Boss battles: why games don’t always need them

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Some gamers love seeing these words. Some developers think all gamers love seeing these words in every type of game.

There’s nothing better than a satisfying boss battle, the kind of struggle that requires quick thinking and even quicker reflexes. The best boss battles are the ones you know are about to happen and you anticipate the challenge. It’s a chance to prove you’ve mastered your newly acquired skills. It’s a chance for lengthy villain monologues and choir-heavy battle music. It’s a chance for utter frustration or a great sense of accomplishment.

It’s also a chance to prove the developers know when boss battles are appropriate and when something else may be better. The only problem is many developers don’t know this.

There have been many excellent boss battles over the years and over a wide variety of games. Some games are even known for their excellent bosses. The Legend of Zelda, Banjo-Kazooie, Metal Gear Solid, and the God of War franchises are just a few whose reputations are practically built on the quality of the boss fights.

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Who didn’t LOVE fighting this guy?

These games pack in a lot of gameplay, but perhaps their most memorable moments involve fighting some big baddie. Link deflecting balls of energy back at Ganondorf with his sword, Banjo and Kazooie fighting underwater against an angler fish with delusions of grandeur, Naked Snake engaging The End in a sniper standoff in a Soviet forest, and Kratos jumping from arm to shoulder to inside the absolutely massive Cronos — these are some of the most memorable parts of these games.

Then then are games that consist almost entirely of boss battles. Shadow of the Colossus has you fighting sixteen massive creatures across a vast and empty land. There are no enemies except for these gigantic beasts. The ultra-stylish and ultra-violent No More Heroes games tasks you with making your way up in the ranks of a tournament by killing the other assassins who are also participating. While you fight waves of enemies leading up to the assassin, it’s these final fights where the game truly shines.

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I really just wanted an excuse to post a picture of the amazing bosses from this amazing game.

And finally there are the games that contain battles with bosses that weren’t needed in the first place. Whether it’s a genre that really doesn’t lend itself to these kinds of confrontations (Guitar Hero 3, really?) or it’s simply a game that doesn’t benefit from the change of pace associated with these frantic fights (most of the examples listed below), here are some reasons why not every game needs a boss fight.

Developers, take note: these are some great reasons to just say “no” when that one guy in the office thinks adding a boss battle will make the game way better, especially when that game is the sequel to Sesame Street: Once Upon a Monster.

The boss battle is mostly or entirely a quick-time event

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See that guy on the left? He dies when you quickly press a few buttons during a cutscene. Neato.

Quick-time events were cool the first time around. You know, when they were fresh. They were revolutionary in Dragon’s Lair, fun in Shenmue, and tolerable in Resident Evil 4, but they’ve gotten way out of hand now. Sure, it’s difficult to accurately translate a cool idea to actual gameplay, so that’s where quick-time events come in: they let the player do badass things without letting gameplay mechanics hinder the user’s actions. But then realization hits in: the only actual gameplay occurring during these segments is a few button presses or analogue stick wiggles. Like the original Dragon’s Lair, they’re merely interactive cutscenes.

And many times, they replace what could have been actual gameplay.

What’s even worse is when you fail one of these events by pressing the wrong button or not performing the required action entirely. Since a lot of these sequences contain lengthy dialogue or non-interactive segments, you have to repeat the entire thing. That’s real fun. It’s one thing to fail an actual boss battle and have to start it from the beginning, but at least that’s gameplay. Perhaps you found a faster way to defeat the boss, shortening the amount of time it takes each attempt you make. With quick-time events, they always last the same amount of time, so you get to hear the same dialogue and watch the same cutscenes over and over again.

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Funny, that’s exactly how I feel about “Press X to not die” boss battles.

But wait! Doesn’t God of War feature quick-time events? And didn’t I praise it for its boss battles? Don’t worry, I got this. Rarely is a battle entirely comprised of quickly pressing the buttons displayed onscreen. These segments are usually reserved for finishing off the boss after you’ve whittled down its health through traditional gameplay. As well, if you fail, you aren’t normally forced to restart the entire battle; failure merely results in doing the quick-time event again. The same goes for Star Wars: The Force Unleashed: quick-time events normally occur once the boss battle is nearly over or during special circumstances, like a lightsabre lock or a Force lock.

It’s lazy development. It was kind of cool back in 2005 and before, but this is now 2013. Unless it’s a crappy touchscreen game on a smartphone or tablet, quick-time events need to go. They don’t add a particular lot to the game and are almost always a sign of uninspired game design. Like some boss fights themselves, it’s a developer’s way of saying “Hey, this was cool in a game I played. Let’s add it to this game, despite it being totally different.”

It’s kind of like playing Monopoly in Hell, where failing a quick-time event results in landing yourself in jail.

The boss is like a stronger version of a regular enemy

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If I didn’t specify this was the final boss from Crysis 2, most people would think it was one of the normal aliens.

Bosses are usually new and exciting, either forcing you to use old tricks in new ways or to try something new entirely. Then there’s that boss. You know, the one who’s just pretty much like every other enemy you’ve faced in the game, except it can absorb more damage.

Crysis 2 is the most guilty of this with its final boss: four alien foes that look and behave pretty much like the aliens you’ve spent most of the game fighting. Sure, they can cloak themselves and absorb way more bullets than your average enemy found in the game, but that’s really the only difference. The boss fight devolves into cloaking yourself and waiting for an opportunity to take on one at a time. They aren’t particularly difficult and they’re even less fun to fight. The giant walking tank aliens fought earlier in the game make for better bosses than these guys.

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What is every JRPG boss ever?

This may be a cheap shot, but nearly every boss found in a Japanese role playing game can fit this description. The problem is nearly every JRPG features at least one boss, so it’s not like the developers saw a boss battle once and decided to throw it in their game. It may be a staple of the genre, but it’s one that has to change. Most JRPG bosses behave like every enemy faced before, but they have an almost endless amount of hit points along with access to every attack imaginable, including several one-hit kill attacks.

It’s a test in patience and that’s not what a boss battle should be. The only challenge is finding the will to carry on and defeat the boss. Any developer, regardless of their game’s genre, that thinks this kind of boss is an exciting challenge needs to seriously think about the consequences of their actions. That’s a threat.

The boss feels completely out of place

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“Here, let me force you to kill me in a way built completely counter to the entire game you’ve been playing up to this point.”

Bosses usually complement the gameplay, building on what’s led up to them. What happens when a developer thinks their game needs a boss battle, despite the fact their game isn’t built on the fundamental gameplay elements that lend themselves to great boss battles?

You get Deus Ex: Human Revolution. Here is an absolutely amazing game that lets you play your way. It’s the Burger King of video games. You can enter every room with your guns blazing or you can sneak through an air vent to knock out enemies one by one. You can talk your way out of situations using your skills of persuasion or you can shoot your way out using your skills of trigger-pulling. Kill, knock out, or avoid almost every enemy you see.

Well, until you get to the boss battles. You have to kill the bosses. You can’t use your stealthy one-hit knockout move on them. If you’ve been playing without guns for most of the game, good luck trying to beat these bosses. The gameplay of these sections is so different you’d think a different company designed them. And you’d be right for thinking that.

Thankfully the upcoming director’s cut version for the Wii U will somewhat fix the boss battles, allowing for a few different solutions to each one, allowing you to continue playing the way you want to play.

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Insert Terminator joke here. You’ll obviously be the first to do so.

Mass Effect 2‘s final battle against an under-construction human Reaper is a similar case. While the gameplay doesn’t change radically during the boss fight, the feeling of it feeling shoehorned or out-of-place is still present. More and more games are trying to feel less like games, which is possibly why many of them feature quick-time events in place of gameplay: if they want to present themselves as a cinematic experience but retain the feeling that you’re in control, a quick-time event is apparently the best of both worldsMass Effect is a series that feels more like a long space adventure than a simple video game trilogy.

Which is exactly why adding a super video gamey element to the end of a game not known for video gamey elements feels so wrong. Mass Effect 3 somewhat righted this wrong by turning a planned boss fight against the Illusive Man into some simple dialogue. Fans still got mad, showing they don’t really know what they want most of the time: developer throws in lame boss battle, fans get mad; developer learns from their mistakes and avoids a lame boss battle, fans get mad.

What this long article is trying to say is boss battles don’t guarantee game greatness. Yes, some games are famous for their boss battles, but developers need to take into account what kinds of games those are and how they handle their boss battles.

These three categories help to show why some boss battles won’t be beneficial. If a boss battle consists of pressing buttons during a cutscene, maybe it doesn’t belong. If a boss battle consists of a normal enemy taking more damage than usual, maybe it doesn’t belong. And if the boss battle feels completely different from everything else you’ve experienced in the game, then it really doesn’t belong.

Special mention

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Isn’t this a game based on a movie? And isn’t this not in any of the movies?

A very special mention goes to The Matrix: The Path of Neo, where the Wachowski brothers siblings explain how the movie’s ending doesn’t quite work in a video game, so they opt for a more video gamey ending by throwing in a huge boss battle. Fun to play and funny to see happen.

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4 Comments

Filed under Opinion

4 responses to “Boss battles: why games don’t always need them

  1. I wanted to mention that it wasn’t the dialogue battle with the Illusive Man that people hated about ME3’s ending. Most people, from what I’ve seen, have actually praised that scene, with the majority agreeing that BioWare made the right decision in not shoehorning in a boss battle.

    Other than that, yes, boss fights are something video game developers need to realize are not always required. It’s a trope of the genre, a traditional element, but that doesn’t mean they need to keep being used in games where they don’t make a lot of sense.

    • Thanks for commenting on my blog! I really appreciate it. Now, for your comment, perhaps you’re right. What I saw on the Internet was a group of people who, upon hearing there was a planned boss battle with the Illusive Man before things changed, were upset they could only talk to the IM. But the problem is that I only saw this on GameFAQS boards. So maybe most fans of the game felt opposite to what I thought since I really only looked at one demographic.

      In any case, I’m happy to hear you agree that not every game needs boss battles, especially in games where a big fight simply doesn’t make sense.

  2. Metal Gear Solid 3 has many awesome boss fights – especially the both emotional and epic fight against The Boss herself. Also, each boss battle is different, and requires mastery of different gameplay.
    The Force Unleashed, however, is obnoxious with boss fights. While the lightsaber mechanics are awesome, the reliance on 1. Similar fights (Another rancor, another ATST), and 2. quick time events – can’t I just slash Darth Vader or the Emperor and be done?

  3. Every Metal Gear Solid game has had fantastic boss battles. They’re fun to play and they work very well within the entire narrative. While I love me some Force Unleashed, I do agree with the points you made. The bosses are really repetitive and sometimes cheap, and then you simply press a few buttons to end the fight once they get down to a certain level of health. And fighting the same bosses over and over again isn’t fun either, as you said.

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