So I'm fighting this giant eyeball. I don't know why it's an eyeball — I guess it's a demon or something, but I don't know why it takes the shape of a giant eyeball — or why it's surrounded by coloured tiles, or why it keeps emitting clouds of fog. All I know is that it's in front of me, and I have to beat it, and in order to do that I have to spend around 20, 30, maybe even 45 minutes directing my characters to attack, heal and boost their defence with the right abilities at the right times.
Once I defeat this eyeball, I'll be rewarded with some dialogue. A cut-scene, maybe. More of the story, and more dungeons to plow through. More things to do.
So I keep fighting.
We've been conditioned to accept a lot of absurd things in video games — weapons clipping through walls, NPCs repeating the same lines every time you talk to them, nobody batting an eyelash as you steal from their dressers — but none are as absurd as the JRPG boss fight.
Take Kefka, for example. At the end of Final Fantasy VI, the game's demonic clown antagonist turns into a half-naked angel that hovers over a tower of three other bosses. As you beat each boss, the screen shifts to reveal the next one. Their bizarre visages and contortions (see: image to the left) are never quite explained, nor is Kefka's sudden divinity.
We fight Kefka and his goddess lackeys because we're at the end of the game, and he's the Big Bad Antagonist, and in a game where most of what you do is fight monsters, it makes sense that you'd end your journey by fighting the most powerful monster. You have to fight him, and defeat him, and kill him, because that's the only way to save the world and reach some level of catharsis.
This has become something of a genre tradition. Is there a single JRPG without a boss battle of some sort? Sometimes those boss battles are kind of gimmicky, like the final fight in Earthbound, during which you beat the alien (or maybe aborted fetus?) Giygas not with all the attacks you've been powering up for 40-something hours, but with an ability called Pray, which you probably tried once and then never looked at again because it's pretty useless in general.
But even in Japanese RPGs that don't have *traditional* final battles, there are always tough fights. There are always bosses, always tricky battles against winged demons and nasty squid monsters and giant eyeballs that need killing. Speed bumps. Obstacles to hurdle on your way to saving the world.
So what's the point? Why have these oft-absurd boss fights become such an integral part of a JRPG's structure? Why do we feel like every dungeon has to end with a powerful enemy encounter? Why do boss fights matter?
Let's try to answer that.
There's something undeniably satisfying about beating a tough boss.
Say there are two types of JRPGs: those where challenges are based on the character's ability, and those where challenges are based on the player's ability. In the first group, you'll succeed or fail based on the game's internal maths. Is your hero a high enough level? Does he have the right level of fire spell? Is his strength stat competent enough?
In the second type of JRPG, you'll succeed or fail based on how fast you can pull a trigger. Are your instincts honed enough to dodge at the perfect time? Can you figure out the best way to shoot down that tank without getting your shocktroopers killed?
Either way, you'll spend most of your time fighting regular battles as you adventure through fields and dungeons. You'll hit the attack button, slash some orcs, whatever. Then you run into a boss: maybe a marauding kraken that attacks your ship mid-journey, or an undead warrior at the end of a haunted catacomb. It's a tougher encounter than the ones you're used to fighting, and it usually takes more thought than your average battle. Higher levels. More dodging.
When you beat that boss, if it's a well-designed, challenging boss, you'll feel a jolt of relief. Hey, I did it. No more struggling. No more grinding. At this point, the best JRPGs will throw in some awesome death animation that makes the moment even more satisfying. Sometimes you'll want to fist pump. Don't fist pump. That's embarrassing.
But whether you're smacking down former friends or giant eyeballs, it's hard to deny that brief moment of satisfaction that hits you just as they start to disintegrate. It's an invigorating experience.
We want to take down the big bad monster.
We as human beings are conditioned to root for the underdog. We want David to win, not Goliath. And when we watch our man-sized JRPG hero take on a monstrous, fifty-foot snake — and win! — we feel a certain sort of empathy. Not just because we're playing as that hero. Because we're stoked for the little guy. We want the odds defeated.
One of the biggest draws of the Suikoden games is that they tell stories about groups of people who overcome obstacles that should be insurmountable. People who take on massive empires and live to tell the tale. Underdogs finding victory.
So maybe that's why Final Fantasy IX could never really end with Zidane taking on Kuja: there needed to be some sort of giant divine hellbeast to come out and pose a real challenge. Maybe that's why Kefka needs to turn into a god. For us to empathise, the playing field can't be equal. We need something bigger.
Sometimes you've just gotta shake things up.
For all of its merits, the traditional JRPG is undeniably repetitive. Monster sprites are often re-used, menu-based battles sometimes feel like tests of how many times you can press the same button without killing yourself, and even the most interesting dungeons can start to drag after a floor or three.
Boss battles, in many ways, are a paradox: they are simultaneously obstacles and rewards. Congratulations, you slogged through this ten-floor tower: now you get to see what the boss looks like! Without a boss fight, what would you have?
Some have argued that boss battles are an unnecessary convention that JRPG creators only stick with out of some misguided sense of tradition. Some say that bosses are obsolete, that the things you do in a game should be interesting enough that the designers don't need to shake things up.
But I say bring on the giant eyeballs. And when I die after 45 minutes of fighting, when I scream and curse and resolve to spend another two hours grinding for levels just so I don't have to go through that shit again, well... that just makes victory all the more satisfying.
Random Encounters is a weekly column dedicated to all things JRPG.