This has been about four months in the making (solely my fault), but at long last, SpaceFunMars is back for another Intimate Conversation. This time, the two of us tackle the oh so important topic of boss battles in contemporary gaming. It all started off so innoncently, with me sitting in my apartment playing the newest Devil May Cry and wondering a simple question; where were all the bosses?
As I’ve been playing through the new Devil May Cry game, after every level I’ve been wondering what’s happened to the boss fight in contemporary video games? How have things gone from a point where boss fights were expected after every level, to something where they happen maybe once every three or four, if at all, and usually feel rushed and slapped on. Do you share this lamentation?
It bothers me more when boss fights are slapped on badly than when they aren’t there at all. I’m not going to say every game needs a boss fight since plenty of games are near perfection without them. I will say bad boss fights bother me to no end. At that point, just cut it out. I may be playing devil’s advocate when I say this, but boss fights often feel forced into games that are sticking to old videogame norms instead of doing what feels natural. Even to the point where some games have two different development teams — one that makes the actual game and one that makes the boss fights. That disconnect is in no way good for games.
Does it mean I dislike boss fights? Far from it. There are plenty of modern games that get it right. I just don’t lament the lack of boss fights — if only out of fear that adding them will make games worse.
Do you have some examples of modern games that get it right? Generally speaking, I find that more often than not, most games get it wrong. Devil May Cry may be one of the first games I’ve played in a while that I thought got them really right (which is odd because I’ve noticed most reviews are ragging on the boss fights, so apparently I’m the only one who thinks that).
But you’re absolutely correct, bad boss fights are one of the quickest ways to get me to stop playing a game. Actually happened to me and Arkham Asylum. As much as I loved that game, the Poison Ivy boss was just so bad and so irritating, that I totally walked away and never finished. I just didn’t get it. The game was a brawler, yet that boss relied upon projectile weapons precise timing? Huh?
I think a lot of it has to do with what you mentioned about separate design studios. Too many games now-a-days feel like they have two different play mechanics, one for the the boss fights and one for everything else. While I loved quicktime events in Resident Evil 4, by this point, they’ve become so ubiquitous that it’s annoying. And there’s nothing worse than a boss fight that is comprised solely of QTEs. Or, like some of the bosses in the Dead Space series, where the game suddenly goes on rails and it turns into a glorified game of Duck Hunt. It’s so disappointing that these developers create these awesome environments and play mechanics, yet can’t deliver a boss fight that really utilizes them to their best
I think the problem is that the scope of videos game has gotten so large that developers feel like they have to make boss fights these huge, enormous set pieces like the God of War series (which I think actually does that right, but those games are some of the few). It’s like developers have forgotten that a good boss can still occur on a limited scope using mechanics found throughout the rest of the game and not everyone has to be this huge climatic battle with a boss the size of a building.
I mean, the Mega Man series had some of the best boss fights ever and they were barely larger than Mega Man himself.
I think Nintendo consistently gets boss battles right in their games. I’ve been playing New Super Mario Brothers Wii-U, and I can’t fault the boss design in that game at all. Zelda and Metroid games have also nailed boss design over the years. I can’t think of any huge boss misstep in the world of Nintendo at all, which is something video game purist can count on over the years.
However, it is easy for Nintendo to to really nail boss battles because — Metroid aside — those games haven’t really changed ever. The 2D Mario games are exactly the same as every 2D Mario game in the past right down to the Boss battles. The 3D ones are pretty much refinements of Super Mario 64 which itself isn’t all that different from 2D Mario games. Although, I would say the 3D Marios have more variety than their 2D counterparts. Zelda games haven’t changed at all. 2D. 3D. It’s all the same. Metroid is the only series that has undergone any significant change, becoming a first-person-shooter Zelda during the Prime series. In this way, the boss fights also have a very Zelda feel to them, which isn’t a bad thing.
The main criticism of Nintendo is that their games never change. They’re all small refinements on a formula, and it’s for that fact that their boss battles never feel out of place. It almost doesn’t seem fair to list Nintendo games as examples of boss battles done right. I can’t exactly say they are examples of modern gaming, and I don’t think I can list many modern games that have done boss battles right.
When you asked me to join you in this boss battle conversation, the first game I thought of as an example of a game that does bosses correctly was Bit.Trip Beat. But that’s a game that — if stripped of its psychedelic lightshow backgrounds — could easily have been on the original Nintendo or even one of the Atari systems. If new Mario games aren’t modern, then this game is absolutely ancient. It seems that most new games that are purposefully retro nail boss fights, but to use them as examples is almost cheating.
As far as actual modern games go, I think the Portal games (Portal 2 especially), the Borderlands games, and the Viewtiful Joe series have pretty good boss fights.There aren’t many boss fights in the Portal games, but I excuse that because it’s a puzzle game. It’s amazing that those games have boss fights at all. Borderlands isn’t overrun with boss fights either, but I would say it’s more common than most games and never feels out of place.
What both of those games do right is bring game mechanics the player has been learning all along into the boss fights. The player has to every trick and every skill to beat the bosses. They’re bigger, more complete versions of the types of things they saw before.
Viewtiful Joe is somewhat different, and I’m not sure how to describe it. Those games use old school beat-em-up mechanics and completely turn them on their heads by adding in some super modern designs. Mostly, Joe’s ability to manipulate time (among other super powers). It’s a game that feels super modern while the level progression is more on the retro side. It’s almost a post-modern look at retro beat-em-ups. Of course, any good beat-em-up also has boss battles as part of its design, but this is the only game I can think of right now that mixes old and new design so flawlessly. Some of the answers to the boss problem may be hidden in figuring out that kind of mix.
Oh, I absolutely agree that Nintendo get it right the most consistently. Actually, if I had to compose a list of my top five favorite boss battles, most would be Nintendo bosses.
You’re right, the best boss fights are ones that gradually build upon the skills learned in the game. That said, I took issue to the boss fights in Viewtiful Joe. While they did build upon those skills, they required a near mastery of them in order to get through them. While I’m all for difficult games, I prefer if a game allowed multiple solutions to each problem. With Viewtiful Joe, I just couldn’t do what needed to be done to beat one of the later bosses and never passed it. If they had allowed any other strategy to be successful, I would have finished and would have enjoyed the game more.
I call it the Mega Man Rule. Each boss had two ways to be defeated. There was the proper way, using the correct weapon, or there was the harder way, using the default Mega Buster. Sure, that was was already harder, but sometimes you didn’t have the right weapon. It’s a way of accepting that not every player will be able to master every skill and allow them to brute force their way through it if need be.
That or I was just terrible at that game and am kind of a wuss. Your call.
My call is you aren’t very good at Viewtiful Joe. I’ll admit that particular boss is hard, but I beat it in a few tries. Editor’s Note: Without me even mentioning the specific boss, he immediately knew the one I was talking about. It’s THAT hard. It isn’t even the hardest boss in that game, but I’m not sure if that fact helps or hurts your case. I will say Joe is an example of a game that builds upon skills — although not to the point of mastery. Just near mastery.
What the game does wrong, as you say, is a very narrow-minded approach at beating bosses. There is basically one way to do it. The best boss fights allow for multiple approaches. You are absolutely right in that. I just think that is also a relative rarity. Look at Zelda and Mario games as an example. Zelda games always require the player to hit the boss three times with whatever new weapon Link acquires in each dungeon, and then attach the boss with the sword. Mario games involve jumping on someone’s head three times. The approaches in these games are not only narrow but follow a precise formula. Gamers don’t complain about that because these games don’t stray above sorta hard at any given time.
We live in an age where a lot of gamers bemoan the time when games were difficult, but when we get a game like Viewtiful Joe that is hard and has well-done boss fights, we complain about that. Very few games come even close to perfect, so it seems harsh to bad-mouth Viewtiful Joe for either being too difficult or not having two approaches to every boss fight. When I write it out, that’s a very small mistake in the grand scheme of a game.
It’s too bad Joe didn’t come out after some of Nintendo’s more recent games. They have a very interesting quasi-cheat mechanic in Mario games and Nintendoland where if a player dies too many times in an area, they get a special block that essentially makes them invincible so they can beat that difficult part of a level. If Viewtiful Joe had something like that — although maybe not nearly as powerful — it wouldn’t have to dial down the difficulty level so wusses like you can beat mid-game bosses.
And this is where I’m going to have to disagree. I find that mechanic of “clearly you suck at this, so we’re going to let you skip this part” to be super cheap. Where’s the sense of accomplishment in finally beating that part you’re stuck on? Not to mention, that has to kill creativity. That’s one of the things I do like about incredibly difficult boss fights, the trial and error and “hey, maybe I should try doing this” that goes on before you finally figure out what it is you need to do.
And that’s why I like it when there are multiple ways to beat a boss. You still get that exploration of what it is you need to do, and the creators can make the preferred solution as complicated as they want, like in Viewtiful Joe. That said, since there will be a handful of people who can’t do that preferred method, having another option of just brute forcing your way through the boss can still allow players to proceed through the game and get that satisfaction of beating a difficult boss.
The newest Metal Gear game does that perfectly. When I went through the first time, the mechanics of beating the bosses was just too complicated for me to grasp, so I wound up brute forcing my way through the bosses. It took a lot longer and a lot more med packs, but I was able to beat the game. Now that I’m going through on a New Game+ mode on a higher difficulty, I’ve figured those mechanics out and can beat the bosses in the preferred way much quicker and while taking much less damage. Even on a significantly harder difficulty.
That seems to be the best possible solution to this problem, no?
I think you’re getting nit-picky at this point. You have to remember that anyone who is going to use the hand-holding feature probably isn’t good enough at video games at this point to play it over and over again until they beat it. I personally get so offended when I fail so much that it gets offered that I try super hard to beat it. It’s like a taunt that focuses me (not to mention, using this feature usually results in a lesser score if people care about that shit).
And I’ll also say that, in recent years, Mario games have been incredibly soft on players. New Super Mario Wii-U is the most hardcore Mario game since Super Mario World, and the only reason it gets away with that is because of the hand-holding feature. That has inspired increased creativity for a game that has to cater to more audiences and difficulty levels than any other game. And it’s not like some games where you can just choose easy, medium, or hard for a difficulty. What makes it difficult is the level design itself, which cannot be scaled easier or harder.
And keep in mind that some people just can’t “power through” a boss. You are talking about a skill inherent in hardcore gamers that casual ones may not possess. Even at that point, allowing such a tactic may compromise the vision a designer has for a game more than even the hand-holding feature. Allowing less skilled players to basically cheat code through a game doesn’t change the essence of the game itself, but allowing a “power through” tactic does.
I’m not disagreeing that I prefer multiple approaches to bosses, but I think in a world where great boss fights are going extinct, we can’t nit-pick over games that actually nail the design. Whether they make them too hard or create features that allow unskilled players to beat parts of the game where they are stuck is just complaining for the sake of complaining. We can’t have things go our way 100% of the time.
You’re right. I’m nit-picking. That’s probably a sign that we need to stop and just appreciate what we have. And, with that, I think I’m going to go play some Bioshock.
In addition to Goodspeed & Poe, Angelo writes/podcasts about the NBA for I GO HARD NOW, covers the Cavaliers at Fear the Sword, and ocassionally writes about horror films for Bloody Good Horror. He lives in his native Cleveland with his Netflix account and PlayStation.
Spacefunmars has a photo-blog about his pets. He designs the world’s best ever board games. He lives in Buffalo and loves chocolate milk. All he wants is to love and be loved. You can find him on twitter @spacefunmars.