Boss Battles: Part II
I grew up around video games as most kids did in the 80’s, although I wasn’t the first one on the block to have a Nintendo. The girl up the street had an Atari that I could play from time to time, but the learning curves on those games were too hard. My imagination couldn’t believe that each malformed box was supposed to be some magical creature or enormous spacecraft. Then once my sister and I finally got a Nintendo, we didn’t receive very many games. My parents would by us one title a piece for Christmas, and they would just buy what they thought looked good from the box. That’s why we were stuck with games like Goonies II or Krusty’s Fun House. The fun and classic titles I would usually have to rent on long weekends when I had saved up some chore money, or I would have to play them elsewhere.
Playing video games with my friends was a memorable part of my childhood, although like many of us, we had to spend a lot of the time merely watching the other kids playing before we would ever get a turn. There were many weekends where I never even touched the controller as some of the bigger kids played through hours of The Adventure of Link; but I remember it as though I played through it myself. I remember what it felt like, when those big baddies would appear for the first time, whether I was the one playing or not. I remember the excitement of the first time you fought a Boss at the end of a level that you had never beaten before.
Imagine yourself sitting on the floor because the controller cords weren’t long enough. You had to look upward at your TV, sitting with your legs crossed “Indian style”. On chilly mornings or late at night, you might have had a blanket draped over your shoulders. Now finally, after many attempts at this level, you had just beaten everything and now the Boss Battle was awaiting you through the door ahead. It was white knuckle time! You would wipe your hands off on your pant legs, wiggle out any cramps in your fingers, try to gain control over your breathing, and then say aloud, even to the empty room around you, “Alright, let’s do this!”
The form of the Boss would materialize on the screen, with the shape of a hulking monster or a killer robot that looked more imposing than anything you had faced thus far. The Boss would attack in unusual ways, moving around the screen in unexpected patterns. You’d struggle not to panic but your heart would beat clear out of your chest. “What the heck is this thing,” you’d ask yourself, “and how am I ever going to defeat it?” At the last moment with your health failing and all seems lost, one more well-timed strike and the screen would flicker with brilliant light. There would be a rewarding animation of collapse or explosion and you knew that the Boss Battle was over. Then, oh, the exhilaration you would feel. I am sure that my family thought I was crazy, hearing me cheer in the next room, but I knew the glory of my accomplishments!
I remember one long weekend when I was visiting a cousin and we stayed up all night playing Super Mario Brothers. I think Mario 3 was out by then, but for some reason Mario 1 was our goal. We may have slept with the game on pause for an hour or two at most around 6 am, but we were dead set on conquering that game. I would like to say that my first Boss encounter was with King Koopa, at the end of each World, but I never fought him on stage 8-4 myself. I could get through most levels over time, but the World 8 Levels gave me fits! My cousin had to beat it as I never could figure out that maze. I was saddened to realize later in life that not only was the Princess a dupe in each level, which I knew already, but that all of the other King Koopas were actually Koopa Troopas and Goombas in disguise! If you watch the animation and defeat him with a fireball, they change back! With this realization, I had to fire up my old Nintendo, blast through to 8-4, and finally beat King Koopa myself. And I have to tell you, it felt pretty good.
Some of the other Boss Battles I remember fondly were on the Sega Master System at my dad’s house. The older step-siblings had moved on from playing games and they had traded in their Atari for a Sega. Too young and not cool enough to hang with the big kids, I had plenty of time left to myself, playing games like Aztec Adventure, Captain Silver, TransBot, and Global Defense. But I remember more clearly that there were really intense Level End Bosses in Fantasy Zone. I remember having to slog through waves of brightly colored minions just to advance to the tougher fights. In Fantasy Zone, you would play with the Sports Pad, which was a really bulky trackball controller. So I was furiously spinning the trackball around, trying to navigate my cute little sentient spaceship around the screen, finding bases to destroy. When all the bases were gone, the Stage Boss would appear. These were massive entities that were basically giant floating heads. Now you would be dodging dozens of projectiles and and trying to score some hits on the weak spots of the Stage Boss.
There were a few that I had a ton trouble with, because it was a one-hit-and-you’re-dead kind of game. What was the most amazing part of the game was that when you finally had the skills and the luck to beat that extra-tricky Boss, you would be treated to this whole other amazing world. Fantasy Zone had beautifully colored levels and imaginatively designed bad guys to fight, which made moving into a new level feel truly amazing!
Later in life, some of the best Boss Battles that I ever played were in Resident Evil 4. I remember my college roommate, John, and I would play that game for hours, trading off the controller and playing with the lights out. We took our time with that game, relishing the feeling of foreboding and dread wash over us as the ambiance would change as the story would progress. This game had a few great fights with scary monsters, requiring lightning quick reflexes. However, there were also a few moments in the game, and portions of the Boss Battles that had Quick Time Events. This was my first time encountering a scripted fight like that where you have to push the correct buttons at the right time to succeed.
These Quick Time Events allow for the game designer to create sequences of actions that couldn’t be expressed through the game's standard control scheme. For instance, the game creators could present the fight in a more cinematic way, or they could temporarily limit the player’s freedom in order to keep the story from being skipped over, but I didn’t like it. I didn’t feel as if it was quite as much a feather in my cap when I beat these foes, because I just pressed a button without any strategy. I thought this game mechanic took away from the flow of the story, the sense of real danger, and my connection to what was happening on screen. I was being forced to twitch and memorize my way to succeeding instead of playing with my own skills.
I don’t mind the Boss Battles that are puzzle based, that is, if they are executed properly. I already expect dungeon crawls to include puzzle based objectives. Heck, the very best RPG’s of all time *cough, Zelda, cough* have simple but well-designed puzzle elements that reward exploration and make a dungeon feel as if each room has purpose. It is a natural element in games today where the player has to figure out when the boss' weak point is exposed. One of my favorites is the Mega Man type of puzzle which is beneficial but not necessary.
In Mega Man, you can learn the weaknesses of the Robot Masters, exploiting them to make the Boss Battles easier. Say, if you had trouble defeating Fire Man at the end of his stage, you could always fight Ice Man first. When you defeated Ice Man, you earned the Ice Slasher ability, which Fire Man is weak against. Hardcore nerds like me knew the secret order in which to fight all of the Robot Masters: Cut Man - Elec Man - Ice Man - Fire Man - Bomb Man - and Guts Man. Booya! This became an even more crucial trick to learn in successive Mega Man games, as all of the Boss Battles worked this way, and you typically had to fight each Boss once more in the final level before reaching the Final Boss Battles with Dr. Wily!
When all is said and done, and you have played through the entire video game, you are probably going to remember the Boss Battles the most. I look back at those childhood summers, with gaming and laughter, and I don’t remember the Spinys or the Buzzy Beetles, I remember Bowser and the Hammer Brothers. I don’t remember the Like Likes or the Wizzrobes; I remember Gannon. There may be some cool enemies that stand out because their designs were slick or they had a wickedly dangerous attack, but the Boss Battles were far and away the most impressive. I think we are provided a life lesson in there somewhere; Life is difficult and there are barriers to success and happiness. With a little luck, willpower, and wit, you can overcome and move on to new levels.
And it all begins with a simple wooden sword.