Boss fights are a common element of most games, but are something that I frequently find frustrating. I’d like to take a moment to look at some great (and truly terrible) boss fights to look at how they should be done.
What is a Boss Fight?
A boss fight is a part of the game where the player is confronted with a large, powerful character that they have to fight in order to progress. There should be tactics to the fight, which may take place in phases, requiring the player to use the skills they have learned in the game up to that point. Sort of like an exam to check up on their progress and see what they have learned. The final boss fight, therefore, should be like a final exam, testing them on everything they have learned through the entire game. They should also match the tone of the rest of he game.
It should NOT be an extended version of a normal fight, i.e. just a dragged out battle with someone who is like a normal enemy but just has a bit of extra health! It should also not create random new game mechanics out of nowhere with no prior introduction and expect you to use them.
‘Pulling it out of your arse’: Sonic Generations
All of the bosses in the original Sonic games require some combination of platforming, attacking the target and dodging projectiles, all skills that the player has developed through the course of playing the levels. This is good because it means the player is prepared when the boss fight happens.
Sonic Generations (and indeed many of the modern sonic games after and including Sonic Adventure), kind of get this right during the main game, but the problem comes in the finale. These sequences usually involve Super Sonic, in situations and using abilities that the player has never encountered before. Generations seems to be the worst example though as the gameplay is (not only badly designed, poorly implemented and (it would seem) not QA’d at all!) but unlike anything else from the rest of the game. This is BAAAAD!
‘Dragging it out’ and ‘Breaking the Tone’: Deus Ex: HR and Alpha Protocol
Deus Ex: Human Revolution is a great game that, for the most part, allows you to approach the game in different ways, whether its running-and-gunning, sniping, stealth or up-close silent take-downs. Most of the game can be beaten no matter which of these styles you choose to adopt. The thing that lets the whole game down however is, you guessed it, the boss fights! These encounters not only break the Final Exam principle, but also do not fit in with the tone and style of the rest of the game.
There are several of these fights scattered throughout the game and every one plays out in the same way. Some bosses have different powers that mean you have to adapt your attack style slightly, but every fight is basically a beefed-up soldier that has to be killed in order to proceed. This in a game where stealthing, hacking turrets and talking your way out of situations is the norm, just doesn’t make sense. There should be other ways to defeat these enemies other than just running backwards and shooting them with the assault rifle, which is the most practical way to defeat just about all of them. You should be able to break into their locker and disable their shields, or hack into the system and disable their pet robot dog or convince them that they’re on the wrong team… its things like that that make Deus Ex what it is, and the boss fights should reflect this.
The underrated Alpha Protocol made the same mistakes. A game based on similar principles, but which would also force you into fights where the only sensible weapon choice was the assault rifle, a weapon in which the player may not have chosen to specialise.
‘The Final Exam’: Lara Croft & the Guardian of Light
One recent surprisingly good example of the Final Exam principle (and generally a surprisingly excellent game) is Tomb Raider spin-off Lara Croft & Guardian of Light. The final showdown with the boss doesn’t just involve shooting him, but shooting and dodging waves of enemies, avoiding spikes and traps, and setting off various environmental elements from throughout the entirety of the game (as well as shooting him). This felt suitably climactic as it was testing you on all of the skills you had learned and enemy types you faced throughout the game, as well as being a final showdown with the game’s villain.
Boss Fights should be an enjoyable part of the gaming experience and shouldn’t feel like a chore. They should not just be cheaply padded out battles, but should test the player on all of the skills that the player has learned so far. They should also also be in keeping with the tone of the rest of the game.
So, what do you think makes a good Boss Fight? Are there any other boss fights have you found particularly memorable (good or bad)?