The subject of a boss battle can be a point of excitement or dread for a player given the right context. Traditionally stationed at the end of a gauntlet, be that a level or dungeon, and intended as both a barrier to progression and a test to see if the player has been paying attention to the various lessons that the game has been trying to teach him/her so far. When exercised correctly these can be magnificent set pieces that raise the stakes whilst filling the screen with dramatic purpose. When used poorly they can be horrible, gruelling slogs against pumped up versions of the same standard monsters you’ve been seeing repeated to date.
Be aware, when talking about bosses there’s always the risk of spoiling elements of a game for some, and so if you’ve not played these games we advise you not watch the example videos accompanying many of the points in this article.
The first instance of a boss appearing in a video game of any kind occurred in the dungeon crawler ‘dnd’, a Role Playing Game released in 1975. The game tasked you with retrieving an orb from the bottom level of a dungeon, but upon travelling there players were met by the Golden Dragon and their preparation for this final hurdle was sorely tested.
Bosses don’t just come at the end of a game however. Mini Bosses, Optional Bosses and Dungeon Bosses pepper most games, with a particularly relevant example of this being ‘Sonic and Knuckles’ for the Sega Megadrive (Genesis). In this game the over-arcing boss is Doctor Robotnik, who you not only face at the end of the game but in a series of different forms at the end of each area before moving on to a newly themed location. Entirely robotic Mini-bosses pepper other stages however, with them acting as a way to change up the standard platforming formula or present small puzzles as to how they can be defeated. One boss on the games second stage has to effectively defeat itself, guided by placing the player character in the right position and dodging at the last second.
RPGs have used bosses for a number of reasons, usually for narrative purposes (with some bosses escaping and recurring throughout the length of a game before being defeated close to its conclusion or switching sides in the third act) but also as a means of denoting the end of a dungeon. Players are encouraged to plan and supply accordingly, rationing their use of finite resources such as spells and healing items in the knowledge that they won’t have to simply negotiate a maze filled with standard monsters, but also tackle a powerful one before returning to town. In earlier games, such as ‘Dragon Quest’ and ‘Final Fantasy’ on the NES, these were massive undertakings as supplies are limited and saving can only be done in specific locations. This means that having the party wiped out before making it home means the loss of all unsaved progress. Today games such as the Pokemon series lower the stakes by allowing both saving anywhere at any time, and lowering the potential loss by simply dropping a portion of in-game currency whilst retaining experience earned from the attempt. This has the effect of turning boss encounters into walls that the player can fling a party against time and time again until eventually overpowering them through sheer determination. In an even more modern environment player on Social RPGs can often suffer a complete party kill and be given the option to revive them and continue from where they left off for a small charge or the price of watching an advertisement.
Truly excellent bosses stick in the mind long after a game has been concluded. Whilst Golbez is the antagonist for most of ‘Final Fantasy IV’ most players will remember the stress induced by fighting a living wall that slowly advances toward the party for an instant kill. Square thought so highly of that concept that they later re-used it in ‘Final Fantasy VII’ to similar effect. Cerberus in the original ‘Kingdom Hearts’ game encouraged players to apply the dodge mechanic seriously for the first time and think vertically by climbing onto his back. The ‘Legend of Zelda’ series regularly makes players exercise new tools collected specifically in the preceding dungeon, such as feeding bombs to giant worms or dinosaur-like monsters to whittle down their health. For many the transformation of the final boss in ‘Dragon Quest’ from a mage into the titular dragon was a seminal moment.
Bad bosses generate memories too, sometimes to the point of spoiling an otherwise good title. ‘Final Fantasy XIII’ saw a boss battle with instant-kill conditions send most players into a rage that had them leaving the game unfinished before it got the chance to open out of its tightly controlled opening act. Meanwhile a strangely placed but otherwise harmless fire pony located in a sewer flooded with running water confused gamers and broke a sense of world so carefully being crafted in ‘Final Fantasy XII’. Kemco RPGs tend to be the biggest repeat-offenders in the instance of recycling standard monsters in new colour schemes with buffed stats and asking the player to simply accept it. Usually with no prior introduction but preceded and waved off with a mountain of text trying to make up for it. ‘Dragon Age: Inquisition’ was ruined for us here at MBU when the final boss of the game crashed and glitched out over multiple attempts and ultimately came down to hammering him briefly with your most powerful attacks when it did work.
There are as many variations on the concept of a boss battle as there are games to be played, and whilst there are undoubtedly more merits to any game than simply its bosses, these are the biggest factor as to if a player chooses to continue after defeat or reloads a saved file and tries again. Games might have a compelling narrative, beautiful graphics and interesting systems, but 9/10 of them live and die by their bosses.