When I was a kid, there were two types of boss fights: those at home and those at the arcade. The ones at home were fun. The ones at the arcade sucked. Recently I’ve been thinking a lot about boss fights. Specifically how they seem to have all devolved into the Dark Souls style of development. What I mean by that is developers seem to have gotten it in their heads that the only way to make a boss fight is to make it as hard (unbalanced, time consuming, grueling) as possible and not take into account whether or not the fight is fun at all. I won’t say this is an across the board practice, but it’s certainly the norm in today’s mainstream development system.
If I had to name all the bosses I truly enjoyed fighting before I went to college, I could name several. TwinRova (Ocarina of Time 1998), the Minotaur (Dark Cloud 2000), and the Hydra (God of War 2005) just to name a few. These are not just boss fights that I thought were well-done, fair, balanced, or whatever other positive adjective you can think of. These were fights that I genuinely enjoyed playing. I could just play these fights and they would never get old. I would say the same thing about many, but not all of the bosses in Shadow of the Colossus (2005). If you asked me to do the same for boss fights after college there might be a few I’ve forgotten, but the only one that comes to mind is Bob Barbas (DmC 2013). And I will take the time to say that Bob Barbas is a great fight. But it doesn’t change the fact that I can only name one boss fight I actually liked enough to remember positively from the last decade of games.
If we go in the other direction, the list is endless. I can name several boss fights I didn’t particularly enjoy or even flat out disliked that I fought this year alone. Even from this last month I can name at least two: The Final Guardian (KNACK 2013) and Onriyoki (Nioh Alpha Demo 2016). Please note that this is not meant to be a discussion on whether or not boss fights should be hard. I know many people are probably already rolling their eyes at this point saying that I’m just whining about things being too difficult. In my defense, I’ve beaten Demon’s Souls, Dark Souls I & II, and all the God of War games on hard. I definitely play and appreciate hard games. But what I don’t appreciate is the idea that boss fights should be hard before they should be fun. Now I’m not gonna say that a game like Dark Souls shouldn’t have irately difficult bosses, it absolutely should. But that’s because the game was built on a foundation of being disgustingly hard. To make balanced boss fights in those games would be inappropriate for that specific franchise and I would be totally against it. But if I’m honest, it’s not the boss fights that I actually love those games for. It’s the basic questing. The gritty, down to earth, trench exploration where you are near level with just about everything that comes at you is where the Souls series truly shines for me. The idea that I’m not special, but just another being on the field that can kill or at any time be killed, is what makes those games so special to me.
For me, mastering those games doesn’t take place in the boss arena. It takes place just outside it where the true test of your understanding of the mechanics occurs. Beating the group of skeletons through planning and strategy is much more enjoyable than trial and erroring the boss knowing that you have no room for mistakes. That’s not actually a balanced scenario, in real life or a video game.
Dark Souls gets a pass because of what it’s meant to be. But those same liberties aren’t appropriate when it comes to most other games. It’s important to note that boss fights come from a tradition of arcade gameplay which meant that they were there to suck up as many extra quarters from kids as humanly possible. Take a game like Metal Slug (1996) for instance. It’s not the most difficult run and gun to master, but it’s very fun to play. Once you get good at it, you could clear most of the levels without dying. But those boss fights are hell. You’re almost guaranteed to game over multiple times in one boss fight if you don’t know the strategy beforehand. That’s obviously intentional. Nazca wasn’t looking to make a game where kids could clear the entire thing for 50 cents, quite the opposite. They wanted to make a scenario where you would get so far and then die in a boss fight thus forcing you to throw in some more quarters because now your pride is on the line and you aren’t gonna leave that Nazi-Alien jerk alive even if it meant every quarter you had left in your pocket. That’s where the tradition and spirit of hard boss fights comes from. They wanted you to die but ultimately continue. But once home console games became a thing the need for impossibly hard boss fights wasn’t as necessary. Suddenly boss fights could merely book end levels and round out plots as opposed to trying to prolong the experience and suck up more money from users. That’s why the classic three hit Nintendo bosses became a commonly occurring thing for quite a few generations of consoles. But now the pendulum seems to have swung back toward the unfair arcade boss fight scenario.
The term fight, to me, is defined as a combat scenario where both parties have a solid chance of winning. Now, in a fantastic scenario such as the one in Shadows of the Colossus (2005), this is not gonna be the case. But that’s a stylistic choice. When the boy steps up to the walking building it’s understood that he should be dying and that’s why the experience is so spectacular. We shouldn’t really call those fights at all, but due to our lack of other terms, we still do because the word encounter is just so inconvenient for modern day gamers apparently.
But the Shadows scenario is not usually what’s going on in most boss fights that aren’t being created by old school, Japanese developers. The majority of boss fights from Western developers today are really hard while also appearing to be sensible fight scenarios. Take the aforementioned final boss in KNACK. At this point in the game you are literally a giant powered by ancient artifacts that are known to be the most powerful things in existence. The same can be said about the boss. Yet it’s by no means a balanced fight. On hard mode you can take, at most, two hits from the boss and it’s over. He on the other hand, requires multiple rounds of damage to take down. That’s not really a fight. That’s a mechanics test, which is what that boss fight ends up being once you figure out how to beat it. Back in the day, games were static in behavior. Other than a few special examples, they basically always did the same thing. That’s why you see things like blindfolded runs of Super Mario Bros (1985). But today we are seeing new levels of dynamism in how AI behaves. Yet this only really seems to be the case for base level NPCs. Bosses still seem to run on predefined patterns in most genres of games.
KNACK is a brawling platformer. Think God of War with only the Nemean Cestus and a few magic spells. It’s fun because it’s challenging. Again, I played it on hard, but it’s only challenging because you hulk your way through most of the game. Enemies behave in much the same way every time, but they don’t do exactly the same things. They change direction, respond to your changes in behavior accordingly, and don’t necessarily make the exact same moves in the exact same spots fight after fight. But the bosses in the game do. There’s definitely a justification for patterned bosses in games. People don’t want to get so far in a game and then just never be able to move forward because a boss is way too hard. That’s the reason boss fight help videos get so many hits on YouTube. People often need the help and if that help wasn’t available due to constantly changing boss fights, many players would eventually just put games down.
But at the same time, many games such as KNACK, lose what’s special about them when the screen comes down and the fights become formulaic. The point of the game is to constantly grow into a giant wrecking ball of random chaos. But two of the three boss fights in the game are only beatable by remembering patterns and ultimately not treating the situation like a brawl. They were challenging, but not in a way that felt appropriate for this particular game. I would much rather have preferred a straight fight where you had to read the boss as you traded blows and ultimately beat him. The final boss is not a brawl or even the slightest bit random. You spend 80% of the fight running and dodging and really only have to hit him with three combos, at specific times, to beat it. It definitely took me a while, but when I finally beat it I didn’t feel like it was a good fight. It was more just a time sensitive puzzle that I had finally been able to maneuver through. I certainly think there are games where a boss fight like that works well, but this wasn’t one of those games.
That brings me back to my original question: What makes a good boss fight? Making it as hard as possible may be challenging and may leave you satisfied with yourself when you finally get through it. But that doesn’t necessarily mean the fight is a good one. It may be remembered for being really hard like so many boss fights I’ve dealt with over the years. A few examples are Barthandelus (FFIII), Gray Fox (Metal Gear Solid), Mr. Sandman (Punch-Out!!), Atheon (Destiny), and the list goes on.
I may never forget any of those bosses, but I also wouldn’t say any of them were fun. Yet on the other side, making a boss fight too fun isn’t necessarily the answer either. I would always say that making a game as enjoyable as possible should trump making it as difficult as possible. The problem is that many gamers are masochists and take pleasure in their pain. That’s why we play Dark Souls after all. Take a moment to remember Ornstein and Smough and then think about the fact that someone did that with a Guitar Hero controller. And on some level we kind of have to admit that most of the boss fights that we would say were the most fun probably weren’t the most challenging. I’m inclined to say that maybe my favorite boss fight of all time is The Queen from ICO (2001). This one and only boss fight in the game is admittedly super easy. It’s more puzzle than anything else, but the moment where she magic blasts you while you’re holding the magic sword, only to have it deflect around you, is one of the most amazing moments I’ve ever had in a game. It felt like being in an anime. To this day, I’ve had very few boss fights that made me feel as awesome as I did in that fight. Yet I would never cite it as one of the better boss fights in the history of gaming. It’s too easy and not even that spectacular on a mechanical level.
So which boss fight is better? Is it the really, really difficult Sephiroth in Kingdom Hearts (2002), which was so hard that I literally screamed in anger? Or is it Cloud N. Candy from Yoshi’s Story (1997), which is both fun and hilarious to fight but may actually be the easiest boss in the history of joystick controlled video games? I think neither should be considered a good quality boss fight. I think both have a place in gaming and I wouldn’t wish that either one hadn’t been made. But to say that either is a better boss fight as a general rule would be a false statement in my opinion. I think the answer lies somewhere in the middle. A boss like Black Baron from MadWorld (2009) is what I consider a well-made boss fight. It’s challenging but not unnecessarily hard. The fight scenario makes sense and is balanced for the situation presented. And to top it all off it’s hilarious from start to finish. Yes, he does use certain patterns in his fighting style, but the fight in general feels a lot more natural than the scripted ones in KNACK. For me, that’s the best type of boss fight. One where you feel like you can play it the same way you’ve successfully played the rest of the game up to that point, but still have to perform to the best of your abilities to defeat it.
I definitely think there are a lot of good boss fights out there even in games made today. But I also think that too many developers are leaning their boss design choices towards the Dark Souls style of thinking and making difficulty the only measuring stick for quality. When I look at games like the upcoming Let It Die, I absolutely want to play it when I read certain things about it. But then when I read other things I already feel like it’s gonna end up being way harder than it should be to keep the fun factor going for a majority of players. I always go into a game hoping for a balanced fight scenario. One that is not too hard and also not too easy. That’s the reason I don’t only play games on one pre-determined difficulty setting. Every time I start a game that gives you a difficulty option, I choose the one that I believe will give the most balanced yet enjoyable gameplay experience. I never choose easy but I don’t automatically choose hard either. There are lots of games that are very good on normal but are terrible on hard because the developer just couldn’t keep the gameplay balanced.
I also think more developers need to build multiple options into their boss fights. There are a number of games that allow you to beat certain bosses in multiple ways, often making them challenging one way but giving players an out if they can’t beat it correctly or aren’t in the mood for a long-winded fight. Two really good examples of this are Granga from StarFox 64 (1997) and Evrae Altana from FFX (2001). In both of these fights you can have a longer, more challenging boss fight where you must employ a number of tactics to win or you can cheese it without having to risk getting banned by the developer. Granga can be easily dispatched by shooting out one of its legs at the beginning of the fight. This will make him fall over and be unable to move, easily expose his weak point, and renders the battle over in mere seconds. Evrae Altana is an undead boss which means simply throwing two Phoenix Downs at him will instantly do what could take several attempts and anywhere from five minutes to over an hour. While making bosses in this way is not easy or practical in many gameplay situations, it does show that developers could do a lot more when making bosses to try and make the experience as satisfying and enjoyable for players of all types.
I’m actually very curious to know how other people feel about boss fights and whether or not they prefer them to be fun or hard. Please take the time to comment with your opinion as well as some of your favorite and most hated boss encounters.