Yep, another Final Fantasy tier list, and this time we're ranking the villains from each of the games I'm familiar with, based on three criteria:
Threat - All of them obviously carry a level of threat since they're a world threatening force, but do they actually come across as a talented and manipulated schemer who got their way in the end, or did they just get where they were by sheer luck and nothing else?
Arc as a character - Are they a well-developed character with a relatable motive, or are they just a one-dimensional evil force with little else to distinguish them?
The big showdown - Does the final battle provide an epic conclusion to the game or is it just lame and tedious?
Garland/Chaos (Final Fantasy)
The series' first, and while the game is a bit light on story overall, Garland proved to be an effective villain nonetheless. He starts off as your first real boss, but doesn't prove much of a threat; however, you find later on that he's the mover behind all of the game's events, aiding the four Fiends in their bid for power, and in exchange he is sent back in time in a bid to become immortal and rule over the world in perpetuity. He also proved to be a surprisingly tough fight, especially in the original NES release, as he'd heal himself back to full if you didn't kill him fast enough - you had to come loaded for war and have enough spells and resources left over after fighting all four Fiends again to beat him. Plus, he was the first to kick off the trend of bosses dissolving upon defeat, a pretty impressive visual effect for the time which would be repeated in many of the later Final Fantasies. He gets a B.
He does also get one of the greatest lines of all time
Emperor Mateus (Final Fantasy II)
One of the strange ironies of Final Fantasy II is that while it's easily one of the weakest games in the series, it has one of the best villains just in terms of sheer achievement. The empire manages to conquer most of the world by the time the game starts, even turning your friend against you to become one of his strongest and most devoted generals. But even after you beat back his armies, infiltrate his fortress and kill the guy, he's still not done - his soul goes to hell, kills the devil in straight combat, and then he tears open a portal back to earth to take another shot at you with a legion of demons at his back. All told, he kills about 90 percent of the planet's population before he's done, which is pretty damn grim for an 8-bit RPG. ...Granted, the final fight itself is pretty weak - basically you just have to grind up for days on end to face him on even terms or "cheat" your way through with the fixed-damage Blood Sword - but as Final Fantasy enemies go, the Emperor is ironically one of the series' most accomplished and ruthlessly evil antagonists. It's an A from me.
Cloud of Darkness (Final Fantasy III)
Final Fantasy III had a pretty good story, with the fallen Xande trying to restore his immortality through a number of means, even if it led the world to ruin. The Cloud of Darkness was revealed to be the one manipulating these events, promising him immortality but only really being motivated by her own desire to destroy everything, and honestly, that's about all their is to the character. There's nothing particularly interesting or memorable about her at all; even the name "Cloud of Darkness" is pretty silly and doesn't really inspire much fear. The fight itself sucks too - she just spams Flare Wave constantly and that's about it. There's little actual strategy involved, too; if you've leveled up enough to outlast her constant spamming and deal 45,000 damage before you die, you win. If not, you get to grind a while then do the whole two hour dungeon again. So not only is she boring as a character, she's not even fun to fight! A solid F for being the worst part of an otherwise entertaining game.
You can probably push it to a D for the 3D remakes, because they at least attempted to make the fight a little more engaging. She now has multiple targets to attack, one of which mostly aids the main body while the other fires lightning at you, so there's a bit more thought involved in defeating her. Not much, but still, it's an improvement.
Zeromus (Final Fantasy IV)
Final Fantasy IV's story was rather silly overall, with every D&D and Star Wars trope you can think of and then suddenly shoehorning aliens into everything, but it at least led up to a decent climax with long-time enemy Golbez joining you in your effort to defeat the true threat manipulating all the strife on your homeworld. But then you slay the evil manipulator Zemus and we get... what is basically Cloud of Darkness 2.0, out to destroy everything out of sheer hatred. He's at least a bit more fun to fight, though, giving you some chance to counter his big nasty attacks and not just boiling down to a big dumb punch-fest, but still, Zeromus is a cheesy villain capping off an extremely cheesy game. He's a D.
Dark King (Final Fantasy Mystic Quest)
Mystic Quest isn't exactly the height of storytelling or game design, but seeing as it's an introductory game meant for people to learn the ins and outs of the RPG genre, that's mostly forgivable. Dark King is a pretty decent final battle, though, starting off in a relatively weak humanoid form but growing more monstrous and dangerous as the fight progresses - first gaining six arms (each carrying a different weapon), then turning into a giant spider that throws a bunch of nasty spells at you. And yes, yes, everybody knows about the infamous overflow error that let's you kill the guy in four turns by casting Cure on him, doing tens of thousands of damage each time. Still, for better or worse he was the first boss in the series to have multiple forms during the fight (predating Final Fantasy 5 by about two months), so he gets some credit for that. Dark King gets a C.
ExDeath (Final Fantasy V)
Final Fantasy V is another game with a relatively simple and straightforward plot, but unlike most of its predecessors, it also knows better than to take itself seriously. To that end, ExDeath is a silly antagonist, having little motive or character besides being powerful, ruthless and destructive, though he does get some humorously callous lines as a result; I guess if you're going to be a villain with all the subtlety of a Power Rangers monster, you might as well go all-in with it and embrace the camp. At the very least, he does pose a genuine threat, laying waste to everything in his path and your party being mostly powerless against him right up until the final confrontation. His final battle is a good one too, with his grotesque tree form and, once that's vanquished, an even more bizarre amalgamation of monsters that come at you all at once, bombarding you with all manner of nasty attacks and won't stop until they're all defeated. Silly but effective nonetheless, ExDeath gets a C.
Kefka (Final Fantasy VI)
While I enjoy Final Fantasy VI as a game and it does have some good story beats, I still honestly couldn't tell you why it's regarded as some untouchable masterpiece; its story always felt rather campy to me and most of its characters are pretty underdeveloped and not particularly memorable. Kefka is the shining example of the former point, seemingly going out of his way to be as over-the-top as he can. He gets some great funny lines at times and some of his wanton cruelty is genuinely pretty shocking, poisoning Damcyan Castle easily becoming one of the game's darkest moments; however, what diminishes it for me is the fact that he never earns it. Kefka's not proactive in the slightest - he's always put in a place where he can cause mayhem and inevitably does just that, and any time the tide turns against him he immediately flees, which shows that he's little more than an opportunist with a sadistic streak. Gestahl in particular is just braindead stupid in this regard; "Hm, my subordinate who dresses like a clown and giggles with glee as he mass-murders his own men seems like the PERFECT candidate to accompany me on a mission to attain all the magical power in the world; it can't possibly go wrong!". Hell, even when he has his god powers all he does with them is vaporize people with a big laser beam whenever he gets bored, which just highlights that he has no plan beyond twisted self-satisfaction. He does at least get a good final fight - a multi-tiered one where you fight a big pillar of monsters and then Kefka himself at the end, transformed into some twisted angel of death, all accompanied by some really kickass music, but even that feels out-of-character for a guy whose only defining trait is "I'm out cause as much mayhem as I can." Still, the seeming goal of the character was to be memorable, not clever, and to that end he succeeds, becoming the most widely remembered and talked about character of the 8/16-bit era Final Fantasies. He gets a B.
(PS: Luca Blight from Suikoden II is totally the same character but better done; sadistic and shamelessly evil, but also willing to plot, scheme and bargain to get his way. Not to mention, he at least had a motive for being the way he was.)
Sephiroth (Final Fantasy VII)
Final Fantasy VII was a game-changer at the time of its release, and Sephiroth was definitely a very big part of that. He makes his presence first known when he kills the president of Shinra, but it's not until the flashback that you see him in person; even as powerful as he is, though, he starts off as a nice guy, building a rapport with Cloud and never once coming off as arrogant or boastful. However, he's soon he's blindsided by Shinra's lies, slowly descends into madness and gives himself over to Jenova in a moment of weakness, which is easily one of the game's most memorable and tragic scenes. The Playstation's music and video capabilities are perfectly utilized when it comes to Sephiroth, turning him into something akin to a horror villain; I still get chills every time I watch the scenes of him walking into the flames after burning down Nibelheim and freeing Jenova from the machinery at the plant. He spends much of the rest of the game as the face of Jenova to the party and the audience, building up her threat in a very effective way despite rarely appearing in person (and when he does, it's almost always to misdirect or manipulate, never to fight you head-on). When it came time to finally confront him, that was great too - mutated into a monstrous faux-angelic form by Jenova, having him blow up the whole damn solar system with his special attack (spectacular, if silly), and then you get a silent final showdown where Cloud finally exorcises the demon that's haunted him the entire game. Easily one of the most effective video game villains at that time and, to date, still one of the all time greats. Gotta give him an S.
Ajora / Altima (Final Fantasy Tactics)
Final Fantasy Tactics is easily my favorite Final Fantasy, as well as one of my most replayed games of all time - great storyline, excellent and stunningly deep gameplay, and the customization it allows is fantastic, giving it a huge amount of replay value. The plot is a good one too, involving a demonic force (the Lucavi) and their goal of sparking an all-out war between the two "Lions", using the bloodshed and strife to resurrect their fallen goddess Altima, whilst all parties involved remain unaware of what's going on until it's too late (something they can easily pull off with their ability to possess people). Razma and his allies are the only ones who figure out what's really going on and end up standing against them, confronting Altima herself in the depths of hell at the game's climax; however, this ultimately ends up being one of the game's weakest moments. Not only is it an underwhelming fight, being much easier than many of the prior boss fights and even many of the mundane battles you had to fight to get there (against max-damaging Hydras and other crazy-overpowered monsters and humans), but Altima is never really given much depth at all as a character. No real memorable lines, nothing beyond the typical arrogance of a false god, and honestly, the whole "false messiah returning to destroy all mortals" angle just feels like an afterthought rather than a well-integrated element. It is nice that you don't get the instant abolishment of religion and influx of prosperity that so many other JRPGs were wont to end on (especially as most prominent members of the church are victims of the Lucavi's machinations as well), but there's no real lip service given to the damage such a revelation would cause to Ivalice, either. Alazlam reveals the truth behind the events of the Lion War at the end, but what happens after is left completely ambiguous (and honestly could have been another story in itself, had the later Ivalice Alliance games continued its storyline). An interesting setup for a world-changing catalyst, but without any real payoff for it, Altima gets a C.
Ultimecia (Final Fantasy VIII)
I've certainly made no secret of my disdain for Final Fantasy VIII; I've repeatedly characterized it as a mishmash of ideas that never fits together into anything resembling a complete game, let alone a cohesive story. Ultimecia is another example of this, spending much of the game behind the scenes, never revealing herself until the very end, talking entirely in Mortal Kombat-ese by replacing every "C" with a "K" in her dialog and pushing her moronic plan that makes no actual sense, especially after you spend five seconds googling what time-space compression actually is rather than what the intern at Square who wrote the script thinks it is. For all of the game's faults, though, I will say that the final battle is at least an interesting, and decently executed, concept. You spend the whole game junctioning Guardian Forces and drawing/junctioning spells to power up your characters, but oddly no enemies you've ever faced have done the same until this battle - you battle not only Ultimecia herself, but her powerful GF Griever, who she summons to attack you and even junctions to bolster her own power mid-fight. She even draws magic away from your characters, weakening your stats and using your own stock of spells against you, which is honestly kind of clever. Even her final form uses this to a degree, drawing powerful magic from her lower (universe-consuming) half to throw at the party a turn or two later. Still not a particularly challenging fight if you're prepared - as with all things in the game, you can overcome it just by spamming limit breaks and challenge-breaking items - but seeing a boss that actually plays by the game's own rules was a pretty clever idea at least, so I'll give Ultimecia a C.
Kuja (Final Fantasy IX)
Final Fantasy IX was a big homage to all the classic-style Final Fantasies, and fittingly, its villain combines elements of a lot of them too. Kuja's design and behind-the-scenes manipulation is similar in a lot of ways to Sephiroth's (even copying his turn-and-walk from one of 7's most iconic scenes). He also feels like a genuine threat because he's always one step ahead and devastatingly powerful to boot - even in scenes where you're forced to fight him, he always manages to trounce you with a last-second Ultima, denying you the victory and letting him get the upper hand in the end. He's not a completely unsympathetic character, either - he was basically just created to spread chaos on Gaia and once he finds out that Garland intends to cast him aside once his purpose is done, he tries to take everyone else down with him - kinda childish, but he never really had much chance to mature as a person, so you can see where he's coming from. He's not a fantastically developed character, but still more memorable and competent and less cartoonish than most FF baddies, so Kuja's a B.
Seymour/Church of Yevon (Final Fantasy X)
I'm not going to count Yu Yevon as this game's big bad, because let's be honest, he's barely even a character. You never see him or hear him speak, and the boss fight with him is by far the weakest in the series - he doesn't even attack you for crying out loud. He's a macguffin at best and a speed bump for the ending at worst. So instead, let's focus on Seymour and, more broadly, the Church of Yevon. Seymour is your typical nihilistic bad guy, out to end all life on Spira, but he is at least sympathetic to some degree, becoming cynical at his own racist mistreatment and the endless cycle of the Great Summoning that perpetuates Sin's existence and just wanting to bring all life (and suffering) on Spira to an end. He apparently even gets the church (complicit in perpetuating said cycle) on board too, I guess because even they're sick of their existence as revenants peddling false hope. Still, I can't help but slap my head at some elements of it; his faux-relationship with Yuna had some potential to be interesting, but they ruin it almost immediately. Not just for the incredibly unsubtle foreshadowing ("gee, I wonder if this Satan-looking guy who drops a boat anchor into hell and pulls up Mother Hydra to smite his enemies is evil?), but because they shoot down any potential moral ambiguity literally ten minutes after you first hear of it by laying out his evil intents in plain text and then have you fight and kill him. Which ends up being pointless anyway because, like every major player in the plot, he can just cheat death as many times as he likes for no adequately explained reason. Hell, imagine how much more interesting it would have been if he'd had a relationship with Yuna before the game even started, and Yuna had to put her feelings for him aside when she found out his true intentions. Might have even been a good point of drama if he'd tried to use that to win her over to his side, eh?
Even with that bit of wasted potential aside, though, this is just the same angsty "religion bad lol" plot that basically every JRPG of the '90s had, with nothing interesting to it other than a shoehorned-in Matrix reference with dream-Zanarkand. Maybe it'll score points with the clique of angry sixteen year olds who found the one true way in the words of Tyler Durden and The Amazing Atheist and now demand tribute through their Patreon pages to reveal the ONE WORLDLY TRUTH the pope doesn't want you to see, but to me, it's not well done at all. A decent idea and a villain with a sympathetic element prevent it from being a total loss, but it needed a lot more thought behind it to actually work. Like the game itself, its villain gets a solid D.
Vayne /Venat /Cid (Final Fantasy XII)
I've made no secret that the Ivalice Alliance is my favorite Final Fantasy subseries, and XII is easily one of the franchise's best - it had a great story, some memorable characters, and a ton of thought put into its setting, backstory and lore that made it a joy to explore alongside some great gameplay that combined real-time and tactical elements. The story once again works in a lot of familiar Final Fantasy tropes - the evil empire, the ragtag band of heroes standing against it, and the gods (in this game, the Occuria) pulling the strings behind the scenes - but this one brought a clever twist. Ashe's plan for much of the game is to reclaim her place on the throne, using the power of the Occuria to claim her family's seat of power as her ancestors before her did. However, a rogue Occuria named Venat is also working against them, manipulating Vayne Solidor and Doctor Cid to seize power within the empire's ranks through their own underhanded means, with the ultimate goal of freeing mankind from the Occuria's rule that Ashe would subject them to again (but in exchange, they would of course serve the three of them instead). Still, it is a creative flip on the series' norm - the actions of all three parties are ultimately well-intentioned, if somewhat selfish, and it just comes down to a clash of ideals rather than a simple good-versus-evil plot. Admittedly, though, I didn't care much for the final confrontation itself; Vayne fuses with Venat and their flagship Bahamut and takes on an ultimately pretty silly looking final form mostly comprised of machine parts, and then he just floats around unloading bunch of powerful attacks on you. Not much of a tactical element to it at all, really, which is pretty disappointing considering that the game up to this point had such a focus on it. He does manage to take a good while to beat, having over 200,000 HP (plus he casts barriers that make him temporarily immune to magic or all attacks), but as long as you're decently leveled and diligent about healing he's not much of a threat at all. I love the game, but the end of it definitely feels rushed, and he's probably the emblematic element of that. Still, for being a character who puts an interesting flip on Final Fantasy norms as most elements of FFXII were wont to do, he gets a B.
(And yes, one of the best attacks to use on him late in the fight is Gil Toss, since it ignores his high defense. Insert your own pay-to-win joke here)
Ardyn Izunia (Final Fantasy XV)
Admittedly it took a bit of time for me to warm up to Final Fantasy XV's villain, but after playing the Royal Edition and experiencing his DLC, he quickly became one of my favorites. He's an atypical villain in many respects - he operates behind the scenes for much of the game, coming off as a pretty silly jokester during the few times you see him. But, once he gets revealed as the big bad and his true colors come out, he's honestly pretty terrifying - an immortal trickster and ancestor of Noctis out for revenge on his entire bloodline, intent on burning it all down and even corrupting the gods themselves to get his way. He's actually a good enough to pull it off, too - the Empire thinks they're controlling him, but he's got them all wrapped around his finger, getting Noctis out of the way for a good long time, crushing the Empire and plunging the whole world into darkness. His final fight is a little basic - he doesn't get any flashy transformations or anything like that, and it mostly just boils down to a battle of king-versus-pretender with similar Dragonball-esque powers - but the buildup is excellent. Battling his corrupted god Ifrit, the equally corrupted guardians of Insomnia (only defeatable by using all four characters and their unique abilities), and then a crazy one-on-one match with the man himself - all symbolic of the four protagonists and their bond, but that it's ultimately Noctis's destiny to restore the balance. Well-built up, well executed, and a guy who's both smug enough that you want to smack him down, yet threatening enough to remind you he's not something you can take lightly; Ardyn gets an A.