There is no more immediate symbol of fear and death than the skeleton. Worldwide depictions of skeletons range from commonplace to a cultural taboo, but every society knows that someone who’s all bones is no longer among the living. Perhaps sensibly, undead skeletons are an unnatural abomination that have haunted the folklore of living humans for hundreds, if not thousands, of years.
And, of course, anyone who’s played a few RPGs has seen a video game skeleton or two. With Halloween upon us and a full skeleton inside each of us at all times, now is a perfect moment to celebrate vertebrates. Here are a few of the most iconic RPG skeletons.
11 Bone-afide RPG Skeletons
Master Stalfos (The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening)
Stalfos are animated skeletons that have been harassing Link and concealing keys and rupees in The Legend of Zelda since the very first in 1986, but the most memorable Zelda skeleton is Master Stalfos from Link’s Game Boy outing, Link’s Awakening. This big Stalfos is fought no fewer than four times, with plenty of trash talk, backtracking, and bomb-tossing before you finally get his Nightmare Key. One of the best recurring enemies in a fabulous Zelda game.
DEM (Breath of Death VII: The Beginning)
DEM is a send-up of the silent protagonist in this parody RPG, as a mute skeleton whose inner monologue is mean and sardonic. But it’s not DEM’s fault, as he lacks a tongue and larynx. Breath of Death’s four undead protagonists in a dark future-fantasy setting is the 8-bit-styled RPG comedy that launched Zeboyd Games into their indie career. More importantly, DEM is an RPG skeleton with main character status, and that’s worth something.
Matador (Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne)
Matador, added to the Maniax / Director’s Cut of Shin Megami Tensei III (which was the version released worldwide), is a notorious gameplay wall. This skeleton dressed for bullfighting will dance around you with Red Capote and crush you with wind-elemental spells if you fight it unprepared in the path between Ginza and Ikebukuro in Atlus’s PS2 post-apocalypse. Pro tip: cast some speed-boosting spells of your own, or the Press Turn system will work against you.
Tyriant (Dragon Quest XI)
Dragon Quest has featured enemy skeletons since the beginning (DQ1’s Dark Skeletons are particularly brutal), but my pick for Dragon Quest’s most intense undead goes to Tyriant, an Act 2 boss in Dragon Quest XI. Tyriant is a servant of the Lord of Shadows, and the Purple Orb in its eye socket grants it power over time and illusion, casting the entire world into permanent night. Yikes. For a mid-game foe, Tyriant goes HARD.
Skelly (Chrono Cross)
Chrono Cross‘ Skelly combines two of humanity’s most primal fears: death and clowns. A deceased circus performer, Skelly’s unsettling appearance belies a personality that’s friendly and pasta-loving. Serge et al. can find Skelly’s detached skull in Fossil Valley, then collect his scattered bones to assemble him into a new party member. Much easier than summoning Exodia, The Forbidden One.
(A Different) Skelly (Hades)
Just what is Skelly’s deal? This resident of Hades’ Hades encourages Zagreus to pummel him with different weapon combinations to test them out, so he’s at worst a friendly masochist and at best one of Zag’s closest allies. Players can learn more about Skelly’s personality, past, and goals if they shower him with gifts in between showering him with blows. And hey, maybe this fast-reviving bundle of bones likes it.
Death (Castlevania series)
One of the most ever-present foes in Castlevania games, Konami’s interpretation of The Grim Reaper is sometimes a late-game boss, sometimes the final boss, and quite often a major challenge, with scythe-swipes and flying sickles threatening that game’s vampire hunter (nearly always a Belmont). But even if it’s not always wearing a pink robe or riding a pale horse, there is one thing every Castlevania’s Death has in common: spooky skeleton status.
Morte (Planescape: Torment)
Alignment: Chaotic Good. Race: Human, Once. Morte is a wisecracking skull with fewer bones than every other skeleton on this list, but somehow as much heart as any of them. Morte can’t equip armor or conventional weapons, but his biting commentary and literal, physical biting are quite effective in their own way in Planescape: Torment. Not bad for somebody without a body.
Gravelord Nito (Dark Souls)
This Lord of Death is a crucial boss battle in Dark Souls, as it drops one of the four Lord Souls required to access the final area. Nito might be a better Death than the one I mentioned two spots above, as it can summon skeletons to harass and interrupt the Chosen Undead as they struggle to take down the king cadaver. Nito moves somewhat slowly, but makes up for its lack of agility with those summoned skeletons, near-unblockable area attacks, and bone-chilling screams.
Sans and Papyrus (Undertale)
This pair of skeleton brothers encounter the protagonist quite early in Undertale, with the self-aggrandizing Papyrus impeding your progress and the lackadaisical Sans taking on more of an observer role. The involvement of Sans and Papyrus grows more complicated later in the story, depending heavily on what choices the player makes, but they are both key to Undertale’s narrative and always speak in their namesake fonts.
7 Bone-us Skeletons Tangentially Related to RPGs
Manuel “Manny” Calavera (Grim Fandango)
An irreverent, hard-boiled detective game set in the Underworld, with visual inspiration from film noir and Mexico’s Day of the Dead — that sounds like a Mad Libs page gone terribly awry, but it’s also an apt description of Grim Fandango, the classic 1998 LucasArts adventure game. Manny Calavera is Grim Fandango’s protagonist, a grim reaper skeleton who plays the role of travel agent, nightclub owner, demon beaver wrangler, and many others over the course of a gripping narrative. That’s a lot of hats to wear for someone without any skin in the game (or on his scalp).
Jack Skellington (The Nightmare Before Christmas, Kingdom Hearts)
Jack Skellington, voiced by Chris “Prince Humperdinck” Sarandon in both The Nightmare Before Christmas and the first two Kingdom Hearts games, is a dapper, lanky skeleton who has an unexpectedly wholesome take on the Heartless monsters invading his world — they’re suitably spooky for a Halloween celebration, so he should teach them how to dance! Naturally, this doesn’t quite go as planned, so Jack joins Sora’s crew to save Halloween Town in one of the most delightful crossovers in a series chock-full of them.
Brook – (One Piece, One Piece Odyssey)
YOHOHOHO! Brook is a pirate musician who tragically lost his comrades and his life decades before the start of One Piece, but persisted as a living skeleton thanks to the power of a Devil Fruit. Brook joins the Straw Hat Pirates after working together to defeat the pirate warlord Gekko Moria’s army of zombies and brings some serious SOUL to the crew in both the most popular Japanese manga in history and its multiple RPG adaptations, including 2023’s One Piece Odyssey. Brook is also a deadly swordsman, even more so since he’s already dead! (YOHOHOHO)
Skull Man (Mega Man 4, Mega Man Battle Network)
Mega Man 4 only qualifies as an RPG in the most liberal of definitions, so even if he’s a cool robot and his stage theme is a banger, Skull Man barely qualifies for this list. But his (even cooler!) portrayal in Mega Man Battle Network is much more relevant! SkullMan.EXE is an optional boss Navi in the first MMBN, while SkullMan.EXE’s operator is Miyu, the proprietress of DenTown’s antiques shop (she’s pretty nonthreatening compared to her osteoid automaton).
Sanbone Trio (Gitaroo Man)
OK, I acknowledge that Gitaroo Man isn’t an RPG at all, but rather a PS2 rhythm game about a musical superhero whose dog transforms into a guitar. But the Sanbone Trio, three skeletons who play their bones like xylophones and their skulls like cowbells, is a bone-anza of a boss battle and the song is a certified jam. These bone boys make the list until an RPG exists with a musical skeleton duel surpassing “Born to be Bone” (spoiler alert: there aren’t any).