Antagonists have the ability to force their wicked selves into your mind and your heart. You just aren't going to forget classic videogame (and by proxy, your own) adversaries such as Bowser, Dr. Robotnik and Sephiroth. They're part of what made their games iconic, exciting journeys. It was up to you to save the day by fighting against these villains; through numerous conflicts and ending with one intense final showdown at the climax of the game. There's nothing I love better than a kickass last battle against a bad guy I've been chasing down for most of the game's playtime.
Sadly, I've been experiencing those awesome confrontations less and less. Maybe I've been playing the wrong games in recent years, but villains feel like a dying breed. Those monster hordes, criminal syndicates and enemy armies seem to be running out of figureheads. If there even is a boss battle at the end of your struggle, it often turns out to just be a bigger, slightly stronger monster/robot/vehicle compared to the hundreds of previous characterless mobs. These usually don't even show up until the finishing stages of the game, with little to no build-up. To me it feels like a cop-out to have your journey end with a fight against something you haven't had any investment in fighting with previously.
So far in 2014, I think there haven't even been any more than a handful of notable characters fulfilling the villain role well. The first that does come to my mind would be the crazed Chef Fujimoto from Octodad: Dadliest Catch. While his battles were awkward and annoying (which isn't exactly surprising considering that's sort of the point with Octodad), and his character wasn't anything other than a silly cartoon cook who wanted to make a meal out of your character; I appreciated his presence in the game, and it provided an enjoyable finale to Octodad's character arc with his family.
The Playstation 4's Infamous: Second Son gave us Brooke Augustine, who I felt benefited from a great build-up throughout the game. She shows up at the beginning of the game, slaps you and your community around with her concrete powers, then marches off to conquer Seattle; leaving you with the determination to grow your abilities and take her down. After a whole game of seeing how Augustine's control has strangled the city and the super-powered Conduits, you get into a pair of brutal battles against her; taking the DUP leader down with the concrete powers she once oppressed you with. You even get a nice look at her motivations for doing it all. Augustine mightn't prove to be the most memorable game villain, but she fulfilled her role in Second Son's story really well; providing players with an enemy you loved to hate and were motivated to fight back against.
The true standout to me, however, has been Monokuma; the main antagonist of Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc. Just his design makes him stick out in your mind. A maniacal, robotic black-and-white teddy bear; he's responsible for driving students trapped in a high school to kill each other. While he's an antagonist that sets up a vicious killing game akin to Jigsaw from the SAW franchise; Monokuma does not do this out of a nobler sense of changing people's lives. No, Monokuma does it because he absolutely adores it. He revels in manipulating the teenagers into becoming murderers, and he expresses delight as he executes the guilty with his wacky contraptions. He plays more of a spectator for a lot of the game; but he's still always around and constantly expressing how much fun everybody's suffering is to him. Monokuma acts as a torturous reminder of how horrible a situation the characters are in; and he couldn't be happier about it.
Now I'm not saying the villains are all gone. In fact I'm quite looking forward to a few that feature in upcoming titles. While I skipped Arkham Origins, the presence of an original new Batman villain in the form of the Arkham Knight has me excited to return to Bats' world. Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes has already sold me on how much of a scumbag Skull Face is; so I look forward to facing off against the most vile Metal Gear Solid villain yet in The Phantom Pain. And of course, I'm looking forward to clashing with Monokuma again in the next Danganronpa. Still, I can't help but think the antagonist role just doesn't feel like it's been handled in a fulfilling way in most recent games.
My issue with the general disappearance of villains is that it stops me being in a relationship with the bad guy. To feel a sense of scorn, animosity and conflict creates a special kind of investment in a character; and fuels a motivation to keep playing so you can claim victory over them. Maybe I've just not been playing the right games lately, but I miss that exciting sense of attachment to a game where I set out to take down a new, and impressive adversary. I hope I can play future games which bring the focus back into conflicts with some outrageously arduous antagonists.