Thanks to monstanimation for the inspiration!
In Final Fantasy I-VI, the villains were typically your garden variety baddies. They were memorable but one-dimensional. You just had to take their evil at face value. With a much more global audience, Squaresoft expanded their notion of what it means to be a successful villain.
What does it mean to be a successful villain? Think of Final Fantasy VI. Would anyone have liked Kefka more as a villain if Final Fantasy VI ended at the World of Balance? No one really wants the villain to accomplish his/her goals, and Kefka remained a one-note nihilistic throughout. The noticeable shift came as a growth of the villain’s attitude and intention. Take a look at the just the PS1 era villains:
Sephiroth (Final Fantasy VII): He was somewhat cold and shrewd, and a bit haughty. But he must have a pure heart to wield a Masamune! Once he learns about his past, the Jenova cells awakening within him. Then he goes nuts with power, mostly through Jenova infecting his will. Sephiroth’s anger at his past causes him to reclaim his “birthright” and use others, including Jenova. Sephiroth as a reasonable man manipulated like a puppet is the real tragedy.
Ultimecia (Final Fantasy VIII): She a scorn among the humanity, and her anger at them is somewhat justified. Her attempt to be a living god was to rule above those who persecuted her. At the edge of defeat, her parting words to our heroes are anything but contempt from an unrepentant monster. Her words are of melancholy remorse.
Kuja (Final Fantasy IX): He was a cringe-worthy narcissist, and very insecure about his identity. Once he learns his fate, he proclaims no one else worthy to live. But after his childish outbursts subside, he realizes how wrong he was and makes amends. In the end, even he’s redeemable.
After IX, Final Fantasy villains only got more complex in attitude and intention. Now contrast these with the villains of I-VI. Later villains were basically good people, wronged by humanity, who tried to go against the fate set for them.
What do you think?