What Makes A Good Boss Fight?
Boss fights are without a doubt one of the most important parts of any campaign experience. Aside from the story itself, boss battles can be an element of a game that sticks with the player long after completion. For example, let’s take a look at the Zelda series. The Zelda franchise has some of the most iconic boss encounters in video game history as well as a lot of my own personal favorites. I’ll never forget the rush I got as a kid the first time I went toe to toe with Gannon in his Demon form, that shit was cool as hell. Or that anxious feeling I got in the pit of my stomach after jumping into the long dark pit and landing on the drum during the Shadow Temple boss fight. Bongo Bongo was easily one of the most frightening bosses I encountered as a child. A giant floating one-eyed demon that attacks you with it’s severed hands all while playing fresh ass beats, what the fuck Nintendo? That being said there is also a wealth of forgettable and uninspired boss encounters out there like the Joker at the end of Arkham Asylum or the final boss in the first Borderlands game, even Zelda has its fair share of not so hot boss fights. So I got to thinking what makes for a good boss fight? I wanted to take the time to reflect on this question and give my thoughts on what makes a boss battle satisfying. To do this I created 3 categories I think are absolutely essential in order to avoid boss battle blue balls.
Alright so you’ve collected all the keys, coins, rings or whatever and you’ve solved all the puzzles, now it’s time to open that big door to the boss room. The minute you step in and the door locks behind you’re immediately greeted by the H.N.I.C. and just by the way this dude looks you know you’re in for one serious confrontation. Your adrenaline starts pumping and your senses kick it up a notch all before the fight has even begun. That feeling right there is why I consider presentation to be a crucial part of any great boss fight. It’s basically what makes this enemy you’re about to fight different from all the other ones you’ve been beating up until now. Nothing is more of a buzzkill than going through an entire level only to get to the boss fight and be met by a poorly devised enemy that gives off the vibe that someone said “good enough”.
If you were to make a list of your favorite bosses and give reasons why they’re your favorite I’m sure a big factor would be because you thought they looked badass. The way a boss is presented adds to the atmosphere and sets the tone for the fight that’s about to commence. You can’t expect me to take the game serious when I walk into a room ready to throw down with the head honcho and I’m greeted by this guy. Mediocre boss delivery can completely take the player out of any immersion the game may have previously set up, potentially even ruining a game for some people if it just so happens to be the final boss.
Also when I say design I don’t just mean the way a boss looks I mean the way the boss acts; their personality. No More Heroes is a game that does an exceptional job of this and quite frankly doesn’t get enough love. It has action, romance, and a dope combat style that was satisfying to experience back in the day on the Nintendo Wii. But what really stood out to me about this game was how varied the bosses were. Each boss you encounter in this game looks completely different from the last and contained their own unique identity. Playing through the game I couldn’t wait to get to the next boss to see what he or she was all about. Now obviously not every single boss in every single game is meant to be a rich, progressive, well of charisma. This can be forgiven considering the type of game you are playing. For example, most of the bosses in the Metroid series don’t even speak but that doesn’t stop Ridley from being a fan favorite.
So now that we have a well-designed boss what comes next? The combat, of course, specifically the dynamics of the boss fight. When it comes to boss battles the biggest turn off for me is an uninteresting, static, snore-fest of a fight. Boss battles should be a test of skill rather than a war of attrition. Don’t give me a bullet sponge of an enemy and call it a day. If the entire strategy of winning a boss fight is to hide behind something and just fire shots until you win then that’s a lousy boss fight. Different phases of a boss fight are the key to keeping the player’s attention as well as force them to switch their strategy up throughout the battle. As the combat goes on and the player does enough damage the boss should eventually change its method of attack or fighting style in some way to compel the player to adapt. This keeps the battle fresh and interesting the whole way through instead of doing one thing the whole time.
For example, let’s take a look at this guy from skyward sword. Once the fight begins the player has to dodge boomerang type blades as well as remain close enough in order to remove its six arms so they can proceed to do direct damage. This forces the player to focus on evading attacks but at the same time demands them to be aggressive in order to actually hurt the boss. After a few rounds of this, the boss enters its next phase where it becomes mobile chasing you down with a new form of attack. Even the way you damage the boss switches in this phase forcing you to change your strategy up a bit. Of course, this isn’t the most complex thing in the world but the important thing here to note is that it offers variety. It’s not just some passive encounter.
Another component when it comes to the dynamics of a boss fight is the level or the area itself that the clash is taking place. Things like destructible environments and stage evolution all add to a more memorable experience. I always find it impressive when I’m in the middle of a heated boss fight and I manage to evade an attack now the wall or pillar behind me crumbles changing the layout of the area I’m currently fighting in. Now to me, this isn’t a necessity when it comes to a good boss fight, I just consider it to be that extra mile that adds to the overall immersion of the moment.
The difficulty is something that might be a little trickier than the first two categories. Make a boss fight too easy and it becomes an underwhelming experience, make it too hard and you lose the casual players. Even still demanding the player to rise to the occasion or “get good” is important because it leaves the player filled with a sense of satisfaction when they do overcome that challenge. Sure you could just add the option to play on a harder difficulty but that’s not really what I mean. Simply making a boss able to deal more damage or take more punishment is kind of an easy way out and just overall boring. When I talk about the difficulty I mean having a boss that requires you to learn it’s fighting rhythm and pay attention to opportunities to strike in order to win. In my humble opinion, you shouldn’t be able to steamroll a boss on your first encounter.
That being said how hard is too hard? Well, I think the player should always feel like it’s possible for them to win. Sure they might get destroyed their first encounter but with each attempt, they should be able to start to notice patterns and mechanics to help them improve. For argument’s sake let’s take a look at Cuphead. Cuphead has been a fantastic challenge. The main draw in about this game is just how demanding the boss fights are. Each encounter has its own style of difficulty pushing the player to adapt and learn with each failed attempt. However, the beauty of this game is that as pressing as the battles can be the fights always feel fair. If I die and have to restart I can usually see what I did wrong and try to fix that on the next try. You can tell StudioMDHR put in the time and effort to make sure players have a unique engagement each time instead of just having bosses that can one-shot you or have a stupid amount of health. Now I’m not saying is every game should be Dark Souls difficult but make us feel like we earned that victory. I mean one of the best parts about defeating a notoriously challenging boss is being able to brag about it to your friends. Finding a balance between difficulty and player enjoyment is, in my opinion, more complex than both design and dynamics.
Anyway, this has been my own personal viewpoint on what makes a boss fight memorable and avoid what I like to call boss battle blue balls. I’m no game developer so this could all be complete utter nonsense but at the very least I hope you found it entertaining.