BIG BADDIES - What Makes A Good Boss Battle?


#1

Ever since I was a kid, I’ve loved boss battles. It’s something I’ve always known. I didn’t care if it was a big lizard or a big spaceship, I was enchanted by the idea. But I’ve never been able to zero in on why. What is it about them that gets me going? Is there some aesthetic quality behind it I love? Or do I just like taking down big guys?

Whether you mark the start at 1980’s Phoenix and its big spaceship, or at the boss in the computer RPG Dnd, or even the origins in tabletop RPGs, boss battles seem to be as long as video games themselves have been a part of popular culture. Since then, there’s been countless mini-bosses and final bosses throughout the history of games. It used to be that your game wasn’t really a game unless it had bosses. It doesn’t matter if it was a JRPG or a platformer, you’ve simply got to have some bosses. Your game isn’t complete until it has a couple of big baddies to bash.

What do you think makes a good boss battle? We always remember them, but what makes them so special? What makes a boss battle stick out?

What games have the best boss battles? Is there a genre, series, or individual game you think does boss battles the best?

Conversely, what makes a bad boss battle? Let’s face it: a lot of boss battles are terrible. Like, genuinely awful. Why do so many of them suck?

What’s the worst boss you’ve ever fought? What makes it so lame or frustrating?

What are your favorite boss battles? We all have them, so what are yours? And what about it makes it your favorite boss battle? Is it the music? The story behind it? The fight itself?

And why do you like boss battles? If you’re like me, and have a strange love of them, what do you think drives that? Alternatively, if you dislike boss battles, why don’t you like them? Is there a particular reason why?


#2

From a purely analytical point of view, there’s the boss as the final exam.
You are given tools to interact with the world created around you and the game itself is the journey to master those tools. The boss is the test of that mastery.
The Legend of Zelda series has always followed this philosophy to some degree. Every dungeon gives you a new item, like a hook shot, and finishing it and beating the boss is like a course in how to use that hook shot.

But there are so many ways to look at this question; sometimes a boss is great because of the visual and sound design alone. Sometimes it’s because it flips how you look at the entire game itself. Or maybe the concept of the boss itself is so weird and cool it stands out.

Bad boss design? For me, ones that focus too much on difficulty. But this is so subjective that it’s hard to pinpoint this exactly. I believe the Souls series went too far down this road as they entered the inevitable feedback loop with its fans.

Specific examples?
Hollow Knight, I enjoyed the fights with Hornet immensely, they were like duels with a mentor who was trying to teach you the ropes.
Inversely, I hated the Watcher Knight battle, which felt like a test of reflexes and endurance, a pure difficulty spike.


#3

What do you think makes a good boss battle?

Challenging the player to everything they’ve learned through the game. The best boss fights force you to really make use of everything you’ve learned and improved at, difficult but in a fair way. A final test for your understanding of the mechanics.

Alternatively, a boss fight can be well used to cap a major story beat and completely flip around your expectations of how the game can work. Yoko Taro arguably has a weaker track record with this, but Hideo Kojima and his past teams have all shown great understanding of making boss fights a fresh experience contrasted with normal gameplay.

What games have the best boss battles?

Character action games (like Devil May Cry, Bayonetta, God of War to a lesser extent), action-RPGs, rogue-likes, Souls games and soul-likes, 3D platformers (there’s usually one super good fight to find), and the odd puzzle game that really knows how to use its premise.

Conversely, what makes a bad boss battle?

A lot of games have a bad habit of making fights last too long and turn them into battles of endurance. It’s never fun, unless the fight has enough going on that you can justify the length. The last Vergil battle in DMC3 goes on for awhile, for example, but there’s a lot you’re keeping track of. A platformer with a very simple boss with a very simple pattern you have to wait through before you can hurt them is very, very dull.

Also, you risk at making fights that turn expected mechanics on their head into unfair nonsense that takes one out of the game.

Also, fighting games are SUPER bad about bosses. The idea is to make them skill games, fine enough, but they let these boss characters use a lot of cheap tricks nobody else has that more than likely frustrate newer players rather than encourage them to become better at the game.

What’s the worst boss you’ve ever fought?

Yellow Devil and all Mega Man variants suck. They’re not impossible, but they’re there almost entirely to drain your resources and waste your time. I also feel survivor horror games generally have bad boss fights because they’re either relatively easy or just there to make the later parts harder after dealing with them. RE4 manages to have some fun ones with cool designs, but 5 completely shit the bed. Silent Hill 3’s final boss is also really dumb and the game would have benefited from just not having it there at all. That story’s conclusion really didn’t need a last battle.

No More Heroes 2 has a lot of very frustrating bosses, as the team tried to use gimmicks to make said fights fresh. Nathan Copeland is an especially awful battle because once the conveyor belts start, the fight suddenly becomes trying to survive turrets as you fight with the camera.

Tekken easily has the two worst when it comes to bad skill gate fights with Jinpachi and Azazel, but only if you ignore the absolute insanity that are SNK fighting game bosses. They are all bad and despised with no exception.

There’s more, but it would be hard to pick them out between the boring ones and the stupidly badly designed ones.

What are your favorite boss battles?

Clover and Platinum games tend to have a mix of forgettable bosses (especially in b-tier releases) and super memorable fights that test your skill. All the DMC3 Vergil battles, Azel in GOD HAND, and most bosses from Viewtiful Joe 1 and 2 qualify as some of the best I’ve ever played. I especially remember the Alaster and Fire/Ice Leo fights. Grasshopper Manufactor also really sells the fights in the No More Heroes series well, with stand outs including Henry, Shinobu, Bad Girl, and Jeane in 1, while 2 has great fights with Margaret Moonlight, Kimmy Howell, and Ryuji. Notable these fights have the least amount of gimmicks in them (Ryuji starts with a motorcycle clash and becomes a regular fight quickly after).

Sonic and the Ratchet and Clank series also have some memorable bits. Up Your Arsenal’s last fight with Dr. Nefarious is blood pumping stuff, while Sonic Generations’ modern Sonic boss battles all manage to be both flashy and satisfying to complete for letting you show off your skills at controlling speed and making snap decisions (outside the poor last battle).

Complete flips that stick out to be include The End from MGS3, turning the game into cat and mouse trickery for a battle of minds. Anubis at the end of Zone of the Enders is shocking because he is not only impossible to beat, but shows such incredible powers that you can’t even begin to comprehend how they function within the game you just played.

The Kirby games also have a few fights like this, with Miracle Matter in 64 being a personal favorite for forcing you to think about how to use and combine your powers. Because you have to hit the right eye with the right power, you’re forced to think out your moves and not just survive patterns to make your move.

I really love Bleed 2’s boss fights, all 20+ of them, because they all have a different challenge or twist to them that start adding up and eventually lead to three back to back marathons that test every single skill you have.

Oh, and the Sephiroth battle in KH2 is all time great stuff.

And why do you like boss battles?

I generally find story the most important thing to me in a game, but a good boss fight is basically the ultimate way to engage a player with the design and mechanics. The more action oriented a game is, the more likely it benefits from a good challenging boss. They can also show you different sides to the functions of the game or create story moments that burn themselves into your perspective and not just you through your player character’s perspective. Anubis in ZOE isn’t incredible because of what he means to Leo - because Leo has absolutely no idea what it is or who is piloting it. Defeating it doesn’t matter to his goals. But to the player, that fight completely flips your entire perspective of both what’s actually happening in this game world and what this mech you’ve been controlling and outfitting could possibly do. It leaves you wanting more both for play and for narrative. ZOE would genuinely be a lesser game if that last fight wasn’t in there.


#4

Jrpgs have such good boss battles.

The best ones are when a boss battle starts and they play the game’s main theme instead of the usual boss theme and you know shit’s about to go down. Also rival fights are awesome (Dante vs Virgil, Mega Man vs Zero, etc)

Highlights: lingering will from kh2, aqua’s fight with young Xehanort, kuja in ffix, Bayonetta vs Jeanne on top of that giant flying missile, all of SotC, the last boss of Nier 1, Windwaker Ganon, Sora and Riku vs Xemnas, Zant, and perhaps surprisingly, the last trauma center mission, Ammy vs Wakka, Snake vs the Boss

Edit: the worst is when you think you’re fighting the final boss and then an unknown whatever shows up like (I was here the whole time!) and you have to fight them too. There’s a reason I picked kuja from ffix and not…whatever that last thing was.

edit 2: oh my GOD the entirety of W101’s finale is SO GOOD!!


#5

I agree with many of the previous posters! Some of my favorite boss battles are definitely like the “Final exam” style fights ala Breath of the Wild.

However, I’ve recently made my first foray into the Phoenix Wright games and I’d say that the last cross-examinations of the episode or even at the end of a single trial have been the most challenging and fulfilling “boss” battles I’ve ever taken on. They don’t really do the final exam thing and they are arguably not even a “boss”, but I love how they just force you to solve the murder of the week or notice something in-congruent in a testimony. This feels like it really, actually challenges you mentally while also letting you live out the fantasy of being a detective. Those last puzzles at the end of a game or episode have been way more thrilling and fulfilling than any other boss I’ve beaten.


#6

I’m such a broken record around here that probably half of my comments from the past few months have been about Hollow Knight, and yet…

The Mantis Lords fight in HK is probably my favorite boss fight in any game ever, because it felt like it had balanced the mastery of mechanics I’d learned with intense pattern recognition. I had to learn the tells for each attack, and then execute the move I’d figured out that would avoid it (the latter was much harder than the former, which made it feel like my fault when I failed, which is intensely more motivating than it feeling like the game pulling some crap). And then the escalation that happens in the middle where suddenly now you have to fight two of them just further trims down your margin of error. Nightmare King Grimm, which is probably my second favorite boss fight in any game ever (and in Hollow Knight), is like that fight turned up to 11; it’s all pattern recognition and reaction, and I love that because that’s my favorite part of 2D combat. It also had the same deal where I could slowly feel myself learning the fight and getting closer and closer to beating it, which just made me want to try again and again.

On the flipside, I tried playing Salt & Sanctuary recently (a theoretically similar game), and I just can’t get engaged with its boss fights. They feel more like exercises in finding the item/skill/attribute that makes each fight trivial than encounters where I actually have to put the things I’ve learned to the test. With most of them, I’ve gone with the cycle of die, die, die, feel like the game is just hiding something from me, look up that boss’ stats, see one specific weakness, apply that weakness to my weapon, and then win so easily it feels like I’m cheesing the fight. I’m making progress, but it’s not progress that feels rewarding. And even if that comes from looking on the wiki instead of figuring out those weaknesses in-game, I know if I spend an hour testing out different builds to see what sticks I’ll just feel like the game is wasting my time. Give me mechanics to master not numbers to hit dammit.

But back to good ones, you know what has good bosses? Shovel Knight. Shovel Knight has some amazing bosses. They’re kind of cut from the same cloth as Hollow Knight’s good fights (though they’re not quite as brutal), where they require you to master a fairly simple set of mechanics to a pretty high degree, and always involve some mechanic that you’ve spent their stage learning. But, almost more importantly, they have personality and context and humor and some really dope music (which is a must).

And to round out what is apparently a survey of 2D games, Celeste has probably the best non-Hollow Knight boss fight I’ve ever played in Reflection (Chapter 6). It doesn’t add anything necessarily new; it just makes you twist the mechanics you’ve spent several hours learning into a new objective—not clearing screens, but crashing into Badeleine as she attacks you. It’s kinetic and gripping and again has context and gravity and is just so so good. Ugh, now I just want to play that game again.


#7

I think the bosses in Dead Cells are an interesting example; they start of as progress checks, and require you to think about their moveset and the gear you are taking into the fight to try and beat them. The first few times will be a real struggle but at some point (as much because of gear and other unlocks, as player skill) they suddenly become relatively easy and instead become a reliable source of a legendary weapon drop. This allows the devs to assume that the player will have at least one good weapon going forward from that point which makes balancing a bit easier for a rougelite.

Then you go into NG+ and the same process repeats itself, but this time with more emphasis on player skill.

I also feel there should be a shout-out for some of Destiny’s Raid bosses, which mostly have a satisfying amount of complexity, and good co-ordination between a team, whilst also providing very evocative 1st person environments for the encounter (VoG takes the cake here)


#8

In regards to bad boss battles, I always think of ones where new mechanics are introduced, so you have to go through a fight with unfamiliar controls, and you’ll probably die a few times without realising what led to your demise. One example is the end of Uncharted 4 where you engage in a sword fight against the main antagonist in a burning ship, whereas the rest of the game has been a third-person shooter. It becomes worse when the actual climax of the fight is a QTE fest played over a video, rather than having direct control over your character. A similar thing happens at the end of Uncharted 3 as well.

But to end on a positive, Bayonetta fighting the Lumen Sage for the first time in Bayonetta 2 is glorious. It starts fairly reserved (as much as you can be in a Platinum game) with a close quarters battle on the ground, before the characters summon monsters and start fighting in the air while the summons are slapping each other around in the background.


#9

I think what a lot of companies miss, even Nintendo. Is that you can make great boss battles without the idea of making it an exam and just using the basic capabilities offered at the start of the game. Metal Gear Rising is amazing at this because you really just need the parry, Ninja Run and Zandatsu mechanic and you’re good. Which they teach during the MG Ray fight at the beginning. But where that game excels is the staging. Every fight is just a completely unique experience with memorable characters, amazing music and clever boss patterns that make you utilize the core mechanics in unique ways each time. One of the best fights in the game is just a complete distillation of the core mechanics into one fight The fight with Jetstream Sam in the desert. No gimmicks, very little reliance on Zandatsu. Sam is just incredibly good swordsman and it’s up to you to be better. 8-4 and the voice actors did an utterly amazing job of bringing them to life, really.

The biggest boss crime is to make them too long and unfun that you are hoping each attack pattern is the last. DKC Tropical Freeze I’m looking in your direction with your super long and obnoxious fights. Rare’s were sometimes quite hard (Hands up who got stuck on the King B fight in DKC 2 for weeks) and pattern based but they knew where brevity worked. It also gave a bit more the final fight with K.Rool where he took more hits and it was a lot more puzzle/reflex based than other fights in the game along with the added bombast of the music (Compared to the more downbeat regular boss music) and staging. DKC TF’s just dragged on constantly and were not really fun.


#10

Copied directly from my post on the “Good final boss design” thread on Giant Bomb. Note: I didn’t do any of the extra ending stuff in Hollow Knight, so I might be 1000% wrong about this lore stuff. It’s just my speculation.

"
The final boss fight in Hollow Knight is really cool. It’s a long fight that goes through a few “stages” (like most boss fights do), but the different attack patterns actually contribute to the narrative.

At the start, it’s just the Hollow Knight, fighting like any other combatant. They’ve got a variety of dashes, teleports, slashes, and stabs. Standard stuff.

As you do more damage, they start attacking with the corruption/mutation stuff. They start spitting acid at you. They start swiping at you with weird tentacle limbs. But they’re still also using standard sword (nail) attacks.

As you go further, they stop attacking with the nail entirely, opting to only use the weird body horror stuff. Eventually the Hollow Knight stops even being a humanoid (bugoid?) shape or humanoid with a weird tentacle arm, but entirely a mass of writing limbs and flesh that thrashes around and throws itself through the air at you.

Finally, it goes back to an earlier stage where it’s semi-humanoid and using a mix of normal and mutated attacks. But it adds one more move. Every few attacks, the Hollow Knight stops attacking you and starts stabbing the absolute shit out of themselves. It’s helpful because by this point, the fight has been going on for a while, and it gives you a very brief moment to heal and/or attack. But it also communicates that the Hollow Knight is not just some completely evil character who has some wild mutation abilities. They’ve been infected and controlled by this parasite thing. Over the course of the fight, you’ve been able to weaken it enough to loosen its control enough for the Hollow Knight to (metaphorically) say “I couldn’t do this alone, thank you for helping me finally die”.

All without a word of dialogue.
"


#11

I think what makes a good boss battle less about mechanics and mastery and more generally that it feels important and unique. Certainly, being more demanding of the player’s skill than a normal enemy is a good way to do that, but it’s not the only way. A boss character may be built up narratively, or have abilities or designs that are unique to them that make you think differently about your approach and make them feel different from the rest of the game.

I think an easy place to start for games that have the best boss battles are the ones that are nothing but bosses. Cuphead, Furi, and Punch-Out!! all feature memorable encounters where each boss is different from the last in ways that make the whole gameplay feel different, despite your toolset staying the same. To go beyond boss rush games, the God of War games always had amazing boss battles. Even if you’re playing on Normal where they aren’t very demanding of your skill, the pure spectacle made each of them memorable and feel important. Castlevania, Contra, and Devil May Cry are all series with great and memorable boss battles.

On the flip side, what makes a boss battle bad is if it doesn’t feel important. If the villain they’ve built up to the entire game ends up going down just like a normal enemy but you have to shoot them 10x as much. Shooters in general have bad boss fights because most developers can’t figure out how to make a boss encounter that doesn’t feel the same as every other encounter you’ve had in the game. JRPG’s are a pretty mixed bag… on the one hand, the bosses can be made to feel memorable because of unique design and music, and a narrative that’s been building to them. But on the other, you’re still just going to select your most damaging abilities from a menu, heal when your health is low, and repeat, just like you have for the rest of the game. JRPG bosses are also infamously immune to all status effects, so you can’t even try to get creative with them.

Fighting games have bad boss battles because the idea of putting bosses in a fighting game is completely flawed. Every character in a fighting game is a boss, so trying to make one more unique and difficult is just a holdover from the arcade days where they wanted your quarters.

I’ve been playing a ton of Mega Man lately, and they’re pretty interesting to look at with this in mind. Mechanically, the Robot Masters are a completely mixed bag of easy or impossible if you don’t know/have their weakness. But they’re all uniquely designed, they have entire levels devoted to their theme, and you get a sweet new power every time you beat one. They feel important. Conversely, beating the bosses in Wily’s castle and Wily himself never really felt that way. As a kid I always lost interest in the games after beating the Robot Masters, never feeling all that incentivized to actually finish the games, and my son does largely the same thing. Once we’ve beaten the Robot Masters, he’s ready to move on to the next game in the collection. Beating Wily feels like a formality.


#12

What do you think makes a good boss battle?

A boss battle tells a story, and like most storytelling it helps to have structure. There’s a specific three-act boss structure that can work incredibly well. I call it teach, test, and twist. The boss starts by taking it easy on the player, demonstrating its attack patterns and letting the player learn how they can damage it. Then it escalates, either gradually or in a phase transition. It could attack more quickly, fire more projectiles, maybe add a shockwave to an existing stomp attack, or change the arena to give the player less breathing room. That’s the bulk of the fight. Then at the very end, something happens to make the last hit special.

An example a lot of you will be familiar with is the Ganondorf fight from The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker. At first, Zelda will regularly fire light arrows that stun Ganondorf, giving you some pauses to catch your breath as well as free chances to attack. This is when you learn Ganondorf’s attack patterns and, hopefully, how to counter them. Act 2: Ganondorf knocks out Zelda. You need to fight him on your own with the trickiest counters in the game. Act 3: after Zelda wakes up she introduces the twist. You need to use your mirror shield to reflect a light arrow towards Ganondorf, stunning him for the dramatic final hit.

The Bell Gargoyles from Dark Souls are an elegant example of the simpler 2-act structure, sans twist. There’s 1 gargoyle, you learn its attacks, then suddenly you’re fighting 2 at once. It’s a cool surprise, especially since new players will probably have died to the first gargoyle before the second even shows up. It seems unfair at first, then possible, then you win.

The important thing is to escalate whenever the player feels like they have control of the fight’s momentum. You don’t want your story to be a linear path to victory, you want both triumphs and setbacks.

What games have the best boss battles?

Y’all. Copy Kitty’s real good. It has one boss that’s literally a giant robot made out of a castle keep. You fight it by standing on its drill arm and breaking through a portcullis eyelid to attack its big robot eye. Then you break through the eye and fight the control crystal inside. Beating the control crystal lets you take control of the whole big stompy bot, and you have a straight-up kaiju-style slugfest with a different giant robot. That’s not even the best boss in that game.

Conversely, what makes a bad boss battle?

There are a surprising number of boss fights in games that are mostly well-made professional productions that don’t make it at all clear what you’re even supposed to do, or if what you’re doing is effective. I bailed on Crysis 3 near the end when I fought a boss and couldn’t even tell if I was hurting it.

What’s the worst boss you’ve ever fought?

Time Eater, the final boss of Sonic Generations. Mechanically it has almost nothing in common with any other part of the game, the controls feel terrible, and it offers so little feedback on what you might be doing right or wrong. It’s not even difficult, just baffling. It seems like the most common experience of Time Eater is “I beat it, but I’m not sure why.”

What are your favorite boss battles?

I’ve got to go back to Copy Kitty here. I’m a fan of rival fights, where the player and the boss feel evenly matched, and Copy Kitty has three of the best. That makes sense because it’s a game about copying your enemy’s powers. Arikan is a tribute to Kirby’s Meta Knight, a fair duel with a sword weapon that isn’t used anywhere else. The player and boss have 5 different attacks during this fight: a three-hit combo, a dragon punch, a dive-kick, a fireball, and a dash that leaves a damaging trail. Each attack charges up independently, so you need to juggle all of them to fight effectively.

The second rival fight in Copy Kitty is one of the final bosses. (There are like half a dozen unique final bosses in this game, depending on what you call a final boss? It’s a lot!) I won’t give the name, because plot spoilers, but it’s some rad DBZ nonsense, dashing around mid-air firing beams and lightning at each other. It ends with a twist phase that introduces a powerful new ability you need to learn to use on the fly. The third rival fight is such a great surprise I’m not even going to describe it vaguely. Just… Copy Kitty. It’s good.

And why do you like boss battles?

It’s the natural form of narrative climax in many genres of video game. If a combat game has a villain, you want to fight them one-on-one. It’s also a mechanical climax, the “final exam” design philosophy where the skills you learned are tested in a unique challenge.


#13

Can I revise my answer about bad boss battles? Because that answer should be Iconoclasts. Iconoclasts is an otherwise great game that just has terrible, painful boss battles.

They’re not bad because of difficulty, or overprecise mechanics, or any visual or sound design elements. They’re bad because they (or at least most of them) fail on the most basic thing a boss battle has to be able to do, and that’s communicate the specific steps a player needs to take to effectively beat the boss. Not even that, the ones I’ve played so far are actually actively misleading about how to beat the boss, because they use visual elements and markers that appear previously in the game’s levels to mean entirely different things. Because of that, I don’t know how I’m supposed to figure out the puzzle of each boss without looking it up. It reminds me a bit of Owlboy, a very similar metroidvania game that also had a habit of introducing new elements and then badly (or not at all) explaining them in its boss battles, but it feels even worse this time, and it’s really souring me on a game I otherwise really like.


#14

Bonfireside Chat always had a good way of framing the best boss battles of the Souls series as exemplifying Miyazaki’s design goals of “quiet dignity.” All of my favorite boss fights in gaming come from this franchise because they execute so well on the combined feeling of “I don’t want to fight you but I must” and a respect for my power as a player and, ideally, my time as a player. My favorite fights in the franchise either scale up in difficulty in a gradual way that builds on your understanding patterns from earlier in the fight, or scale up in intensity without becoming significantly more challenging than the effort to hit a second or third phase.

Compare and contrast to my least favorite fights in the franchise that either provide high difficulty with little-to-no “dignity” (e.g. the wolf mobs in the Capra Demon fight in Dark Souls 1) or which demand mechanical perfection for each and every early phase so that you can learn the most important and most challenging patterns of the final phase (which basically means you have to retake an exam dozens of times to take a practice exam once). No amount of lore will hold up to the frustration of getting one-shot after an arduous 10-minute leadup to a final boss form because at that point there is no respect for my time as a player.

My fav examples of great soulsborne fights are Lady Maria of the Astral Clocktower, Ludwig the Accursed, and Princes Lorian and Lothric. Two of these fights contain multiple phases that retain the mechanics of the first phase, helping the player to feel as though the experience they’ve gained through repeating the initial phase is contributing to their likelihood of success in the following phases. The other fight has what I’d argue is an easier secondary phase, helping the fight feel much less exhausting once the player knows that they’re their own worst enemy past the first phase and that the goal is less to learn and more to try to relax and come down from the stress of the more challenging early fight.

My fav examples of awful soulsborne fights are Capra Demon, Royal Rat Authority, and Sister Friede. Two of these throw in non-boss units that require maneuvering that doesn’t help the player learn to fight against the boss itself and encourage cheese or one-time workarounds to circumvent. The third (and arguably my least favorite) has three phases that escalate considerably in difficulty, with a first phase that has a lot of sitting around and waiting to react, meaning that every attempt at the fight requires more and more of the player’s time even with absolutely perfect execution in the first, and even second phases. Worst of all, the third phase is hard to get to with an AI partner still surviving and has several attack chains that can kill you in one cycle, making half of the battle about crossing your fingers and hoping the boss doesn’t use certain attacks frequently. It’s fetishization of difficulty at its worst and completely destroyed any goodwill I had about the lore behind the fight.


#15

I am going to add more but the things I look for in a boss fight MAINLY are looking rad as all heck and not being too much of a damage sponge.


#16

These are interesting takes, I should really get around to listening to Bonfireside Chat sometime soon. I have a sort of opposite take on one of the bosses you dislike, though I understand and empathize with why you dislike it. But I have opinions and so I’m going to ramble about them for a bit.

Sister Friede is one of my absolute favorite bosses in the whole series precisely because it becomes this brutal exercise in sustained execution of mechanics that requires you to bring your A-game. The constant high-pressure decision making forcing you to use all of your abilities as effectively as possible at all times is something I found incredibly thrilling. I never felt like it was wasting my time because every attempt I made it a little further and learned a little more about the fight, so it remained engaging the whole way through. The evocative tone and visually spectacular escalation go hand in hand with the difficulty, they’re two sides of the same coin for me.

I also found the first stage to be overly long and stressful until I realized that, for me at least, the most effective approach was to just rush her down and keep the pressure on enough to prevent her from being able to do much more than react to you. Once you figure out how her invisibility works it becomes a huge opportunity to strike back and take out a huge chunk of her health instead of the terrifying deathblow it is at first. You go from prey to predator and suddenly that first stage isn’t nearly as tough as it seemed, and soon enough you’re doing it quickly and without even touching your estus. But then the next thing is even more challenging, in surprising ways, and so you have to build on your knowledge then execute it skillfully. Its a wonderful microcosm of the series’ design as a whole and I love it.

The triple escalation is also a chef kiss prime example of the sort of gleeful, impish trickery that the souls games have always reveled in, where they continuously find ways to pull the rug out from under you and throw you off balance without straying too far from the same core mechanics and ideas they’ve been using the whole time. Previous games largely confined this sort of thing to level design (Ornstein and Smough pt. 2 or the 2nd bell gargoyle/maneater aside) but Bloodborne and Dark Souls 3 bring it into boss design in a really big way that is just a fucking blast to play through and a big part of why they’re two of my all time favorites.

Looking at it from the angle of summoning help, there’s a sort of unique npc summon in Slave Knight Gael who is cool lore reinforcement and lessens some of the pressure in the middle phase of the fight, but he isn’t much more than a distraction. So human co-operators are much more effective, and I spent a lot of time putting down my sign and helping randos before and after I managed it myself, which was also a great, safe way to practice the fight. And once you know about it, seeing your hosts react with panic to the surprise third stage then diving in to protect them while they get their bearings is a lot of fun.

Building on that, I think a lot of peoples’ complaints about difficulty in souls games would be lessened somewhat if they spent more time helping others in co-op, since it’s both a great way to safely practice and improve your mastery of the mechanics, and to get all the souls and embers/humanity you need for your own game. It’s a ton of fun too! Not enough games let you fight bosses with friends. It feels that outside of like, MMO/Lootshooter raids, soulsbornes, and something like Monster Hunter, really great boss fights are almost always a singleplayer affair. More multiplayer boss fights please!

The Royal Rat Authority is fucking awful though, I 100% agree with you there.


#17

Heat Haze Shadow.


#18

This echoes many of my feelings on Friede, which is my favourite fight in the Dark Souls series, though I think that despite good intentions the Dark Souls 3 DLC ran into some real problems because it catered for players who had invested exceptionally large amounts of time into the series and had correspondingly powerful/optimised characters.

The DLC has some really uncompromising design decisions. The aforementioned multi-enemy marathon bossfights that introduce entirely new movesets, the strong, infinitely respawning mobs in the Dreg Heap, and the infamous staircase in Ringed City. For the subset of players who have put 500+ hours into the series, that’s a welcome push that forces you to apply your knowledge and really consider your toolset. For nearly everyone else, that’s a tedious escalation that looks less like celebration and more like a series that has lost its way or become swept up in its own reputation.

The DLC bossfights are mechanically airtight (excluding the two really poor ones, Halflight and Gravetender) - I felt like I could beat them without getting hit (and actually have a couple times). Every attack has a solution, and they don’t use ambiguous telegraphing or stretch what’s reasonable for human reaction times (looking at you, Pontiff Sulyvahn and Soul of Cinder).

But they’re balanced for an extremely generous healing system that offers both plentiful and instantaneous recovery. Healing is so easy it doesn’t require an opening, therefore the player will never stay at half health, therefore the boss must be able to kill players from above half health or more. Likewise, their durability is bloated to deal with extremely powerful weapons that are fast enough to exploit every possible opening (e.g. straight swords).

The balancing of DS3 is… loose, to the say the least. The endgame content of DS3 feels obligated to cater for the upper limits of player ability and thus I think the experience for the larger cohort suffers.

I genuinely believe that From software’s game design is, in some aspects, better than its ever been. At the same time I’m starting to think that the Souls series’ once-elegant “one-difficulty-fits-all” approach is no longer working.


#19

This is all absolutely true and articulates some things I have had figuring out how to express about the difficulty design of the series. I also feel that From’s design is better than it’s ever been in so many ways, but I am very, very interested to see how they handle these things with Sekiro.

With Dark Souls 3 I feel like its status as the finale of a trilogy caused them to assume that many of the players would likely have played at least one other game in the series, so they raised the overall difficulty accordingly. Sekiro seems like they’re taking what they’ve learned and starting over with a fresh mechanics and expectations of the player. Like getting rid of leveling, a traditional stamina bar, and multiplayer, and then opening up all these movement and stealth options feels like by simplifying in some ways they are creating tons of other possibilities. Like, by being more forgiving about death and resources and having more open levels, will that allow them to go even further with difficulty without shutting the less devoted players out? I also imagine like they’ll have more resources available to put into polish and balance if they don’t need to worry about designing around multiplayer and a hundred wildly different character builds.

I’m especially dying to see how all this will manifest in bosses, since I think that’s their biggest strength coming off DS3 and its DLC. I imagine the more acrobatic character will lead to some absolutely wild fights.


#20

The glowy bits and how they explode when you shoot them.

But seriously folks.

What do you think makes a good boss battle?

I don’t think I’ve ever gotten into the ‘zone’ where I actively ‘enjoy’ boss battles. Either they represent a rudimentary ‘challenge’ in which you’ve got to work out the strategy before hitting them three times before they die. Or they’re a more stressful affair pushing you harder against the games systems, like in the Souls like games. I know some people treat some of the bosses from Dark Souls like old friends, it’s like a dance for them, they know all the moves, they know all the lore, they know each other implicity but for me, the really hard bosses (Blood Starved Beast, Ornstein and Smough), are these obstacles that are preventing me from exploring the rest of the game’s environments, which is where I’m happiest playing the game. Usually I’ll cheese it and conjure up another player for help, but it always makes me feel wrong. Like I’m unable to truly committ to the game and get good at it.

I think Doom [2016] probably had boss battles that were more my speed. At first they seemed difficult but as you got into it, you learned the routines and it suddenly became like a battle in a 3rd person actioner. The way that game is paced in it’s moment to moment gameplay is just this addictive feeling of speed and violence, performing damage and taking a moment to recover. Simulating the 3rd person action game approach but in the first person just made the battles so much more epic - in addition you are fighting modern reincarnations of old Doom favourites.

I guess the other thing would be spectacle. One of my favourite games is the OG Tomb Raider. The last boss is with this half giant Atlantean thing that comes out of a giant egg. It’s a freakish thing, but it takes place on a platform above a really high drop. If you fall off the platform, Lara falls to her death. Whenever you fall from a fatal height in Tomb Raider - Lara would always scream before she hit the floor. On this level, Lara screams a full three times before she reaches the lava floor at the bottom. My friends would throw her off the platform just to see it. Savages.

But I do like a bit of spectacle in my boss fights. No game does this better than Bayonetta probably. If you’re going to go for it and portray this a boss fight as the ultimate challenge, why not go all out. I seem to remember Bayonetta 2 had a sequence in which you morphed into a purple panther on a surfboard going down a whirlpool. That game was alright.

What games have the best boss battles?

Apart from Doom, the best boss fights that spring to mind are the Raid bosses in Destiny. There’s something about learning the systems you have to get to as a team to beat a Raid boss, this inaccessible strategy devised by mad men. This complex procedure coaxed out by the players of trial and error. But when the six players come together during the ‘damage phase’ stage, when everyone activates their empowering rifts and supers. It’s just this epic throwdown in which you feel like the avengers or something. It’s usually a real slog and repeating said process three times, but when the boss is finally brought down (especially the first time) it just feels like this massive release. The quiet you get, especially in Destiny, when you defeat the boss is priceless. Everyone relaxes and losens up a bit. All the shit you went through, all the tries and mistakes suddenly become history. It’s this collective co-op experience. I don’t think I could ever be proud of beating a boss (apart from Capra Demon) on my own, but when it’s this big epic Raid fight, it just feels great.

I’d also mention, as others have done, the MGS boss fights. In a lot of ways, there is a strategy to adhere to when beating most of the MGS boss fights, but the fact that you could use one of the items in an interesting way to turn the tide is so good. The sniper battle with The End always gets mentioned, but I love how you can opt for this epic sprawling battle of scopes in the jungle or just wait a week and come back to the game and realise he’s died of old age.

Conversely, what makes a bad boss battle?
Something that is repetitive and uses cheap tactics. Or I don’t know, fuckin inverts your controls as your fighting it… I’m looking at you Beyond Good & Evil. Something that feels overly prohibitive to the progression of the rest of the game. Seem to remember one of the BotW bosses - Camel one being something that I just didn’t enjoy.

What’s the worst boss you’ve ever fought?
Again OG Tomb Raider had a level in which you suddenly found yourself fighting a T-Rex. It was a complete surprise the first time you played it through, having fought a handful of wolves, bears and bats in the first two levels. At the time, it felt as if anything could happen in this game now. Mechanically it wasn’t very deep, you could jump and somersault around as you unloaded duel pistols on it. Once Crystal Dynamics took over from Core Design, they made a remake of the OG Tomb Raider on it’s tenth anniversary. This version takes the T-Rex battle but makes it into a more formulaic boss fight. Stand here, wait for the dino to charge, jump out of the way as it runs into a spike trap. Repeat two more times until dead. The remake is not a bad game by any means, it does well to play on nostalgia whilst updating the core game but that T-Rex battle just felt neutered.

Also, I think the third boss battle in Deus Ex: Human Revolution played out very anticlimatically for me. Granted most of the boss fights in the vanilla version of that game were pretty awful (I never played the reworked versions). But I seem to remember that one of the pre-order bonuses for the game was a grenade launcher that I didn’t use throughout the entire game until the third boss. Each one of those bosses was kind of billed as a MGS styled fight with the badass mercenary team. But after the cutscene preceding the third boss fight, I just unloaded an entire chamber of grenades at him and he just went down in seconds. He didn’t have a chance to move. It was the most anticlimatic thing.

What are your favourite boss battles
The End - MGS 3
Psycho Mantis - MGS
Oryx - Kings Fall Raid - Destiny
Calus - Leviathan Raid - Destiny 2
Cyber Demon - Doom [2016]
That carnivorous plant boss - Bulletstorm - purely because you had unlimited slide around the slippery floor.

And why do you like boss battles?
Like I said, I don’t really ‘like’ most boss battles. I think part of their appeal lies in the traditional arcade layout of video games. Mastery of the mechanics, quick reflexes and rigid strategy. This is never been what video games have been about for me. I’ve kind of always glossed over this aspect of games. I’m more into the exploration and immersion. Granted, games like Doom or Destiny do pull you into the experience a lot more through their core mechanics but you’ve got to have some truly excellent game feel for that.