Boss Battles: Part I
For many of us Gamers, Nerds, and Fans of Nostalgia, it is ingrained in our memories that the best games always had the best bosses and boss fights! Those iconic villains helped define the franchise as well as the hero. You would slog through a level, crushing minions and hurtling obstacles until you got to the end and that’s when everything changes. The screen would grow dark, everything would be silent for a moment, and then the music would come in with a pulse pounding rhythm that lets you know of the danger to come. This final fight will be the toughest challenge yet, ensuring that the hero uses every last trick in the book to overcome and save the day!
A boss fight can be the final challenge of a video game, the last session of a table top RPG, or the dénouement chapter in most fantasy novels. Today in gaming, we are accustomed to everything leading to the inevitable clash with the fated foe, and typically, that foe is larger than life and will push us to the very limits of what we are capable. Can you imagine it being any different, or playing a video game with no END at all? Long ago, in the infancy of electronic gaming, endless games were the norm.
Boss Battles were an important step in the evolution of gaming, as games transitioned from the arcades into the growing home market as a viable form of entertainment. From the beginning, reaching the highest score was the hallmark of a legendary gamer. Overtime, innovations in technology allowed more dynamic gameplay options, giving content creators a longer leash and a greater palate with which to create. Now a programmer could add colorful characters with a greater focus on the story. You could have the feeling of embarking on an epic quest based to the difficulties of the bosses, presenting a final challenge which culminates everything that had transpired thus far, and then conclude the game in a more satisfying way.
The first interactive video game to feature a boss was dnd, which derived its name from the abbreviation "DND", an homage to Dungeons & Dragons. dnd was a 1975 role-playing video game for the PLATO system and one of the earliest dungeon crawls style games. The objective was to retrieve an "Orb" from the bottommost dungeon which was guarded by a high-level enemy named the Gold Dragon. Only by defeating the Dragon can the player claim the orb, complete the game, and be eligible to appear on the high score list. Another example is the 1980 fixed shooter, Phoenix, where the player’s spacecraft must fight a giant mother ship in the final level.
As gaming spread anew, Boss Battles grew in quantity and quality. There were mini bosses, super bosses (usually optional), penultimate bosses, and final bosses. Bosses could now return after every few stages, more powerful than before or taking on new forms. Final boss battles could offer multi-stage challenges, pushing the player’s skills to the max!
Many of us will attribute our first boss encounters to one of a handful of games, battling the likes of Mother Brain, Dracula, Dr. Wily, Dr. Robotnik, Gannon, and Bowser. These were larger than life villains with clear motives and dastardly ambitions. It felt good to know that we had already beaten a legion of their minions and now we have ventured into their lair for a final showdown. I think of how great a villain is when I think of my favorite 8-bit heroes. If you can remember the name of the hero, it is very likely that you remember the name of the Final Boss of their respective game, as well as some of the powerful attacks they used. Just as Darth Vader helped define Luke Skywalker, King Dedede was a perfect foil for Kirby, just as Abobo was a great mini boss for Billy and Jimmy Lee. You learn more about your heroes if you either believe in or are entertained by the enemy.
I remember trading gaming secrets with friends, claiming to know faster routes to get to the final bosses, or having discovered a boss’s weaknesses. Jump up above the level at the end to find a Warp Zone. Use the Thunder Shock “pause trick” to defeat the Yellow Devil with ease. After striking him with your Master Sword, you have to use a silver arrow to defeat Gannon. The more strategies you knew, the higher prestige you had. The kid who brought the Konami code to the group was an absolute hero! Now you can defeat Red Falcon and his lackeys easily. Now you’re playing with power!
Boss Battles of the modern era have begun to change, and phase out in some games. Some gamers and game designers are beginning to believe that Boss Battles are now obsolete. The say they don’t contribute anything new, the requirements are nonsensical, and the applications are predictable. Some companies have outright changed the challenge of their games, citing that most modern gamers no longer have the skill nor the patience to tackle difficult games.
I disagree in general, but I do think that many new-style Boss Battles become both purely pointless and expected, or a worthless grindfest. Why do I have to shoot all of the arms of the giant octopus when shooting it in the eye seems more effective? Why must I puzzle all across areas that are much more difficult than the final boss, just to find a special weapon which makes it easier to defeat the final boss? Why must I grind so much when I know where the Big Evil Bad Guy’s lair is this whole time? Why is the design of this game so unbalanced?
In an article written by Activision and former Insomniac designer Mike Stout called Boss Battle Design and Structure, Mike states that he tries to remember two points at all times while designing a boss battle: each boss fight is a test and each boss fight is a story. For a test, the difficulty should escalate in logical and progressive ways. The player will feel as if they are mastering skills For the story, when you learn everything you need to know and you get to the big boss, defeating them should be a milestone in the story of the game. The conclusion from there will release the tension built up on the road to this epic moment and leave you knowing more about the world, your hero, and the value of your quest.
Truth be told, not all Boss Battles are meant to be fun, but I believe that they are vital to the pacing of modern gameplay. You need a challenge and it’s alright to feel the agony of defeat from time to time. But you’ll wake up the next morning, eat your Mr. T cereal, strap on your Power Glove, and try again. There are few things as rewarding as beating a game and knowing you had to beat a badass boss in order to do it. As I stand there victorious, with the Triforce in my hands or a lovely princess by my side, I know that I have saved the entire kingdom….
at least until the sequel.