It’s time for Ask Kotaku, the weekly feature in which Kotaku-ites deliberate on a single burning question. Then, we ask your take.
This week we Ask Kotaku: What’s your favourite video game boss encounter?
Spoilers for Undertale follow.
In my hierarchy of the best video game boss fights of all time, nothing ranks higher than Undertale’s Sans and Asgore fights. In Undertale fights you’re presented with the choice to either kill or spare enemies. If you are not a total monster, you can grant mercy to every monster you encounter, even bosses. But as you go through the story, you learn that a human sacrifice (i.e. you) is required for the monsters to escape the underground prison they’ve been kept in for hundreds of years, and that the king of the monsters, Asgore, is hellbent on making that happen. When you finally fight him, players on a pacifist run think they’ll be able to grant him mercy like they’ve done everyone else. Then, shockingly, he takes that choice away from you by “destroying” the mercy button. It’s a pretty well-done moment. Your user interface has changed and (if you’re a pacifist) you’re no longer able to do what you’ve come to rely on. The game then forces you to make a pretty quick decision: Do you kill him before he kills you?
It’s the same with the Sans fight. You only experience this fight if you are on a “kill everything that moves” genocide run. By the time you fight him, you’ve racked up a lot of bodies, becoming an unstoppable force. But Sans is an immovable object. He is all-powerful, and your attacks always miss. You are on a genocide run, you don’t want to show mercy. But how can you kill something that you can’t even hit? By waiting until Sans falls asleep, bored with your feeble attempts to fight him, and catch him unawares with a knife to the heart.
You, the player, have to physically rearrange the game’s UI in order to make this happen. Gameplay is a vehicle through which we experience a game’s story, but the two often kinda live in their own silos — I play the game, then I get the story separately via cutscenes or dialogue boxes. Every so often there will be a game that blurs those lines a bit and uses gameplay to reinforce bits of storytelling. Nowhere is that done better than in these two boss fights. Oh, and the music for both fights is pretty bitchin’, too.
Of the few boss fights that I like, the one that stands above the rest is found in Resident Evil 4. It’s such a classic you probably already know which fight I’m talking about: the encounter with Del Lago, a giant underwater lake monster.
To fight this thing you have to get into a rickety old wooden boat, paddle out into the fog, and throw harpoons by freakin’ hand as this giant monster drags your boat around like it’s nothing. You feel vulnerable out on the lake. And Del Lago can, and will, toss you out of the boat into the water. Get ready to mash some buttons or you’ll get eaten in one big gulp. Between attacks you have to swivel around the boat, trying to spot the thing while it’s submerged. All told it’s a nerve-wracking experience. Even when I go back to RE4 all these many years and replays later, I still find my hands gripping the controller extra tight when I toss those spears at Del Lago as it charges toward my boat.
I’m sure there are millions of better choices, but the first thing that came to mind when reading this question is the final boss battle with Bowser in Super Mario Sunshine. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not a gripping encounter mechanically, but the setting is something else.
You spend much of Super Mario Sunshine fighting off Bowser Jr., with only vague references to his dad pulling the strings somewhere behind the scenes. Mario comes face to face with King Koopa at the very end of the game when he ascends the Corona Mountain volcano and finds Bowser and Bowser Jr. wading in a giant bathtub.
Yep, you read that right: Bowser is bathing with his son when you finally get a chance to clobber him. A kidnapped Princess Peach (who Bowser Jr. believes is his mother, by the way) is there too, chilling on a giant rubber duckie.
It’s just so weird! But I guess everything about Super Mario Sunshine is a little odd compared to the rest of the series.
So, when Stephen — Oh, not that type of video game boss encounter? Roger.
I mean, c’mon, it’s gotta be Hades. I’m not talking about the final boss. I’m talking specifically about the second boss, the Hydra of Lernia — or, as protagonist Zagreus affectionately refers, Lernie. I loved Hades from the second I started, but this boss fight is where it clicked for me that, yes, it’s the best game.
Like the actual Hydra who totally existed IRL (no questions, please), Lernie has a whole bunch of heads. You beat up the big one; three small ones come out. You beat those up; the big one comes back. You beat that up; five small ones come out. And then, as the Video Game Developer’s Guide To Designing Boss Fights decrees, you have to go through a third round. You also have to dodge fireballs and all that jazz.
Before Hades officially released, I was lucky enough to receive an early copy of the game. I made it to Lernie quickly enough, but just couldn’t crack the code of its patterns, and distinctly recall being legitimately stressed that I wouldn’t beat the game before it fully released, and thus wouldn’t be able to write advice (i.e., “do my job.”) Nathan assured me that, with some perseverance, I’d get there. It’d just take time.
Like, one whole day later, I beat it…only to soon meet my end at another boss. But that initial moment of elation — stemmed purely from the realisation that, wow, I was progressively getting better at this game in measurable ways — was unmatched.
Once you beat Hades, you get access to a suite of gameplay modifiers called the Pact of Punishment, which make the game more difficult in various ways. One of those modifiers, Extreme Behaviours, switches up the boss battles. For this fight, Lernie sits in the centre of the stage — a huge shakeup over its due-north positioning in the real fight — while rivers of lava spew around you threatening to absolutely ruin your day, and following through on that promise. It’s a blast.
The cycle repeats. There is no escape. Why would you want to?
Master Belch, hands down. Earthbound’s iridescent pile of vomit is wonderfully designed, both visually and combat-wise. The all-consuming anthropomorphized pit of human filth and dread heals himself every turn, making him almost impossible to beat unless you happen to pick up on a tip from elsewhere in the game that he’s a glutton for Fly Honey. Throw it at him and he’ll be too distracted to wreck you. A lot of RPGs want to make everything into a boss fight. Earthbound made its boss fight into something else by hiding a cheat code in the dungeon leading up to it. Then in the back half of the game, when you encounter him again in the jungle, you get to destroy him the traditional way. And thanks to the game’s book-sized strategy guide complete with scratch-and-sniff character trading cards, I even know what he smelled like, something I still haven’t managed to purge from my memory.
Boss fights run the gamut from terrible (a common opinion) to, I’d say, transcendent. Good boss fights test the skills a game’s taught you in ways that are hopefully engaging, maybe even illuminating. They make you realise, “Wow, I’ve really come a long way!” and leave you with a pleasant sense of accomplishment for having overcome this latest skill-check, all dressed up in the drama of a climactic encounter.
Or they just suck. You know how these things go.
A great example of the good type of boss encounter occurs in Capcom’s wonderfully tight SNES scare-o-vania, Demon’s Crest. If you’ve dutifully uncovered enough of the game’s hidden items, your arch-enemy, Phalanx, will proceed to a third and final phase that’s wonderful in its willingness to put your acquired platforming, laser-dodging, precision-aiming prowess to the test. You face this ultimate Phalanx over an endless expanse of lava, your only respite being small, moving platforms that continually glide in from the left.
Problem is, they’ll also carry you right into the boss, and as with the missile-platforms in Contra III’s memorably tense third-stage climax, the boss can destroy them with one of his numerous attacks. This leaves you constantly scrambling to create distance from the monster while both avoiding its attacks and somehow keeping out of the deadly lava.
As some YouTube videos attest, you can brute-force this fight, tanking all hits, burning through healing items, and hammering away at his face. Hooray, you won. But what fun is that? Though at first I was overwhelmed, the encounter’s elegant rhythms soon became clear, and I delighted in all the skin-of-my-teeth dodges, near-misses, and, yes, total face-plants that ensued as I struggled to negotiate that latest, hardest challenge.
There’s a funny postscript. See, I thought this third phase of Phalanx was the game’s “true” final boss, but in researching this today I learned the game has yet another hidden, truly final encounter, this time with the Dark Demon. It’s regarded as notoriously difficult, maybe even in unfair ways, so I guess I’ve got one more challenge to face in Demon’s Crest. Excellent impetus for a replay, and even if this truly final fight crosses the line into excess, I’ll always appreciate that wonderful bout with Phalanx.
I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed a boss fight. I genuinely despise boss fights. I find their existence to be the bane of gaming, and believe they stand like a totem to everything revolting about the medium. And yes, absolutely, I’m terrible at them.
There are those who see gaming as a test of personal skill. For you, essentially nothing changed since the early arcade machines, but now instead of a high score table into which you could enter your initials to impress all others who might wander by, you have to boast your results in angry replies on Twitter or something. You say, “I beat the game,” like you dragged it back from the woods by its tail to your cave to feed your adoring family. Boss fights are for you.
For me, they are difficulty spikes as core game design, moments designed to prevent people from being able to enjoy the rest of the game. They’re like a fucking obstacle course in the middle of a novel, or having to crack Fermat’s Last Theorum in order to watch the second half of a film. They’re stupid, tedious, and the lowest form of gaming gatekeeping. There are so many games that I was absolutely adoring that I’ll never ever finish, because of some woefully imbalanced challenge thrown in, to presumably help people feel better about their inadequate genitalia.
I’ve never seen the end of one of my favourite-ever games, Metroid Prime, because of that sodding Meta Ridley fight. Hell, I never even saw the second half of Metroid Prime 2 because I couldn’t get past even the first half of some encounter with a godforsaken whale (or something). And sure, you might be saying, “Pah, they were so easy.” And god forbid you might be someone of such poor stock that you’d add in a “git gud.” Well, no one likes you and your friends feel relieved when you leave.
One of the most controversial things I have ever written in 22 years of this silly job is that people should be able to skip boss fights, so they can just enjoy the game they were playing. I literally received death threats. I stand by every word. Sure, include them for those who a) enjoy them, or b) are complete arseholes. But for everyone else who was having a fun time until then, just let us press a button and get on with it. Thanks.
How About You?
Kotaku’s weighed in, but what’s your take? Have your years of gaming left you with some favourite boss fights, or were you nodding in vigorous agreement as you read John’s furious anti-boss diatribe? We’ll be back next week to deliberate and debate on another nerdy issue. See you in the comments!