It’s hard to forget the first time that you managed to jump past Bowser and make your way to safety in Super Mario Bros. Watching as the bridge crumbled and Bowser plummeted into the lava below was a deeply satisfying experience. Some of gaming’s most memorable moments are the result of a finely tuned confrontation with a hulking brute of a boss.
The boss battle has been around nearly as long as games themselves. The first game to feature a boss was Phoenix, an arcade shmup released in 1980. After completing four stages of top-down, space shooting action, you were pitted against an alien mother ship piloted by a diminutive space creature. To get to the pilot, you first had to weaken the ship’s hull, getting through a layer of armor and avoiding a barrage of missiles.
Since that auspicious debut, boss battles have gone on to serve a number of different functions and have expanded to appear in nearly every genre. What is it about bosses that have made them such an enduring feature? Why, exactly, do games need them?
“I think that the reason they’re such a consistent feature in so many games, across so many genres, is that they serve as a sort of emotional milestone for the player,” says Chris Cornell, of indie studio Paper Dino. “They’re kind of a punctuation in the intensity of the play experience. It’s good to mix up the pace and have moments where shit gets real, you know? Players love that stuff, and it generally makes things more interesting.
“The whole game of Left 4 Dead is arguably built around this idea, in fact, dynamically monitoring the game intensity and throwing out interesting hard parts when it thinks things are getting too slow. Imagine playing L4DM if there were no special infected, no tanks, no ‘alert the horde’ events, and normal infected came in a constant, steady stream instead of in waves. For the whole level. To me, that’s what a game without bosses would feel like. It would still be a game, maybe even a fun one, but the bosses and unique events are what break it up and add the parts that people really remember the most.”
Paper Dino recently released its first game, Boss Rush, and it takes an interesting look at the role of a boss battle. Like Phoenix, Boss Rush is a top-down, arcade style space shooter that features gigantic boss ships. The twist is that you get to take control of those ships.
“It was a pretty clear-cut case of bullet-envy,” Cornell says, explaining the inspiration for the role reversal in Boss Rush. “I wanted the boss’s job, and let some other poor shlub deal with dodging.”
Designing a game from the perspective of the boss also gave Cornell some key insights into their importance. “I started realizing that the boss’s job was kind of stressful,” he explains. “Sure, you’re big and huge and everything, but that still doesn’t stop the fact that there is a really annoying little ship out there taking you apart, and frequently dodging even your craziest attacks.”
Bosses aren’t just a tool to help ramp up the intensity, they can also serve as a test and force players to utilize some new skill that they’ve recently learned. The Legend of Zelda series is a quintessential example; each new item or weapon that you find is inevitably followed by a boss that can only be defeated by using it. When you get a boomerang, you can be sure that you’ll need it soon. In platforming series like Super Mario or Mega Man, the boss tests your skills by providing a challenge much greater than a normal enemy.
“Boss fights tend to be the more memorable aspects to most platformers. Pacing-wise, they are a great way to close the book on that chapter of the game and attempt to use the boss as a ‘show me what you’ve learned’ situation that also helps the flow of the story,” says Edmund McMillen, one half of Team Meat. “I think a good boss fight asks the player to recall what they have learned in the chapter that they just finished and attempt to use that knowledge to defeat the boss. I look at boss fights as the final exam, where the player is asked to solve problems that they have learned in slightly different ways.”
McMillen and his partner Tommy Refenes are currently in the midst of developing Super Meat Boy, a retro-themed platformer starring an animate cube of meat on a mission to save his girlfriend from an evil fetus in a jar. Some of the bosses in the game are epic in size – such as a giant walking chainsaw that can only be defeated by clogging its gears with kamikaze squirrels – but all of them require the player to figure out just the right method to defeat them. And the game also uses the bosses as a tool to help develop its story.
“Each boss opens and closes with an animated cut scene that further develops our hero and shows off how much of a dick Dr. Fetus really is. It also introduces new story elements and lets the player inside the world we have created a little more.”
The need to make boss battles a memorable point in a game has led many developers to believe that bigger is better and create increasingly larger boss fights designed to wow the player with their sheer size. Balancing the difficulty of these battles can be a tricky task, however. If they’re too easy, the results can be very unsatisfying. If they’re too difficult, it can frustrate players.
“Not every boss in SMB is super epic when it comes to their size but we try to keep the ways to kill each boss totally different, In one, you could be clogging gears with wildlife, in another, you could be racing animated turds through salt silos,” explains McMillen. “Since the boss fight is the thing that you must beat in order to unlock the next chapter, it’s important to make sure that it’s not frustrating. Personally, I try and make the boss fight on par or slightly easier than the final level in that chapter. I don’t want to defeat the player just as they are about to unlock a new set of levels.”
In the case of Boss Rush, Cornell didn’t have to worry about creating giant spaceships that felt overpowered. Instead, he had to design an enemy that behaved a lot like a real person. This meant making enemies that actually played somewhat poorly, so as to better resemble a human opponent.
“Think about something like Street Fighter: It’s not too hard to make a CPU opponent that always blocks or parries perfectly, and always interrupts your attacks with a slightly faster one,” he explains. “Timing challenges, like hitting the correct timeframe in which to parry are trivial for the computer. This enemy would be quite difficult to beat. Would it be fun though? Not so much, because it would be good in a way that is completely different from the way a human player is good. A good human player will come up with clever traps and mix ups and be thinking at least a couple of moves ahead, but still has limits to their reaction speed. To make a fun CPU player, you basically have to mimic that. Which makes them less likely to win, but more fun to play.”
Finding the right balancing point isn’t easy and can mean the difference between creating a moment that will stick with the player for some time and one that will cause them to shut the game off out of sheer frustration. A boss battle can make or break a game. But when used properly, it can be one of the most powerful moments that the medium has to offer.
“Boss battles have a place in games designed for them, retro or otherwise,” says McMillen. “If you force something into a game that doesn’t fit, its not going to be fun. I agree that the final boss seems to be a retro cliché, but final battles or mid-bosses are a staple in all action/adventure movies and stories. It’s hard not to want a cool way to end that chapter in your project.”
“Bosses have always been a marvelous way of increasing the tension, both dramatically and gameplay-wise,” agrees Cornell. “I feel fairly confident that, as long as we as game designers care about making experiences that are memorable, we will care about the tools that are used to shape the level of difficulty and drama. And bosses really are an amazing tool to have in that toolbox.
“I think we’ll see them around for quite some time.”
Andrew Webster is a freelance videogame journalist and critic based just outside of Toronto. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/a_webster.