Editorial: Top 5 Final Fantasy Villains.
I did a lot of research for - okay, I did about half an hour's research for this editorial, and what I saw surprised me a little. The first surprise was that so many people rated Kefka and Sephiroth highly on their lists, and while I do like Kefka, both those two are boring villains. The second surprise was that everybody had a different metric for measuring their best villains, ranging from the concrete threat that they posed to the world to their relatability as characters.
What I learned from this is that there's a rich tapestry of opinions amidst the fans of Final Fantasy, and that of all of those many opinions, only mine are actually correct. So with that unassailable fact firmly in mind, let's take a look at my top five Final Fantasy villains.
(Sort of. One of these is from Kingdom Hearts, which, let's face it, falls under the Final Fantasy umbrella.)
5. Ultimecia, Final Fantasy VIII.
Ultimecia was arguably a misstep in terms of plot. After much had been made of the characters having to face off against their former matron, she is revealed to have just been being possessed, thus robbing that storyline of any emotional weight - a recurring problem with VIII, as its tendency towards edging towards weighty, dark topics before pulling back is well documented.
That is, one imagines, one of several reasons why the Rinoa-is-Ultimecia theory is so popular: It would be good storytelling where 'everything is fine, it's just a woman from the future' isn't.
That having been said, regardless of whether she's Rinoa or not, there is a certain amount of mystery to Ultimecia that makes her interesting. Perhaps moreso than any other Final Fantasy, she is shrouded in intrigue, with an unclear origin, nebulous abilities, and an odd speech impediment that can only be rendered in text - and everything in the game is set up to facilitate that mystery, from Ultimecia mostly acting through agents, to the fact that the amnesia side effect of Guardian Forces (used by both the protagonists and Ultimecia) means that Ultimecia herself might not know her own origins.
4. Yu Yevon, Final Fantasy X.
"Wait, er, Yu Yevon? Wasn't he a ... small glowing spider? Didn't he have absolutely zero lines and only showed up at the very end of X for a boss battle that it was impossible to lose?"
It's here that I want to remind you that I am always right and thus you should just go with it. But I do have some justification for putting him on this list. By the time we see him, Yu Yevon is an inhuman spider-thing, mindlessly lobbing attacks at you despite the total futility of it - and it's established in conversation that he doesn't think or feel, he just performs the same actions over and over again on autopilot.
That's quite compelling, I think, given that this was once a man - a king, even. Yu Yevon sought to preserve his people (in some form, at least) and did this by sacrificing himself to an eternity of creating Sin after Sin, perpetuating the cycle of death, until his mind, body and soul are all gone. While he's the final boss of the game, he's not really the villain - Seymour comes closest to that, but he isn't really the villain either, and nor is Yunalesca. In X, the true villain is just the cycle, and every other villain is just a product of it.
3. Emperor Mateus, Final Fantasy II.
Mateus doesn't get enough recognition for his acts of villainy, despite being a pretty effective villain. He doesn't really have anything approaching a deep motivation - the novels try to pass him off as being under the influence of a demonic curse, but in the game itself he's just a megalomaniac who wants to rule the world - but he's probably one of the most effectual villains in the franchise, killing off four of your party members and razing to the ground several of the towns that you can visit, along with eventually taking over both Hell and Heaven.
It did seem like he was getting some of the credit he deserved in Dissidia Final Fantasy, which cast him as the pre-eminent villain amidst the villainous line-up, but it didn't catch on, and Mateus remains woefully unappreciated. Perhaps it's the fact that he looks like David Bowie.
2. Master Xehanort, Kingdom Hearts.
This is a - borderline case, I will admit, but I hold that Kingdom Hearts is part of the Final Fantasy franchise.
Xehanort, like Mateus, is a villain on this list more for his efficacy than his particularly deep motivations. While Mateus is brutal, Xehanort is obsessively thorough, layering back-up plans and gambits so heavily that one way or another, he always comes out on top. Admittedly, this is mostly because of poor writing rather than good writing, the product of so many retcons and overcomplications to the plot of the series that the only way to make Xehanort an effective villain is to have him always be on top of them, but it makes a compelling picture anyway.
(It certainly doesn't hurt that his voice actors, Chikao Otsuka and Leonard Nimoy, both of whom sadly passed away earlier this year, were excellent at portraying him.)
What puts Xehanort ahead of Mateus is that while Mateus is a two-dimensional megalomaniac, Xehanort does show signs of a conscience. The journal entries scattered through Birth by Sleep reveal that until just a few years prior to the game's events, he was prepared to give up on his plans and quietly live out the rest of his days; and when his apprentice-gone-experiment Ven seems likely to die, ruining his plans forever, Xehanort's first concern is to take the boy to his own boyhood home to let him die in comfort.
Like Yu Yevon and Ultimecia, there's a slight element of tragedy to Xehanort, in that every time he finds himself turning away from his path, circumstances intervene to drag him right back to it.
1. Doctor Cid, Final Fantasy XII.
I am shocked that more people don't like Doctor Cid. The man is a storm of charisma, combining all the sinister enthusiasm of the mad scientist with all the pomp and theatricality of a Shakespeare villain.
In a way, Cid combines many of the elements of the villains above. Like Xehanort and Mateus, he's effective, having functionally revolutionised the technology of an entire continent and mimicked the artifices of that world's deities, along with manipulating the heroes for much of the story; like Ultimecia, he's mysterious, as we don't know when or how his association with Venat started, or even what drove him towards his goals; and like Yu Yevon and Xehanort, there's a certain amount of tragedy for him, as his work at least started with the betterment of humanity in mind.
He brings all this to the table, along with booming theatricality.