Flipping the adversarial script
If I see one more game that pits you against a horde of zombies, I'm going to scream. And with the way things are going, it'll be less than a week before I've shredded my vocal cords down to tissue-paper thinness with my constant shrieks of anguish. So often, developers seem content to fall back on such a limited subset of cliched enemies - mainly things like zombies, robots, super-soldiers, aliens, or hellspawn. And with so much oversaturation of these popular baddie archetypes, all those demons, extraterrestrials, and undead now feel about as menacing as an elderly Wal-Mart greeter.
It's time we got some more variety, don't you think? Pitting the player against an unfamiliar kind of opposition can be a risk, but when it pays off, the results are memorable at worst and ingenious at best. So whaddya say, game devs: why not give these underused antagonist themes a try? Maybe one day, they'll have been reused so many times that zombies could - miracle of miracles - actually feel fresh again.
Cthulhu may be H.P. Lovecraft's most iconic creation - but that dude had so much more to give in the 'deeply disturbing imagery' department. Take the human-fish hybrids that populate the fictional town of Innsmouth. This breed of bad guy is essentially a two-for-one deal: they start out as increasingly disfigured cultists, eventually degrading into full-on aquatic mutants. How are they created, you ask? Simple: generations of ungodly breeding between mankind and ancient, underwater creatures called Deep Ones!
Something about that transition from physically repulsive villager to bipedal sushi monster makes them so much more terrifying than your average supernatural aberration. Imagine walking in on a disheveled figure huddled in a corner, who spins around as you draw near to reveal bulging, glassy eyes, webbed hands, and gills forming from the oily creases in their neck fat. I'd take that over yet another reanimated, bloody-mouthed corpse any day!
The current gold standard: Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth
Sure, plenty of video game heroes can recount stories of how they single-handedly foiled an alien invasion, or killed the Devil himself in his own lair. But how many can claim that they were attacked by a sentient sign post? Or got jumped by a Scalding Coffee Cup that burned their flesh with psionic fire powers? I imagine that being suddenly assaulted by an everyday object is at once hilarious and terrifying. Wouldn't it just be so silly if a fire hydrant developed the urge to kill you? And can you imagine the pain of a nozzle cap, propelled by a jetstream of high-pressure water, slamming directly into your skull?
If I walked around a game world only to be accosted by random bits of scenery, I'd probably laugh at the absurdity of it all. But if done correctly, that kind of uncertainty could make every environment feel like it's out to get you. Is that gas station pump looking at me funny? Did those paintings just move? And how did that charred, smoking corpse end up next to an ordinary looking electric guitar?
The current gold standard: Earthbound
You've got to be at least a little crazy to don tights and a snazzy mask, oil yourself up, then jump from the tops of tall posts onto another person's body. So what happens when you take that kind of eccentric individual and give them assault rifles and rocket launchers? Fun. Insane, anarchic, highly explosive fun. Luchadores earn their reputations based on showmanship and impressive stunts, so only the finest gun tricks and snazzy trickshots will suffice. Plus, they're always able to tag in a buddy if the fight's not going their way, forcing you to adapt to uneven odds.
If nothing else, the vibrant, eye-catching attire of the average luchadore can add a splash of color to even the dingiest environment. And while making enemies with these masked wrestlers is incredibly hazardous to your health, luchadores are very honorable opponents (provided they're not heels). If you can impress them with your fighting spirit, you just might make an ally out of your adversary.
The current gold standard: Saints Row: The Third
As any introspective shooter fan will tell you, even the noblest of video game heroes can be classified as a mass murderer (yes, I'm talking about you, Nathan Drake). It sometimes makes you wonder if that gun-wielding guard had a family, or those squealing Grunts you just plasma-sliced developed brotherly bonds during their years of basic training. But what if you could slaughter all those virtual villains completely guilt-free? After all, it's much tougher to feel remorseful when the guy you're strangling to death is a murderous psychopath with a flair for the sadistic. He practically had it coming!
Which feels more righteous to you: gunning down a misguided insurgent in a third-world country, or ending the carnage of a convicted killer by taking his life before even more are lost? I'd go with the latter, personally. And if these particularly nasty criminals like to outfit themselves in freakish outfits, so much the better! People who wear bloodstained masks 24/7 or tattoo the word 'KILL' all over their bodies typically don't have much luck in polite society, anyway.
The current gold standard: Manhunt
Fighting against sickness is a concept that's rarely touched on in games, usually reserved for the occasional poison debuff, malaria infection, or the insurmountably heavy subject matter of an indie game. But it's so much easier to battle something when you can put a face to it and call it your sworn enemy. You know those Giant Microbes plushies that are all the rage with hip, science-conscious collectors these days? Why not take some inspiration from those designs and make an entire action game of the microscopic battles that rages in all of our bodies?
Enemy designs could either go full cutesy, like the impish Viruses of Dr. Mario, terrifying and abstract, like the twisted aberrations of The Evil Within, or just true to life (have you seen spirochaetes?). It certainly makes more sense that there'd be waves upon waves of infectious, replicating germs attacking you, rather than grunts who are all too willing to throw themselves in front of your crosshairs, or zombie hordes that seem to outnumber the pre-outbreak population.
The current gold standard: Dr. Mario
Your own psychological traumas
Here's the opposite side of the sickness coin: afflictions that take place not in our organs, but in our minds. Our innermost fears, insecurities, and emotional anguish can be the basis for some truly inspired enemy designs - yet so few games try to tackle the idea of giving physical form to psychological suffering. When the player is given the freedom to make their own associations for what could possibly explain the atrocity that's standing in front of them, the game world feels that much more rich and alive.
When you know that your own mental projections are the basis for all the horrors you encounter, it's a brilliant invitation to deconstruct the character you're playing as. When done right, this type of enemy can tell you so much more about your protagonist than a canned cutscene or audio log ever could. 'Show, don't tell', they always say - and showing the player a look into the main character's subconscious is so much more disturbing than just another scary, gory monster.
The current gold standard: Silent Hill 2
Adorable animals trapped in killer machines
Trying to turn precious, huggable critters into primary antagonists typically hasn't done so hot in the past - just look at Naughty Bear or Fur Fighters. But robots and cyborg super-soldiers are so passe. Why not follow in the footsteps of Dr. Robotnik and simply combine the two? It's utterly diabolical - take piglets, baby chicks, squirrels, and all manner of adorable animal, then stuff them into the heart of a metal monstrosity to act as a living power source. These so called 'Badniks' create quite the dilemma: would you risk harming the innocent creatures imprisoned in these mechanized terrors? How do you fight the unwilling enemies that you're actively trying to save?
Of course, Sonic games let you off the hook, clearly showing each animal being freed and happily bouncing off the screen whenever you reduce a Badnik to scrap metal. But what if another game didn't make the choice so easy? I don't know if I could bring myself to dismantle a metal-toothed piranha if it meant crushing the baby duckling inside.
The current gold standard: Sonic the Hedgehog 2
Of all the suggestions on this list, this is the one I'm rooting for the hardest. Twisted theme parks and dark carnivals crop up all throughout the gaming kingdom, and evil clowns have some pretty good representation as their requisite enemies. But mascots-turned-psychopaths are so woefully scarce, given how much they have to offer as menacing villains. That blank, unblinking stare; a smile so wide as to be painful; the exaggerated, grimy features of something not quite human but too disheveled to be a cartoon. Somewhere behind that unfeeling foam mask is a tormented, demented individual - but you'd never know it just by looking at them.
Mascots gone mad are disturbing in much the same way as clowns: their unflinchingly happy image is meant to delight children, but to see their true, flawed selves would shatter the illusion. So they buy into the persona of the costume they've now accepted as their new body, suppressing their own hardships and misery as they struggle to remain true to the character. Eventually, something deep within their psyche is going to snap. If that kind of tortured existence doesn't make for a compelling villain, I don't know what will.
The current gold standard: Dead Rising 2
Love your enemies
Oh, and there will always be a place in my heart for more virtual, bloodthirsty sharks (like the frightening ones in Depth, pictured above). I'm curious: which enemy types do you think are criminally underused in gaming? Can you think of something so radically unique that no game has ever attempted it before? Give a holler in the comments section below!
And if I were you, I'd read these hand-picked articles next: 12 ways your favorite game characters will actually die and The most ludicrously impractical fighting game weapons.