When done well, a boss battle is not unlike a souvenir you carry away after the game is over — it anchors the game in your psyche.
A boss battle is not easy to make. It demands creativity and effort across the gamut of game development — character design, location design, distinctive move sets, careful calibration and testing, possibly even new soundtracks. This article deconstructs boss battles to understand what makes some memorable while others fall flat. Elements such as presentation and lore naturally contribute heavily to the boss battle experience, but they’re not the subject of this article — here, we discuss boss battles in the context of the challenge they present to the gamer.
Boss battles can be understood as a confluence of three core challenges. Puzzles, patterns, and preparation.
A pattern-based boss battle requires the player to analyze and respond to the boss’s attack patterns. Bosses have a repertoire of attacks, most of which can be dodged, parried or blocked, provided you are able to recognize what kind of attack it is and how to respond to it. The attacks have visual and auditory cues that indicate the pattern being initiated, giving you a small window to execute the ‘right’ response.
Outside of turn-based strategy games, pattern memorization is by far the most common challenge presented by boss battles.
Consider God of War’s Valkyrie fights. As you learn the (fairly unsubtle) visual cues for Valkyrie attacks, the fights become easier. This is not necessarily a criticism — winning a Valkyrie fight is satisfying; it’s an accomplishment yielded through finely tuned reflexes developed through practice and repetition.
But while victory is satisfying, God of War’s bosses will never enter my gaming memories the way Dark Souls’s did. In part, this is because God of War’s boss presentation is undeniably repetitive — a majority of the fights are cloned giants or Valkyries with different move sets. But there’s another reason why Dark Souls boss battles have more staying power in gamers’ memories. The preparation.
In God of War, you play as Kratos, which means you’re confined to a narrow set of moves. Even with the variation presented by runic attacks, it’s hard to argue that your experience of beating a Valkyrie is going to be very different the first time versus the fifth time. You can tweak the difficulty setting or level yourself up or down to add variation. But in Dark Souls games, you completely control the character build. Beating the Pursuer with twin blades is a very different endeavour from beating him with a sword and shield.
Your ability to prepare the character for the fight, and do so in a way that reflects your uniqueness as a player, makes Dark Souls boss battles more personal (and therefore more memorable) and endlessly re-playable.
Preparation isn’t confined to character builds and levels. In more strategic games (turn-based, JRPGs, etc.), preparation is the difference between victory and defeat. You need to come up with a well-chosen collection of spells and items that nullify the boss’s special abilities (poison being a common example) and exploit its weaknesses. These games shift focus away from the pattern challenge and toward the preparation challenge.
The preparation in such games is more intellectually satisfying. In Dark Souls, the build is important, but you typically don’t have a flash of insight and switch up your build to suddenly dominate the boss. In more strategic games (especially turn-based games), such flashes of insight are possible and tend to be rewarding for cerebral players.
But how do you find out about the boss’s weaknesses? This is where we get to talk about the third, and in my view, the most interesting challenge vector for boss battles — puzzles.
In some of the most iconic boss battles in video game history, the boss presents a puzzle. The puzzle is sometimes trivial — which element is this boss vulnerable to? Trial and error reveals the answer. But sometimes it’s more subtle. What body part can I focus on to disable this boss’s ability to poison my party?
And sometimes, it’s a majestic, skyscraper sized question that dares you to surmount it.
Puzzles, patterns and preparation. We’ve discussed games that deliver across these vectors to varying degrees, producing diverse battle experiences.
It’s natural to wonder what a game with boss battles that excel on all of these dimensions would feel like. Fortunately, the answer is at hand.
Monster Hunter: World is a masterpiece of boss design. Each monster in this game requires you to carefully observe it so as to learn its behavioral and attack patterns. Not only do you learn the right way to dodge or defend against attacks, but also how best to chase the monster when it retreats.
The beasts also present puzzles to you. How do you attack it such that it loses the ability to spit poison at you? Can you cut off that electrified tail it keeps whipping you with? Where do you aim so you can break that one body part you need to build your next armor set? Can you lure it into a trap and capture it?
As a hunter, you prepare for battles in a way best positions you to beat the monster whilst reflecting your preferred play style. The diversity of weapons and armors in this game, combined with the inherently dynamic nature of the world, means that no two players will have the same fight. The game affords endless opportunity for replay.
Boss battles are arenas for creative game design. Many modern games tend to fall back to pattern based challenges for boss battles. While these are satisfying, they are seldom unforgettable, and rarely facilitate extensive replay or stimulate the player’s imagination. Presenting puzzles and rewarding preparation can elevate boss battles into creative, intellectual and personalized endeavors that make a mark on the gamer.