The Greatest Boss Battle In Gaming: How I Learned To Love The Smelter Demon

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.

Victory Achieved.


Comments

    I know this is a terribly underwhelming insight - known by all who play Dark Souls - but this article truly reminded of the most interesting element of the franchise for me: The shared experience of those who have taken on the same difficulty I suffered and the same toil, and the same struggle but in the end received the victory they so deserved - this is what ensnares me with this game.

    Whenever I see a Dark Souls article I need to read it - I want to share that experience, vicariously with my fellow DS2 players and it feels good. The in-game messages are Tweets - a smattering of internal grunts shared on the floor for all to witness.

    But having the full internal dialogue spelled out in these articles, well this elicits an intense reaction to feel connected - so far apart but together through shared heartache and joy.

    Thanks as always for sharing Mark. And well done.

    Touche Mr Serrells!

    I thought today you had decided not to shove Dark Souls down our throat for the thousandth time, but alas here it is.

    April Fools on me hey!

    Article upvote!

    That opening quote about bosses really bugs me too. Always reminds me of people who complain about the need to actually play a game getting in the way of seeing the next bit of story or something.

      I think it depends on the game. If the game is designed around bosses and thus they are done well then awesome. But if they are just there for the sake of it then they are annoying.

    The guy who said ni game has ever benefitted from a boss fight obviously never played metal gear solid

      Or Shadow Of The Colossus.

        Or even God of War (Some EPIC bosses that while easy still make you feel like... well... a god!)

    The Smelter Demon was an alright fight when you don't get stabbed into the wall and stuck there because of the glitches... It's kind of crap that bosses take reduced damage when they do their scripted sequences (eg. Smelter's fire aura and then fire sword enchant) . If I take full damage when I'm drinking Estus Juice, or enchanting my weapon, or whatever, they should too.

    While most bosses have been kind of a disappointing tank'n'spank affair, Smelter is second in the list of bosses I struggle with due to my troubles working out where I should be rolling in response to his attacks. The first in my list is the stupid chariot, only because it's a cheap fight like the Capra Demon. If it weren't for the Zerg rushing skeletons (aka. That one dog at the start), the fight would be incredibly easy. My best boss so far has been the Belfry Gargoyles.

    Last edited 01/04/14 1:50 pm

      The Smelter Demon was a walk in the park with the Gayrim or whatever that shield is called with 100% physical and fire defense. Turned out to be one of the easiest bosses in the game.

      Which in itself is an interesting thing - namely that there is an element of having the right gear for each encounter. Some gear that you only find in another area that will make your life much easier in another.

      That goes the same for say having a high magic defense shield before you hit Shrine of Amana.

    I didn't really have an issue with the smelter demon, I'd seen my housemate cursing him to the high heaven when he got to him and didn't think much of it. I basically just tanked it with the gyrm greatshield. So I only had to deal with the slow drain from the fire damage. I had more issues with the old iron king because I'd summon everyone and then get really anxious to not get in peoples path and WHAM dead

      Exactly this. He was really easy with that shield. An interesting boss due to how the game changes as the fight progresses, something you don't see with all the other bosses.

      And in NG+ they have new moves too!

        he was definitely an interesting take on the multistage boss fight. I am looking forward to ng+, but first I need to finish the game and then go out and murder everything till it stops respawning and then take a walking tour of drangleic

    I've been thinking lately about how underwhelming most game endings are these days either due to no big final battle or because they keep making them so damn easy, like the article says a good boss battle done right leaves you with a great sense of accomplishment and gives closure. I'm not saying every game should have an insanely hard boss just a bit of a challenge so I can feel like I've "beaten" the game not just "completed" it. Too often I'm left staring at credits thinking "is that it?" Most recently Infamous Second Son (minor final battle spoiler) awesome game, I got up to the boss and thought "oooh big scary boss" but found it to be easier than a lot of the standard goon mobs wondering the city, felt a little unsatisfied but it was one of the better bosses in recent memory

      Yeah, I finished DS2 last night and the end really, really does qualify as an, "Is that it?" moment.
      Which felt kind of silly given everything I'd gone through to get there. But I kinda expected more of a payoff.

        The final boss was arguably too easy. Compared to other bosses in the game anyway. That in itself made it a little less climatic when you can beat _it_ (can't spoil things) in one go.

          I'd ruined it for myself by running that boss eleventy billion times in co-op without even knowing where it fit into the big picture. Before I'd even got to three or four bosses before it.

            Haha, that would have been a major spoiler.

            Given the current state of affairs in the gaming community, I'm surprised that:

            Nobody has yet complained about how women are portrayed in this game - in the case of the final boss, as an evil woman that's manipulated the king for her own gains. Or how the other women are portrayed:
            1. One is a talking pussy cat who keeps cracking on to you.
            2. One has a big cleavage and is totally clueless.
            3. One you can dress up as you desire, including skimpy wraps that barely cover any of her bits.
            4. One is the aforementioned manipulative queen.
            5. One is a traitor that you must invade and kill who's a big fat liar.
            6. One keeps repeating the same shit over and over again.
            Why are the feminists not jumping up and down about this game? :P

            Last edited 01/04/14 5:04 pm

              Well, on the plus side... most of them are in positions of power and in possession of their wits, which is more than can be said for the mostly-male mindless automatons.

    Yeah, Smelter Demon, Lost Sinner and Old Dragonslayer are my favourites so far. No gimmicky stuff, just you vs a badass who will murder you the moment your attention wavers.

    Anyone who was a raider in an MMORPG disagrees. We lived for boss battles. No-one liked clearing trash. It was all about the big dances. The real challenges.

    Some games are about the journey (like Deus Ex, where the boss battles ended up feeling bolted on because of it), but some are about the destination and the journey is just about powering up and learning so that you can take a shot at the climax.

    All bosses who win by means of The Game Is A Cheating Bastard automatically suck. Fighting game bosses who randomly go into patches where they block and counter every thing you do perfectly by reading your control inputs, I'm looking at YOU.

    Generally I love boss fights, especially if they make you feel awesome when you beat them (or while you are beating them). Think Bahamut with renzokuken in deep sea research center where you leaped from wing to wing slapping him about then drop slashed his head. Think Axel at the start of KH2 where you pull 2 keyblades and destroy him, hell, most of the kingdom hearts fights were pretty amazing. (I say most, I am well aware that the phrase "Dance water, dance" gives people nightmares).

    I think boss fights need to be like the final exam of an area where you put everything you learned up to this point to the test to beat out the boss.

    I mostly like Brooker, but that quote was so far off the mark. There are several games I ONLY play for the boss fights (Metal Gear Solid).

    Good write up Mark.

    Great article!

    This was the same experience I had except it took me about 3 hours to beat him. I ended up ditching the shield and learned how to love iframes. The rest of the game was a cake walk after that boss. Valuable Souls lessons learned.

    I spent 9 hours beating the Smelter Demon after making a stupid commitment not to go level elsewhere but to level myself. I hope they fix the glitch where you stick to the wall.

    I have finished DS II and it a great game but it lacks the in both consistently good boss battles and creature/boss/area design but most importantly it lacks that intangible thing called soul.

    This game failed (for me) to evoke the intense feeling of seeing Andor Londo for the first time or when you pop your head up into the upper level of Sens Fortress. I remember the terror that the bell of the mindflayers evoked or seeing those towering cthulthian demons waiting in that undead level of Demon Souls. Demon's Soul atmosphere of dread and isolation is unparalled.

    Demon/Dark Souls area design NPC's dialog combined with the boss battles all felt beautifully woven together with mystery and a mastery of the mood.

    DS II in my opinion suffers from not being the product of its artistic creator with the game having the feeling of being designed by committee rather than singular artistic vision.

    I believe in multiple playthroughs DS II will become a great multiplayer playground but as a single player experience I felt it just did not have the same emotional impact as its forebears. For me unfortunately it lacked soul. I personally did not want a dark souls II but unique souls game. But marketing and money trumped art. Still this game stands heads and shoulders over most other games which is a tribute to its creator and the team behind him. It's also a tribute the hardwork of those who worked on DS II.

    I think the smelter demon is a prime example of how not to do a boss fight. He has a lot of health and does a lot of damage, but that's about it. His attacks are slow and easy to dodge and his move set consists of about 3 variations on "swings a big sword at the player" and one ultra telegraphed area attack. The flaming sword gimmick is clever, and completely changes the battle mid fight. I like that a lot, but it doesn't make up for how dull the core boss is.

    Compare that to O&S: a grueling endurance match where the player had to juggle two completely different but complementary opponents, ration out their very limited healing items, and control the space of the battle. The entire battle O&S are trying to force you into a bad position, where they can both attack you at once, and you are trying force one of them out of the range of their partner so that you can actually get a hit in. However they are never separate for more than a few seconds and if you keep waiting around for the perfect opportunity, you'll run out of healing items. So the entire battle consists of you getting into and out of increasingly desperate scrapes. At no point during this battle do you ever feel comfortable or safe, death is right by your side, never more than a few seconds away. It's grueling, it's exciting, it's hard as hell and it's incredibly memorable.

    I'll remember O&S for the next 20 years most likely. I doubt I'll remember the the Smelter Demon in 6 months.

      I agree completely, none of the boss fight in DSII come close to tactical complexity of the O&S fight. The archers at DS II's Iron castle do not compare with the archers in Ando Londo. DS II has difficultly spikes that can largely be overcome with levelling and gear. While this is true to a limited extent in DS I as levelling is far more onerous, it was not afraid to put you in situations where skill based movement was the key rather than safe zones. I still think DS II is a great game but for me it only occasionally reaches the artistic heights and tightly crafted encounters of its forebears

    Smelter Demon was a good fight, but in my opinion the best fight in the entire Souls series so far has been Manus, Father of the Abyss.

    hit the nail right on the head! i hate it when games ( like diablo for example) where a simple mob can overwhelm you but the boss is a pushover.

    Also the same question the wife will ask' if the game is stressing you out why do you keep playing?"

    I don't really agree that the bosses themselves are tough so much as I think that what makes them tough is the fact that you have to do what is basically an obstacle run through the Alonne knights and archers for example, in order to get to them.

    Consider this, if you had to fight the Rat King Authority instead of Smelter Demon, we'd be talking about Rat King Authority right now. But because the actual Rat King boss fight takes place right outside of an extremely convenient Bonfire, that fight seems like a piece of cake. Your brain doesn't have to dedicate effort to switching gears from 'Strategies to get through Boss Fight' to, 'Remember where all the baddies are and what they are capable of in order to get to the fog gate'.

    If a bonfire sat right outside of O&S's fog gate. We wouldn't be talking about how hard that fight was right now. Unique, maybe, but difficult, no. Same for Smelter Demon.

    Last edited 02/04/14 8:02 pm

    I can see you guys have not fought Grigori, in Dragons Dogma.

    Seriously one of the most amazing boss fights I have ever experienced in gaming. Not just mechanically, but I was so heavily invested in that fight. It was personal, and by the end of it, I had fought just as hard as my Arisen, just as hard as the pawns.

    Also from a recent title, Deathstroke in Batman Arkham Origins. Damm that was a good fight.

      Yes Grigori. And the first few times you meet Death.

    I like the smelter demon but his damage is just ridiculous after he sets his sword on fire. I'm lv 69 and have a archdrake shield +7 which has like 60 fire defence with scaling.

    Not the best (I know) and I have around 1030 hp. He can 2 shot me through my shield when his sword is on fire and 1 shot if i'm not blocking. And when I do block an attack I have about 20% of my life left, so he he does more or less 800 damage through my shield.

    Which is just crazy in my opinion, so you end up running back to boss a couple of times and trying to learn his attack patterns and movesets. It will get old pretty damn fast, atleast it did for me.

    Like the boss in terms of looks and it is really satisfying when you finally beat him but not satisfying enough to keep going through all the trouble over and over again of running to the boss room.

    I know everyone has a different opinion, it also depends alot on what kind of build you are using, what level you are and how good of a player you are.

    And is it just me or does the flame quartz ring do absolutely nothing? It says it increases fire defence but when I equip it it does not increase in my stats. Have 55 fire defence before equipping it and its still the same when I do equip it.

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