom was beginning to explode? Is it the black armor and cloak? The iconic image of his walk through the Nibelheim inferno? The Latin chorus of One Winged Angel?
There’s no question Sephiroth is a badass. But that’s all he is. He has no accomplices, no rise to power. He doesn’t develop over the course of FF7 — at least, not in any meaningful sense. His ambition is pretty clear: he wants to transform himself into a god. He intends to do this by summoning a giant meteor (uncreatively named “Meteor”) to crash into the planet (uncreatively named “Planet”). This will cause the planet to try and heal itself with a spiritual river of life. Sephiroth’s intention is to bury himself at the flashpoint and absorb that river, effectively becoming one with the soul of the Planet.
It’s a solid plan, but Sephiroth never does anything with it except enact it. The player learns about it in bits and pieces because that’s how Sephiroth reveals it. Then plan, like Sephiroth, is immutable and untouchable. FF7’s plot has a few twists, but they’re all firmly in the player’s lap. Which makes for an interesting hero (or would, if he weren’t such a dope), but a rather one-dimensional villain.
And one-dimensional might have been fine, if he weren’t following along after Kefka and Golbez.
The first time the player gets an honest shot at Sephiroth is during the endgame sequence which, I admit, is suitably epic. The last boss is supposed to be epic, though. So I don’t know. Maybe forty hours of hearing about what a badass the guy is, followed by a pair of climactic fights against him, just isn’t enough to tickle my villain-bone. Sephiroth would have been a great lieutenant… I suppose I’ve just always felt there should have been something behind him other than a wall of fire.
Final Fantasy IX: Kuja
Of all the villains on this list, I think I had the most trouble placing Kuja. There’s a lot about Kuja I really like: his flippant attitude towards destruction and his somewhat whimsical nature make him a joy to watch. He’s neither the mad whirl of Kefka nor the stoic detachment of Sephiroth. Kuja has an immature quality to him that stands apart from the rest of the villains in the series. He recites poetry while murdering you. How delightful!
If only he wouldn’t bitch quite so much.
I’ve harped about this “You’re Not Alone” scene here and there the past few weeks. The jist of the scene is: Zidane and Kuja are both artificial beings called Genomes. Essentially they’re soulless dolls with monkey tails, no different from the black mages so much of the story has already centered around. The black mages have short lives with a pre-determined end, and helping the party’s own black mage Vivi come to terms with his looming mortality is one of the most important aspects of FF9’s story. And one, may I add, which Vivi handles with admirable courage.
When Zidane and Kuja learn the horrible, horrible truth, though, they flip their shit. Zidane “deals” with this by becoming crippled with depression and lashing out at his best friends. Kuja deals with it by deciding to destroy the world and everything in it, since it doesn’t deserve to live forever if he, himself, cannot.
Fortunately for the player, Zidane quickly bounces back to his old plucky self. Kuja, however, loses the grace and style that had defined him for most of the game, replacing it with generic destructive rage. I think the idea here may have been to show the contrast between the two characters. Created for the same purpose, but with vastly different upbringings, it makes sense that the one who values love and friendship etc. can overcome his tribulations. Kind of a “there but for the grace of Vivi and Garnet go I” thing. It’s just sloppy, in my opinion. Too preachy. I feel like Kuja deserved a better end than to get slapped with the wrong side of the Anvilicious Morality Stick.
Oh, and he wears panties. I don’t know what’s up with that.
Final Fantasy XI: The Shadow Lord
Okay, no, this is the boss I had the hardest time placing in my list… on account of never actually seeing him in-game. I quit playing Final Fantasy XI long before the Shadow Lord becomes prominent in the plot. (I’d argue, in fact, that I quit long before anything becomes prominent in the plot. But that could be construed as sour grapes.) Anyhow, the sum of my knowledge of this character comes from researching him on various wikis, talking to several dedicated FF11 players, and watching YouTube videos.
That said, the first thing I like about the Shadow Lord is that he was, originally, a galka. One of the weaknesses of settings with large demihuman casts is the bad guys tend to still be humans or at least human-shaped. The subtext here is that humans alone have the capacity for evil, which just sets my eyes to rolling. So points for that, right out of the gate.
The backstory here is one of simple tragedy. The galka that would one day become the Shadow Lord was part of a small team of adventurers consisting of himself, a swordsman, and a young woman. The galka and the young woman developed a relationship, which drove the swordsman mad with jealousy. He attempted to strike the galka down, but the woman absorbed the blow and was mortally wounded. The cowardly swordsman slinked away, leaving the galka to stew in his anguish. He became consumed with hatred and was eventually granted dark powers and the allegiance of a beastman army.
From there on in he looks to be a typical MMO quest: the evil demon from that war a few years ago is about to be revived because of x, y and z. Please do something about x, y and z. Oh, that didn’t work? Please kill the demon, then. Thanks, here’s your prize.
Later, the big bad of one of the expansions (this one distressingly human-shaped) uses his head as a sort of magic battery. I’m not going to hold that against him though; few people get a say in what happens to their head after they’re dead.
Final Fantasy III: Xande
If any of these villains’ actions are justified, they are certainly Xande’s. He, along with the wizards Doga and Unei, were apprenticed to the Great Magus Noah. Each student received a gift from the master: Doga obtained vast magical power, Unei obtained great power in the world of dreams, and Xande received mortality.
Wait. Mortality? Kind of a shitty gift, there, Great Magus! Presumably the three students were immortal until their teacher decided one (and only one) of them would die. This, coupled with the fact that Doga and Unei didn’t let Xande eat with them in the Great Magus Lunchroom, drove the poor guy quite understandably insane.
All things considered, Xande handled the situation quite reasonably. He drained the light out of two of the world’s four crystals, freezing time across the entire world. With time unable to advance, Xande would never have to die. Only a small-ish floating island, bearing the two remaining crystals, escaped the effects of Xande’s rage. In order to get at those last crystals Xande throws a couple of powerful monsters at the floating island in order to bring it down… just to be safe.
Xande doesn’t actually have much interaction with FF3’s heroes. In fact, he goes out of his way to avoid killing him. He has so many defenses set up that the heroes end up spending about half the game trying to circumvent them. Then, when they finally get through, he curses them with a magic mirror instead of killing them outright.
So yeah, he’s kind of a ballsack. But you know, it sure sounds like a lot of this could have been avoided if Noah had just given him an iPod or something instead.
Final Fantasy VIII: Ultimecia
The combination of Final Fantasy VIII‘s twisted, messy plot and it’s mostly-botched translation make it almost impossible to figure out who Ultimecia is or what she intends to do with the world. When I eventually had it explained to me in some detail, though, I decided it was actually pretty nifty. I hope someday the game gets a translation that does it proper service.
(And a graphical upgrade. And a few system tweaks. And FF12’s battle system. Okay — now I’m officially gushing.)
It goes like this: Sorceresses are magic-using women of great power, who possess the ability to generate magical effects without the use of memory-sapping Guardian Forces the way mere mortals must do it. Throughout history some Sorceresses have been wise and benevolent; others have been cruel and power-hungry. When a Sorceress dies she passes her powers on, and thus do Sorceresses endure through generations. When one such malevolent Sorceress waged war on humanity the nation of Esthar got together and sealed her in outer space so she wouldn’t get the chance to die and therefore pass her wicked powers on.
Now: imagine if there were a way for a Sorceress to receive another Sorceress’s powers more than once. It would take some manner of time travel, of course. Luckily for this would-be super-Sorceress, FF8’s world allows for time travel of a sort: there exists a way to send one’s consciousness backwards through time to inhabit the body of another individual.
Ultimecia is a Sorceress from far in the future who has cooked up exactly this scheme. During the time of her mortal life she has, presumably, already inherited the power of every Sorceress to come before her, including the warmongering Adel and the kind-hearted Edea.
As we’ve already seen with Garland and Chaos, playing with time is a tricksy thing. Ultimecia’s plan, pre-ordained to fail, actually crates two closed time loops. In the first, she passes her Sorceress powers to Edea shortly before her own death. She presumably obtains these powers again later, possibly many times over, explaining how she became so powerful in the first place.
And secondly, her eventual failure causes future generations to be on the lookout for her, creating the backdrop of fear and persecution which likely leads her to enact her scheme in the first place. tl;dr: Time travel is confusing. Kurse all SeeDs.
Final Fantasy IV: Golbez
As with all other aspects of Final Fantasy IV, Golbez weighs so firmly on my sense of nostalgia that I may be completely unable to discuss him objectively. Golbez is powerful and he is mean. He is covered head to toe in black armor. His theme music is a soul-crushing organ piece that simply seeps evil. Even his name sounds wicked: Golbez. You don’t know any investment bankers named Golbez, I’ll bet.
In a show of efficiency uncharacteristic of FF bad guys, Golbez and his minions manage to ransack, humble or outright destroy nearly every major kingdom in the world before the end of the game’s first act. He wins an astounding triple victory over his nemesis Cecil during their first meeting: he turns Cecil’s best friend against him, makes off with the Crystal of Wind, and kidnaps his girlfriend Rosa for future use as a bargaining chip. In his second appearance he survives the most powerful black magic spell in the game, causing an old man’s revenge to go unfulfilled without even so much as acknowledging that old man exists.
In his third appearance he uses magic to annihilate Cecil’s entourage and is only (momentarily) pushed back thanks to the arrival of a helpful Deus ex Machina. He still manages to make off with the crystal he came for, though — even though he’s been reduced to a severed hand.
I’ve heared it mentioned that, really, the good guys never manage to defeat Golbez at all. He comes out on top of every encounter, the player forever rushing to catch up. If not for an eleventh-hour ass-pull which causes him to switch sides FF4 may have been the first game in the series that’s impossible to win.
Final Fantasy X: Sin
The more I work on this weekly series, the more I realize my opinions of Final Fantasy X aren’t so much that the game was bad… just badly implemented. The game had its heart in the right place, sort of like a five-year-old that scribbles a cute picture on the wall with permanent marker. The game has several primary antagonists: Tidus’s blowhard deadbeat dad, the creepy guado maester, the naked undead magical girl. They come and go as dictated by the plot, but none of them are interesting in and of themselves.
What’s interesting is their relationship with and reaction to Sin, the monstrous, mindless eater of the world. In fact, the entire setting of Spira is built on a foundation of superstition on what this creature represents and how best to defeat it.
By jumping through a convoluted series of hoops (which comprise about 90% of FF10’s main storyline), the outer shell of Sin can be destroyed. The invincible inner core remains, though, and will eventually regenerate the entire creature. This is the purpose of Yuna’s pilgrimage: not to destroy the terror plaguing her world, but to maybe buy it a couple decades of calmness and peace. As long as Sin exists Spira is a hopeless world, which is a much different flavor than any other FF game to date. Every group and faction in Spira has its own ideas and beliefs of how to best deal with Sin, the frontrunners being the church of Yevon. Though the player shares his ultimate goal with these groups and factions, he ends up clashing with them as often as he does with Sin itself.
Seymour wants to deliver peace to Spira through death by becoming Sin, and uses Yuna to do it. Jecht was the implement by which Sin was previously defeated, and now comprises its heart. Yunalesca guards most of Sin’s secrets, and is dedicated to seeing the cycle continue endlessly. And in time, the party does defeat Seymour and Jecht and Yunalesca.
But Sin overshadows them all. It supports everything about FF10’s setting and story on its gaint whale-shaped carapace. It defines FF10 in a way no other villain in this series does.
Actually, hell, just typing that up makes me want to bump it up a couple notches on the list. It used to come right after Xande in the grand scheme of things.
Final Fantasy VI: Kefka
Really, eleven entries on this list probably could have been left in the dust. When it comes to FF villains, the fight by and large is against Kefka and Sephiroth. Contrasting these two characters is of great interest to me, because they are very nearly polar opposites. Inasmuch as something like “evil” can be quantified, Kefka is probably the most pure specimen this series has to offer. Every other FF villain has motives, however flimsy. And they have plans, however thin.
Kefka has no motive, and he has no plan. He merely revels in chaos. A series of events occur, only partially manipulated by him, and he ends up in control of the most phenominal power man has ever controlled. He uses this power to destroy the world. He does this for fun.
What I like most about Kefka is his rise to power. He begins the game as an imperial runt — clearly bad news, but no more dangerous than any other peon you might encounter. The first time the player faces Kefka in battle he trounces the poor sap so badly he runs away. Later, when your party is a little more powerful, so is Kefka: he now has a few rudimentary magic spells and enough military clout to be placed in charge of a major operation.
In one gutwrenching scene Kefka amasses so much magic so quickly that even he can’t believe he’s doing it. And the more power he can pile up, the more people he can devastate. The more he can destroy. When he figures out how to re-arrange the face of the planet he goes ahead and does it — but he does so randomly, the way a five-year-old might with an Etch-a-Sketch.
Kefka’s endgame, really, is that he doesn’t have one. Like a kid with too much Halloween candy, it’s almost as though he loses his will to continue at one point. After all, he has transcended his mortal existence and become the equivalent of a god. Why hasn’t he finished the job he started? Because it’s no fun, that’s why. The heroes are still out there, somewhere, organizing their counterstrike. Kefka seems almost delighted by their arrival, greeting them with his trademark laugh and treating them, in his own twisted manner, like old friends.
That’s it, really: Kefka is the Final Fantasy equivalent of the Joker. That’s why he’s the best. Well, almost the best; there’s just one kind of villain I like more than the Joker…
Final Fantasy XII: Vayne Solidor
Vayne is my favorite Final Fantasy villain for one reason alone: he’s the only one who weilds political clout as a weapon. Certainly there have been several who have been kings or emperors, and the ones that aren’t have tried (with varying success) to mind control those who were. Their true strength, however, was still in whatever fantastic power they had access to or whatever netherworldly entity they’d signed a contract with.
Not Vayne. At some point in his early life Vayne murdered his two elder brothers so that he, and not they, would be next in the line of succession. The last two obstacles in his way are his aging father than the uncooperative Senate; he kills two birds with one stone by killing the old codger and blaming it on the Senators. Problem solved.
Now that I’m thinking about it, I can’t remember a time anywhere in FF12 where the party confronts Vayne in person until the very end. Everything Vayne does, every move he makes, has such far-reaching consequences that the party can’t help but feel them. But there’s no indication Vayne even knows who they are, outside of Princess Ashe and Captain Basch. See, Vayne is powerful, but he’s powerful on a mortal scale. He’s not omniscient.
That’s it, I’ve hit it on the nose. That’s the reason, right there. Previous villains teleport in when it’s time to taunt the player, then vanish when they’re done. They transform into monstrous forms and back on a whim. They either know every move you’ve made, or they’ve been pulling your strings all along. You don’t really beat them, just their shadows. But Vayne? Vayne is a man. A powerful man, yes. A cunning, devious man who can start or end a war with a word, who weilds vast military strength and limitless wealth. But a mortal man. He has failings, and he has virtues. He’s not a game mechanic the way so many other villains are.
Vayne’s ultimate ambitions aren’t really evil so much as merely opposed to the heroes. He craves power, but he understands that power will come from peace. He seeks to be the ruling Dynast-King not solely for his own ambition, but because he realizes unity would bring Ivalice virtually untold prosperity. Ivalice is a world that has been shaped by gods for too long — Vayne challenges them, and shapes the world for himself.
And isn’t that what you do, when you’re playing as Cecil or Lightning or Cloud?
The best villains, in my opinion, are the ones to whom the “evil” label does not apply. FF12 is a story with neither good nor evil; the protagonist is the one who desires power, control, and war. For noble reasons, sure, but the antagonist’s reasons are no less noble. Few stories period try to walk that line, never mind stories in video games, or in Final Fantasy specifically. Vayne is a character we could find in our own history: praised by some, demonized by others… it all depends on which side of the line you find yourself.
So this week I managed to write less about FF4 than most of the other entries, say something nice about FF10 and cast FF8’s ridiculous plot in a positive light. I feel like this venture is helping me grow… as a person.