Boss battles are often an exciting prospect. They’re something that we get excited about as we make our way through a campaign. They’re a solitary event that tests the skills we’ve accumulated and mastered across hours of play. They’re uniquely designed, one-of-a-kind enemies. Boss battles have become ordinary and expected, but what are they really for? How do they stand out in a crowd? What are the boss battles that become classic and why? And what are the ones that break from the mold and yet fail spectacularly?
First, let’s consider the formula. What makes a boss battle a boss battle? As the name implies, a boss is usually a leader character, larger than their minions. Stronger and tougher with deadly skills and an intimidation factor. They come along at the end of it all to bar the way forward. Look at Bowser and Eggman. They’re big, they’re literal bosses, they’re isolated in a single space, and they require a specific method of defeat. But these two are also tied to the story. They are your antagonist, your motivation. They’ve become tied to Mario and Sonic in a kind of monstrous marriage over time.
Not all boss fights serve that narrative purpose, though. While Bowser is your enemy – he kidnaps Peach, sends his armies to challenge Mario, and flees to a distant place that gives Mario a reason to travel from world to world in order to catch up – some bosses are more detached than this. Many of the boss battles in Zelda games are loosely, if at all, tied to the narrative and events of the game. Instead, they serve a mechanical challenge. Somewhere in the dungeon you will have learned a skill or retrieved an item, and the boss will be your proving ground. Defeating it will require the use of that item in some way.
These two kinds of boss battles can be, and often are, combined, but not always. Both are valid approaches to the formula, and both can become legend in the minds of players. If we compare the bosses of Super Mario Galaxy and Super Mario Odyssey, the former game had some clever bosses that tested the skills you had mastered but were entirely unrelated to Bowser and the game’s narrative. Odyssey’s bosses, however, are the Broodals. Hired by Bowser, given relatively distinct personalities, and a reason for challenging Mario. They are, arguably, more memorable as a result, and yet, mechanically, the boss battles in Super Mario Galaxy were just as innovative and interesting.
Ultimately, a boss battle works best when it combines these two approaches, as Super Mario Odyssey demonstrates. A boss that is tied to the lore and story, but is also a mechanically challenging fight, should be a perfect boss battle. The ultimate example of this is not Super Mario Odyssey, however, but Metal Gear Solid 3. For most fans, this game is peak Metal Gear Solid, and the boss fights are a big reason why.
Metal Gear Solid 3 pits the man who would soon become the legendary Big Boss against his former mentor, The Boss. In her mission, The Boss has recruited The Cobra Unit, a batch of strange and elite soldiers, each with a very distinct and memorable name, power, and visual aesthetic. These soldiers (The End, The Fear, The Pain, The Sorrow, and The Fury) are all given detailed backstories tied to both the state of the world at the time and to their own abilities, names, and appearances. Beyond this, the way that each of them fights is a challenge that forces the player to flex their muscles and uses all of the skills and tactics they’ve learned in order to survive and come out victorious.
I cannot think of a game in history that has done such a great job of providing us with memorable bosses that fulfill both of their roles so perfectly. The bosses in Metal Gear Solid 3 are each memorable thanks to their individual narratives; they are bound together by a shared cause; they are given camp and hyperbolic names that fit the tone and narrative of the series but also serve to cement them in the player’s mind; they each behave uniquely on the battlefield, making for a unique fight; each fight takes place in an isolated situation that puts the player’s skills to the ultimate test. The Cobra Unit ticks every single box, and the cherry on top is, of course, The Boss herself, who is so intrinsically tied up with our protagonist’s own personal story as to make you invested in her like no other final boss in a video game.
A boss fight can also get by on its unique aesthetics, difficulty, and method of attack. The go-to example of this being in the Dark Souls trilogy and Bloodborne. These games have a relatively limited approach to gameplay (especially Bloodborne), and the bosses are all, ultimately, similar. They’re mostly powerhouses with an intense amount of HP, and they will either throw out slow attacks that can wipe you out in a single hit or have an uncomfortable amount of speed and aggression.
The bosses in these games are meant to intimidate. They are the tone and themes of the games manifested. All the oppression, gloom, death, decay, hopelessness, grief, fear, and anxiety that the series cooks up is suffused into its bosses. They represent the ultimate challenge in terms of difficulty; they tie carefully and intelligently to the lore of the world and their own specific setting; they are often made most memorable by their aesthetics and design. But they are not all that mechanically unique, because the games themselves are not so mechanically varied.
So, we’ve established what a boss battle is and does, and we’ve looked at the cream of the crop. But what about games whose bosses break from the mold and succeed or fail?
The video game that redefined the boss battle was, undoubtedly, Shadow of the Colossus. Here is a game that took the concept of a boss battle and made it the entire game. Between boss battles, Shadow of the Colossus offers nothing but exploration across a vast and captivating landscape. Sixteen bosses targeted one after another, each taken down in unique and memorable ways, offering distinct challenges that double as puzzles. The bosses in Shadow of the Colossus succeed because they aren’t fights. They’re puzzles. They’re entire levels that must be conquered.
From Shadow of the Colossus, many games, both indie and AAA, have done well to reassess their approach to boss battles. One great indie darling is Furi, another game of limited mechanics that is entirely composed of boss battles that each test your mettle in exciting and unique ways. Another is Titan Souls, a game that owes much of its design to Shadow of the Colossus but does enough to stand on its own two feet. This game is also, despite being a small pixel art game, far more difficult than the one which inspired its design.
One AAA game trilogy which followed Shadow of the Colossus is the Batman Arkham series. These games took the most iconic rogues gallery in comic book history and transformed each of them into a unique boss battle that succeeded in the same traditional way that Metal Gear Solid 3 did. They offered bosses that were tightly bound to the game’s narrative but also existed as a test of skills for Batman and the player controlling him. But they also did something more: the Arkham games arguably offered even greater variety in their bosses than what we enjoyed in Metal Gear Solid 3.
Poison Ivy’s boss fight played out like a 90s boss from the Crash Bandicoot series, while the Mr. Freeze boss fight is a stressful stealth puzzle and a battle of attrition. Not all of them are equally memorable, but the overall formula pushed the boundaries of what a boss battle can and should be.
Attempting a new approach to the boss battle formula doesn’t always work out, however. There are certainly games that have tried something new and failed. A series which I was praising five minutes ago has one classic misstep that has gone down in history as one of the worst boss fights ever designed, all because the developers were trying to do something different with it. And that fight is the Bed of Chaos in Dark Souls. As I’ve already mentioned, most Dark Souls bosses fit a formula and don’t stray from the path all that much. Bed of Chaos did, however, and it suffered for it. Less a boss and more a basic yet infuriating puzzle, the Bed of Chaos upsets the game’s mechanics and makes for an infuriating quasi-platformer that does nothing but anger every player that comes across it.
Another boss battle that broke its own game’s mold right at the very end is Fable II. When facing down the game’s antagonist, with all the weapons and armour you’ve accumulated, all the experiences you’ve had, and he delivers a lengthy monologue after which you shoot him dead with a single shot. Never has a game lacked catharsis as strongly as Fable II. They thought it would be memorable and, in a way, it was.
Then there’s a game that has gone down in history as one to remove the shackles of the FPS genre and walk its own path: Bioshock. A philosophically and atmospherically dense shooter with RPG mechanics that, at the time, provided a wholly original gameplay experience. And yet, at the end of a campaign which provided consistently unique encounters, large and small, it ends with a boss battle that is nothing but a classic FPS battle of wills and guns. It fell back on the very tropes it had steered clear of until the very end, almost as though it ran out of steam at the last hurdle.
Boss battles are a unique beast. No other form of at-home entertainment puts up a sudden barrier that tests your skills before you can progress. But such is the nature of most video games. There is no reason, however, to rest on a tired formula. Games like Arkham Asylum and Metal Gear Solid 3 have shown us how to perfect, and even advance, the boss battle formula, while Shadow of the Colossus proved that it could be reinvented altogether.
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Will Heath is a freelance writer and digital nomad from the UK who mostly splits his time between London and Tokyo. He runs the website Books & Bao – a site dedicated to international literature and world travel – and writes about video games for Nintendo Link and Tokyo Weekender.