Charlie Brooker hates them. He said: “Whenever I encounter a boss in any game, I’m just hugely depressed.”
“It’s like I have to learn a dance routine. Just stop it!” He also said that. “No game has ever benefited from a boss fight, surely. No one’s ever gone, “Oh good, a boss fight. Brilliant! I can’t wait to get to the boss level.””
I disagree. I love boss fights. I love them: the adrenaline dump, the challenge. The chance to perform. Do your worst.
The climax, a dramatic device. Here is a thing that seems impossible. Unconquerable. It may kill you, it probably will kill you. It might confuse you, but soon you will master it. You will tame this boss. It will eventually feel easy and you will feel like an immortal master of all you survey.
Boss battles, when done right, have the potential to feel like this.
When done wrong boss battles are exactly as Brooker describes them. Shit diversions. An extra layer of chore atop a pile of dishes. The laundry you forgot about. You just set the dishwasher to run, and there’s that mould encrusted pot. Goddammit.
That moment occurs if boss battles are too easy. Too predictable as to become rote. When your victory is a bland inevitability boss battles are nothing but a sweaty collection of polygons halting your progress to the next level, to the next area, to the next goal. Nothing but an annoyance. A fly to be swatted, a mosquito sucking at the energy in your veins. Bosses like that are the worst.
The Smelter Demon. I had heard tales of his prowess in tweets scattered across the realm. He who must not be named. His name sat comfortably next to the expletives ‘fuck’ ‘bastard’ and worse depending on the tweeter. Then — Hours later, sometime days — the relief. All caps. FUCK YOU FUCK YOU I JUST BEAT THE SMELTER DEMON.
He brings the worst out in people.
I was one hit away from killing him once.
Over confident. Like a gun out of ammo I click-click-clicked the right bumper. Out of stamina. One sword swipe away from a fiery demise. DEAD.
I tossed my controller actually into the air in a casual rage. It almost hit the ceiling. My wife’s face popped over the laptop screen with furrowed brows of disapproval, completely confused at how/why a video game could elicit such a reaction. She didn’t understand. How could she possibly understand.
I had stumbled across the Smelter Demon by accident. I was blazing with false confidence, 10,000 souls in my back pocket, having handily disposed of the last three bosses first time. When the words ‘Smelter Demon’ appeared on my TV screen the air escaped from my lungs. Rapidly.
Fuck. I’m dead.
His reputation preceded him, but I attacked nonetheless and I found myself actually being successful. The techniques I had acquired from previous boss battles were working. I was circling round his attacks, I was managing my stamina perfectly, my shield was absorbing his blows. Before I knew it I had him at half health. ‘What’s the big deal with this guy?’ I asked myself.
I could do this first time. I can do this. This is… easy?
There was, of course, a twist.
At one point, I didn’t quite notice at first, The Smelter Demon had set himself on fire. He had then set his sword on fire. At this point his blows did more damage and, worse, my shield could no longer absorb his blows. He killed me. Easily. Almost instantly.
‘I can do this,’ I said to myself. I said it to myself a further five times. Death. The precise same point each time. Pretty soon I was rephrasing that statement. It now took the form of a question:
‘Can I do this?’
The Smelter Demon may be the most perfect boss battle in all of games. “I feel like he should be easy,” said my brother, who had real difficulty disposing of him. He is not easy.
Yet, it’s a battle that never completely crushes you. A battle that beats you senseless, but never robs you of that last shred of hope. ‘Can I do this?’ The question remains, but the answer never changes. ‘Yes, I can do this.’
One more go.
By consensus Ornstein & Smough is probably the most difficult boss battle in the original Dark Souls. As an under-levelled melee focused character I’ll never forget the sheer despair of that encounter. This. Felt. Impossible. It was a battle that forced me to turn of the console. Take a break. An encounter that forced me to completely re-spec my character; to level grind. Difficult in a different way. Perhaps a more unfair way.
The Smelter Demon encounter was different. It’s a battle fuelled by sheer drama. It has a delicate pace. The initial battle charge, a few safe hits. He attacks, but you are comfortable. You find a rhythm, you take risks. You gain confidence.
He ramps up the pressure. Sets himself on fire. Now everything becomes increasingly difficult, but still manageable.
‘Yes, I can do this.’
A few more hits. Your health decreases. Still manageable.
‘I’m doing this’.
The latter stages of the battle. The Smelter Demon sets his own sword on fire. The stakes increase. Now your crutch, your shield, is completely useless. His sword slices right through your defences.
Like a claustrophobic nightmare, your feet feel like lead. You try to run but he keeps gaining on you gaining on you. Nothing has changed, essentially. The Smelter Demon’s attack patterns have not evolved and – frustratingly – you can still read them. Without the benefit of a shield they simply become more difficult to avoid. This battle has irrevocably transformed from something you could coast through to an encounter that requires your precise mastery and perfect timing.
And you must be able to take the pressure.
Two straight hours of this. That is how I spent my Monday evening. Over and over again. I never truly felt disheartened, not even at that moment when, in my impatience, I swung my sword to a click-click-click and died one slash away from victory.
In the end I was glad for that defeat. 45 minutes later, in complete control, in a zen-like trance I comfortable rolled, evading attack after attack. As I struck the final blow my heart-rate stubbornly refused to waver. Complete mastery. An understanding of the stakes, a slow control of the drama, a perfect understanding of what had to be done. A supreme reward.