I’m terrible at sticking to one game at a time. Whilst I should be dedicated to The Witcher (especially since I’m blogging about it once a month), I’m also playing Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask on the 3DS and Lost Odyssey on the Xbox 360. I hop between each game depending on my mood, preference and proximity to gaming platform. I mention this poor gaming discipline in order to make a point about boss battles.
These three games offer up boss fights in very different ways. Majora’s Mask, as with the rest of the franchise, delivers the most comprehensive boss fight package. The lair’s superior is given their own room, theme music, new game mechanics and a fancy, introductory banner with their name on it. Lost Odyssey is slightly more conservative. The boss is provided with introductory and concluding cutscenes and a new set of attacks. Most basic of all are The Witcher bosses, which are usually bigger, more vicious versions of previous foes. There is, however, more effort made to entwine each boss into the narrative of the game.
In my opinion, video games do not need Boss Battles, but if they are going to be included, they should be done right. What I consider to be the ‘right kind’ of Boss Battle changes periodically. From my point of view the process of constructing a boss – be they mid-level, end of the level or the final boss – is a thing of many parts. Below I have put together what I think are the major considerations of forming a great boss battle, and I invite you to share your ideal Boss Battle set-up. Maybe that perfect thing already exists, or you’re still waiting for Boss Battle Utopia. Either way, we might consider the following features:
The more recent Final Fantasy games tend to include optional bosses. Of those optional creatures, at least one will be notoriously difficult to vanquish. So difficult in fact, that they trounce the attack and defensive powers of the final boss in their greatest form. This is a strange property to present in a game (why isn’t that thing the final boss? Does it know it could take over the world but can’t be bothered??) but this does highlight the appropriate challenge level for a boss fight.
The average person does not want to take on the monster with 50 million hit points for four straight hours. They do not want to shred their analogue sticks to pieces to defeat a single beast. Yet the final encounter for each section should feel more challenging than the rest of the monsters before them.
Or should it? Should the boss battle instead present a slight incline in difficulty or off itself up as a satisfying punching bag after all the hard work it took to get there?
The idea of challenge can mean different things to different people. A Boss Fight can be physical challenging – rapidly and reflexively bashing buttons as the monster attempts its twentieth One-Hit-Kill Special – but a boss fight could also test your mental faculties. The puzzle could be a simple as finding the weirdly-convenient weak spot, or a more elaborate test based on new items, locations and game mechanics.
My main question here is – how much of a boss fight should be unknown? Any self-respecting enemy leader will have a handful of set moves that they can employ, which the player can identify and evade. Implemented well, this kind of battle can be an entertaining mix of reaction time and suspense, but it can also feel awfully repetitive.
Sometimes, both challenge and puzzle elements are thrown at the player by presenting a Boss of Final Boss in an entirely new set-up. I recall the end fight of Onimusha 2, in which both you and the boss change forms and fight on a rolling battlefield. In a scene dislocated from the rest of the game, you must run towards the screen whilst learning the moves of the boss and your new moves. It was a great ending, but an entirely separate experience for the player.
Should the puzzle-solving element of a boss battle be based on what you have been practicing up until that point, or throw an entirely unseen enigma at you. Is there a perfect balance between ‘challenge’ and ‘puzzle’?
There are so many games that end with a boss that is no more than a slightly bigger version of whatever you have been fighting: a taller guy with a bigger gun; a monster with eight tentacles instead of four; the exact same boss you fought earlier, but now with henchmen. In many cases, it would be unfair to expect a giant monster in a FPS where you’ve been fighting regular goons, but it’s very easy for a ‘realistic’ final encounter to feel lacklustre. The main issue here is that whilst the fight might feel consistent with the story or gameplay, the player doesn’t get to see anything new.
I’ve always had the impression that the developers of the Arkham series panic when they get to boss battles. Each villain is so iconic that they should have an encounter which feels epic, but some of these characters aren’t so tough once their evil plans and death machines have been swept away. So Poison Ivy gets a giant plant with special attacks and weak spots, whilst Bane gets to run at walls and look stupid. The fight with Mr Freeze requires you to adapt and use most of your skills to win, but Deathstroke requires only a mastery of QTEs.
On the one hand, the variety delivered by these games leads to a mixed pay-out. On the other hand, the game tries to make every boss feel unique and in-keeping with their skill set. Do you prefer a certain pattern to your boss fights? Or should they be as different as possible?
A Final or Near-Final Boss should have some extra screen time. It’s very easy to achieve this by extending a health bar or placing cutscenes in amongst the action. A more creative option is to give that boss more than one form, or multiple stages. From what I have experienced, three is a magic number for this sort of thing... such as a two-stage fight with a robot followed by a fist fight with the pilot of the robot, for one very specific example.
In my experience, one giant epic fight is often eclipsed by two/three distinct battle parts. However, the elongation of a boss battle in this fashion can hinge on the use of one simple feature – checkpoints. Boss battles with distinct forms often put the most difficult section in the middle, allowing for closure after the ‘main’ finale, or let the difficulty rise through the stages. This can be infuriating if a failure in the later sections starts the entire process again. What should feel like an epic crescendo could instead become laborious.
Are the multiple, staggered ‘forms’ of a final boss the best way to round off a long adventure? Or should the last encounter be more straightforward and focused on a brief, high octane blow-out?
Where a Boss appears within the game is an important ingredient. The generally accepted positioning is at the end of a level or the entire game (it’s why we call them final bosses), but we also appreciate the games that give a little bit more after the boss is dealt with.
The Bioshock boss fight was disappointing, in my opinion, but not just because of the nature of the simplistic, uninspired showdown; the fact that the game has only a fleeting cutscene to tack onto the other side of the battle only helps to enforce the sensation of disappointment.
I can appreciate the possible opinion that a final boss battle should be the actual finale of a game. I’m just more appreciative of a game that gives me the last portion of the story or one last flurry of activity before the game declares it has finished. Would you disagree?
How do you prefer a boss battle to be resolved? There are those games that immediately reward the player with a new weapon or extra health, celebrating the player’s achievement with a gift. Sometimes the reward is an item that is needed to progress, or merely a big wad of experience points.
There are some major routes that the end of a boss fight can pass through: cutscene, QTE or both. Each of these options allow the player to watch a violent, elaborate death that the usual control settings don’t commit. The end boss cutscene also allows the player a moment to relax and bask in their triumph as the boss is gutted as according with the script. This does take a little of the victory away from the player as a result.
Games can use weapon caches and ominous entrances to indicate an imminent boss fight. We are more often than not given time to prepare ourselves for the monster waiting patiently in the wings. This usually means that when the battle is over, we know that it will be a while before the game puts another big baddy in our way. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but this can lead to a much organised, unsurprising list of boss battles at an even spread. It’s as if the bosses of every game agreed that sportsmanship was the priority goal… rather than smashing your face in.
These are what I consider to be the main important qualities by which a boss battle can be judge. Whilst there are many kinds of boss battle, and many kinds of player, these factors can make all the difference. Maybe you can think of other important aspects? Perhaps you have a specific level of challenge you hope to see in boss battles, or you’ve yet to see a boss battle you couldn’t appreciate in some way? Let me know.