I am currently in the middle of an attempt to play through all 7 titles in the Metal Gear Solid series. It was originally an attempt to complete the series prior to the release of The Phantom Pain, but that plan failed miserably. So now, here I sit, having just beaten the first game in the franchise. As I completed my jaunt through Shadow Moses Island, I realized how much I love cool teams of bad guys.
Metal Gear Solid‘s manifestation of the cool team of bad guys is FOX-HOUND, and may be one of the best representations of the concept. There is a well-defined squad of soldiers that you know you’re up against from minute one of the game. You get multiple opportunities to learn who FOX-HOUND is as a group, and as individuals. Each member of the team experiences a short arc over the course of the game, each of which contribute to an unspoken group arc: the story of war creating monsters out of men.
The key, in my opinion, to forming a really good cool squad of bad guys, is to strike the perfect balance of the group as a group, and the group as a collection of individuals. The Pokemon games fall too close to the former: all of the admins in the various series teams are basically the same caricature of their team’s one line mantra. Meanwhile, the Quarter Knights from Wild ARMs: Alter Code F are too far to the other end: they seem too distinct, and have no real connection to one another other than their common goal.
FOX-HOUND, on the other hand, manages to remain a cohesive team while also keeping their individual personalities. Every FOX-HOUND member is an elite supersoldier, dedicated to the legacy of Big Boss. Every member was corrupted by war into a killing machine. They’re all proud, well-spoken, and well-educated. However, each has an iconic weapon of choice, a unique visual style, and their own unique set of quirks. Psycho Mantis can read your mind. Sniper Wolf has a connection to dogs. Vulcan Raven, ravens. Revolver Ocelot is a cowboy. Decoy Octopus is the exception, but that’s mostly due to his role in the story.
Overlord also has a really strong cool team of bad guys. They form a singular whole, as the heroes who dethroned the previous Overlord and became kings of the land. They are also personalized, each with their own levels, and a unique Deadly Sin which they, and their regions, personify.
Speaking of the religious theme, think of the Cardinal Virtues of Bayonetta. They all share a visual style, their booming voice and penchant for monologue, and they’re all huge. However, each has a uniquely disturbing look, and control one of the four elements.
However, the Cardinal Virtues commit a major sin of the super-cool bad guy team, and that’s teasing the final bout with them for too long. Every Cardinal Virtue gets fought no less than 3 times, meaning that fights with the Virtues quickly go from meaningful strikes at this bad guy team, to tedious repetition. If you want fighting against your bad guy team to feel satisfying, let the players make meaningful progress against the team, instead of having 3+ fights with the same guy until you finally have the “real” fight.
FOX-HOUND never teases the player with too many bait-and-switches. With few exceptions, when you have a direct, no-gimmicks fight against a FOX-HOUND member, when you win, that’s it. There’s little “Ahaha, good fight, and now I’ll run away to fight another day!”. Psycho Mantis, the first meaningful kill on the team, is killed extremely early in the story (but not early enough that he couldn’t leave a lasting impression).
Meanwhile, when a Quarter Knight appears in Wild ARMs: Alter Code F appears, it’s incredibly unsatisfying, especially after fighting and defeating (with ease!) the same Quarter Knight time after time prior to that point. You’re not anticipating a climactic battle with your foe, you’re wondering if this is going to be the time you actually get to kill them.
Fighting a member of your super cool team of bad guys needs to feel special, otherwise your team of bad guys loses the sense of awe surrounding them. You waste all that awe on the first encounter, and ensure that the following fights are tedious. The first fight against Sapientia in Bayonetta is an epic encounter, the second is a chore, and cheapens the consequences of your first fight.
In conclusion, the key to make a cool team of bad guys is to make sure they form a cohesive team, identifiable as a single unit. However, you need to balance that by making every team member distinct and unique, maybe even so far as making them all various spins on the same character arc. Make fights with your cool team of bad guys matter, and allow players to feel like they are affecting the bad guy team, not just fighting them.