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The Game Effect Editorial

5 Key Elements of the Ultimate Boss Fight

We're brainstorming a boatload of ways to keep gaming's biggest encounters fun and interesting.

By Justin Hellstrom on 2/11/2011
Boss battles have been a staple of gaming since Mario was jumping over barrels and climbing ladders to smack Donkey Kong upside the head. Now we fight Brumaks in Gears of War while our friends twirl Jiggly Puff into the Master Hand(s) in Super Smash Brothers. We've seen Sephiroth make complex math equations appear on the other side of the galaxy and crash a gigantic meteor into a planet. We've pounded a giant nail through Chronos' jaw while playing as Kratos (freaking awesome). We've lost count of how many times we've shoved the Master Sword into Gannondorf and thrown Bowser into a bomb or dropped him into a pit of lava. And, of course, we've thrown our respective controllers through a window after finally beating a giant lava armadillo in Ninja Gaiden 2, only to have it explode in a nuclear blast and end our lives. Wtf?

With so many of these encounters in existence, it's easy to ask ourselves this question: Is the idea of a boss getting old? Yes and no. Maybe, well, possibly--actually who knows? Yeah, there are tons of good bosses in games and lots of bad ones too, but the whole idea and concept of a boss can lose its appeal and grow stale. At the same time we still come across bosses that can make us jump for joy and yell like Xena the Warrior Princess. So what distinguishes the good from the bad? Well, we're coming up with five things that make for great boss fights and pinpointing ways to keep these encounters fun, engaging, and rewarding while avoiding clichés (for the most part). At the end we're going to throw all of these elements together in order to craft a boss battle so extreme it'd blow the controller (or mouse) right out of our hands.   

                                  Bad guys power their giant aircraft with the darndest things.  

1. Size: Big vs. Small  

Huge bosses are simply awesome to fight. They can make our jaws drop when they appear and often make us curse as we wonder how the hell we're going to take the fu**** down. They move slowly, but cause a lot of damage while leaving a wake of destruction in their path.  They either triumphantly explode or fall to the ground as the player stands tall in victory. The first Colossus in Shadow of the Colossus is Valus, and of course, it's gigantic. Killing Valus does just about everything other than make you feel good; your character can't even use his giant club. 

Then there are the small bosses. No, not mini-bosses, but the ones that are the height of your average human/thing, or even smaller. They are still extraordinarily strong and often nimble, with a lot of them being able to teleport, too. Hermes from God of War 3 is a great example of a small, fast, yet amazingly annoying and weak boss. Zeus is a better example, being able to teleport and deal some pretty severe damage while only being the size of Kratos (except in GoW 2 when they both grow to super-giant sizes). Most of these fights usually end with the bad guy down on the ground trying to give some defiant speech about how your character is still going to fail, with the occasional villain seeing the error of his/her ways and saying something encouraging, or coughing up information. This can be pretty satisfying, but we're going to try and overload this concept in our own ultimate boss battle. 

2. Fighting: Control vs Cinematic

This is interesting. In most fights you're in constant control of what's going on, but there are times when the game will take the controller out of your hands and do some awesome stuff for you. For example, look at summons in FFVII where you pick your attack and then kick back and watch as a giant monster decimates whatever it is you're fighting. Flash forward in the series and you're able to ride said monsters to control their attacks and movements. God of War nails this too, with a good bit of fighting relying on timed button presses in order for Kratos to stab, pummel, and rip apart gods and titans before finishing them off.   

This is a pretty cool technique that balances the film like quality of the encounter with your control over it, but sometimes it takes away from some of the difficulty of a fight. The real key here is to switch over to completely different controls (instead of quicktime button press events) while maintaining the difficulty. This could involve anything from taking control of a vehicle to using the environment in complex ways to inflict damage on the boss. Resistance 2 starts to get at this in the fight with the utterly massive Leviathan, but they fall a bit short. Yes, the whole scene is very cool but it really isn't too hard since the majority of it is scripted. Giving the player more control over the explosives, detonations, and overall movement would have given everyone a greater sense of accomplishment in taking that bad boy down. 

3. Changing Forms

A conservative estimate of how many bosses change forms during a fight would lie somewhere between the 99% & 99.9% region. They either start off small or big and after you inflict enough damage they enter ape-sh** mode. They either grow or shrink in size, and seem to always change up their attacks, techniques, and or form. They transform so much that it would make Optimus Prime pop Xanax like pez to stave off his overwhelming insecurity. The transformations are pretty cool, but after a while they can get really annoying. You know that after the guy is laying on the ground near dead that it's only a matter of time before he gets up and goes berserk. You have to switch up your attacks to match theirs and woopdee-do, you're at it again. This is fairly prominent in Ninja Gaiden, as it rarely comes as any surprise when the bones of whatever you just killed reforms into another boss.

So what can really be done here? Again changing the entire dynamics of the fight is the way to go. Spoiler Alert: In The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess you fight one of the main protagonists, Zant, in a pretty epic fight. Yes, he changes forms, but he does it after teleporting you to the location of just about every other boss fight in the game. This was really awesome (although not very challenging) and can be applied in a lot of ways (fighting through your own memories in the style of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind would be insanely cool, too). Again, Shadow of the Colossus will have you using the environment to your advantage in some cases and then make it a living nightmare for you to get through.

4. The Stakes

This goes beyond the boss itself and extends through the entire game. Why are we fighting in the first place? We've played through many of these scenarios. The world/galaxy/universe is going to blow up. People are going to be enslaved. A loved one is going to be murdered. We're getting revenge for reasons X, Y and Z. If the story is good enough and we're connected to the characters then it doesn't matter if we're playing along with one of these stereotypical situations. However, a lot of times we're fighting a boss simply because it's a monster in our way. No real rhyme or reason to it. Kill or be killed. Yes, there's a lot at risk here for our character but the same goes for the bad guys, too. Are they simply going to die? Or is their consciousness going to be ripped out of their skull and injected into a computer where they'll be reincarnated into the minds of the million or so people they slaughtered (being forced to live out all the pain and suffering they caused over and over again for eternity). I'll take the reincarnation computer mind prison, please. In general, power is usually the main item for which everyone is fighting. Everyone from Dr. Robotnik, to the Gravemind and The Flood in Halo, is looking for control, but that's conveyed pretty easily. 

So what's the happy medium here? Do the stakes need to be really personal or involve whole civilizations? Well, again, maybe it's a mix of both as well as the scale of it all. We're more than likely fighting a very personal battle that has wide reaching implications, but how do we convey that? How do we bring all of the emotion that stems from our friends and family that have fought, or even died, to get us here, and plug it into a fight? How do we give that fight meaning. Well there could be a few ways. One is bringing up the past and using it in the present. Something Splinter Cell: Conviction absolutely nails by projecting backstory and memories onto Sam Fisher's surroundings in real time. Another way is through dialogue during the fight. Most RPGs love to have their characters chat it up before, during, and after a fight, but this technique can fail. Most Final Fantasy games have at least a few examples of good dialogue, but some games, like Grandia 2, seem to entail a bit too much talk and overacting. 

                             Backstory and memories are projected onto the environment in Conviction.

5. The Final Blow  

We are eventually going to beat the boss. This is pretty much a given. After it changes forms several times and utters prophecies of eternal damnation and so forth, we'll be glad to see it dead. But how does it finally end? The formula (if you can really call it that) involves beating the boss down again and again until it stays down. Is this as rewarding as it gets? In some ways. There's something to be said for starting off a massive fight feeling somewhat inadequate, and ultimately coming out on top. But there can be more than that. A lot more.

Think of Tom Hanks near the end of Saving Private Ryan. He's lying on the ground with a German tank headed straight for him while helplessly shooting at it with a pistol. It's obvious to him and the viewer that it's not going to do anything. But when he pulls that trigger for about the fifth time, boom. The tank explodes, and then we realize that planes overhead have dropped a bomb.  For a few seconds though, we are allowed to think it was the pistol. The feeling in those few seconds is absolutely fantastic. After all he's been through, lost, and seen, he still holds out until the very end and comes out on top (err, kind of). You get the point though. Prying yourself out of the jaws of defeat and then ripping them in half can be a lot more entertaining and moving than just bopping something on the head over and over again (sorry Mario). For instance, you'd be hard pressed to find someone who didn't wet themselves at the end of FFVII when Cloud's limit break filled up to unleash omnislash just by looking at Sephiroth.  Spoiler Alert: Toon Link shoving the Master Sword through Gannon's head at the end of LoZ: Wind Waker was quite a memorable scene as well. Music can play a huge role too, like in Metal Gear Solid 4 when the soundtracks from the previous games play while Snake lays a beat-down on Liquid Ocelot.

These all encompass the elements of a great boss battle, and stand high above many of the other boss fights that have faded from our collective memories. For instance, the fight at the end of Gunvalkyrie for the original Xbox with the frustratingly stupid final baby-boss-with-wings thing. If you find yourself remembering this fight, we are really sorry for bringing it up again.

Head over to the next page and we'll make up for it by showing you our own legendary boss fight using the best qualities from this list.

TGE Extreme Boss Fight: 

Our character steps out onto a plateau overlooking his home town, only the town has just transformed into a massive monster; it's head taking the shape of a lion, morphed from the town cathedral. We're going to call this thing Leo. As he watches sunlight reflect of his spires, the ground begins to shake and the church doors open up; that's right, a smaller boss emerges from the opening like a Russian nesting doll. To make things even more interesting, we're going to switch up their abilities, too. Leo is going to have extremely quick attacks (most being slightly less powerful), be able to run around like Sonic and teleport until we break your neck trying to keep up. Something the size of a small town that shoot lasers out of their mouth, and has whole castles for fists. Sound good? The small one, let's say he's a small boy named Hal, is going to be slow, really slow, like he's made out of dark matter and black holes. There are going to be moon sized craters where this little guy walks. Craters. And if he gets near us, or we see him gearing up for an attack, we're going to crap ourselves in fear before he blows our head off into another dimension. Put simply: he's going to rock our sh**. 

So what to do with our city-sized boss and little kid? Since Hal is stronger we'll use that to our advantage, positioning ourselves so that when he fires his attack it misses us. Enter cinematic. That attack whizzes out of the battlefield and strikes a giant power station, resulting in a massive explosion that ripples through the ground below. In that ripple, a 17 mile wide underground particle accelerator is unearthed, snaps, attaches itself to Leo and overloads him with enough electricity to power the Sun for 5.3 minutes. Then we come in, and by hopping on Leo's big cathedral face we're able to take control over his actions and movement. Now we're controlling lasers, big fists and teleportation. This switches up the fight in a blockbuster action-sequence type of way, but lets the player stay in control. Hal is getting pretty pissed, too. Good job. 

So we're riding on Leo's head while running around attempting to flatten the boy into a pancake. Well, he's not going to take much of that for too long. In an unprecedented burst of speed, Hal is right in our face and punches us right square in the jaw. Now remember, the big boss is essentially a city, so we get knocked back into the middle center part of "uptown."  We look back and the giant head turns 180 degrees, but now its mouth opens and his castle hands shift up to form some really big teeth. Now the street we're on starts to rise on one end and we start sliding down towards that gnashing mouth with dozens of cars rolling past, and people tumbling to their deaths. We turn and run up the slanted street but there's our little buddy, standing at the top ready to feed us to his pet. Here the boss has technically changed forms (to a degree) but more importantly it has changed the environment and the way we have to think about fighting. Spend too much fighting the boy and, well, nom nom nom. Too much time on the face and we'll get railed from behind. However, wounding Hal to the point where we have enough time to plant explosives in one of the cars sliding to its grave sounds like a sound strategy. Stand back and watch it go boom in Leo's mouth. Repeat 2 or 3 times to burst the stained glass window on its forehead for best results. Yes, the whole repetition of the same attack is a boss cliché, but Ian Pavlov proved it takes about that many times for an animal or person to change its behavior in most cases. (Psychology can be used to make games better instead of making the general population hate them, believe it or not.)

Now to add some more depth and meaning to this fight. As we continue to battle our way through the city, we start to recognize various buildings and their significance to our character. Memories of exploring those streets with friends could actually project like an old movie onto the walls of buildings, like in Splinter Cell: Conviction. There could even be hallucinations like in Dead Space 2 that bring up the past and throw it into the present to help you (sort of). We'll see that old shop keeper we always bought from fall into that monster's mouth, just out of reach and watch as he is crunched to pieces. This makes us want to eviscerate Leo and watch him writhe in pain. The fight is personal and global, and we can use the town and the items in it to our advantage. Didn't that shopkeeper have a huge hidden store of explosives hidden behind his house? Better grab Hal and check it out with a lit magnesium flare, don't you think?

Okay. So we've blown a hole straight through Leo, our hometown-come-to-life monster, but he's still moving. Hal hasn't let up much either. We empty another clip on him and he starts to laugh. We switch weapons and try again, but every time we try to shoot, our character takes aim, then shakes his or her head and puts the gun down. What's the point now? We're about to just put the controller down and watch our face get melted off for probably the fifth time when we suddenly there is a loud booming noise. We see a leg made out of half a dozen apartment complexes explode and take Leo down to his knees. That's right, it's being nuked from orbit (it's the only way to be sure). Our comm line opens up and our friends that previously left us have decided to help out by launching hyper-velocity rod bundles from low Earth orbit. Now the mechanics switch up again. We paint the targets to be hit with a laser, switching from Hal to Leo, making sure to pick locations on him where there aren't masses of people. Launch launch launch. Our city lets out a final howl as it slumps back to its rightful place: the ground (where it can't eat us or other people). The citizens flee to a bar in the next town over, they deserve it. 

After his pet has been taken out, Hal is rightfully enraged, but is equally as exhausted; wheezing and struggling to stand. We've got some bullets left and put one right into his chest (calm down, he probably just looks like a kid).

What gets said now? Movies and games often teach us that when you have a gun in your hand you automatically come up with awesome one-liners. This isn't true in real life, but hey, this is a video game with a massive cathedral monster that got electrically shocked by a giant particle accelerator. However, it doesn't hurt to have character development stay realistic, but this all really depends on the game, and the mood and feel it's going for. So here we are, with Hal gasping for life as blood trickles from the hole in his chest, staining his blue shirt.

He looks up and says, "That was my favorite shirt." We now either bestow upon him one last snippet of human kindness before he's sentenced to an eternity of pain and suffering, or we let him know we're going to curb stomp his face after he's dead.

So we reply with either: "Sorry," and grit our teeth through a smile.  Or we say, "It's going to burn off in hell anyway."
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Shakaku on September 25, 2011
SOTC had some fun bosses, but GOW takes the cake on epic boss fights...the wrath of azura might match that tho
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zjmiller488 on July 04, 2011
Hahahaha Love the ending, I would love your guy's boss battle! =)
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hexwar on June 20, 2011
I have never played any God of War games but from the videos I've seen, the boss battles look pretty epic and fun.
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Shakaku on September 25, 2011
dude what are you waitin for? lol
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Merfyz on January 01, 2012
I'm waiting to buy a PS3...
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animeaccess on May 15, 2011
It's weird how God of War makes me love to kill in these video games..... Maybe it is just the gory content of it. :P
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calfyk on May 15, 2011
i would say the God of War series have redefined what is considered as an epic boss battle.
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