Every gamer has their own favorite elements they like to see in a game. Some are all about the visuals; how great the graphics look or how unique the art style is. Others are all about the story and the characters. While I’m more than willing to tip my hat to a developer for their artistic talents or ability to weave a compelling narrative, nothing sparks my interest faster than boss fights. As a gamer with a bit of a digital masochistic tendency, nothing makes me happier than battling my way through the hardest difficulty setting and squaring off against a tough boss. Perhaps my love of boss fights and high difficulty is a hold over from the 8bit age when games were very much a pass/fail type situation. Back when boss fights required perfect control and a good memory to defeat. My blood gets pumping the minute someone mentions R-Type.
Today gamers are more likely to encounter some type of elaborate set piece battle than they are to encounter a “traditional” boss fight. Which is fine most of the time, but no matter how great a game is, without a boss fight or two I always feel a bit unsatisfied. Worse yet is the possibility of encountering what I call “throw away bosses.” These are the bosses gamers inevitably call “cheap” and serve no other purpose besides breaking up the usual gameplay. The super cheap, kill you instantly after you’ve already won, Armadillo from Ninja Gaiden 2 for example.
Crafting a great boss fight is hard. Far harder than I think most people realize. Anyone can design a huge monster with a small set of predefined moves but it takes real skill to craft a boss fight that truly stands out. One that capitalizes on all the gameplay options the game has, that challenges the player and feels satisfying when you defeat it. It may be a bit eyeball rolling to say this, but boss fights should feel EPIC in every sense of the word. Of course appreciation for a particular boss fight is subjective; there is no definitive list of what games have the best boss fights or even what makes them the best.
When it comes to boss fights, Japanese/Eastern style games are your best bet. You just don’t see as many boss fights in Western style games. I’m not really sure why that is, but that has been my experience. I also find Japanese games to be a few notches higher when it comes to difficulty; another plus in my book. Which is not to say the West has not produced some truly great boss battles.
A good example of this mix of difficulty and boss fights can be found in Bayonetta. The game was fast paced, tough as nails and had some of the best boss fights this generation IMHO. Why were they great boss fights? A number of reasons. First and foremost they were not easy to beat, especially on the Hard or Non-Stop Climax settings. Nor were they cheap; a skilled player won’t find themselves getting “one-shotted” or facing arbitrary death over and over again. The best fight in the game, the one versus Jeanne, required you to learn her moves and utilize your own full repertoire of moves in order to defeat her. The bosses themselves looked stunning, complimented with appropriate music and kept the player on their toes, white knuckling it from start to finish. The loss of my alternate Japanese PSN account, where I played imports and for some reason the Western version of Bayonetta, and by extension my Platinum trophy, still hurts. Reacquiring that trophy again is still on my bucket list. As is grabbing Bayonetta 2 for the WiiU should it turn out to be a gem.
It does not happen often but sometimes the only thing a game does right is the boss fights. 2007’s Conan from Nihilistic Software is one such game. The game was pretty awful, and I only acquired it once it dropped into the $5 bargain bin. Visuals, combat, story; it was all bad. Which is why some of the boss battles stand out so much. Yes the final boss is beyond cheap and annoying, but a number of the earlier bosses are dripping in old school boss flavor. Conan, the character, is all about defeating powerful foes, be they magical or just enormous, with nothing but brute strength and a sharp sword. This aspect of Conan Nihilistic got right. The battle against a demonic giant elephant was pretty standard in terms of design, but it felt satisfying to defeat it. The addition of multiple “stages” to many of the boss fights also made me happy I coughed up $5. Even if the rest of the game was poodoo, when it came to the boss fights, for a brief few moments I felt as powerful and mighty as Conan.
One game that tried something different was Asura’s Wrath. Rather than create a game punctuated with boss fights, CyberConnect2 decided to create a game that is pretty much all boss fights. Look another elephant! The storyline was pretty ridiculous and the gameplay was more quicktime event than anything else, but nobody can question its ambition when it came to boss fights. My main experience with the game comes from a long weekend with friends, one of whom had just picked up the Asura’s Wrath and was extolling its virtues like a strip club owner passing out flyers. I pretty much just sat down and beat the game. While I usually prefer more of a challenge and find the growing use of QT events a bit nauseating, the bosses in Asura’s Wrath were unquestionably epic. Visually stunning, hyper cinematic and multi staged, I left feeling satisfied and hyper. Asura’s Wrath comes off feeling like a wicked interactive anime more than a traditional game. Still, if you love boss fights, Asura’s Wrath will make you smile. Coincidentally, after playing Asura’s Wrath, I felt the need to go back and play Shadow of the Colossus, another game built around specifically fighting massive bosses. If you have not played Shadow of the Colossus, you owe it to yourself to go back and play one of the best games ever released on the PS2 and simply put, one of the best “boss fight” games ever made. Just you, a horse, a sword, balls of steel and super sized baddies.
The move towards quicktime events to punctuate everything during a boss battle is a bit disturbing. The God of War series is a stand out with some truly awesome boss fights. Most of the time its use of quicktime events feels organic, but not always. God of War‘s influence on boss fights and quicktime event usage by other developers is both blessing and a curse. Would some of these quicktime event inspired boss fights be just as epic without QT? Probably. They felt unnecessary in Castlevania: Lords of Shadow, even though that game did have some great boss fights.
A genre that has seen the number of boss battles plummet this generation is the first person shooter genre. Players are much more likely to encounter some sort of on-rails scenario involving a helicopter and mini-gun, or some sort of large scale set piece battle against waves of enemies, than they are to encounter a straight up boss fight. If a shooter does have boss fights they have at best a 50/50 chance of being any good. One of my favorite fights in a first person shooter is the throw down against Radec at the end of Killzone 2. Killzone 2 is by far the most difficult of any of the titles in the series to date. Killzone 3 was simply not as tough and had enemy AI that was much less aggressive. The final fight against Radec however was brutal, especially on Elite. It was a battle just to get to Radec and when you finally do go toe-to-toe, he does not go down easy. To beat him on Elite required speed, skill and precision. You could not just hide in a corner or abuse some super power. You had to keep moving, use the map layout to your advantage and put Radec down the hard way. I yelled so loud when I finally killed Radec’s teleporting ass that my neighbors took the time to knock on the door and give me hell for making too much noise. Killzone 2 was my first platinum trophy, and since I’ve never been one to platinum just for the sake of, remains my proudest achievement (pun intended) on the PS3.
A pleasant surprise on the list of games with great boss battles was Transformers: War for Cybertron. I picked up Transformers for something to play during the usual summer dry spell gamers face each year due to a mix of nostalgia and the feint hope that kids who grew up in the 80’s would finally have a Transformers game worth playing. The game itself was rather average, not great but also not terrible. It was propped up by no small amount of fan service. That said, we got to fight Omega Supreme AND Trypticon! The mind of my 8 year old self was totally blown. The boss fights in War for Cybertron were some of the very best parts of the game. Most of the bosses had multiple stages to their battles, required you to have skill, speed and a good memory. I loved every minute of it. Which is why I was more than a little disappointed at the almost total lack of significant boss fights in Fall of Cybertron. Controlling Metroplex was fun, and having the Dinobots was pretty cool, but it just wasn’t the same without the boss fights.
As I look at the games released so far in 2013, the game that has kept popping up on my radar is Metal Gear Rising: Revenageance. The burden of being an adult with more important things to spend my money on than games has meant that I’m not always able to grab a game on release day the way I once did. Of course this does not stop my peers from sending me youtube videos of the games insane boss fights. I actually kind of regret watching any of the youtube videos because now I’ve spoiled what would have certainly been some great surprises. You know a game that has a Metal Gear Ray as the first boss has some big things in store for you.
It’s hard to break down just what makes a great boss battle. Being visually impressive helps. Forcing the player to use all the abilities and skills the game provides in order to defeat the boss is important. Keeping the pressure up by either incorporating multiple ways that the boss can attack and/or making the player fight smaller enemies while also fighting the boss can help to keep the challenge high and the pace fast. Multiple stages wherein the player seemly wins, only to face a tougher challenge can work to a games advantage. Boss fights, or at least key parts of a boss fight, can be ideal settings for a great cinematic moment (QT event or not) that will stand out in players minds long after the game has been placed on a shelf.
Of course any number of those elements, done poorly, can poison an entire boss fight as well as leave a player feeling cheated at best, angry at worst. Shao Khan from Mortal Kombat was super cheap and totally ruined the end of the campaign. The fight against Malek at the end of Knights of the Old Republic was amazing. The fight against Kreia at the end of KOTOR 2 was absolute garbage (too easy, with absolutely nothing unique to offer) and hurt the game immensely. Perhaps this is why many developers are moving away from adding traditional boss fights at all. Better to have no boss fights than have terrible ones.
All I know is that a a gaming world without boss fights is a world not worth living in.
Tags: Asura's Wrath, Bayonetta, Boss Fight, Castlevania, Conan, god of war, KOTOR, Metal Gear Rising: Revenageance, Mortal Kombat, Ninja Gaiden, R-Type, Shadow of the Colossus, Transformers War For Cybertron