Boss Fights are a staple in gaming and no matter the genre, there’s a good chance you’ll have an encounter with some big bad that needs some righteous punishment, with brute force, ingenuity or some well-aimed tool.
This is not a top anything for bosses, but more of an analysis of what bosses should and shouldn’t be like. Too many a time I have played games where the bosses are unsatisfying, or they don’t have a specific theme or are nothing more than glorified minions.
Bosses should be Challenging: This one sounds easy to get right but it’s even easier to get wrong. Dealing high Damage or instantly causing Game Overs are not a challenge. Those are artificial ways to raise the difficulty of an encounter that may not be challenging at all. Every time you face a giant enemy in a Soulsborne game, this is what happens. The bosses have simple mechanics, but hit like freight trains.
A boss shouldn’t just force you to react quickly, but also think carefully about what you’re doing. There should be a strategy to the encounter, a mental checklist you go through as part of the fight. In many ways bosses should be puzzles, you should have to figure out how to weaken them, how to best counter their abilities and protect yourself from theirs.
It’s because of this last point that I think the increase in damage or the one-hit-KO are just artificial ways to increase difficulty, because they break that organic learning process to defeat a boss. Mistakes are lethally punished, frustrating players instead of teaching them what they should not do.
I’m not saying bosses shouldn’t be dangerous, that’s part of the challenge, but they should allow for mistakes to happen.
But they also shouldn’t be pushovers. They should have different patterns and complications as the fight progresses. Take the Gohma boss fight from The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. That boss works exactly the same throughout the encounter and it’s never challenging. It’s memorability les in it being the tutorial boss because it has nothing going for it. But in the same game, you have Barinade, another child-Link boss and this one has varying mechanics, using the same principle but complicating matters, adding another challenge. But that challenge is never unfair, you have enough moves in the dance to pick up the rhythm and defeat the monster.
That’s what a boss should be like at all times, a tricky dance partner.
Bosses should be Unique: This one might seem obvious but there are too many games out there where bosses are nothing more than reskinned normal enemies, or sometimes start out as bosses but later appear as simple minions in your path.
A boss should always be unique, there should only be one of them in the game world, or at least the only of its kind that you fight.
Bosses need to be memorable. The challenge helps a lot in this regard, but bosses need more than just good mechanics to be unique. They should have a theme about them, something that gives them and their abilities character and ground them in their world. They should tell stories in their encounters, show you something about the world without having to tell you about it. And most important of all, they should be visually distinct to anything else in the world. This might seem like an addendum to the “shouldn’t be a reskin point,” but it bears mentioning again. You can have a unique character in a commonly seen in-universe uniform, but there has to be something that distinguishes them from others.
I think the best example of a boss like this is Father Gascoigne from Bloodborne. One of the most memorable fights, he’s challenging but not brutal, giving you many opportunities to learn his moves and how to counter them. That’s one checkbox ticked.
But he also has a theme and a story that he tells throughout the fight even if you haven’t paid attention to the optional conversations that shed light on the character’s lore. His theme is on the difference between the hunters and the hunted, and how the line blurs the longer the hunt goes on. He shows you how little control he has over his blood lust, how beastly he becomes in the hunt and then eventually he fully turns into the beast, no longer blurring the line but erasing it completely.
The Legend of Zelda’s bosses have evolved over the years and while most of them don’t have a theme or a story, they are all visually unique. I have but to drop the names Phantom Ganon, Helmaroc King, Helmasaur King, Agahnim and Demise and if you’ve played the games, then you’ll instantly remember what they look like and even what they do. Later games in the series, starting with Ocarina of Time, have bosses with stories and themes, often tied to their dungeons, though you’ll often find out about them because others will tell you, instead of having the bosses tell their own stories through their actions.
Bosses Should Follow the Rules: Bosses have to be unique, yes, but they’re still part of the game world, they’re still living in that universe, so they should always follow the same rules that apply to anyone else. Sure, they can bend the rules a bit for that uniqueness or as part of their mechanics and complications but in the end and for the most part, they should behave the same as any other character in the world.
What that means exactly varies from game to game, but in general, it’s this principle: “If it can affect normal enemies and characters, it should also affect the boss.” As part of their mechanics, most bosses can get away with bending the rules of the world and subverting the above maxim. The earliest example in gaming is how most enemies flinch to damage, but bosses never do. But that falls more under the challenge rule. If you can stun-lock and damage-boost the bosses, they become too easy.
Many games make bosses immune to everything but straight-up damage and I have always felt this was a mistake. Bosses, while still unique, are still enemies and so the skills you have acquired throughout the game’s journey should be useful against them as well. Otherwise, what’s the point? I have lost count of the games where I have a subset of skills I don’t waste time using because the bosses are immune to them.
The final bosses on The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker, Twilight Princess and Skyward Sword are perfect examples of enemies following the rules of the world. All three engage in sword fights with you and the mechanics behind them are the same as if you were fighting normal enemies in the same situation. Of course, they have the necessary complications and variations on the theme to make the encounter unique and challenging.
RPGs, Japanese in particular, tend to go for the boss immunity, something that annoys me to no end, but sometimes you get those rare exceptions that indubitably make the rule. Xenoblade Chronicles, both of them, tie their toppling and stunning mechanics to all fights, even boss encounters. In fact, many times the specific boss mechanics revolve around you using special conditions against them to win.
I’ve been playing the Shin Megami Tensei and Fire Emblem crossover, Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE and while I have my share of frustrations with the boss design, particularly on the next point, I do love that bosses are as susceptible to special conditions as anyone else is. During the weekend I played and managed to not only make bosses sleep but also confuse and even stun them.
That was fantastic and more games should follow this example.
Anima: Gate of Memories also keeps things the same for everyone. You can stun-lock enemies and bosses during your combos and so can they when attacking you. What works on you works on them, so even if the difficulty spike between normal enemies and bosses is sometimes massive, you can rest assured that you’re all playing under the same rules.
Bosses Should be Alone: One of my greatest pet peeves lately has been the overabundance of games where bosses come along with minions. Even more so are those where the bosses can revive or re-summon the minions. This kind of design cheapens the boss fight and is one of the laziest ways to inflate a given encounter’s difficulty level.
Just to put it out there, I’m not talking about Council Fights, those that consist on two or more creatures as the boss. Twinrova from The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, Agni & Rudra from Devil May Cry 3 and Lavos Core in Chrono Trigger are council fights and those are ok, because while there are multiple enemies, they tick the previous checkboxes. Each of them is unique in design and form a challenging puzzle you need to solve.
My issue is with “adds,” as MMO players like to refer to them. Part of making bosses unique is ensuring they stand on their own legs. They should be challenging and engaging by their own merits. When you add minions, it feels like admittance on the boss’ poor design, as the boss on its own is not enough to adequately challenge the players.
“Adds” only create frustration with the encounter, a new complication that has very little to do with the boss’ mechanics. Their main purpose is to drain your resources to make the main encounter much more difficult, which is why I consider it one of the laziest ways to artificially increase the difficulty level.
This has happened a lot to me in the latest JRPGs I’ve played. Star Ocean V, Tales of Zestiria and Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE all have this issue, bringing in a bunch of minions to the fights to artificially inflate the simplistic boss’ challenge. In Tales of Zestiria the “adds” are quite sad too, as they truly fail to have an impact on the encounter. In every fight I had with additional enemies, I obliterated these enemies in the process of hitting the main boss, ‘cleaving’ them so to speak.
Sometimes though, developers make the effort to have the minions fit into the boss’ lore and theme. “Summoner” bosses are the simplest ones, where the theme includes fighting whatever it is the boss throws at you before you actually fight them head on. I still don’t like it, but at least they don’t feel shoehorned.
With that in mind, the worst offenders are those bosses that, by theme and lore, should never have minions with them, yet they do for some illogical reason. And of course, there is a subset of these that I loathe and which I call “cinematic” minions, where you go straight from a cutscene with no minions to a fight with a whole cadre of them.
Bravely Default does this a lot, particularly with its secondary boss fights, the ones you do to obtain the job asterisks: One moment they’re on their own and mentioning how it’s time for them to personally take care of things, and the next they have a bunch of mooks with them, completely invalidating their previous statement and characterisation.
Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE has the cinematic-boss issue, where you see them in a cutscene on their own but when the battle starts, they have companions with them, minions that don’t ever show up before in any way.
Again, a boss should stand alone, on its own when it faces you. If it should include additional enemies, then there should be a legitimate in-universe reason for them. Context is important. It’s why Final Fantasy X gets away with having tons of Summoner fights, because they make a lot of sense within the game’s theme and lore.
Bosses are a staple of gaming, true, but good bosses are a rarity. Finding encounters that tick all the checkboxes is a hard thing, as developers tend to focus on one thing over the other.
What do you think? Did I miss something? Am I too demanding in what I want from games? Finally, while I do believe this list applies perfectly to single player games, do you think it does for MMO bosses, which sometimes have much different requirements?