A spotter’s guide to videogame bosses

I have defeated countless bosses in my time as a gamer. Big ones, small ones, ones with no eyes and giant tongues that they use as weapons. There are some truly unique and surprising bosses out there, waiting to be discovered. However, it seems that for every truly fresh and exciting boss, there is a boss that has been seen and slain a dozen times already.

This is the spotter’s guide to videogame bosses, a trawl through the archetypes and tropes that make up a wide variety of the bosses out there. If you’ve played a lot of games in your life, then you’re sure to have come across the same old personalities. They might have slightly different faces, and may fight in slightly different ways, but at their core, they’re exactly the same.

Read on in the name of science!

The Giant Spider:

The Giant Spider is a boss commonly seen in many videogames, such as The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, Devil May Cry, and Demon’s Souls. Although giant animals are to be found in many videogames, it’s the spider that seems to appear the most, possibly due to how to creepy and horrible it is in real life.

The Giant Spider usually bears no particular grudge against the player character; it just exists as a convenient challenge with little relevance to the plot, something thrown in to be defeated without rhyme or reason. The Giant Spider’s job isn’t to be relevant to the plot, it’s to shoot webs that trap the player, give birth to little baby spiders that annoy everybody, or have a giant abdomen that serves as an obvious weak point.

Never fear if you encounter a Giant Spider in your travels. They are usually rather easy to defeat, owing mainly to the fact that they’ve been shoehorned into the game for no real reason and weren’t designed as anything more than a hurdle. They tend to have easy weak points and limited attacks, so just go in for the kill. No problem whatsoever. Just beware if they’re one of those ones that give birth. The little baby spiders will irritate the piss out of you, but a few swift swings of a sword shall dispose of them.

More Minion Than Boss:

Sometimes it’s just not enough that a boss is powerful and annoying. Sometimes the developer feels that the challenge could be an even bigger pain in the arse, so he throws a dozen minions at you at the same time. You’re trying to fight the boss on equal and fair terms, but every time you get close and start hacking away, all its friends pile out from the wings to chop away at your life and get in the way and distract you from the task at hand.

In the very worst cases, the minions will be never-ending, to the point where it becomes a near-impossible balancing act. If you ignore the boss, the minions will kill you; if you ignore the minions, the boss will kill you. More often than not, you’ll be flitting between boss and minion, turning a five-minute job into half an hour’s work.

Dragon Age: Origins has plenty of bosses like this, such as the Brood Mother or the final battle. Some bosses, like Gi Nittak from Final Fantasy VII, will have only one or two minions, but will constantly resurrect them upon defeat, infuriating the player as they’re constantly forced to take focus away from the main problem. Nobody likes a fight that is more minion than boss. It doesn’t even feel satisfying to finally beat these kinds of bosses, since you’re usually infuriated beyond reason and just want to go home.

The Noble Warrior:

The Noble Warrior may serve the forces of evil, but he has not forgotten his gallantry. Sometimes taking the form of a humanoid beast, sometimes appearing as a knight, the Noble Warrior is merely looking for a decent challenge. He’s sick of fighting weaklings, and wishes to be tested, maybe even defeated. The player’s character usually serves as an inspiration for the Noble Warrior, and he will get excited to learn that you are powerful and may “finally be the one” to beat him.

Noble Warriors are not above helping the player character. He might aid the player to keep them alive just long enough for the “glorious” battle he expects, or because he feels that only he should be the one to kill him. Sometimes it’s simply pure chivalry. Noble Warriors are known for their mercy. While they don’t always spare the weak, some of them will, either through there being no “glory” in defeating weaklings, or through some twisted code of honor that sees them wishing only to face an equal.

A good example of the Noble Warrior is the giant wolf in Ninja Gaiden Sigma 2, who challenges Ryu to combat in an arena. He’s sick of fighting weak humans, and delights in the fact that Ryu seems more powerful. His attitude typifies the Noble Warrior to a tee. You will find many examples and variants of this particular boss in videogames, especially Japanese ones, that seem to always need at least one gallant villain who’s weary of fighting scrubs.

The Giant With Big Hands On A Ledge:

Ninja Gaiden 2, Ninja Blade, and Bayonetta all have great examples of this particular boss. The Giant With Big Hands On A Ledge is a giant that has big hands and fights on a ledge, obviously. You only ever see the top half of the GWBHOAL, as you fight it on a ledge that’s very high up. This boss, usually a big statue of some kind, grasps the edge of the ledge with his hands, while his head is visible in the background to provide a sense of perspective that was once impressive, but has now been done to death.

Although it would be smart for the boss to take his hands off the ledge, he keeps them held there so that you, the player, can hack away at them. Occasionally, the boss will swipe at you with massive fists, or pound the ledge, or shoot energy beams from his eyes. In any case, just keep hacking and slashing at the hands and, nine times out of ten, it will weaken the boss to the point where its head falls forward, providing a new target to attack for increased damage.

These bosses stopped being impressive a long time ago, but they’re still out in full force today, and they’re all exactly the same.

The Woman:

In these politically correct times, it would be wrong to not have a female boss, especially in Japan, where all women are seen as evil pawns of netherworld demons. Every game needs a token woman boss, and usually only ever one is allowed per game. Her usual appearance is that of an bizarre human/insect hybrid, with good examples found in Onimusha and Ninja Gaiden 2. The most common insect traits she possesses are those of a butterfly, but sometimes she can be a wasp or other flying invertebrate as well.

Despite the fact that she’s an insect, she will be highly sexualized and someone will have drawn her with her tits out and posted it on a message board. She will make many suggestive comments in a tone that is both patronizing and vaguely promising. Somehow she will be attractive, even though she has wings and antennae … although that may be part of the reason.

Fighting the Woman is tough. She tends to be quick and can often fly, making her very hard to hit. Woman bosses are frustrating affairs, so just keep blocking and strike when you can.

The Environmental Puzzle:

This boss is something that is so large and intimidating that you actually can’t fight it properly, instead using the environment to defeat it. The irony is that these boss fights are usually the least challenging, despite the enemy itself being the biggest and most intimidating you’ve ever seen. The World 2 Arch Demon from Demon’s Souls is a great example. It’s one of the biggest, most terrifying bosses in the game, yet also among the simplest. The player has to avoid its flames and reach two harpoon launches that will pin its wings to the wall, trapping it for the easy finish.

These battles are less about combat and more about avoiding attacks while navigating the area to reach certain weapons or escape routes. Pretty self-explanatory, really.

The Gay One:

Japan learned a long time ago that gay people are funny, and so quickly set about throwing them into every game ever made. The Gay One isn’t really explicitly mentioned as gay, but we all know the implication. Typified by extreme vanity, a love of beautiful things, and a ludicrously camp voice that draws words out to greater lengths than needed, The Gay One is seen in nearly every Japanese action game. They’re basically all Vega from Street Fighter II. This is true in real life as well — all known homosexuals look exactly like Vega and wear claws on their arms.

The Gay One is always humanoid, always has a silly hairstyle, and typically fights as a master swordsman. The classic example is Gogandantess from Onimusha, whose arrogance, dress sense, deftness with a sword and sense of showmanship make him the perfect stencil from which other games can make copies.

He might be a terrible stereotype, but The Gay One is nearly always the best character.

The Stupidly Easy Boss:

Nobody did this better than Earthworm Jim, but every now and then, a game will try and match it. The Stupidly Easy Boss does exactly as it says on the tin. It’s a boss that is so simple, a child could do it. It’s often included as a joke, with Bob the Killer Goldfish being the most famous. The Bob boss battle involves Earthworm Jim merely knocking the fish’s bowl onto the ground, leaving Bob to flop around helplessly.

Sometimes it’s not intentional. A number of end boss battles in history have been disappointingly easy. The deliberate ones can be pretty damn good, though, and a fine example of using the medium of videogames to make a unique joke.

The Former Ally:

How sharper than the serpent’s tooth it is! He was your friend/father/brother/random guy we were supposed to care about, and he has betrayed you! Everybody loves a good twist, and everybody loves a twist that involves an ally who turns out to be an enemy. Videogames use this trope time and time again to provide a quick and easy boss battle. Oftentimes, it’s not really a true betrayal — your friend has been hypnotized or possessed and doesn’t know what he’s doing. The player character is supposed to feel conflicted about fighting his poor friend, and will most probably save him in a cutscene after slashing him to pieces with a sword.

The Former Ally is usually the penultimate boss, and only very rarely will he be the final encounter. He typically fights in the same style as the player character, often with more powerful or “dark” versions of the player’s abilities. He will taunt the player during the battle, with the player character sometimes shouting things back about how the Former Ally doesn’t want to do this. Upon death, there will either be a cutscene in which the Ally is saved, or a long-winded death speech that will bore everybody.

The What The Fuck Is That?

See: Borderlands and nearly every other RPG in existence.

Although this happens in many types of games, RPGs are particularly fond of a final boss battle that seems to come completely out of nowhere. Yes, it’s the What The Fuck Is That? boss, the final encounter that has absolutely no reason to exist, no explanation for its arrival, and no reference of it before or after its death. You can spend eighty hours of your life chasing down one evil villain, believing him to be the ultimate goal of your journey, gearing up to defeat him and only him. Then, all of a sudden, some giant-beaked eyeball with tentacles that walks on its own testes will burst out from an alternate dimension and provide the toughest, longest, most pointless battle of the entire game.

The final boss may be a hard-won fight, but there is no satisfaction from its defeat. That you spent an entire game leading up to something that came completely out of nowhere always feels hollow, even if the boss took all the skill and determination in the world to conquer. Sometimes the WTF boss will be the main villain who suddenly pulls a “final form” from his sleeve, trying to convince us that the mass of veins and quivering muscular tissue that now stands before us is the “true” version of the handsome young man we’ve been chasing the entire game. Oftentimes, the WTF boss has no connection at all to the villain, hero, story or anything in particular. It’s simply there to be beaten, pulled from the arse of some developers who felt their game wasn’t climactic enough and needed more huge monsters with flailing appendages. 

Because videogames.

James Stephanie Sterling