Iconic boss fights are a dime a dozen in gaming. To make a boss fight truly memorable in its own right, several factors need to be considered in making a boss as compelling in design as its mechanics. From Software’s Souls series seems to have written the book on iconic boss battles, where all of these factors are perfectly balanced. However, you wouldn’t go too far to find out the general consensus of the most memorable and earth-shatteringly difficult boss in the entire series; Ornstein & Smough, a battle drenched in desperation, grueling challenge, and undeniable appeal. Instead of opening up the vague backstory behind this legendary duo, the best way to capture what makes this battle so incredibly epic is in the way gamers approach the fight.
Players first encounter Ornstein & Smough in the first Dark Souls, where they are worshipped as idealistic warriors and gods in the city of Anor Londo. Ornstein, the infamous Dragonslayer and leader of the Four Knights of Gwyn, possesses a powerful spear capable of devastating damage at both close and far range. Drenched in god-like glowing gold armour, Ornstein’s design, inspired by a lion, evokes majesty and confidence in his formidable presence. Veteran Souls players will later encounter Ornstein again in Dark Souls II as an optional boss, with only his design slightly changed from glowing gold to a more metallic silver, but nonetheless his strategies in combat remain intact and as threatening as ever.
Smough, the larger brute between the two, acts as Ornstein’s opposite in battle. Whereas Ornstein favors precision, strategy, and articulateness in fighting, Smough’s large size evokes a more chaotic and confrontational, albeit slower, presence that’s messier in strategy, but packs a bigger punch as close range with his massive hammer, making him quite a pain to evade. Ornstein and Smough work in perfect synergy with one another in battle, making this boss fight a test of patience and wits rather than sheer strength. After all, Dark Souls makes it abundantly clear how the difference between the players size and even skill set pales in comparison to theirs.
What makes this battle work, even to a frighteningly challenging and frustrating degree, is the way the battle demands players to be patient and more careful than usual. One slight misstep can literally mean your death, so it boils down to one large chess battle demanding time and immaculate attack strategies. Unlike prior bosses, Ornstein and Smough don’t limit themselves to a singular attack pattern but rather adapt to the way the player handles the fight – the primary source of frustration that many players, regardless of their abilities, can never seem to completely grasp. It’s an unpredictable battle between two tyrants hellbent on the utter annihilation of your patience (and sanity) if handled poorly.
The key to defeating them lies in how the player can thwart their unpredictable patterns, as contradictory as that may seem. The easiest and simplest strategy that’s evident from the beginning is how one can isolate each warrior and focus on their specific forms of attack. However, the unpredictable nature of this strategy is how the other warrior might react, which can throw a wrench in your plans if the bosses quickly adapt to your methods. This is where things get tricky. If one boss goes down, the other takes possession of their abilities and a far more challenging battle ensues. We’ve seen this countless times before in dual boss battles such as Agni & Rudra in Devil May Cry 3, but the level of difficulty here incrementally spikes by a milestone when the tables turn. This is where Dark Souls flexes its metaphorical muscles and shines its brightest in terms of astronomical difficulty, but rather than overpowering the player, forces them into a position of helplessness that calls for more drastic measures to be taken. There’s an escalation of constantly adapting to the battle and overpowering the opponent that makes it so nail-biting and memorable.
While I can continue to write volumes about what makes Ornstein & Smough the definitive iconic boss battle of the Souls games, it’s evident that gamers have already placed them on a pedestal of legendary status due to the rush of victory following their defeat – something that takes constant failure and recalibration to succeed. Perhaps we’ve lost a piece of gaming history where boss fights truly felt like epic milestones and challenges to overcome, but From Software, through this ingenious fight hinging on timing and patience, takes us back to those days once again. There’s a gleeful nostalgia to the Ornstein & Smough battle that reminds me of a time when broken controllers and rage-induced panics were the highlight of any great video game.