Bosses are cheap. They tower above your itty-bitty character, just as likely to kill you with a fatal boot stomping as they are likely to erase you with the BFG-GodMode2000 hanging off their arm. They use insane attacks, crazy bullet-hell stuff, turning the screen into a latticework of nasty-nasty-death-murder. They have a legion of flunkies at their disposal, ready and willing to throw their lives away in a human wave attack just to dull your sword or waste your ammo. They've got the dungeon all rigged up with traps, hazards, and bondage straps -- just for you of course. Bosses are cheap as hell.
Except when they're not.
You don't see them too often, but there are some bosses out there who don't need all the pageantry and special gimmicks to make you squeal. There are are few pure badasses out there who can take you on at your own level and beat you. These guys aren't huge, they don't have an arsenal of overpowered fusion cannons, they have abilities and attacks comparable to you. Basically they play by the same rules -- they're just better.
Who doesn't love a good clean fight? These bosses are almost always the most memorable and special. I've come across a few, but here are some of my favorites.
Dark Souls does boss fights right. They're practically the highlight of the game. Epic face-offs against insanely imaginative beasts, demons, and fallen Gods. Blatantly unfair pitched battles that will see you standing against everything from an insane dragon suffering a birth defect, to the infamous duo of Executioner Smough and Dragon Slayer Ornstien -- a pair of gold-plated knobs who will doubleteam you until you rip the disk out of the system and bite it clean in half out of frustration.
Wait, what do you mean nobody else did that?
And because From Software is really good at what they do, they don't try to outdo themselves. Instead of going over the top for the final confrontation, they go under. They practically limbo into the final showdown with Gwyn.
The ultimate challenge you face in Dark Souls isn't some massive dragon or raging demon. He's a vaguely sad old man. Granted, he's a burly goddamn old man with a fuck-huge flaming sword who will wreck you in the beat of a hummingbird's wings, but still, a sad old man. You fight him in the sandy ashes of his once great hall while haunting piano music plinks away in the background. It's understated, refined, classy.
Gywn doesn't exactly mirror the player character's abilities, but it's close. He's approximately the same size as the player, fights with a conventional -- if impressive -- weapon, and has kind of exaggerated versions of the player's core attacks. More interestingly though are his weaknesses, those are what truly define him and make him unique. Gywn is the only true boss character who can be parried and stabbed with a devastating riposte, an automatic critical hit that will bring him do his knees. It's a fascinating design choice that I can't help but suspect was done intentionally.
More than just an interesting quirk for the final boss fight of the game, Gwyn's similarities to the player character are also thematically appropriate. I won't get into spoilers, but it makes sense for Gwyn to fight and behave much closer to an idealized version of the player than any other boss. It's an amazing example of using game mechanics to subtlety weave a narrative thread.
Those From Software folks, mighty damn clever.
Dante spends most of Devil May Cry 3 getting noogied by his much cooler older brother.
Dude, I can relate.
In my mind, Vergil is the Ur-example of getting picked on by someone you're own size. While DMC3 is infamously difficult and features some of the most bowel clenchingly nasty bosses this side of the river Styx, Vergil manages to outgun them all -- and he does it by meeting you at your own level.
Vergil and Dante are brothers so it's only fitting they fight with similar, but individually distinct, styles. They have quite a few overlapping talents (the quick teleport "trick step", double jumping, a dive kick while using the Beowulf boots, etc) that make fights between the two really look like a pair of bickering brothers trying to one-up each other.
"Nuh-huh, I can do it better!" *impales brother with a 7 foot katana blade while blowing a raspberry*
But they also do things different. While both share a love of sharp pointy things, Vergil is just too classy to use something as crude as the over the top handcannons Dante adores. Instead, he has a few ghostly summoning swords to stab at people from a distance. Gameplay wise they are functionally identical -- an annoying but low damage long range attack -- but people are defined by their differences, and it's the little touches that really sell the sibling rivalry.
Vergil behaves so much like Dante that you can actually play as him in a New Game Plus mode in DMC3. It's pretty crazy at first, but eventually it feels as natural as playing as Dante. In the DmC reboot, there's an entire DLC pack where you play as Vergil. Granted, he wears a silly bowler hat in that game that makes him look like an MRA, but for the most part he's actually pretty alright.
At least when he's not being a genocidal butt-muncher.
Ace Combat 4 ends with this crazy assault against an elaborate underground fortress. You have to fly perilously inside of the massive facility to strike at it's very heart. It's protected by an anti-air superiority laser array, and the crazed remnants of Eurasia's most hardline military personnel. Zealots who rejected their orders to stand-down, instead, seizing control of the doomsday weapon their country secretly built, hoping to destroy a world they couldn't conqueror.
What played out, over-embellished, videogame tripe.
The real climax of Ace Combat 4 is when you finally splash Yellow 13.
AC4 is a beautifully made game. While all the action takes place in the burning skies of the modern battlefield, the story is told through the perspective of a child in your occupied homeland. You see the real cost of war as far removed from your high flying glory as could be. You also meet Yellow 13, the famed ace pilot of the Eurasian forces, and your narrator's unlikely friend.
In between missions, you see how your direct actions wear upon Yellow squad and the country you're trying to liberate. You see their hesitation, their discomfort with their mission but conflicting commitment to duty. You see the pain you inflict when you blow members of Yellow squad out of the sky. The story framing all leads to an inevitable showdown with your rival ace, Yellow 13.
Unlike other games, Yellow 13 doesn't fly some kind of anime super jet. He doesn't have any special ability, no Macross-style missile barrages, or physics defying jets. He's simply an extremely talented pilot in a standard issue Su-37. When you meet him (especially on the higher difficulties) it becomes a wonderful, if deadly, dance in the sky. Ace against ace. By far the most satisfying encounter of the game (maybe even the series)
And because of the way the story is framed, by the time you shoot down Yellow 13, you'll know and care more about him than your own player character.
It's actually kind of a huge bummer.
Ok, forget that. Let's talk about a different rival ace pilots we can actually feel GOOD about sending to a fiery, high-altitude grave.
You have no idea how hard it was to find a picture of these dudes that wasn't weird porn
Man, fuck Star Wolf.
What a fine collection of airborne pricks. Star Wolf is the rival squad to the Star Fox team in the classic N64 title. A group of jerkwards led by the perpetually cocky Wolf O'Donnell, you end up fighting them a bunch of times, pitting Arwing fighter against Wolfen attack-ship.
Wolf is always on your back. He laughs at your inferior piloting skills, constantly makes below-the-belt jokes about Fox's dead dad, and mocks the team for keeping Slippy on the roster.
(Well, he may have a point about hanging out with Slippy...)
Anyway, these guys are knobs. Defeating Andross is supposed to be the highlight of the game, but there is just no way that beating a giant, floating, space-chimp is going to be as satisfying as turning Wolf and his buddies into fucked up piles of burning wreckage.
You're a douche Wolf, and you can't hang with Yellow 13 in dogfight Valhalla.
After sneaking past the entire Soviet army, eating two of every animal on God's green earth, and somehow killing a dude made of bees, it's understandable that you might get a healthy heaping of haughty big-headedness by the end of Metal Gear Solid 3.
The Boss is more than happy to lance that swollen ego and watch it ooze out in puss and sadness.
Straight up, the Boss is a badass. She can do everything Snake can do. Camouflaged concealment? Check. Stealth assassination? Check? Close quarter combat techniques that will shatter your humerus like you dropped grandma's tea set? You better believe that's a check. And just try to get cute and smack her with the butt of your AK-47, she'll rip it out of your hands, break it down into little pieces, and then do the same to your jaw.
The Boss is by far the most dangerous opponent you meet in the game. Considering you also manage to destroy a 152 ton screw-propelled nuclear tank from the back of a motorcycle, that's saying something.
She's Snake's mentor, mother-figure, and kind of creepy crush. The headmistress of Murder School who only took a break from slaughtering Nazis in WWII to give birth in the middle of a battlefield. It's no wonder she can cuff Snake (Mr. Big Boss himself) around the ears like a disobedient puppy.
More than just the standard "end of a Metal Gear fistfight", The Boss flips the script. Her word is law in the jungle, and Snake goes from apex-predator to bottom-feeding prey at her whim. After playing the part of the sneaky assassin the whole game, it's incredibly alarming the first time The Boss gets the drop on you. When you lose sight of her in the bushes and try to poke around with that doofy directional microphone to find her, only to have The Boss yank you out of first person view, knock your head around like a soccer ball, and tell you just how disappointed she is with you. You're totally outclassed by this woman and you know it.
I would love to see a side-game in the series where you play as The Boss. Maybe a prequel that shows her and her Cobra unit's exploits during WWII. Tell me the title Metal Gear: Joy doesn't send a shiver up your spine.
It's a weird thing to say, but I love getting picked on by someone my own size. As much as I enjoy tackling huge monsters and blatantly unfair mis-matches, there is something so uniquely satisfying about fighting someone on the same level. It elevates the battle from yet another mere boss fight to a duel.
A duel where I might still get my arm broken in 17 places, but a duel nonetheless.
Protoman: Another Cain and Able story, this time with a sweet ass whistle theme.
Shadow Link: The real monster is YOU.
Jeanne: Rival Witch to Bayonetta, probably the only other person alive who could pull off those heels.
Fake Trevor, Sypha, and Grant: Castlevania SOTN has you face off against three former Castlevania characters in the coliseum. It's not fun being on the other end of the whip.
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