That guy with the earthquake move. The ice thing. The stupid jerkface that won't hold still. Whatever their form, bosses have been a part of gaming since the early days of Atari. Personally I've always been a sucker for boss battles-they can very heavily influence my opinion of a given game. However, based on many games I've spent time with recently, Tim's question from the most recent podcast (mentioned around the 39:00 mark) is a valid one-do they even make good boss battles anymore?
TV Tropes has a great breakdown of a lot of common boss types and trends, although I usually focus more on generalities when evaluating a big baddie. Was I glad normal gameplay stopped so I could take part in this battle? Is the boss something I'm going to remember specifically from this game? Is it challenging or aesthetically pleasing enough to merit its own gameplay segment? Is it even possible to hurt this asshole? Seriously, how the f…oh, right.
To me, a good boss battle can be summed up by varying degrees of three qualities-being memorable, distinct, and challenging. These can be accomplished in numerous ways-a large and intimidating enemy, an opponent with lots of cool attacks, musical and other atmospheric changes, and so forth. The ultimate goal is, or at least should be, to create an experience for the player that represents some sort of high point in gameplay.
Often when I review games I'll find myself composing a mini-review of individual bosses in my head, none of which ever make it into the final article. One or two bosses (usually) don't make enough of a difference to the game as a whole to alter my opinion. So I've tried to come up with some of the bosses I remember the most, both fondly and not so fondly.
Spoiler warning: The rest of this piece will talk specifically about some bosses and how to defeat them, along with links to videos. Consider yourself warned.
Metroid Prime (Thardus) – Big, imposing, and nasty, this is a sterling example of a large boss done right. The "whoa" factor is in full effect here, as seeing the pile of rocks come to life is quite satisfying, and the rolling attack is a nice touch too.
Mega Man Zero 2 (Phoenix Magnion) – The Mega Man games almost always seem to get the duel-style battles right, as the robot/maverick masters are superb tests of speedy thinking against a foe that is ostensibly on the same level as the player. I chose Phoenix Magnion here but there tons of others I could choose from. His movements and attacks are unmistakable, and the quickness needed to adapt to him is still fresh in my mind even after all these years. A healthy dose of difficulty helps too.
Valkyria Chronicles (The Batomys) – Featuring a very long, drawn-out fight against a seemingly invincible tank, this takes a lot of thinking to get through. How to damage the main enemy isn't made apparent until about halfway in and even then it requires the player to plan around other events-a joy for a player that likes to micromanage his units (insert sexual innuendo here) such as myself.
Left 4 Dead/Left 4 Dead 2 (The Tank) – The tank is a very unique case, since depending on where it appears in the level it can be anything from a fast-paced close combat affair or a long-distance game of rock throwing. The variety in battle type means there's no video I can show that really does it justice. In addition, the tank offers players the chance to be the boss when playing versus mode, something that alone earns it a special place in bossdom.
Shadow of the Colossus (The whole game) – The entirety of this game is a clinic on how to make battles against large, seemingly insurmountable enemies feel exhilarating. Each one is like a puzzle, with its own special solution not held by any of the others. The link goes to a video of the ninth colossus (Note: the video gives away the solution-again, you've been warned) but I could choose any of them and it would still illustrate the point.
Not so fondly
Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess (Morpheel) – This fight actually made me mad. Not because it was hard, but because the goddamn thing barely even fought back. Look, I get that Zelda games aren't exactly known for soul-crushing difficulty, but at least make the freaking bosses actually attack me instead of wandering around aimlessly wondering why a little elf keeps trying to stab them. Uber mega epic ultra fail.
Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots (Screaming Mantis) – A pitiful excuse for what should've been a great battle, it's hard for me to put my disappointment with this fight into words. After going to all the trouble of drumming up the nostalgia with the old Psycho Mantis music and the Meryl mind control, the fight ends after one shot with the doll and some shaking. What. The. Crap.
Devil May Cry 4 (The Savior) – An attempt at an epic fight that just winds up being awkward. The arena is very strange, consisting of several suspiciously floating platforms that are connected by conveniently placed jumping pads. There's also no real penalty for falling off, as Dante will somehow just end up back on one of the other platforms. The large amount of time the boss spends between attacks also stands out, as there are often long periods of the Savior just staring at me like I'm some sort of fascinating insect.
Ninja Gaiden II (Genshin/Elizebet) – I single these two out just because they appear back-to-back and it's easy to see not only how they devolve into button mashfests, but how they're really just the same fight in different clothes, or lack thereof. Bosses should have some semblance of individual identity, and these two are pretty much copies of each other outside of physical appearance. I've noticed a systemic problem with boss identity crises in many games I've played lately, such as…
Prince of Persia 2008 (The whole game) – Trying to capture what Shadow of the Colossus did is a noble goal, but this failed to do that in just about every way. Instead of a series of memorable, awe-inspiring battles against unique enemies, I was given sixteen duels against the (almost) same enemy under the same conditions every time. The video just shows one of the fights, but virtually every one of them can be fought and won the same way. Ubisoft deserves some credit here for swinging for the fences and trying to take the franchise in a new direction, but their effort was a dud.
Now for the ultimate question-has any game ever done it all right? Has any game ever nailed every single aspect of bosses to the tee? I would say that yes, that game does indeed exist. Without any hesitation whatsoever, I can say that the bosses in one certain game were the best I've ever seen. Now before I tell you what game I'm talking about, I'd like you to stop and try to think of your own answer. It doesn't necessarily have to incorporate every single type of boss out there, it just has to have the ones you consider the most memorable as a whole. I'm honestly interested to see how many people have the same answer as me, and how those bosses figure into the quality of the game as a whole.
Take a minute to think before continuing on.
Ok, done? My answer is Kingdom Hearts II. From giants to duels, to weirdos, it does it all and it does it extremely well, showcasing a huge variety of battles that are almost all unique in their implementation. The difficulty spike in the game is problematic at times, but it isn't so bad as to overshadow the game's accomplishments in the field of bossing. If there was ever any game that needed a mode to fight all of the bosses at leisure, it's this.
In the end I think modern gaming still has a lot to offer when it comes to bosses, although there is certainly a fair share of failures and half-hearted efforts. So what say you internet? Have I trampled all over a pleasant memory? Did I omit something that bears mentioning? Or am I just way too damn picky?
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