Boss battles are a huge part of gaming’s DNA. They help to bring together the experience, mold the tone of some of gaming’s most iconic moments and ultimately bring a close to the adventure we’re on. Nothing’s worse than a damp squib of a boss battle yet nothing makes a game feel more grand than ultimately overcoming a well devised boss battle. This got us thinking; what makes a good boss battle?
For different gamers it’s different things. Not everyone wants an epic 30 minute encounter that runs out momentum long before the climax. Likewise a boss battle that ends in a quick time sequence is all but a waste of disc space. No one wants the footnote to their adventure to be a disappointment; yet there’s a fine balance to crafting that experience.
Sometimes it’s the story’s momentum that makes a boss battle great. The likes of Ganon at the end of Ocarina of Time works so well because the gamer is convinced that they’ve done it; they’ve won. Only to discover that he had an ace up his sleeve – and freed of your sword the odds are suddenly against you. The epic conclusion to a drawn out tale has one final twist that excites and rewards the gamer. Who didn’t feel the harrowing regret between Solid Snake and Big Boss during their final encounter at the end of Metal Gear Solid 3 – an encounter that the game had spent a good 12-14 hours building up to.
At other times its boss battles themselves go on to become the thing of legend, the reserve of wider culture. Those who played through the NES’s Punch-Out!! had a final match against Mike Tyson – legitimately the baddest man on the planet at that point. The gamer was clearly outmatched, one swift punch would end the fight. It became about learning Tyson’s strategy, understanding the pattern that made him such a monster. It was about learning how to handle his speed and not giving up when gamers fell to his iron fist – because that would happen a lot. The sense of joy when those who’d worked hard and studied up could finally topple the great boxer and felt the ultimate sense of accomplishment. Or those who’d played the original DOOM – the first time they stepped out of the Tower of Babel and into the Cyberdemon’s den. So hard was this boss battle back in the day that guides were constructed to help gamers strafe and avoid the Lost Souls who were cruelly inserted to massacre the gamer.
For others it’s about the epic ebb and flow of the battle. Shadow of the Colossus worked so beautifully because each of its boss battles felt like an epic encounter. The game didn’t shy away from forcing the gamer to rise to the occasion. Who doesn’t remember lining up against the Sand Dragon (Phalanx) for the first time and realizing that this battle was going to take to the skies? How about any of the God of War boss battles; which turn the sense of drama up to 11 constantly. Sometimes these games have so many great encounters that we can’t help but feel that they’re worthy of praise all to themselves; the sense of grand scale making the experience memorable.
Then again some gamers enjoy being made to think. For those who took on Psycho Mantis in the original Metal Gear Solid on PlayStation One; it wasn’t all about brute strength. The game forced you to think outside the box; address the situation beyond what was thought possible. All the while Mantis played with the gamers mind; referencing saved games on the memory card, inverting the controls and even turning the screen black. It’s a memorable use of the PlayStation 1’s hardware and one that arguably went further than most to leave a lasting impression. Then again, 2016’s DOOM worked well with its boss battles by delivering meat bullets. Sometimes you just want to sit on the edge of your seat and hope to goodness that your gun lasts longer than your opponents.
Of course we’ve all experienced the disappointment that comes with terrible “boss battles”. convoluted messes or just poorly thought out excuses that can kill games stone dead. Fable 2’s was arguably the worst RPG finale I’ve ever had the misfortune towards – the games big baddie offed with the press of a single button. It wouldn’t have been so bad had the confrontation leading up to it been worth the effort; but it completely killed the excitement. Deus Ex: Human Revolution equally sucked across the board – it’s bosses wholly out of touch with the games open-ended approach.
In the end there’s many ingredients that make up a great boss battle. It’s the rising tension of the story, the sense of grandness that floods the memories. The best boss battles reward you for learning the game, for taking the time to experience it and master the controls. The worst simply wander out and slap themselves in gamers faces – pushing the experience to the back of the gamers mind.
What are your favorite in-game boss battles of all time?