Okay, here’s my first blog post that isn’t an intro: As a child, I liked video games. (Yeah… BIG shock for a 90s kid…) Even as a toddler with no hope of effectively playing a video game, I was mesmerized watching my uncle playing his various NES games. And for the longest time, I was only a watcher of video gaming. I didn’t even try to play Super Mario Brothers until I was 7 (read: confidence issues), and given my horrendous inexperience, I died repeatedly on the first stage. I had no other opportunities to build any kind of video gaming skill. I had no video games at home, due to a combination of poverty and my dad feeling that having a game system would “turn me into a jerk.” (I was finally able to get a Genesis Nomad after my parents divorced.) Despite these obstacles, I gradually got better, and was at least basically competent at my uncle’s NES games… by the time I was 9. And I loved playing those games… despite how murderously hard they got at times! What follows will be a list of video game enemies that I specifically remember turning my childhood gaming life into a living hell. To make this list, the following entries had to do more than simply be a difficult or dangerous enemy; these are the ones that kicked my ass with a certain menacing style. These are the enemies that made an impression, the ones that I still find myself thinking of surprisingly often to this day. These are the enemies I dreaded facing, because I knew I was probably going to die and lose some amount of my progress in the game.
Hell, maybe I died fighting these enemies so many times that their images are just permanently burned onto my retinas, courtesy of my grandparents’ big old-fashioned floor-sitting TV.
This certainly won’t be an exhaustive list of the nastiest enemies in video game history. I’m limited, of course, by which games I saw as a kid, and perhaps my chosen entries will only show just how much I truly did suck at video games. Either way, this opening segment is longwinded enough already and I want to pay tribute to some video game enemies that deserve it:
#4: Optomon (Guardian Legend)
Ah, Guardian Legend. This was one of my favorite games to watch before I was able to play any myself. Aside from the general coolness of the game, there was the fact that I took the game’s protagonist to be a transformer, and I worshipped Transformers far more than even video games. There was even one specific transformer (Jetfire) that the sprite seemed to resemble, so it was easy to imagine it as such. I didn’t realize until many years later that Guardian Legend’s protagonist was some kind of anime-esque cyborg woman. I wonder how I would have reacted to that back in the early 90s, when seemingly all boy-oriented media (e.g. toy commercials) appeared to imply that girls were THE ENEMY. (Seriously, was some misogynist in control of the media in the early 90s?) Either way, to me Guardian Legend was an awesome game about a transformer fighting hostile aliens on a dangerous planet which was absolutely full of shit that wants to kill you. (I'll try not to channel the Angry Video Game Nerd too much while writing this.) Amidst all of those hostile enemies, one that stood out to me as particularly dangerous was the boss known as Optomon. Part of its ominousness was the fact that the so-called “corridors” in the game (where bosses reside) appeared to be underwater, since a number of bosses and corridor enemies in Guardian Legend resembled large sea creatures. (All of which I imagined as much larger than they probably were since I thought of the protagonist as a transformer.) I always thought large sea creatures often had a nice combination of awesomeness and intimidation, so the thought of a transformer descending deep underground into underwater corridors to fight giant sea monsters was very possibly the greatest expression of badassery that my young mind could fathom. Fighting a sea monster from the bowels of some alien planet sounds scary enough, but now imagine that the creature in question is a fucking giant eyeball! And this was the biggest eyeball in a game that clearly had a fetish for eyeballs.
Speaking of enemies with eyeballs, I initially wasn’t sure whether to talk about Optomon or Grimgrin, one of the multi-eyed bosses. I remember that one pretty well, too, especially how more and more of its eyes would look destroyed as you damaged it more, but it would still have that crazy smile through the whole fight. I chose Optomon for one specific reason: my uncle seemed to fear this one much more than Grimgrin. This was probably because it shot freaking lasers, the ultimate weapon to end all weapons by typical kid logic. (It turns out Optomon’s projectiles are actually supposed to be seaweed, apparently.) Those seaweed lasers were MASSIVELY damaging. I saw the transformer character explode and heard the sad “game over” music many, many times while watching battles with Optomon. Of all the enemies on this list, this is the only one that I never actually got to face as a child. I could never get past the first boss, a giant one-eyed fish, when I tried playing Guardian Legend. Years later, I did play this game with an emulator, and I was only able to defeat Optomon by quicksaving every few seconds that I managed not to get hit by the seaweed. I would have never stood a chance in the original game where there was no quicksave option. The fact that I never actually got to face Optomon as a child is why it’s in fourth place on this list, despite the terrifying impression it made on me back then.
#3: Gooma (Zelda 2: The Adventure of Link)
Zelda 2: The Adventure of Link was another of my absolute favorite games to watch my uncle play, and eventually (incompetently) play myself. It is without a doubt one of the first games to come to my mind when someone says “side scroller.” This was the only Zelda game I knew back then. I didn’t know that every other Zelda game had a different format than this, and I didn’t care. Hell, I only had the barest idea of the game’s story. To me, it was just some guy running around and fighting monsters, a guy whose sprite vaguely made me think of medieval Lego men. Given that Legos (ESPECIALLY the medieval-themed sets) were my second favorite childhood thing after Transformers, it’s no surprise that this game always really grabbed my attention as a kid. Of course, when I started trying to play it myself, it was hard as hell. One boss in particular that frustrated me more than anything else was Gooma. Apparently he was actually supposed to be some kind of big monster-ish creature, but I always took him as a gigantic muscular man with a spiky helmet and a spiked ball and chain weapon. Whatever he was, he was a royal pain in my 10 year old ass. Zelda 2’s saved game selection screen showed a little counter under each selection showing how many game-overs that character had endured. I remember having over 100 game-overs, and I could easily imagine at least 30 (maybe as many as 50) of them were due to Gooma.
It frankly disgusts me when I see on Youtube how easily some people can beat Gooma (same goes for Optomon). I just couldn’t figure out how to take him out back then. That damn spiked ball kept hitting me and knocking me back, over and over and over. All I could do was wildly jump at him stabbing like a madman. I can’t remember how I finally beat him, but I think it was out of pure luck more than skill or strategy. (Ironically I killed the next palace boss after Gooma in one try with little difficulty.) Zelda 2 had plenty of memorable bosses, but none have left their mark in my mind like Gooma. He seemed like such an unstoppable force, and he lived out on an island palace in the middle of the ocean. (This seemed impressive to me at age 10 for some reason.) I remember imagining that sometimes he’d fight people like Link outside the place, on the beach. In these cases, he’d throw aside his ball and chain and use his brute strength to hold their heads underwater, drowning them. I figured he’d execute prisoners (if anyone survived the palace long enough to become one) in this manner as well. I’ll never forget Gooma.
#2: Blue Iron Knuckle (Zelda 2: The Adventure of Link)
Who said this list could only have bosses? The Iron Knuckles, which came in orange, red, and blue versions, stood out to me as especially fearsome enemies in a game already rife with challenging foes. It was a close call between them and Gooma for the 2nd and 3rd place slot; I decided on the Blue Iron Knuckles (I’ll abbreviate them as BIKs from here) for 2nd since I had to face so many of them, and it was always a fearful prospect. As a kid, I learned to (sloppily) defeat orange and red IKs by jumping and slashing wildly at their visors. That tactic didn’t work too well with the blue ones, though. Most prominently, BIK swords fired little projectiles like Link was able to when he was at full health (in other words: almost never), except they could be near death and still do so. Worst of all, when I would land a hit on a BIK, it’d go berserk for a bit and fire off an entire volley of projectiles. My crazy jumping slash tactic wasn’t exactly good to defend against that volley. On top of that, it seemed like for a good chunk of the game there was always a BIK guarding an important item that I had to get in order to get to a new area in the game. I’m sure a good number of those game-overs I racked up back then were from BIKs. Fights with them were burned into my head. I remember one day in 5th grade, I was sitting through history, bored as hell and fiddling with a rectangular eraser. Looking at it, all I could see and hear was a BIK projectile bouncing off of Link’s shield. And another, and another, and another, and another… Blue Iron Knuckles were without a doubt the nastiest non-boss enemies I ever faced in the Nintendo days. I can only imagine what I would have thought if I had managed to make it to the final palace in Zelda 2 to face those bird knight things when I was 10. I could never make it past the lava-filled land leading up to it.
1. Cyberdemon (Doom games)
What can I even say about this guy? He blew me away, both literally and figuratively. I’d never seen anything like him. My first exposure to Doom and the Cyberdemon came when I was 11, and my uncle got a Playstation (1), a massive upgrade from the NES. Doom was one of the games he initially bought with it, and I couldn’t believe it when I saw it. Having grown accustomed to the NES, I remember thinking Doom looked like a live-action video. (It sure as hell doesn’t look like that now…) It was unbelievable! The guns, the blood, the gore, the atmospheric music, and of course badass-looking monsters with even badder-ass sounds (I still count the Baron’s initial roar sound as one of the best video game sounds I’ve ever heard). Standing out from all this unprecedented awesomeness, with a roar that could be heard anywhere on the level and thudding mechanical footsteps signifying its approach, was the Cyberdemon. This thing just exuded power. The deep, bass-heavy sounds of the Playstation version of Doom made it seem like a walking freight train. And of course there was the fact that the Cyberdemon could kill you just about instantly, even if you had plenty of health and armor. It even made short work of the other tough enemies in the game.
The Cyberdemon is #1 on this list for more than simply being a powerful and intimidating enemy, however. If anything, while I certainly dreaded this guy early on, I’d say he ended up being the easiest for me to kill of the four main entries on this list. The Cyberdemon is on this list because… well… it was what I wanted to be. I don’t mean that I literally wanted to have horns, a rocket launching left arm, and bionic legs. Simply put: I spent a lot of my childhood living in fear of one thing or another. Obviously I would have liked it better if my life wasn’t like that. And then I see the Cyberdemon: this big, stomping monster, walking fearlessly amongst hordes of enemies that themselves could easily end my trek through the level. This thing stands head and shoulders above them, and won’t think twice about taking out any that gets in its way. To me, the Cyberdemon symbolized the state of having to fear nothing and no one. It’s the state I wanted to live in, and people who I felt probably did live in such a state made me think of the Cyberdemon. Some big, strong-looking person walks by on the street: Cyberdemon. In karate class, I’d walk in and see my sensei standing and talking to a group of students facing him. You can guess what I’d think of: the Cyberdemon. Hell, even in college, after I got into weightlifting, if I managed to work my legs out extra hard to the point that I could really feel it when walking, I’d be thinking of the slow, deliberate mechanical stomping of the Cyberdemon. That’s a hell of a long-lasting impression for a single mass of pixels to make (probably makes me sound a bit nuts), and that’s why it’s #1.