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Getting the Biggest Bang for Buck Out of Your Boss.

Can you imagine if Moby Dick had ended with Capt. Ahab simply killing his whale with dynamite? It wouldn't be a very satisfying book, now would it? Let's look at how the quality of a boss fight correlates to the quality of the game its in.

William Avery, Blogger

July 26, 2011

12 Min Read

People of Gamasutra, let me ask you something. If you’re hungry and someone offers you an apple, you’d probably take it with a smile and a “thank you”, correct? Let’s say an hour or two passes and your stomach continues its little tantrum; the same person offers you a second apple to satiate you. You may hesitate for a brief moment, but you’d probably still take it, being the only thing within immediate reach to eat. Another hour and a third apple later, if you’re like most people, you’ll probably ask for something else.

Of course, there’s only one place I could be going with this: boss battles. Yes, boss battles (having not had too much sleep in the past few days, I apologize for the farfetchedness of the metaphor, but stay with me here).

Constantly ingesting the same thing over and over again, whether it be with your mouth or mind, can easily become boring and tiresome in a surprisingly short amount of time. And if eating apples constantly will bore you of them, eating a bad apple can spoil your taste for fruit altogether! Likewise, a poor boss encounter can have you put down your controller and simply walk away from your television, disgusted (this has happened to me a frightening amount of times).

You see, if you’re like me, then you live for these fights. It’s almost the entire reason you play a game in the first place. For most games, whether they be FPS or RPG, is a boss fight not a test to see what you’re worth? How much you’ve learned so far? How well you can execute whatever you’ve been practicing for the past few hours?

Defeating a well thought out and difficult “boss” was the sole outlet for closure and satisfaction for the player in their gaming quest long before achievements were even thought of, and to many it still is. Thusly, when a developer or studio fails to produce an adequate test of the player’s mettle, the satisfaction is lost, and a hole is left in the memory of the game, reserved for that final cap of satisfaction that “really would’ve made that game great”.

Let’s assume for a moment that these encounters are like the climax of any book (probably an action-happy book, were you to draw at random). Just like in any good book, in which the character(s) must use whatever knowledge they have gained in their trials from the past however-many pages to overcome the final obstacle and achieve whatever their goal may be, so too does the player condense all of the skill he or she has amassed since turning on the console to slay the final foe and, essentially, win the game.

Now can you imagine if this foe in a great book were as disappointing as some game bosses (to be mentioned soon) are? What would Moby Dick be as a work of art if Captain Ahab had just arbitrarily thrown a spear into the ocean and pulled himself up a dead white whale? And, in a more modern context, what if every “Harry Potter” book ended with a fight between Harry and a basilisk, similar to how some games in recent history recycle boss character models in multiple fights to give you a repeated experience?

I believe I’ve stressed enough my opinion on the importance of these boss encounters, and why they’re so integral to a game’s overall effect on the player. With that out of the way, I can move on to some examples. Let’s start with a classic icon: Mario. The most recent game of the franchise I’d purchased was Super Mario Galaxy 2, which has been praised by multiple sources a generally well-made game with great design, concept, and gameplay—an all-around winner.

Actually, I really must agree with the masses, I enjoyed almost every second of the game for the week or so in which I couldn’t put it down. However, this is not a review of my favorite games and why they are such, so let’s get down to business. What really disappointed me about this title, despite its overall success, was the boss fights. Only a handful of them, normally those played on a flat plane, had variety (admittedly, those were fantastic), but Nintendo really wanted to give the player a lot of fights situated on small, spherical planets with their own gravitational pull.

Almost every one of these fights featured an enemy that took up about 30% of the surface area of the planet, and had the player guide Mario around it slightly faster than the giant could move in order to sneak up behind the boss and use a spin attack to comically hit it from behind. The fights that didn’t follow this formula? Bowser encounters, every one.

The player fights King Koopa three times in the game, and each time a single layer of complication is roughly plastered onto the process to make it slightly more difficult to take him down. As I see it, Mario got away with its somewhat disappointing boss encounters for the fact that one doesn’t play a game like that to beat up bosses, one plays it for the zany levels. Was the level design not repeatedly near-flawless, I can assure you it would have been thrown into the return pile.

Another disappointment, and the reason for my writing this article, was Batman: Arkham Asylum. Though it pains me to speak out against a game I truly loved, the sheer amount of recycled fights really just had me rubbing my temples at the end of the day (had aspirin not already been taken). One of the first bosses, Bane, consists primarily of having Batman wait until he decides to charge the player (points for originality? Oh, wait…), allowing him to smash headfirst into the wall, and throwing a few punches at him while he’s stunned.

While I felt like I’d fought this fight countless times throughout the history of gaming, I let it slide—each game gets at least one ridiculously-buff-but-dumb-guy fight. However, the later introduction of the titan-infused inmate enemy (the first mini-boss of the game) saw to it that an almost identical fight should occur, the only difference being that TI-inmates throw bodies at you and Bane throws chunks of the wall at you.

Throughout the game, the player is forced to repeat this conflict around five or six times, and every other boss encounter simply features hand-to-hand combat against increasing numbers of standard enemies (including Joker’s fight at the end—the main difficulty of which was the strange camera angle). By far, lesser-villain Killer Croc took the cake as the most unique and challenging encounter in Arkham Asylum, if only for the expertly-crafted aesthetic of the whole thing.

As a final note on the folly of recycling fights, the epitome: Alan Wake. If you’ve read my previous blog post, you know that I actually quite liked Alan Wake, just as I quite liked both Batman: AA and Mario Galaxy 2. However, Alan has one of the worst cases of repeating-boss syndrome I’ve ever seen. Every level-ending encounter features either a horde of enemies larger than any the player has previously seen, or multiples of a new, slightly more difficult enemy that had been introduced earlier in the chapter, probably as a mini-boss of some kind.

With the exception of the one encounter in which Alan and Barry fight from the Nordic-inspired stage of a local broken-up metal band, most of these battles had the effect of merely being regular old enemy encounters, with slight increase in difficulty. Often I’d find myself staring at the screen in confusion after a fight with ten or fifteen enemies, my reward being a cinematic and story progression, thinking, “Oh, I guess that was the last wave for this part… alright”.

Even worse than repeated and stereotypical fights, though, are lackluster final encounters. Think back to our climax-less version of Moby Dick; now think of your favorite game of all time (assuming it has a final boss of some sort), and think of how it would be if you simply walked up to it and hit the “A” button to win. Not very exciting, is it? Let’s use one of the greatest and most richly diverse (boss encounter wise) games of all time as an example: Shadow of the Colossus.

Sure, getting past the last colossi’s energy blasts is a little tough, and initially getting onto him can cause some under-the-breath swearing in us lesser players, but once you’re in, you’re in. Compared to the vibrant movements and stunningly realistic action of the other fifteen colossi battles, the last one hardly even budges! Once you’re on his head, it’s game over; you don’t even have to worry about being bucked off. Whether or not this level of ease was intentional, it certainly was not a welcome change.

Another great example of “that was it?” syndrome is in the Zelda franchise’s “Twilight Princess”. Now, I’m a huge fan of multi-stage boss fights; there’s nothing I love more after a great fight than having the boss come back, pissed off and at full health, in some crazy, disfigured form (normally with multiple voices). With Twilight Princess, I was glad to see that my quest didn’t end by fighting a possessed Zelda, and my adrenaline was really pumping after Link and I were finished throwing Ganon to the ground, gnawing on the scar we’d given him so many years ago.

My knuckles were nearly bleach-white when it was just Ganondorf and me in a one-on-one fight to the death, and by the end of it all… I was just about ready to send the disc back to Nintendo. Block, dodge-roll, spin attack, triple slash, repeat. This simple sequence led to the demise of Ganondorf after all of that effort, and to top if all off he won’t do anything more than walk towards you—anything faster is simply not an option.

Finally, one particularly horrible game-ender of recent memory was Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood’s fight against Cesare Borgia. I realize there were only so many ways to have boss fights in this game series, and level prior to the fight is supposed to be more of the challenge than the actual final battle, but the fact that Ezio could just hammer Cesare with the hidden blade until he found an opening, just like with any other run-of-the-mill guard, really, truly had me disappointed in the team at Ubisoft. For all of their amazing talent in level design, environment, animation, texturing, and programming (the list extends far beyond this), they couldn’t have made Cesare slightly different from any other Borgia mini-boss?

Finally, a look at some of the more prominent examples of well-executed and satisfying boss encounters, some of which really should receive credit for making the game what it was. Obviously I have to mention Ocarina of Time’s take on Ganondorf, as it entailed use of almost every aspect of the game the player had learned up to that point as well as multiple “stages” of play (variety works wonders, especially in a single fight).

And on the subject of variety, every last boss of “Shadow of the Colossus” must be given credit; though they all end the same way, the unique fusion of combat and puzzle gameplay made each fight absolutely enthralling (albeit the final disappointment at the end). The Final Fantasy series also gets a major shout-out here, as the bosses within these games always have multiple paths to victory (as any good RPG must, otherwise how would you truly play your role?), and are famous for being some of the most legendary and ground-breaking fights of all time—recall Garland? Zeromus? Sephiroth? Jecht?

Strangely enough, I have to give the award for one of the most memorable final encounters I’ve ever had in a game to Tony Hawk’s Underground (the first of the series). Eric Sparrow, your character’s lifelong “friend”, is revealed to have been pushing you up only to bring you crashing down in the end, having withheld the demo tape you two made of all of your best skating moves and capitalizing on both of your skating successes while leaving you in the dust.

In a last-ditch effort to take it all back, essentially your character’s life’s work in this case, you challenge Eric to one last contest of skill. The setting is perfect, the world of underground skating is on your side, and the difficulty is more than intense; I remember trying to beat this collection of pixels at his own game for hours on end, absolutely determined to exact my revenge through this strange emotional connection I’d made with him.

In the end, of course, your character wins it all back and all of the loose ends are nice and tied up, but realizing that the whole journey to that point had been one giant setup for this climactic event had really changed my perspective on the entire genre of trick-sport games. Unfortunately, none have yet stepped up to the plate (as far as I’ve seen, anyway) to try to topple Tony Hawk’s Underground.

At this point you probably think I’m insane for choosing such a strange and negligible final boss as one of my favorites, and most will probably agree when I say I’d rather fight God of War 2’s Zeus or duel Guitar Hero 3’s Lou than skate against Eric again, but the fact remains that it really epitomizes what I’d love to see more of in this industry:  boss encounters that not only test what you’ve learned and how well you can execute it, but stay fresh and unique by being unlike any tests before it while retaining significance in both the storyline and in the mind of the player.

When these three qualities culminate into a single conflict, which is intended to be the very peak of the game’s quality in most cases, something truly great happens: a good game earns the right to become a great one.

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