On Endings, Or Why Bosses Make the Game

Let’s kick the week off with a writer whose general observation blog partially inspired me to get writing several years ago.

—Written by Soapman—

—Edited/formatted by Vagrantesque—

Games are made and games are ruined by their finale. Rage, for example, is a gloriously fun game, but its finale leaves a bitter taste in the mouth, and I find myself unwilling to play it again, knowing its ending. The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword, however, despite being one of my least favourite Zelda games, has such a fantastic, frantic, and dramatic finale, that I find myself constantly wanting to play the game again, just to beat the boss. It is therefore the finale, in particular the boss, which I discuss in the following collection of words.

When I was but a small thing, roughly pint sized, I used to play Streets of Rage on the Sega Mega Drive with my cousins. You may not know the game (in which case shame on you) but it was a fairly standard button mashing arcade beat-em-up for the time, in which lead pipes, baseball bats and unrealistic throws were used to thump on hordes of faceless, pixelated bad guys. The end of each level was crowned with a boss fight, as is traditional, right, and proper. Now, these bosses varied in appearance and attacks; their main similarities being that they were bigger than your run of the mill opponent and did substantially more damage. Nevertheless, despite their skills, if you pummelled them long enough, with many shouts at your teammate for ‘sucking hard core’ (it was the nineties), mashing the attack button until your thumb went numb, they were defeated and you were ‘slammin’ (again, nineties). This, attractive and friendly readers, is an example of a good boss, but what makes it good? First, a bit of categorisation.

Now, there are two ways a boss fight can go down, as I see it. First, as in the Streets of Rage example, is through simple pummelling. It is the boss fight where you continue shooting/chopping/bashing your opponent until he submits to the overwhelming might of your hero and his ridiculous fighting skills. Let’s call this type the Pummel Boss. The second direction a boss fight can take is brought about the Puzzle Boss (see what I did there?), and it is, as the name implies, essentially a giant puzzle which results in you defeating your opponent. Some of the best executed examples of this can regularly be found in the Legend of Zelda series, in which each boss is a perfectly executed culmination of the puzzles which preceded him. Don’t worry, this is going somewhere. I shall now describe what I think are the two main points in an ideal boss battle.

First, a boss must have character. Bosses provide a finale unmatched even by hordes of minions. There is no sweeter satisfaction than the final cutscene, knowing that your ammunition is all spent, your health all but gone, yet your mighty hero still stands, having defeated some legendary, violent, oversized, mentally unstable, and uber-aggressive foe. It is this which gives your victory the sweet taste. It is only facing a worthy opponent that makes it all worthwhile. Therefore, I must condemn any game (I’m looking at you Rage) that disappoints in this area, or indeed any game which gives you nothing but a collection of minions who are brushed aside contemptuously. It is not merely the challenge which makes the climax, but the size of the challenger.

There is another point which must be discussed on this topic. It is all very well to have a boss with character, someone to hate, love, and slay. The manner in which the fight plays out is of equal importance. The uninitiated might think, having read the above categories, that the type of boss will depend on the type of game. For a puzzle-oriented game, such as a Legend of Zelda title, the boss would be a Puzzle Boss, and for an action game, such as Streets of Rage, the boss would be a Pummel Boss. That is what the uninitiated might think. Those of us who have the thousand-yard-stare, and the look of a man who has seen too many horrors in video games, know that this is not true. We know that in the heart of many a near perfect FPS there is a canker. There is the disappointing finale of a Puzzle Boss, after many enjoyable hours of simple blasting. Too many times, such as in Daikatana, or Turok, I have found that the boss must be defeated by pulling This switch, running to the other side of the map, and pulling That switch. Worse yet is the end of Bioshock, or the giant mutant in Metro Last Light, when you must defeat the boss by shooting random sections of the environment rather than blazing away at the boss himself. What I propose, my well disposed readers, is not revolutionary, it is simply this: “Let the Boss fit the Game, the Boss fit the Game.”

There are, of course, many other aspects of the boss which must be considered if he is to be considered perfect, but I think you will find that they all fall under these two broad categories. Consider any of the great bosses, such as Ganondorf, Sephiroth, the Cyberdemon. They have character, and the fight feels right. So I leave you with this slogan, which may be used to identify the Great Bosses: “The Boss you Love and Hate, is the Boss you Love to Slay.”

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