In case you missed it end of level bosses are back in a big way. With the success of Bloodbourne and the Souls series, the struggle, that existed since videogames began is alive and well. But what bosses do you remember most and why? Let’s take a longer look at some of the best and worst.
What is an end of level boss? A boss In our daily working lives, could be defined as someone who makes us act differently from how normally would. You could say they are someone we have to get past to succeed or at the least have freedom. Sound familiar? Think of what you enjoy doing in a game. The enjoyment is not usually from taking down a cruel and unfair boss, it is from the design of the level and normal step-by-step game-play. Bosses range from imaginative, do or die encounters, that are the crescendo of levels, to broken examples of lazy programming, that rely on the trailblazers of YouTube and Twitch who have trodden the path before. Rather than an afterthought the final boss needs the most work from developers to fit in.
Firstly, the final encounters of the first two Dead Space games, maybe not an obvious choice, but they highlight what I’m getting at. I completed both recently, as the first was sitting in the pile of shame. After some pacing issues I completed the first and was pleasantly surprised at the huge end of game boss that challenged me to use the skills gathered throughout the game. I just had to be smart and better at what I was doing. Enter Dead Space 2, a better game in every way than the first except one. The final encounter in this looked like the same excellent type as the first until I actually started to play it. To summarise without spoilers, one slow-moving, instant kill enemy that you need to focus fire on, multi spawning small close-combat enemies and a huge focal point that you have to hit an undetermined number of times. Not fun and it left a sour taste in the mouth and scarred eardrums of Xbox live party members. I was enraged, why did the best sequel since Mass Effect 2 need to put in a rubbish, cheap final battle? Then of course I remembered Mass Effect 2. I had the same rant at the end of this.
Next set of bosses are the ones from Final Fantasy 13. This is a game of brilliant boss battles, that genuinely require you to use your brain, the battle system, which was divisive at the time has not been bettered in a RPG. However from the first time you encounter Sid Raines through Barthandulous et al, the level of knowledge and time needed are beyond the reaches of an adult gamer. My first win against Barthandulous was an epic back and forth that lasted around 40 min. I eventually triumphed at 12.30am, I had to get up for work the next day. I won’t lie, I was too afraid to play on. I listened in as my friend played for hours on the final boss section, which has an instant death move, that you cannot block, cannot predict, and strikes in a random pattern. No thanks. This masochism is extremely popular in Japanese gaming, but hadn’t been experienced in the west, until then. In a way it was the forerunner to the success of the Souls series.
The Souls series, interject the difficulty of an eastern boss battle, at every stage of the game. In Dark Souls the first large creature you face, would easily qualify as a boss in many other games. So they continue, getting ever more difficult, unfair and more difficult to predict. Despite this the fact that the whole game is geared this way, means that there is no difficulty spike, no deviation from the otherwise serene progress through a level that makes a poorly implemented boss battle so infuriating.
Boss battles have been with us from the early days. Donkey Kong, Bowser, the Tyrant, Big Boss, Liquid Snake,need I go on. No. The bosses that I remember though are ones that I finally triumphed over emotionally as well as literally. General Raam is one that sticks in my head, in the original Gears Of War, you hate this guy. He is a badass for the whole game and finally you get to him at the end of a hellish train journey. The chapter is even a perfect parody of ‘Pale Rider’. You know there is a fight coming as the corridor before allows you to tool up. Then you get to him. He throws everything at you coming like a juggernaut that can only be stopped with continual fire and luck. Unlike other bosses that can have a cheap instant death attack, Raam has a clearly defined insta-kill, that allows you to avoid it, if you are good enough. On insane mode co-op, a lucky blind fire grenade was enough to kill him. Sometimes the best moments in gaming are when you fluke it with your back against the wall.
Shadow of the Colossus takes the boss battle to the extreme, both physically and emotionally. The whole game is boss battles, you take on skyscraper sized beasts and brutally slay them. But somewhere in this slaughter, as a player, you change emotionally. Why am I killing these creatures? This artistic decision was risky, the game is rightly remembered as a high-point in game design, but I lost interest in it, with no defining good versus evil, or even one force versus another conflict to get involved in. My collectors edition sits proudly, but I will never finish it.
The artistic way to finish games applies best to Halo Reach. You don’t fight a boss you simply have your ‘Alamo’ moment and it is up there with the very best. After the final battle of the game, you are a lone warrior left on the planets’ surface against impossible odds. Because you know all is lost you are left to make your own end. Do you fight to the last bullet or do you resign Obi Wan style to return even stronger? In my case I was wandering around in a shell-shocked state and missed my shots. I really felt like I had messed up my own heroic ending, so needed to replay it and at least take a few with me. Despite doing this, it was never the same as the first instance and remains one of my biggest gaming regrets.
The final boss in Metal Gear Solid 3 is another interesting encounter. Not difficult by any means it was the hardest I can remember. By this stage of the game you could do it easily but the emotional attachment means you don’t want to. You actually delay doing it a few times. I remember having a cigarette afterwards. It was that good. the way the story swept you along, had you completely involved with the character of the boss, as well as your own character. This is the essence of what an end of game boss should be. You have to know why you are taking them down. What their motivations are =, actually allows you to make the decision whether or not, to revel in the victory.
Why can’t all bosses be like this? All the games I hated finishing last generation stank of lazy design in otherwise memorable games by making the last section stupidly hard. Need for speed hot pursuit, both on cop and racer, had stupid last races. Crossroads on the original Guitar Hero was another survival effort, Vanquish introduced two flying versions of you, the idiot boss in Killzone 2 who just teleported ad-nauseum, and the stupid big dragon in Dragon Age. All of them WTF moments that tarnished otherwise fondly remembered games, that built franchises and developer reputations. The games I have finished so far this generation have been little better. Shadow Of Mordor was excellent in every way until it had a QTE to finish. Call Of Duty has just regurgitated the epic ending of Modern Warfare in every game since and Ryse had its most difficult battle about 30 min before the end. Again ending in the dramatic cut-scene inspired way instead of being a battle against a foe. Killzone Shadowfall was close to having a brilliant ending, but without spoilers is too detached from the main story to be completely satisfying. Where are the perfect endings of yesteryear?
But what do you want in a boss? Surely some games are suited to the cataclysmic final battle. Not all can be the artistic ending of the Metal Gear Solids or Halos. Sometimes you have to take on the best and worst that developers can throw at you. But where do we go from here? What are your most memorable boss fights? Let me know in the comments.