A memorable villain in a game can be a powerful force. Players can learn to hate them, fear them, or even pity them. Everyone who has played Final Fantasy VI remembers Kefka, and any StarCraft player in the world probably has a firm opinion on the Queen of Blades. The big villains – the bosses – have a lot going for them when it comes to memorability: the story usually revolves around them, they usually get the most epic battles, and quite often they get the best graphical treatment, too.
But what about the little guys? What about the endless underlings the player crushes on their journey to the Big Bad? What makes those guys memorable?
Consider, for a moment, the humble Goomba. Almost anyone who has had contact with video games over the past 25 years can probably identify one in an instant, most likely right down to even knowing their name. Even those that might not know the name still know they are “the little mushroom men from Mario” (as my father has called them). Koopa Troopas fall into that same category. Heck, most of the enemies from the Mario series fall into that category. But why?
For the Mario cast, much of it comes down to longevity and repetition. Goombas and Koopas and the like have been harassing gamers for over two decades, remaining relatively constant throughout. Though there have been subtle changes to their looks over the years, they remain easily identifiable, even after the jump from 2d to 3d. Add to that plenty of out-of-game marketing of the characters, from cartoon appearances to plush toys, and you’ve got the makings of some pretty iconic underlings. So while the Mario minions have a lot going in their favor, what about all the other game baddies that stick in our minds, regardless of repetition or merchandising? What turns a low-level baddie into something that stays with us, sucking up precious memory space?
We Remember Bad Guys With Personality
Though they may not have a rich, intricate history – or even say anything, for that matter – even the slightest hint of personality can go a long way into making the cannon fodder into something more memorable. Consider the Tonberry of various Final Fantasies. First appearing in FFV, the player knew right off the bat that there was something different about this enemy. Unlike the innumerable bats or imps or what have you encountered along the way, the Tonberry appeared alone, standing ready to face what looked like inevitable defeat. But the Tonberry did not lay down and die; instead it simply advanced slowly, every turn, until it was directly in the party’s face. That’s when it got serious. With a vicious attack, the Tonberry could start to hack your party apart.
Tonberries continue to appear in Final Fantasies, usually replicating that same basic behavior. Despite their lack of visual distinctiveness (brown lumps with green heads), their unique behavior gave players something to latch on to. These weren’t just the normal monsters set for slaughter – these were isolated, vindictive, single-minded killing machines. Once they found you, they were out for blood and would inexorably march for you unless you could find a way to stop them.
Consider also the Mets of the Mega Man universe, hiding under their giant hard hats, waiting for a chance to strike (or perhaps run away). Just one look at them and you can sense their shyness – dare I say cowardice – and think that, perhaps under better circumstances, these are the kinds of robots you should be friends with. When I was younger, before we even knew their proper names, the Mets were the Mega Man foe that we made up names for (“Hard Hat Harry” was a popular one). This is the sort of thing that players remember; enemies that they can build a personality around, even if none is really provided.
We Remember Bad Guys That Look Cool
While personality certainly counts, let’s be honest: sometimes a pretty face doesn’t hurt, either. Or a scarred face. Or a robot face.
If, on your journeys through a game, something comes along that makes you really stop and look, it’s probably going to stay with you. Sure, bosses have it easy, often getting to fill up half or more of the screen, but it’s a lot harder for a foe that might not even be as large as the player to make a visual impact. If you’ve seen one skeleton, you’ve pretty much seen them all. The same goes for zombies, heavily-armored soldiers, and rats.
In the Pokemon games, any journey through a cave will result in approximately 1.5 million encounters with Zubats and Geodudes. Neither of these creatures are particularly inspired in their visual design, with Zubat looking pretty much like a bat, and Geodude like a rock with arms. But, as you get further in the game, you run into Zubat’s evolved form: Golbat. From the first moment you see a Golbat, it sticks with you: the sweeping wings, the goofy little feet, and most importantly, that gaping maw. Golbat’s huge, exaggerated mouth with its sharp little fangs jump out at you, and even if a non-afficianado of Pokemon sees one, they will most likely remember it. Again, it might just be as “that bat-thing,” but they still have that image seared into their brains.
Unique takes on common baddies can also help make them stick out. In Wizardry VII, the vastly mundane slime enemy makes multiple appearances, but the designers decided to shy away from the standard gelatinous green blob look, and instead tried something different. Slimes in Wizardry VII are oozing, disgusting piles of yellow puss and sludge. Looking like a pile of vomit after a particularly rough evening at the mall food court, they represent themselves as nothing less than the stinking mounds of filth they are supposed to be. Add to that beady little eyes that stare out at you, and you have the recipe for a foe that players are going to remember (quite possibly in their nightmares).
We Remember Enemies We Hate
Sometimes the things that stick with us most are the things that annoy the crap out of us.
I need only say the words “Medusa Head,” and every Castlevania player in the world will cringe with memories of being shoved to their death countless times. Mention the “Angry Sun” and every Super Mario Bros. 3 fan will shake their fist in impotent rage.
The simple truth is, the enemies that kill us the most tend to be the ones we remember most vividly. The cheaper the kill, the more vivid the memory. The birds in Ninja Gaiden, for instance, hold a particular spot of infamy amongst many gamers.
The enemies in question don’t even have to kill you to garner real hatred; do enough to inconvenience a player, and it’s often even better than killing them. The Wallmasters of the Zelda universe, with their inconvenient habit of dropping out of nowhere to grab an unsuspecting player are a perfect example of this. Sure, they let you live, but only after throwing you back to the beginning of the dungeon. Did you enjoy the last ten minutes of gaming? I hope so, because you are about to have to do it over again.
My advice to designers, however, is that if you want your enemies to be more memorable, this is probably not the best way of achieving that…
It doesn’t take much to change the endless parade of stompable, shootable, smashable enemies that players encounter into something more unique, but doing so can go a long way towards putting lasting, hopefully fond, memories into a player’s mind. A little more thought into art design, a few extra nuances to give just a hint of personality; even something as simple as giving that minion a name can go a long way towards achieving that goal. In the days of manuals, games used to list every enemy by name, with a short description, so a player had a vision in their mind before they may have even turned on the cartridge for the first time – I knew the names of every Zebesian tunnel dweller in Metroid long before I ever saw most of them. But the days of manuals are long past, and most low-level foes are lucky to even get a name, let alone one that is ever shown to the player; Enslaved is an excellent game, but I’d be hard-pressed to tell you what the enemy robots were called.
So designers, give your lowly baddies a little love, and help create a richer world for your players, one that will stay with them long after Game Over. And players, take the time to appreciate the little guys before you dispatch them to the great beyond; they may just have a story to tell.