If there’s one constant in videogames it’s the boss fight. Across genres, from Mario to Mass Effect: they’re here to stay.
But why do we have them? Are they a relic of gaming past? Or an essential aspect of games?
It’s best to start by looking at the history.
The first recorded videogame boss fight was in dnd (born of the role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons), whereby players faced a final ‘Gold Dragon’ at the end of a dungeon. Since D&D took a lot of its cues from fantasy literature, it’s easy to see where the original concept came from: that one tough final enemy before victory.
This became a trend among the shmups and beat-’em-ups in the arcades as well as in the platformers on home consoles. In traditional fashion, the plots of these early games revolved around defeating a central antagonist but some began including boss fights at the end of each stage or level; with Castlevania serving as a famous example. More attention was given to the dramatic presence of these boss character as well. They usually had a theme (possibly their own individual one), a unique character model and, unlike most regular enemies, would take more than one hit before dying.
As the games industry grew, many more genres appeared. For a few, boss fights just don’t work: Adventure, Racing, Music/Rhythm (if you need proof of the latter then look at Guitar Hero III). But what a lot of games continue to share in common is that they are very much action-oriented and follow a more action film-like narrative, itself guided by earlier literature as well; such that there is sometimes a central antagonist character, even when one is not necessary. In some sense, it is about empowerment; it can make a much more satisfying conclusion for the player if they’re the one who defeats the big bad guy.
NOTE: From here on in, there may be SPOILERS OH NOES. I’ve tried to keep direct (story) references down to a minimum, but the following games are mentioned: Grand Theft Auto IV, inFAMOUS, Gunstar Heroes, Metal Gear Solid 1 & 4, Batman: Arkham Asylum, Mass Effect 2, Uncharted 2, Gears of War 1 & 2, God of War, Spider-Man 2, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World: The Game, Street Fighter IV.
So, what makes a good or (positively) memorable boss fight? I believe it relies on a few factors:
As the technology behind games improved, the capability of presenting far more visually-arresting scenarios grew. That’s not to say that this is a new concept among videogames; part of their appeal has always been the visual element.
For earlier games, it can be something simple like the enemy designs in JRPGs or Dr. Robotnik’s various contraptions in the Sonic series. Other times, it can be the setting as well. The boss, ‘Seven Force’, in Gunstar Heroes is not only a shape-shifting robot, but the battle is portrayed as taking place at high speed along rails above and below (or left and right).
Of course, this still continues today, as a lot of action games move towards a more cinematic approach. One of the most memorable moments in the original God of War is the first boss fight. Set on a stormy sea, on a ship being torn apart by a Hydra, the player eventually faces their tormentor in all its glory. Battling this huge monster is given a more interactive element as the player uses the environment to finish off two of the heads, before impaling the central one on the ship’s mast via a quick-time-event; in contrast to merely hitting the thing until it falls over and dies, or meets its doom in a cutscene, as you might expect to see in an older game. The series continued this tradition, introducing even larger battles and, like Castlevania before it, reimagining mythical creatures; with Kratos ensuring each receives a spectacularly gory finish.
And it would be remiss of me not to mention music. Any Final Fantasy fan can probably tell you their favourite boss themes. Obviously, a lot of players have a special place in their hearts for particular game music; but if it’s for a boss it can be a little more ‘special’ and, hopefully, get the adrenalin pumping.
A boss fight doesn’t always have to be a giant explosion fest, with a dragon, shooting lasers, on top of a castle, on the moon, which is on fire, hurtling towards the sun (you know the game). It can be relatively low-key as long as it is meaningful within the framework of the game.
In some regards, the Metal Gear Solid series (from the PlayStation onwards) has been very much at the forefront. The first game raised the bar in terms of character leaving a real impression on a particular boss fight. Most people will remember their fourth-wall-breaking encounter with Psycho Mantis or their showdown sniper battle with Sniper Wolf.
With an established franchise, Batman: Arkham Asylum used certain characters from the rogues gallery to great effect; placing encounters with Scarecrow solely inside Bruce Wayne’s mind, or the section with Killer Croc in a sewer, making it more atmospheric and tense as well as having a fitting ending. Although, it’s best I don’t mention the game’s final confrontation…
It’s the setup behind a boss fight that makes it memorable and, usually, a pleasure to engage in. It may be cheesy and a little on-the-nose, but GTA IV’s ‘boss battle’ leaves Niko at the foot of Liberty City’s own parallel to the Statue of Liberty; serving as a literal monument and symbolic mockery of his misplaced pursuit of the ‘American Dream’. Other times, it can be a very (literal) personal encounter, with the final boss of inFAMOUS bringing Cole back to the site of the city-destroying explosion ‘he’ caused at the start of the game. Both games make good use of their respective sandboxes, tying events to key locations.
And, sometimes, it’s about subverting what we might expect.
The Final Fantasy series has had its share of ‘hopeless boss fights‘; where the player has no choice but to lose, although, this may sometimes involve ‘holding out’ for a certain amount of time. This can usually make for a noteworthy encounter, as players are toyed with or discover the implications of the battle.
Or it can be a humorous example. In Spider-Man 2, Mysterio makes an appearance as what seems like an extra-terrestrial with almighty powers (anyone who’s read the comics may know better). When the player finally faces him one-on-one (in a convenience store of all places), he stands menacingly as a health bar appears and then fills up three ‘layers’. Normally, this would be a sign that you’re in for a tough battle; but, of course, he goes down with just one punch, as you watch his health bar rapidly drop to nothing. See it here
Finally, to clarify, I’m not saying all boss battles need context (a lot of Nintendo’s popular series barely bother); just that if you’re going to put effort into creating a story with three-dimensional characters, it pays to put some of that into your main conflicts.
In the 8-bit and 16-bit days, it was expected to see a single very tough final boss as the final obstacle. Gamers ‘beat’ a game rather than ‘finished’ it. The accomplishment could be seen as a real bragging point. A well-designed final boss would normally test a player to their very limits without employing cheap tactics. Players would have to learn the boss’ patterns in order to figure out how to avoid being hit and when to attack.
Earlier, I mentioned ‘Seven Force’ from Gunstar Heroes, which also offers quite a challenge and makes for a good example:
As games became more complex it was also a matter of encouraging players to experiment with their available abilities or adapt their playstyle. Beyond the need for levelling up (and grinding), RPGs have always been about recognising when (and when not) to employ certain spells or use a particular type of attack. In that same vein, a lot of modern action/adventure games will gradually dole out combat abilities and items that you rely on for later bosses. As PXoDitor-in-chief, Dean, said: “The boss should be there to check you’re paying attention to the nuances of the game. It’s like the end of school exam, just in game form.”
Ninja Gaiden for the Xbox strikes a good balance in overall difficulty. The regular enemies were still quite tough, and required a lot of skill to beat, but the bosses pushed you that little bit further. The same can be said for Demon’s Souls. It means that enemies always keep you on your toes, while the bosses feel like real accomplishments.
Therefore, if these are the factors that make up a good boss fight, it’s easy to identify a bad one as something that gets one (or all) of these considerably wrong.
In creating a memorable scene, a developer may neglect to create a more engaging gameplay mechanic. Metal Gear Solid, previously mentioned with regards to good boss battles, is a culprit here. An example of this appears at the end of the first game, when facing Liquid Snake atop Metal Gear REX. It’s all very well creating a deliberately ‘primal’ fight between two seemingly equal combatants, juxtaposed against the hi-tech background story, but that doesn’t mean it’s an enjoyable thing to play. The same can be said of the final encounter with Ocelot in Metal Gear Solid 4. The fight functions very much like the original game’s but with the added context of two long-time, and now ‘elderly’, rival soldiers seizing their final chance for conflict. Its saving grace might be the nods to past games via the names across the health bars changing, and the switching soundtrack; something that would not be so easy to represent via cutscene (although, the preceding one does capture everything else). All the same, a meaningful conflict between two characters is severely undermined by this clunky gameplay.
This mismatch between the game’s narrative/setting and gameplay can go the other way, too.
The combat for the final boss battle with the ‘Reaper Human Larva’ of Mass Effect 2 is fine; you can’t really say it’s bad, but it’s not particularly spectacular either. It’s a standard wave-battle featuring a stronger central foe that players will have become accustomed to by the end (I’ll forgive the labelling of ‘Weak Point’ on parts of the boss). But putting players through a tense ‘suicide mission’ only to wind up facing a giant ineffectual cyborg is very much an anticlimax. The less said of the final boss from the first Mass Effect the better…
Which brings us onto how the worst, and most recent instances, of failed boss battles are born of poorly realised context and fumbled gameplay.
Gears of War is set during a massive conflict (a war, you might say…) and the gameplay copes fine when presenting segments where players are fighting multiple opponents from various sides, taking cover and choosing where best to attack from. In typical action film fashion, however, Epic deemed that a central antagonist in the character of General RAAM was needed. So they wanted a big mean baddie for players to defeat? Fair enough. But the actual fight itself is a chore. Throughout the campaign, the worst moments occur when facing bullet-sponge enemies (which most Locust are) in enclosed spaces, particularly when they are shotgun-wielding foes who simply charge you; and this boss fight is no different. Thankfully, fighting Skorge in the second game wasn’t quite such a bad experience as it mixes things up a bit.
The ending of Uncharted 2 is a letdown in much the same sense. Instead of focusing on the cover-based gameplay and Nathan Drake’s ability to traverse all kinds of scenery, it tasks the player with dashing around madly, cowering from a damage/bullet-sponge boss (even if the plot mitigates this, it was a bad decision). That it takes place in such a small ‘arena’ and offers no variation besides grenades being thrown at you does not help. You could argue that the series is about mimicking action films, where the protagonist goes face-to-face with the bad guy at the end, but perhaps it would have been wiser to learn a little more from the Indiana Jones series it so keenly mimics (yes, even the fourth one). Obviously, Indy does not normally use a gun and nor do the plots revolve around shooting a billion guys, but you’ll notice that he usually never ‘defeats’ the villain(s) of the piece; they tend to wind up victims of their own hubris or greed. Of course, Nathan doesn’t strike the killing blow but he might as well have (not killing the main baddie but leaving him to Shambhala’s Guardians proves some sort of point?). Otherwise, the developers might have looked to an action film like Die Hard 2. John McClane may ‘lose’ the final showdown, but he actually has the upper hand in the end.
And then we move onto the issue of challenge. This can be a tricky balancing act: if you include a boss that is too tough, you risk upsetting players or ruining the pacing or learning curve of the game; whereas one that is too easy can cause players to question their inclusion.
Scott Pilgrim vs. the World: The Game on XBLA/PSN has a severe gap between the difficulty of a stage and its boss. Due to its premise (defeating evil exes), the boss fights are a given; they even include a lot of the material from the books and each one has a different twist. Unfortunately, the preceding stages are a significant challenge, pretty much forcing the player to ‘grind’ in order to unlock more moves and improve stats, as well as earn enough money for health and stat-improving items. However, this makes the bosses (most of them one-on-one encounters, naturally) incredibly easy. The game could’ve effectively been a ‘boss rush’, since there’s no reason why everyone else is attacking you, but that would mean missing a lot of the great old-school feel of the game (and it would have been much shorter); so I’m not complaining too much.
Furthermore, the fact that all players vary makes it tricky to judge the difficulty of a boss. For example, some people feel that Seth in Street Fighter IV uses ‘cheap’ tactics, while others will claim he was easy (“…especially compared to Gill/some other fighting game boss”). While, other times, the advances in gaming complicate matters. No longer are players restricted to a 2D plane with one or two attacks and items; they’ll be levelling up, unlocking numerous abilities, exploiting the AI. A lot of designers have a knack for finding a decent balance, but there are still plenty who don’t; resorting to the use of artificial impediments (removing the use of an ability, for example) without a reasonable justification.
It does appear that the problem is no longer about creating bosses that are too difficult (outside of optional bosses in games like Final Fantasy) and is, instead, quite the reverse. You’re probably a lot less likely to remember a boss fight if you beat it straight away, and a lot more likely to remember it if you attempt it twenty times (or break a controller in frustration…). While a difficult boss can be quite irritating, there is usually a great deal of satisfaction that comes from beating it. In this case, I hope I’ve illustrated that a bad boss fight is a result of more than simply being quite a challenge; it must be resorting to cheap tactics and/or enforcing arbitrary handicaps. You may feel differently.
Overall, it’s pretty clear that bosses are a fundamental part of gaming; they provide us with a chance to directly confront the story’s antagonist(s) and/or show off how impressive the game mechanics are. A lot of us will have fond memories of particular boss fights and all for varying reasons; they bring us closer to the characters, they make us laugh, they surprise us, or beating them feels like a real accomplishment. In an ideal world, developers would look to the above factors when designing or even choosing whether to include a boss fight and, preferably, try to incorporate something quite original or novel as well. Too many games can feel like a bit of a grind and it’s usually up to boss fights to keep them fresh. If it comes to it, it may pay to put more effort into other aspects of the game beyond an unnecessary or clunky boss fight.
But enough of me, what do you think? Agree or disagree with some of the examples? Have something to add? Let us know in the comments section!