1. Tron Bonne, The Misadventures of Tron Bonne (2000)
Alas, poor Mega Man Legends. What at first seemed to be a sacrilegious, needlessly 3D spin on the Blue Bomber turned into some of the best adventures Capcom ever produced. As great as the first two games in the series were, Rock Volnutt, the earnest hero of Legends, was never as metaphorically three-dimensional as Tron Bonne, his piratical rival/stalker. First impressions of Tron were as misleading as those about the series. Rather than the typical clumsy anime villain, the only lady of the Bonne thief dynasty turned out to be the most complex character in the entire Mega Man mythos. Her life as the head of a robot household is mostly played out in her spinoff game, The Misadventures of Tron Bonne. In addition to going on adventures where she rustles horses and taunts the local constabulary, Tron also cares for her legion of Servbots, little Lego-looking dudes that are her helpers, children, and worshippers. Tron’s a lot of fun to play with, but she’s also a lonely gal who’s not quite sure how to live a good life yet. Of all the Legends games, hers is the most warm and strange.
2. Donkey Kong, Donkey Kong Country (1994)
Disney’s Wreck-It Ralph tells the story of Ralph, a Donkey Kong-esque game villain who’s tired of being the bad guy. While Ralph finally comes to terms with his villain role in a touching statement of self-acceptance, Donkey Kong really was able to leave behind his days as Mario’s antagonist, putting his brawn and barrel-tossing skills to good use in Donkey Kong Country. DK seems to have done quite well for himself since retiring from the arcade, getting his own island, banana horde, and a sidekick. The new career path also earned Donkey Kong his own rhythm game (with a special plastic bongo controller) and a chance to work on his golf and tennis game. So Ralph might have a pretty bright future ahead of him, too.
3. Wario, Wario Land: Super Mario Land 3 (1994)
1994 turned out to be a good year for Mario villains. After trying to take over Mario’s life in Super Mario Land 2, Wario returned for his own game with a less violent approach to their rivalry. In Wario Land, he’s just out to show off how successful and awesome he is rather than unleashing goons on the plumber. He’s not a hero, though. All he wants is to get enough money to build the biggest castle ever and make Mario jealous. Lucky for fans who wanted more of his big red nose and squiggly mustache, Wario got to star in plenty more treasure-hunting focused games before presumably retiring somewhere you can’t afford to go.
4. Firebrand The Red Arremer, Gargoyle’s Quest (1990)
Ghosts ‘N Goblins never hurt for colorful characters. The star of the whole series is, after all, a bearded man who’s willing to fight the devil wearing nothing but his boxers and a grimace. As likable as Arthur the Exhibitionist is, though, it’s hard not to love the bane of his existence, Firebrand The Red Arremer. Running into this blighter, with his blood-red skin and razor-sharp bat wings, is more nerve-wracking than any of the game’s bosses. Watching Firebrand swoop around in unpredictable arcs, it always seemed like it might be more fun to be Old Red than Underpants Knight. Gargoyle’s Quest and its sequels, Gargoyle’s Quest II and Demon’s Crest, give you just that opportunity. In the first two games, half your time is spent wandering around the demon realm, talking to beasts and hanging out. For Demon’s Crest, Ghosts ’N Goblins creator Tokuro Fujiwara borrowed the structure of another Capcom Super Nintendo classic, Mega Man X, and set Firebrand in a dark realm where he had to collect abilities to reach new corners of the game’s stages. Stripping out most of the chatty elements of Red’s first two games, Demon’s Crest is a pure shot of Super NES action, and it delivers on the promise that playing as the Red Arremer would indeed be totally sweet.
5. TIE Fighters, Star Wars: TIE Fighter (1994)
The Empire never put much value on human life. Perhaps this is obvious, considering that the Emperor’s countless minions constructed something called the “Death Star” and used it to blow up a populated planet just for looking at them wrong, but the nihilistic attitude is also clear in how they outfit their own troops. While the Rebel Alliance puts care and maintenance into their signature fighter, the X-Wing, there are no such precautions with its Imperial counterpart. TIE fighters, like their stormtrooper brethren, are made to be expendable and easily mass-produced, sent in endless waves to overwhelm their enemies with sheer numbers. Like German U-boat crews active during the tail end of World War II, TIE fighter pilots couldn’t expect to live long, or that their bodies would be found. So jumping in the cockpit for Star Wars: TIE Fighter puts you in a whole different mindset than its predecessor, X-Wing. You fly differently with the expectation of imminent death hanging over you. Being so vulnerable, rather than promoting caution, imbues the best TIE pilots with a dangerous fatalism that spells trouble for the Rebellion. Sometimes freedom—and life—must be sacrificed in the name of order. Why can’t these rebels understand that?
6. Subject Delta, BioShock 2 (2010)
Among the challenges in building a sequel to the philosophical shooting game BioShock—and there were a lot of challenges—was the fact that no matter how the player ended the first game, it left the protagonist, Jack, unfit for future hero service. BioShock 2’s smart and surprising choice was to replace him with a Big Daddy. These face-drilling tragic figures appeared as towering threats in the first game, protecting at all cost the “Little Sisters” who Jack could kill to gain valuable abilities. (We’re playing with a loose definition of “hero” here.) Their forced servitude and unwavering loyalty make them empathetic figures even in the first game. So it made sense to put players in a Big Daddy’s shoes for the sequel, allowing the attachment to one little girl to pull us through a new storyline—and it also let players do some face drilling of their own. A solid win all around.
7. Werdna, Wizardry IV: The Return Of Werdna (1987)
After Werdna’s defeat in Wizardry: Proving Grounds Of The Mad Overlord, the first in the series of influential computer role-playing games, Wizardry IV puts you in control of the evil wizard as he attempts to break out of prison. Along the way, Werdna must find pentagrams, both to restore his wicked powers and to build up a posse of monsters that can help fend off invading parties (which bear an awfully close resemblance to the gang of goody two-shoes from the previous games). It’s a notoriously difficult journey. There aren’t any experience points or leveling up to increase Werdna’s strength—those pentagrams are all he’s got—and the dungeon he’s been locked in was (rightfully) filled with more deadly and confusing traps than any that Werdna ever designed himself.
8. Miles Edgeworth, Ace Attorney Investigations: Miles Edgeworth (2009)
The relentlessly smug, cravat-wearing prosecutor Miles Edgeworth was already the star of the Ace Attorney series before 2009, if you judge stardom by sheer quantity of real-world cosplay appearances. But with the release of the fifth game in the series, the ruthless antagonist of defense attorney Phoenix Wright gets to prove he’s not that bad a guy with his own starring role. This time, Miles is investigating a series of cases and seeking the people who are actually guilty—rather than the innocents he’s usually prosecuting when facing off against Phoenix Wright. It’s a problem often found in TV courtroom procedurals, where the main characters’ side is always right and the opposition is always wrong. Even if the cases are still black-and-white here, it’s nice to show that lawyers don’t have to be.
9. Zero The Kamikaze Squirrel, Zero The Kamikaze Squirrel (1994)
A minor villain in the B-level cartoon mascot action game Aero The Acro-Bat 2, Zero The Kamikaze Squirrel is now mostly forgotten. But if he were going to be remembered for anything, it would be that he actually abandoned Aero halfway through to star in his own B-level cartoon mascot action game. That isn’t to say it was the wrong decision: Zero’s job at the time was building an engine that would somehow help his evil clown boss take over the world’s circuses. Surmising that he was not in a growth industry, Zero jumped at the chance to abandon his post to bring a high-profile fight to unsustainable logging in the game that would bear his name. This sort-of sequel probably would have rehabilitated Zero’s justly tarnished image, had anyone noticed it happened.
10. Big Boss, Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater (2004)
Big Boss was the primary mustache-twirling maniac during the early days of Metal Gear, Hideo Kojima’s long-running spy series, until he was incinerated by the games’ primary protagonist, Solid Snake. Even after his death, though, Big Boss’ pre-incineration actions continued to drive the action. This lingering shadow was made whole in Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater, a prequel set in the ’60s that stars the villain and explores how he, a noble CIA operative then named Naked Snake, rose to prominence and earned his ludicrous alliterative title. And since evil is more interesting than good, Big Boss has since usurped leading-man status from Solid—his fall from honor was further chronicled in Metal Gear Solid: Portable Ops and Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker, and his pre-warlord days will take center stage in the upcoming Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain.
11. Dracula, Kid Dracula (1993)
Ask yourself: How many times do you actually see Dracula hurting someone in Castlevania? Evidence suggests that, while he does rule over a horde of monsters and living suits of armor, he’s nothing more than a profoundly wealthy recluse with a bizarre sense of interior design. The Belmonts, meanwhile, come in and trash his joint repeatedly like they were in some medieval Beastie Boys video. Cramming candles with boomerangs and axes is hard work, you jerks! Konami preserved a document of poor Drac’s carefree youth, when he was just a playful scamp capturing that famous castle for himself. He wasn’t so different as a tyke. Fireballs were still his weapon of choice, but that glorious Kris Kristofferson mane was more of an Albert Einsteinian bouffant back then. Monsieur Impaler’s outings on both the Famicom (Japan only) and Game Boy (available in English) offer some insight into his later interior-design choices. He had to bomb out walls, which explains why it’s so easy for Simon and his brood to whip through the masonry. It isn’t clear why Dracula eventually hides meat in there, though. The guy lives in a clock tower 24/7; give him a break.
12. Adrian Shephard, Half-Life: Opposing Force (1999)
The biggest threat to Gordon Freeman, the scientist-turned-action-hero star of Half-Life, isn’t the inter-dimensional monsters he accidentally unleashed upon Black Mesa, his place of work. It’s the marines that breach the research facility in an attempt to quell the invasion and erase any evidence of it. Opposing Force, an expansion pack for the original game, puts you in the combat boots of Adrian Shephard, one of the marines sent to cover up history’s worst OSHA violation. In what seems like a bit of a cop-out, you don’t spend the game hunting down the invading aliens and innocent scientists. Instead, Shephard battles another race of rift-traversing extraterrestrials and an even shadier black-ops military force as he tries to escape Black Mesa. In the end, he’s able to put a stop to the second alien invasion (the rest of that mess is all Gordon’s to clean up), and the enigmatic dimensional traveller known as the G-Man dumps him into some sort of inter-dimensional holding cell until further notice. It’s a prophetic ending, predicting the frozen-in-time future of the Half-Life series nearly a decade before it went off the map.
13. Shadow The Hedgehog, Shadow The Hedgehog (2005)
Sega’s unwavering mascot, Sonic The Hedgehog, is the ultimate product of early ’90s marketing. He’s cocky, in your face, and totally radical. His latter day archrival, Shadow The Hedgehog, is equally reflective of his era. Introduced in 2001’s Sonic Adventure 2, Shadow is soft-spoken and angsty. Given his demeanor and the color of his spines—black and red—Shadow seems like a creation molded from the emo music and culture that was breaching the mainstream around the same time as his debut. The gloomy Gus even has a dark and gritty backstory that left him with an existential crisis—he’s a genetically engineered perfect weapon, you see—and a hatred for the human race. Sega gave him his own self-titled game in which he can either help save Earth or destroy it depending on player choices. In addition to matching Sonic’s super-speed, albeit with the help of hover-shoes, Shadow comes to his own game packing heat. Yuji Naka, Sonic’s creator, would later comment that his team had received many letters from kids asking for Sonic to have a gun. While they thought it inappropriate to give firearms to their cheerier hedgehog, they were perfectly happy to grant Shadow a carry permit.
14. Slime, Dragon Quest Heroes: Rocket Slime (2006)
The Slime—a smiling blue drop of goo—is one of the least intimidating enemies in all of gamedom. It’s a pushover by design, as the Slime originally served as a way to introduce the Dragon Quest battle system to players without giving them too much of a challenge (and it still serves that purpose in every Dragon Quest game). But the Slime’s friendly cuteness and distinctive character design—with a simple yet instantly recognizable silhouette—make it something more than your usual role-playing game cannon fodder. And so over time, the Slime has become a mascot of the Dragon Quest universe, with its own spinoff series, Slime Morimori Dragon Quest. As you might gather from the title, the series is primarily a Japan-only affair, but one of the three Slime games was released in the U.S. on the Nintendo DS as Dragon Quest Heroes: Rocket Slime. The game alternates between a sort of simplified, cute Zelda and bombastic tank battles (which are fueled by the ammo you gathered in the exploration part of the game). It’s an enjoyable game whose prime selling point is that you are an adorable Slime who gathers a menagerie of other, equally adorable Slime cousins. With enemies like these, who needs friends?