In video games, we’ve become used to playing the righteous world-saving hero—so much so that it’s gotten kind of stale and boring. Which is why video games with anti-heroes have exploded in popularity.
Video game anti-heroes feature the same morally complex and multi-dimensional traits as anti-heroes in other media, like The Godfather’s Michael Corleone and Breaking Bad’s Walter White: they think they’re doing what’s best for their loved ones, no matter the means.
But in video games, those same complexities can be upgraded with god-like abilities and freeform action. Video game anti-heroes can be cool, frightening, empathetic, threatening. That’s why we love them.
Here are our picks for the best video game anti-heroes of all time and what makes them so great as characters.
Conker the Squirrel is a twisted take on one of the characters of Diddy Kong Racing. Needless to say, he’s an unpleasant presence who appears as drunk, self-absorbed, and arrogant. And in Bad Fur Day, he comes off as crass whenever he throws insults or shows lewd actions.
This Nintendo mascot might come off as spiteful, but he gets the job done, especially when taking down foes. He also performs favors for characters around him, though not without a price. And he has a cool arsenal, complete with MP5 machine guns and bazookas!
9. Agent 47
The nominal Hitman of the franchise, Agent 47 is an assassin designed to take down hard targets while remaining stealthy and undetected. His name comes from being the 47th clone generated from five men who have the intelligence and physicality to be assassins.
Agent 47 takes names and targets, no questions asked. His seamless skills as an assassin make him capable of all sorts of grim deeds—and while he always gets the job done, his means are beyond common moral grasp. For that, he makes for one cold-blooded anti-hero.
8. Niko Bellic
Niko Bellic is a victim of the American Dream. He’s promised a good life, but to acquire it he must go through the criminal underworld of Liberty City and work for one crime lord after another. Yet even with blood on his hands, he still holds onto important virtues.
In a game that has many bright spots, Niko Bellic shines the most in Grand Theft Auto IV with his snarky takes of the criminal life and his empathetic character. His playable mode makes his arc all the more intriguing to follow and his trudge through Liberty City more fun.
7. Ada Wong
In the Resident Evil universe, Ada Wong is a lethal operative who’s known to be capable of handling dangerous tasks for biohazard corporations.
While she acts loyal to her superiors, she often undermines them and exposes their failures. She’s also quick to bail out Officer Kennedy from the dire situations he ends up in.
Ada first appeared in Resident Evil 2 as a supporting character, but her popularity propelled her to become a full character in future Resident Evil games. Who could blame her? Her lethal skills, cold-blooded attitude, and killer looks land her as one of the coolest characters.
Wario is Mario’s arch-rival and polar opposite. His debut in Super Mario Land 2: 6 Golden Coins has him as the final boss, determined to take down Mario. Since then, his sneering and menacing presence became a recurring hurdle for the Italian plumber to overcome.
Despite him being a nasty character, Nintendo fans cannot get enough of Wario—to the point that he has his own spin-off video game series. His gruffness and pride somehow resonate with players, and is just one of the many proofs of our fascination with villains as heroes.
5. Arthur Morgan
Arthur Morgan has long rose to the ranks in the Van der Linde gang. His loyalty led him to be a force to be reckoned with. When the influence of government affects the progress of the American Frontier, Arthur does what he needs to loyally defend against his growing adversaries.
The choice to focus Red Dead Redemption 2 on Arthur is a fascinating one that makes his journey more interesting—and has a powerful impact on his path to redemption. The excellent game and its dying Western backdrop would not be possible without the anti-hero Arthur.
4. Max Payne
Max Payne is a police detective who goes undercover for the DEA. But when his family is murdered, he becomes a vigilante on the hunt for all those responsible—and the deeper he goes in the criminal underworld, the weaker his grip gets on morality.
Of all the characters listed here, Max is one of the most fascinating examples of a video game character descending into darkness. Granted, he could have stuck to his vocation—but seeing the loved ones he lost, it’s easy to see why he takes a darker path.
Dante takes his name from Italian poet Dante Alighieri—and like the poet who dealt with demonic beings, Dante comes across many devils on his path, even after leaving the life of a devil hunter.
This prompts him to receive demonic powers of his own, which he uses as weapons against the more dangerous entities in his way.
The Devil May Cry games need their Han Solo-type outlaw, and they find that cockiness and style in Dante, who’s just awesome to follow. While his appearance changed over the years, his swaggering personality and supernatural abilities remain to make him a cool anti-hero.
2. Joel Miller
Joel Miller already had a lot of baggage before the apocalypse began, but he had to set that aside to guide Ellie to safety. Because of that, he seamlessly softens up to her while dealing with his demons.
The world of The Last of Us provides no room for sympathy, especially when liking Joel, but that makes his character more compelling. His reluctant father role, along with his survival skills and traumatic backstory, makes us want to root for him and Ellie to stay strong amidst chaos.
Kratos is the face of the God of War series. Based on the Greek mythological character, Kratos started as a Spartan warrior. When he’s tricked by Ares to kill his family, he goes on a vengeful rampage, resulting in Ares’ death and taking his title as “God of War.”
Many outlets tout Kratos as one of the best video game anti-heroes of all time, and for good reason. His hunger for retribution leads him to an all-out war against the gods and puts him on an irredeemable path.
But you also can see the last grasps of humanity that remain in him, especially in relation to his son Atreus. More than just a great character, Kratos is a colossal anti-hero beyond comprehension.