How to kill a (video game) boss

The Guardian published a fun piece yesterday about end-of-level bosses in video games. The author lists five basic strategies for successfully beating a tough game boss (keep moving, watch for a pattern shift when the boss hits 25% health, etc.) Good tips.

Good bosses can really add to the fun of a game, just as mediocre bosses can detract from an otherwise excellent game. (I thought the lackluster final boss in Prince of Persia: Sands of Time, for instance, was a notable disappointment in an otherwise spectacular game.) But creating a good boss is a tricky thing. It’s not just a matter of giving the boss lots of health and powerful weapons–those bosses are the least satisfying to defeat, as they require no special strategizing to beat.

What makes a really memorable boss? In my mind, a good boss should have a pattern (and an accompanying vulnerability) that doesn’t become clear until you’ve done a fair amount of experimenting (and probably been killed a few times). A good boss doesn’t just sit there firing weapons at you–it should move or otherwise interact with the environment, and thus require you to do the same in order to beat it. You shouldn’t be able to kill a boss by sheer application of firepower–you should be forced to think a bit outside the box to take it down. On the other hand, a boss fight should give you a chance to use all those weapon skills you’ve been honing over the course of the game–a boss fight where you don’t get to actually put those high-power weapons you’ve been hoarding to good use is a let-down.

Looking at recent games, I’ve seen a fair share of both interesting and mediocre bosses. The Metroid Prime games both feature excellent boss monsters. In fact, the final boss in Metroid Prime is a textbook example of a good boss: it moves around a lot; it has a definite (and evolving) pattern that requires some experimentation to figure out; it forces the player to move quickly and tactically to stay alive; and it’s tough enough that finally beating it really feels like an accomplishment. The bosses in Alien Hominid are particularly good as well. Looking a bit further back, the Zelda and Castlevania franchises have both had their share of well-designed boss fights.

One thing the article doesn’t touch on is the buildup to the boss battle, which for me is often as fun as the actual boss fight itself. Who hasn’t been spooked by the eerily empty corridors or levels that immediately precede the boss fight? When the game pace abruptly slows, and the monsters disappear, and you’re suddenly finding all sorts of ammunition and health packs laying around… there’s a moment of fear and nervousness as you realize you’re being set up for a big battle with something truly nasty.

Of course, I’ve been mostly talking about bosses in first-person shooter and action games. Good bosses in a traditional RPG are a different sort of beast altogether, and probably should be the subject of a future post. But for now… keep moving, watch out for those pattern shifts, and good luck!

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