23 years and still the greatest
I’ll always remember the end of Star Fox Adventures as the perfect example of how not to end a video game. This 25-hour adventure, lightly sprinkled with that classic Star Fox action we all love, goes against everything the game was about in its final moments with a shoehorned Andross battle. An otherwise lightly enjoyable romp arguably ruined by its final moments. Looking back over the last 28 years that I’ve been gaming, it’s astounding how many final boss battles fail to properly wrap up the adventure.
But some do a damn good job of it and that is the topic of this week’s Destructoid Discusses: final boss battles. I was very, very close to going with the all-time classic of Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island as it remains one of the best battles ever conceived. So that was going to be my answer and I had a different lede written up for it, but I would be lying to myself and you if I didn’t admit that, even after 23 years, the Mother Brain battle at the end of Super Metroid is the best goddamn boss battle in history.
Super Metroid is an exceptional game, one that is perfect in its original form. That game is reason enough why the franchise should be one of the biggest at Nintendo, but for whatever reason *cough* comparative sales *cough* it isn’t. It’s the one that struggles to continue, that honestly doesn’t feel like it has a direction or a leader guiding its future.
Perhaps that’s because it peaked in 1994. It peaked with an amazing opening through a deserted space station, memorable boss battles that were absolutely gigantic for the time, and an ending that, without any words at all, conveyed an incredible amount of story and emotion that just kept punching. Seeing that baby Metroid, all grown up, nearly kill me earlier on only to come save my life as the monster Mother Brain was about to annihilate me is just as emotional today as when I first experienced it at 10 years old.
It’s not the most difficult battle, but it’s the one I’ll remember until I’m deep in the throes of dementia. And even then, I’m sure the rainbow-colored blasts of Samus’ arm cannon will find a way to sneak into my mind and put a smile on my face.
**The following list obviously contains spoilers for the games mentioned. Most are from the prior console generations and none of them are from games released for the first time this year. However, one of the games (the last one) in an indie title first released in 2015 on PC and again for the PS4 earlier this year. Another title is a GBA classic getting a remake on the 3DS early next month. So, if the title of this article wasn’t a big enough warning, then this should be.
“Final bosses” in an MMO are subject to debate, as they’re ever-evolving. Until Blizzard gives an end date for World of Warcraft and announces one last raid, there’s always going to be a new big bad on the block. But for me, one resonated the most — Illidan.
It wasn’t just the thrill of downing him with my server-first guild that got to me, or the fact that we had been at it for weeks, perfecting our strategy in this 25-person fight, but rather, the buildup. Battling Illidan after an entire expansion’s worth of lore was a big deal, not to mention that he already had all of the backstory from Warcraft III to his name.
While some people will never touch MMOs, I’ll always try to find time with them for as long as I live. I’ve forged some of the best friendships and had some of the most memorable moments in my gaming career in them.
When we say “boss fight”, we usually think (naturally), of a fight against a single, big enemy, as most bosses typically are, but for me, a good boss fight might just be a very good, reasonably challenging action sequence. The challenge is part of the equation, of course, as without at least some interaction a boss fight is basically a cutscene. Ultimately, though, challenging or otherwise, the best bosses are all about the payoff, whether that’s seeing a player’s growing skill or pattern recognition bear fruit, or having the sequence itself deliver in aesthetic, thematic, or other important ways.
For me, one of the best and most memorable boss fights, and even sequences, in all of gaming, is the final mission of Hitman: Blood Money. This sequence has it all. It’s got storytelling, since it loops back to the beginning of the game, explaining the presence of the wheelchair-bound man at the funeral of Agent 47. It’s got style, since this whole mission takes place in a really great-looking church, with “Ave Maria” playing in German in the background. IO Interactive actually use this as the main menu of the game, as well, and even populate the funeral attendants based on the people you kill over the course of the game!
And then the mission itself is a really tough challenge, partly because it’s a straight combat encounter in a game with kinda bad combat. Agent 47 is tasked with waking the hell up during his own funeral, and taking his beloved Silverballers and wasting everyone in the room. This isn’t easy seeing as “everyone in the room” is an armed guard that alerts almost immediately, but it’s so worth it after everything that happens.
The new, current-gen Hitman may be the best Hitman has been, and maybe that game’s concepts expressed in their most ideal form yet, but for me, it’s Blood Money and moments like that that secure this game’s place as one of the greatest games of all time.
I consider myself a completionist when it comes to playing games, so with that said I’ve seen a fair number of boss fights in my gaming career. Everything from extremely challenging boss battles like a certain Persona 3 boss, to the extremely over the top and action heavy bosses of various Platinum titles, to the long and drawn out battles that can span hours (or at least feel like it) from classic Square titles.
However, the most memorable boss battles for me usually fall into the absurd category, stuff completely out of left field, and no other franchise that comes to my mind pulls that off better than the Metal Gear Solid series. If I had to pick one final boss battle from this series though, I’d have to go with Metal Gear Solid 4‘s Liquid Ocelot battle.
For context, Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots was one of my most anticipated video games of 2008, it was the reason I picked up a PlayStation 3 the year prior. The original Metal Gear Solid was one of the first ever games I completed back on the PlayStation growing up and there was no way I was going to miss out on what would be the end chapter of Solid Snake’s story.
Which is also exactly what this fight symbolizes, it’s the final showdown between Solid Snake and Liquid Ocelot. Two characters whose fates have been intertwined since the PlayStation original, and it ended up being two old dudes punching the shit out of each other — and I loved every minute of it.
This boss fight isn’t necessarily challenging unless you’re playing on a higher difficulty, but from the moment you begin the fight iconic music from past games plays throughout the battle, cementing the fact this is the final gameplay segment of this game and even the series itself (unless you count Revengeance). Experiencing this whole boss battle at nearly 3:00 AM in the morning knowing I still had school to attend later in the day is something I’ll never forget. (Including the hours of cutscenes and dialogue that still followed).
Mega Man 2‘s final boss sums up a lot about the Mega Man series in particular, and about game development in general.
I didn’t realize it as a kid, but Dr. Wily isn’t just some Einstein-looking douche who has a thing for killer robots. He’s also a proxy for the game developers. Sure, the in-game story says that it was Wily who build everything that tries to kill you in Mega Man 2, but in reality, it was the developers who designed and laid out every row of spikes, every disappearing block, and of course, every robot master. They are the real Dr. Wily(s), and they did it all just to fuck with you because they know you love it.
Mega Man 2‘s final boss battle exemplifies that mission statement by faking the player out in all new ways. It pretends to let you see behind the curtain, first dropping you down into an area with no music, no enemies, and none of the other things that you’ve come to expect from the series so far. Other than this short level, every other inch of Mega Man 2 has wall to wall music. Muting the soundtrack almost makes the game almost feel broken like you’ve entered part of its programming that you were never meant to see.
Then, after dodging some dangerous drop of a mysterious red fluid (my theory is it’s the synthetic blood of all the robots you’ve killed along the way), you reach a totally black room. and think “Oh hey, it’s Dr. Wily. I know him! I’m going to kill him. That’ll be fun.”
“But wait a minute, why is he floating? And why is he… turning into an alien!? Wait, we’re in space now? And this alien is impervious to damage from everything except the Bubble Lead, the one weapon that it’s almost impossible to a flying thing with?!?”
I… AM… SO… FUCKED!”
That sense of bemused shock, confusion, and panic is a hallmark of the classic Mega Man experience, but it’s what happens next that I still think about to this day. After beating the Wily Alien, space disappears, the lights come up, and you see that Wily was behind the controls of an illusion generation machine the whole time. He only made you think he had turned into an alien! All this was just an elaborate setup; a prank created for no other reason than to fuck with you.
Wily could have just shot you in the back as you fought fake Alien Wily in the dark. Instead, he sat there behind you in the dark, probably laughing under his breath, his mind buzzing from power trip he was on, amazed with his ability to draw you into his made-up world and make you believe in it. If he wanted you dead, he would have just had that room end in a giant row of spikes that falls from the ceiling, or just blown up that whole cave after he left the building. He had you trapped, dead to rights, putty in his hands, and he used that opportunity to… trick you into thinking he was an alien so that he could watch in from the background and think to himself “Damn, I’m good.”
They say game developers are just illusionists that use technology to play tricks on us. If that’s the case, then Alien Wily’s face should be the symbol sewn to the flag that represents all game developers. He is their patron saint, their mission statement, their one true God.
Final boss fights in RPG tend to be underwhelming. While Final Fantasy does a good job of making things feel dramatic and overbearing, tinkering any small bit with sidequests tends to make future battles completely trivial. When you’re leveled well beyond the strongest enemy in the game, what’s the damn point?
Props to Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga for completely bucking that trend. Not only does it contain a villain that isn’t Bowser, but it also has a big bad that doesn’t fuck around. The main bad guy, Cackletta, actually gets shit done and severely ruins your day before engaging in the last showdown. What makes this fight so notable is that its fucking hard as hell.
Even if you’ve been leveling up the brothers for the entire game, this fight starts with Cackletta sucker punching you and then trapping you in Bowser’s stomach. From there, you rise with a single hit point and have to dodge a barrage of attacks before getting the chance to heal or retaliate. Since the Mario & Luigi series is based on the same action-based RPG mechanics that Paper Mario started, it means you can’t just sit around and wait for Cackletta to finish her damn turn.
I remember getting to this fight and just dying continuously as I screwed up Luigi’s jump or mistimed Mario’s hammer swing. That damn witch can be tricky, but overcoming that initial onslaught is so rewarding that when you finally overcome the fight, you feel like a champion. People claim that the NES era defined “Nintendo Hard,” but I’d say the final boss of Superstar Saga is where that phrase belongs.
Occams Electric Toothbrush
Of all the final bosses in all the video games I have played, Kefka is the one that stuck with me the most. Final Fantasy III/VI is cemented in my life as one of the most influential and transformative experiences with any form of media. I’d put it up there with seeing The Dark Crystal and listening to Jimi Hendrix for the first time. Kefka, the insane harlequin with dreams of Godhood felt like the Joker and Gary Oldman from Leon: The Professional had a baby and raised it on nothing but North Korean propaganda films. He hates everything and everyone and wants to destroy it all. He’s a nihilist. And this was way before the nihilist concept became a trope for every other JRPG.
So there’s this nihilist clown which is intense on its own merits but then the kicker is that eventually, he wins! He destroys the world and attains godhood. He gets everything he wants and it is all done on the broken and bloodied back of humanity. He put his giant clown shoe on the throat of hope and pressed down. I hated Kefka and recognizing that feeling for a video game character was a very powerful moment. When I finally beat him, I cried tears of joy and relief and a little bit of sadness knowing that this journey was over. I’ll never forget that experience and the villain that helped make it so memorable.
Choosing my favorite boss battle mechanically was difficult. Most of my favorite games don’t put a lot of emphasis on making a particularly deep final battle, and the ones that do still aren’t necessarily the most exciting to talk about. So I decided I wouldn’t talk about my favorite boss battle mechanically.
Thematically, there’s only one winner for me. Bowser and Bowser Jr. from Super Mario Sunshine.
Most Mario games have a nasty tendency to avoid taking risks with their final battle. There’s Mario, there’s Bowser, in a lava or space level. It’s played straight even in Mario role-playing games nowadays. Little humor, little variety. Super Mario Sunshine though, now that game tried something different! Sure, the final battle is set in space, and to reach it you need to get through a lava level, but none of that is important. What’s important is that you’re fighting Bowser and Bowser Jr while they are just chilling with Peach in a spa. That’s the battle. They attack by breathing fire and launching bullet bills at you while staying put, ass down in the hot green water.
The best part? You don’t attack them directly either. You just ground pound the sides of the spa until it tips over and everyone falls. Talk about a fun and creative final boss that doesn’t take itself too seriously!
Boss fights are a bittersweet moment in games. In the best ones, it’s usually a culmination of everything you’ve learned over your hours’ long journey, but it also means the end of that journey. Unless of course, you have an absurd amount of collectibles, then I need all of those.
The boss encounter I’ve chosen is one that sticks out because of just how weird it is. Assassin’s Creed II ends with a showdown between Ezio and Pope Rodrigo Borgia in the Vatican.
While it isn’t particularly difficult it’s hard to wash the memory of Ezio stomping the Pope in the crotch out of your head.
In the original Portal, GLaDOS doesn’t just try to murder me the old-fashioned way with deadly neurotoxins and explosives. No, she prefers to degrade me and explain how I don’t have any friends because of how unlikable I am. She goes the extra mile, and I appreciate that. Her constant personal attacks throughout the game were so damn hilarious that I almost felt bad about incinerating her piece by piece during the final fight.
Luckily, I did a pretty bad job, and there’s still plenty of opportunities in the sequel for her to tell me that I’m a horrible person and compare me to smelly garbage. Honestly, I wouldn’t have it any other way…
“The only thing you’ve managed to break so far….. is my heart.” – GLaDOS
When I was trying to pick a final battle to cover for CJ’s discussion, I ended up hitting a roadblock since my favorite confrontations stand out in their own ways. Then I decided to associate this topic with a live-action genre that makes me smile.
Even though Chroma Squad started off as a game about a stunt team who quits Not-Saban to make their own Super Sentai-like series, I didn’t expect it to feature real alien invaders. Right when you’re done with fighting a fabulous boss who summons deadly disco balls and Monsters-of-the-Week, you’re presented with the true mastermind. When you battle him, the guy spends a majority of the fight having his minions bring him his weapons. This required players to break out of the usual Ranger formation to cover every angle of the battlefield.
Since the final boss is depicted as an imposing cosmic being, this made the whole confrontation feel silly. Part of it had to with him being a lazy villain during the first part of the fight. When things got serious, the whole thing felt like you were going through the climax of a solid Sentai series.
With the power of determination playing a big role in the battle’s last two phases, I finally got to play the tokusatsu game of my dreams. While this segment was holding the player’s hand, the final episode’s earlier parts made the whole thing feel rewarding. In the end, it did a great job in expressing Behold Studios’ burning passion for grownups in spandex.
Some damn good memories of some damn good final boss battles there! Also Super Mario Sunshine. So, can you name any boss battles that could rival that final showdown with Mother Brain?