In the Pantheon of gaming, countless heroes line the walls. Mario, Link, Sonic, Mega Man -the list goes on. but with every hero comes a villain. Bowser, Ganondorf, Robotnik, Dr. Wily and their ilk are the posterchildren of evil scumbaggery in gaming, but how often do you see their name on the cover? How often is Mario or Sonic shoved aside in favor of their nemesis? It’s astoundingly infrequent. Why are there no “villain games”?
I’m not talking about games where you simply play as a villain. Yes, you can play as Ganondorf in Hyrule Warriors or Bowser in Super Paper Mario, but they are supporting characters in those games, not stars. I’m also not talking about games where you play as an original character who performs villainous behavior (like Crypto in Destroy All Humans!). I’m specifically talking about games that star established villains, and games like that are quite rare. One of the few well-known cases is Wario, who originated as the villain of Super Mario Land 2: 6 Golden Coins and went on to star in his own series, eventually becoming an antihero and moving out of the Mushroom Kingdom altogether.
Bowser, Ganondorf, and Sephiroth have enormous fanbases, so it seems weird that they haven’t gotten their own games yet. Even the perennial damsel Princess Peach has her own starring role in Super Princess Peach, while the closest Bowser’s gotten is Mario and Luigi: Bowser’s Inside Story. These villains bring a ton of interesting powers and abilities from their respective series that would be a lot of fun to play around with – it’s not like you’d have to give them a magic parasol to make them interesting. Most of these villains could even surpass their respective heroes.
So why don’t these rogues get to headline their own games? For one thing, cool as they are, villains aren’t often known for doing things themselves. Look at Ganondorf from The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. Ganondorf’s backstory is full of intrigue and betrayal, but (SPOILERS) he doesn’t really do that much over the course of the game, at least not that the player knows about. While you see every bit of Link’s story, Ganondorf spends most of his time ruling from a dark tower – there isn’t much room for character development. You could also say the same for Bowser. While he’s an egotistical schemer, he doesn’t do much in the Super Mario Bros. series aside from hurling fireballs across bridges. If you think about it, he’s a pretty passive enemy.
For another thing, many of these villains are there to be villains. Expanding on their backstory makes them sympathetic, which in turn undermines their chief role. Compare a boss who kills your family and ruins your life for no reason to one who does all of that out of a thirst for vengeance against a cruel world that stole his own family away. Sympathetic villains have their place, but sometimes you just need someone to hate. We don’t want to relate to Sephiroth or Bowser, we want to take them down for kidnapping the princess or laying waste to our homeland. Once you play as a character, you start to connect with them, and perhaps developers don’t want us to do that.
Of course, these obstacles don’t automatically make it impossible for villains to take a starring role while staying bad. I think there’s a way to connect with a total scumbag of an antagonist coming to understand his reasons (just look at Trevor from GTA V). You can still hate these characters, even as you guide them to do more evil. Though a Ganondorf action game or a Dr. Eggman robot RTS might sound like pipe dreams, I’d encourage their respective developers to examine those properties from new angles. Villain games might be rare today, but they definitely don’t have to be.