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Are Boss Battles Really Necessary?

Written by on Jan 2, 2011

Picture of Super Mario 64 boss battle

I never did like boss battles. They have always been my least favorite part of a game. Why does every world or every dungeon need a big monster at the end? The normal levels are what make the game. Exploring a dungeon, solving puzzles, finding treasure, and tearing through the lesser enemies are what I like about a game and why I would consider playing it again. Being stuck in a small room with an intentionally difficult boss is frustrating, a complete departure from the core of the game, and is an invitation for me to turn the damn thing off.

I hate how bosses have a “pattern” you have to discover, too. You can’t just attack them like you would any other monster. Oh, no. They have to have a weak spot to exploit, and once you find it, you have to repeat the process of attacking said weak spot several times. And each time you hurt it, the boss grows bigger and stronger. Now wait a minute… why would the boss get stronger when I hurt it? Shouldn’t it get weaker? I think I’d take more satisfaction in taking down a gigantic monster if it realistically felt like I was affecting its stamina/power instead of being victim to another stupid rule of game design.

Before you come at me with torches and pitchforks, I fully realize some games necessitate boss battles. RPGs, for example… Every enemy in an RPG is like its own little boss battle with some being significantly harder than others. The story in a game also plays into whether or not bosses need to be present. But why does the boss need to feel like a completely separate part of the game? Why ruin a good platformer with something that has nothing to do with platforming?

This reminds me of the first Super Mario Bros. game, a great example of how to incorporate a “boss” into a level without messing up the flow of the game. You got the idea that Bowser was the bad guy without having to step into his chamber and face off against him one-on-one. He was just another obstacle to slip past, albeit a bigger and scarier obstacle. Other Mario games since then have turned confrontations with Bowser into more obnoxious endeavors (Sunshine and Galaxy were particularly annoying), but I’ll always remember Mario 1 as the game that did boss battles right.

Responses to Are Boss Battles Really Necessary?
  1. avatar
    Joe on Jan 4, 2011
    Ever play Shadow of the Colossus? The game is nothing but 13 boss battles. I think it was awesome, but I bet you'd hate it! I agree that some boss battles are annoying. The main boss at the end of Heavenly Sword was meaner and harder than any boss I've ever played in my life. For a fairly easy game, I was completely taken out of one of the best stories I've ever played. It stopped just short of ruining the game for me. So i can totally agree with you.

    On the other hand, some of my favorite and most satisfying moments are achieved by defeating a boss. What would Super Metroid be without Kraid, Ridley, and Mother Brain. Arkham Asylum had to make the villains better fighters than the rest of the baddies so that defeating them wouldn't feel so cheap.

    There are a lot of games that don't really have boss battles anymore. Slightly, but not really. Assassin's Creed's main boss was stupid, yet AC2's boss was great. Uncharted avoids true bosses in favor of big events like train wreck or explosions. Until the last guy, which is usually over the top difficult. Although I hate the boss battles in those games, I would feel underwhelmed by being able to defeat the main badguys with a headshot.
  2. avatar
    Clark on Jan 5, 2011
    How about two head shots? I just hate how game bosses always play by their own rules, and your weapons/attacks don't do anything to them unless you go through the pattern of revealing their ONE weak spot and hitting it a few times before it gets concealed again.
  3. avatar
    Ned on Feb 4, 2011
    He really does pose a good question. This brainstorming is probably how Fumito Ueda came up with Shadow of the Colossus in the first place. And hey, his first title, Ico, had no bosses whatsoever. Any question invites new and innovative ideas to the table. Good article.
  4. avatar
    Clark on Feb 4, 2011
    Ico is such a great example of good game design on so many levels.

    One thing I didn't mention in the article was the final boss in Ty the Tasmanian Tiger 2. In typical video game boss fashion, he had several stages, but each stage was actually easier than the one prior until he was nothing but a helpless bird running around. That was refreshing to see.
  5. avatar
    Todd on Apr 6, 2011
    Heh. It's funny how tastes can differ so drastically between two people. Ever since I've been playing video games, one of the things that keeps me playing a game is the boss fights. I love observing their patterns and then using that knowledge to figure out how best to beat them. I can think of many games I have played that I wouldn't have even bothered to beat, had their not been the next big boss fight to look forward to.

    Ah well. Different strokes for different folks, eh? I'm glad the current trend of game design is in my favor, though!
  6. avatar
    Boss on Mar 9, 2012
    Your article and your title dont seem to gel.

    Your title poses the question are boss fights necessary, as in perhaps they are an obsolete vestigial organ, the appendix of game design.

    Then your article simply complains about bad boss fights.

    one that i readily identify with is your dislike of the modern miyamoto boss design. The irritatingly most copied type.

    The boss is impervious to any and all damage except for when the player follows the 'pattern', which typically involves waiting (ugh) for the monster to perform a certain act, responding with a specific move, which exposes the monsters weakspot giving the player a window to do a specific amount of damage, and then repeating the process (ugh) three times, with the monster getting harder each time.

    I am NOT taking a dig at nintendo here, nor am I trying to make a statement about miyamoto being out of touch or something lame like that. I love nintendo, and miyamotos games. This is just one aspect i dont like. I feel it has become too distilled and formulaic.

    within nintendo, this design is hugely prevelant in mario, zelda, and metroid prime games.

    I remember when this design just began to reallt assert itself too. Games like link to the past had epic boss fights. Most were arcade smash fests. You avoided the attacks and attacked until the beastie was dead. It was skillful and exciting. Some bosses had a 'trick' you had to do in order to take down a seemingly impervious boss.

    These bosses were rare in comparison, it made them memorable and was a change of pace... But now, its too much!! Let me fight a boss not a disguised puzzle!

    Metroid other m, despite dropping the ball on exploration world design, and being too chatty, did boss fights fantastically for me.

    Some had a 'trick' pattern, but most were a good old fashioned arcade skill demanding blast fest.

    Are boss fights necessary? No, plenty of fantastic games exist without bosses.

    Are they outdated, a relic of the past to get rid of? Absolutely not.
  7. avatar
    Clark on Mar 9, 2012
    So a better title would have been "Are Formulaic Boss Battles Really Necessary?"
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