Like a boss
Boss fights, contrary to increasingly popular opinion, do not have to be a bore. True, more sophisticated game design is leading to a degree of boss redundancy, as dramatic, narrative peaks and troughs come to replace standout moments of gameplay panic. But the boss fight itself does not need to be an outdated concept. It just needs to drop some of the outdated tropes and cliches that are holding it back.
What are those tropes and cliches? There’s a dubious bounty of them, but these are the eight biggest offenders we’ve picked out.
Needlessly regenerating health
So its been a tough fight. Youve struck, dodged, parried, comboed and evaded with military precision for the last twenty minutes or so, maximising every attack window available and pulling tactical downtime to an absolute minimum. And youve finally, nearly, shaved the boss health down to nothing.
But wait, whats this? The boss health bar is going the wrong way. Its filling back up again. Have you hit it so hard that youve managed to reverse time? Are your attacks so furious as to have actually broken the very laws of physics themselves? Or is the boss just a big cheating dickhead, and its designers a little out of touch with the location of the line between Satisfyingly challenging and Suicidally demoralising? Deep in your heart, you know the answer.
The cowardly minion distraction
Its been a tough but honourable battle thus far. You and the boss have respectfully weighed up each others abilities and are now engaged in a chivalrous dialogue of attack and defence. Youre both fighting an enemy of course, and eventually one must revel in the demise of the other, but in the heat of the fight, the purity of the moment, you appreciate the staunch test of life-affirming self-improvement imparted by your foe.
But then s/he goes and ruins it all by running away and throwing a mob of mooks at you, and forcing you to grind through the lot of them before (or even while) attempting to hit your main target again. The chickenshit. You thought s/he was better than that. But no. Theyre not worthy of the Boss mantle. Theyre middle-management at best.
Attacks from the background
Its a 2D game. Although rendered in resolute pancake-vision, you know that youre battling through a real world, constructed as it is of its own solid, cohesive, dependable rules. You move from left to right, you understand that anything to the side of you is actually right in front of you, and you smash it up accordingly.
But then a boss decides that its going to be a clever bugger and attack from the back of the screen. Which effectively means that its attacking from your left or right flank. And the control set-up doesnt change, so youre forced to haphazardly engage it in an entirely unconvincing way, using attacks designed for enemies coming from the front, thus negating all the rules of spatial control, evasion and hit-boxes youve learned over the preceding several hours. Its all a bit vague and rubbish, and the boss is a big pretentious jerk-head for trying to be different just for the sake of it.
A good boss pushes the games core mechanics to the absolute limit, and forces the player to do the same in order to earn victory. A good boss does not simply ignore the games core mechanics and engineer artificial difficulty by making previously dependable tactics about as useful as throwing a butterfly attack squadron at a Sherman tank patrol. A good boss is a kind of final exam; a test of everything the player has learned about the game, and a yardstick of his or her ability to wring the maximum effectiveness out of its systems. A good boss does not throw all of those systems out of the window and make up its own rules on the spot.
It does not block attacks mid-combo. It does not counter uncounterable moves. It does not just decide not to get hurt by clean hits. It is not called Shao Kahn.
Attritional HP grinding
A classic of unimaginative design, this one. Where a boss fight should be a creative test of the skills accrued by the player up to this point, forcing the player to refocus the games rules of interaction through hard-honed new understanding of the possibilities at hand, this type of boss fight spectacularly does none of that. Instead it simply gives a fairly dull enemy more hit-points than a large planet and swaps the labels on the jars marked Genuine challenge and Just takes bloody ages.
Two minutes to learn the boss attack patterns, two hours to repeat the combat loop until it eventually dies. Doubly annoying when suffered in conjunction with
Unclear hit feedback
Are you hurting it? Are you not? Is that ambiguous shuddery animation when you pepper it with lead an expression of pain, or just annoyance? Or maybe its just cold in here. Or maybe the boss is chuckling at your feeble attempts to damage it, but you cant hear it clearly because it chuckles in some special way that only eldritch abominations can understand. Who knows? Only the boss, and s/he isnt telling. Not until s/he dies. Which could be one bullet from now or never, for all the game is bothering to tell you.
Games, by all means eschew the clichd Big Red Glowing Thing Of Unambiguous Targeting. Its an old and tired design concept. But if you do, we need some other way to know that were doing the right thing. Like, you know, anything.
The ambiguously unkillable boss
There is one case in which a cutscene-driven boss fight is always acceptable, and thats when youre supposed to lose the fight, for narrative purposes. When executed properly, this can be a really effective plot twist, subverting the usual rules of game progression in order to send the story–and the direction of the game itself–off in a wholly unexpected direction. But, perhaps ironically, in order to work the surprise needs to be partially flagged up.
If a boss is supposed to be impossible to beat, and the players inevitable defeat leads not to a game over, but a new, unforeseen plot thread, then the twist needs to kick in quickly, ideally in a way that makes it clear to the player that theyre not dealing with a standard gameplay confrontation. Letting the player get through a couple of rounds before jumping to an indefensible super-attack cutscene is a cool way of doing it. Letting the player fight through half an hour of futile fake fighting, and allowing them to use up all their supplies along the way, is not.
Long fight, short dialogue list
Youll never defeat me!
HA! Is that all youve got?
Such a weak, miserable opponent
Youll never defeat me!
HA! Is that all youve got?
Such a weak, miserable
Now witness my true form!
So those are the biggest lumps of hackneyed old boss fight grot we want to see purged through the pipes of gaming waste. But how about you? Staunch defender of the noble boss battle, or do you never want to whack a big glowing red bulge ever again? And if so, what are your biggest problems with the format? Let us know in the comments.
And while you’re here, why not check out some of our related (and tenuously related stuff)? Try out The Top 7… Mini-bosses who were better than the final boss (opens in new tab), and then maybe take a look at How to be a video game guard: A professional guide (opens in new tab).