Welcome to the Character Column! Each week, I’ll be taking a look at a different character from Nintendo’s long and esteemed history, and I’ll analyze what makes them interesting, nuanced, or just plain memorable. Whether they’re heroes, villains or NPCs, I’ll explain why they deserve respect or love from the fanbase and a place in video game history. Last week, we covered Issun, the wandering artist.
We’ve discussed a number of villains here at the CC – Ganondorf, King Dedede, and perhaps most heinous of all, Waluigi. But when the phrase “Greatest villain in gaming” is uttered, there are only two scoundrels that come to mind: EarthBound/Mother’s Pokey/Porky Finch (who we’ll most certainly cover at a later date), and today’s topic of discussion, Final Fantasy VI’s Kefka Palazzo.
Kefka is one of the more popular FF villains, probably only second to VII’s Sephiroth, and it’s easy to see why. He’s hilarious, creepy, unsettling, and so much more – and it truly makes him stand out against the grain. But why has he endured after 20+ years? Let’s find out.
Warning: Spoilers for Final Fantasy VI to follow! Read at your own risk!
Kefka’s first appearance occurs very, very early on in FFVI, during Terra’s first flashback. His first course of action? Brainwash her and test out her powers by roasting 50 of his own soldiers alive. If that doesn’t set the tone for villainy, there’s little else that will – Kefka is immediately shown to be insane, childlike and unbelievably dangerous, not to mention a touch enigmatic.
The next time we see him, however, is much more comical. The court mage is hamming it up on his way to Figaro, and reading his zany dialogue (“AHEM! There’s SAND on my boots!”) makes you really question if Kefka is quite the same individual as seen in Terra’s flashback. But he soon proves himself maniacal, as he attempts to burn Figaro Castle to the ground while cackling with glee. While the heroes are able to pull one over on him, there’s no doubt that he’ll show up in the future.
Kefka is by far the most frequently appearing villain throughout the game, particularly in its first quarter or so, where his duality of wackiness and insanity continue to flip. Just as he’s fleeing from Sabin in a Looney Tunes-esque sequence, he’s then poisoning the water supply and murdering innocents with rapturous joy. He sends legions of his cronies after you in Narshe, but proves to be quite the powerful opponent himself. For every measure of comic relief Kefka provides, he gives menace and discord in equal measure.
For a while after the fight against him in Narshe, Kefka takes more a backseat, though he’s still quite prominent. He’s able to trick Locke into thinking Celes is a mole, and attempts to usurp Emperor Gestahl command – which lands him in jail. While he’s captured, the party learns the only traces of Kefka’s past the game is willing to divulge – he was the Empire’s first Magitek Knight, and thus the first to undergo the process of having magic infused in him. But it was imperfect, and as a result it started his slow descent into madness.
Kefka is not a wholly unique character – the mad clown archetype has been in fiction for a long time, and he certainly has a strong resemblance to Batman’s Joker. But he was a very fresh villain for gaming as a whole, and the crypticness of his past, coupled with his sheer quotability, caused him to have great impact at the time when he was released. But there’s something else that makes him special, something that’s lacking in a lot of game villains…
Jester wearing the crown of God
Kefka, tired of his position as lackey, manages to absorb Esper’s power and kill the virtuous General Leo. Upon the Floating Continent, he murders the Emperor and upsets the Warring Triad, gaining the power of a god and bringing ruin to the world. Through his powers the planet becomes a terrifying wasteland filled with suffering, as Kefka’s Light of Judgment obliterates masses of people with wanton cruelty and no discretion.
Everything truly seems hopeless.
This is another element as to why Kefka is brilliant – he actually succeeds in his quest for power and dominance, becoming a god of the new World of Ruin that he’s destroyed. From atop his tower he rains destruction upon the legions of surviving people, intending to send them into despair and erase the dreary meaninglessness of existence.
Fighting gods in RPGs is practically a cliché nowadays, but in the SNES era the odds set against you in FFVI were truly remarkable. Every step of the way in Kefka’s world, the player is reminded of his power and terror. From a tower filled with fanatics devoted to him to towns full of refugees beset by monsters, Kefka is perpetually on the mind of both the player and the characters, despite his absence.
Kefka’s success paved the way not just for future Final Fantasy villains, but for JRPGs as a whole. The fact that the struggle to fight and survive in his world truly seems difficult is something many attempted to emulate, but few managed to achieve. He’s one of the exceedingly few villains to win in video games, making him one of the most memorable and standout bad guys to ever grace a television or computer screen.
Hope and destruction
The party doesn’t confront Kefka again until the very final battle, as he stands bored atop the spire he’s built. It’s here that the party finally hears Kefka’s motivation and reason for his actions – he’s unable to comprehend why people cling to life. Why do they create, knowing things must be destroyed? Why do they love, knowing all will someday come to naught? The only thing that brings him feeling is destruction. And that’s why he’s going to destroy everything. Why not?
Such pure nihilism, while original for the time, may seem a bit of a cop out – after all, doing evil things “for the heck of it” isn’t exactly strong character motivation. But when paired with the game’s overall themes and his sparse backstory, these comments take on a new light.
First, let’s consider Kefka’s backstory. The details are intentionally vague, in order to let the player draw their own conclusions, but there’s something certain – namely, the fact that there was a cause to his madness. Kefka notably doesn’t dismiss caring for people or the world – he outright can’t care. He lacks any sort of empathy, and seems to really, truly be unable to comprehend why anybody finds any meaning in life.
But the most intriguing aspect of Kefka’s character is brought out when compared to the game’s protagonist, Terra, who acts as a foil to him. Both characters were the subject of magical experiments that screwed with their heads, and both ended up with no friends, family or happiness in life. But Terra finds joy – she learns what it means to love people and be loved, and how to control and use her powers for good. Kefka found nothing to give his life meaning, and thus turned to destruction to satiate his empty desires. Terra defeats her inner demons and is able to find meaning without her magic. Kefka is twisted enough to make the world in his own image, dark and full of terrors. The game is not overt about this comparison (there’s no “we’re not so different, you and I” line… though that would be rather out of character for both of them to say), but it’s certainly there.
Under these lens, Kefka’s character takes on almost a pitiable appearance. A once sane and normal person brought to insanity through improper science, incapable of empathy or kindness. While this is only one interpretation of his character – and none of it excuses the vileness of his actions – it’s interesting to examine the character in different ways.
Regardless of any hidden depths that Kefka may or may not have, the true iconicity of his character lies in his irreverence. Thanks to the excellent translation and localization work of the legendary Ted Woolsey, Kefka has a cornucopia of memorable lines and dialogue. Nearly everything he says is gold, and every one of his actions brings either laughter or shivers. Not to mention his music – besides his own theme, his final boss music, “Dancing Mad,” is one of the greatest and most iconic pieces of game music ever composed. It has movements, for heaven’s sake!
Thanks for reading this week’s edition of the Character Column! Tune in next time, where we’ll be talking about one of my favorite JRPG protagonists – one who most certainly couldn’t be called stock. Until then!
And, because one quote doesn’t do Kefka nearly enough justice, here’s a slew of them:
“Son of a Submariner! You’ll pay for this!”
“‘Wait,’ he says… Do I look like a waiter?”
“Nothing beats the sweet music of hundreds of voices screaming in unison!”
“There’s a reason “oppose” rhymes with “dispose”…If they get in your way, kill them!”
“This little hamlet has too much boring and not enough burning… TORCH EVERYTHING!”
“I hate hate hate hate hate hate… hate hate hate hate hate hate hate hate hate hate HATE YOU!”
“Run! Run! Or you’ll be well done!”
“Why do people insist on creating things that will inevitably be destroyed? Why do people cling to life, knowing that they must someday die? …Knowing that none of it will have meant anything once they do?”
“Bleh! You people make me sick! You sound like lines from a self-help book! If that’s how it’s going to be… I’ll snuff them all out! Every last one of your sickening, happy little reasons for living!”
Kefka laughing in cave GIF source.
Kefka laughing GIF source.