When someone says ‘boss’ do you think of someone in a suit and a managerial position in an insurance firm or do you think of a giant beastly Kraken with 6-foot teeth aggressively swinging its tentacles at you? Bosses inhabit a vital and much-loved role in videogame form and can come in all shapes and sizes, from Timesplitters 2’s helicopter to Portal’s GlaDOS and have so many features that we have grown to love and loathe. They are never mentioned in reviews if a game fails to have them, nether is their presence questioned in the games that do. From the ubiquitious bosses of 2D sidescroller bosses to today’s environment, when even games like Mirror’s Edge (a game with little to no combat) features bosses, the same characteristics are exhibited.
They are almost always invincible to regular attack but have one flaw or weakness, such as their choice to dwell beneath a loose cave ceiling that can fall on their head. They have an annoying, unskippable pre-fight cut scene that you will have to watch every time you retry. They will die only to reveal their ‘true form’. They are surrounded by henchmen who serve little more than to distract you. They have one or two noises or lines that are repeated over and over and they are dirty cheats.
This is not to say that bosses are innately bad (poor choice of words?); they can be done right. Sometimes the balance is perfect, such as in Viewtiful Joe. I looked forwards to each boss and they were enough challenge to merit a glorious victory, but not so hard that you fling the controller across the room. The reward mechanism that exists in gaming in general is particularly evident in boss fights like this. There are few better gaming experiences than finally defeating a boss that has been troubling you for weeks like MSG3’s The End, or after an hour of slowly chipping away at a ton of boss HP in Final Fantasy.
It is difficult to exactly pinpoint the features of a good boss, although it is easy to highlight what makes a boss bad. One main criticism of poor boss design is the inadequate contextualisation of the fight. In Call of Duty and Dead Rising, the ‘bosses’ are mere mortals, just humans with a name and narrative relevance, yet for some reason they have ten times the health the other enemies have. I appreciate the various motives for this, but I believe there can either be a narrative justification for this or a decent level design and henchmen layout to effectively create a ‘boss environment’, without cranking the boss HP up.
Another flaw in the design of many game’s bosses is when the skill required to slay a boss is unrelated to the skills accumulated through the game. When the player has refined his combat capabilities to a godly degree it can seem disheartening when the final boss is defeated by pressing a switch within a certain timeframe a few times. In order to match learned skills with boss practice however, bosses frequently have devilish amounts of heath and can result in some impossibly hard fights (General RAAM on Insane!). Starfox, Prince of Persia SOT and Zelda all do well to incorporate game skill to boss fights whilst retaining realistic difficulties, but many developers are still reluctant to do so.
So if there are so many giant problems with bosses in games, why did we ever need them? Perhaps it is part of gaming language. Cinema has developed different presentational styles in the mise en scene to establish an understood language of film. Flashbacks and dreams both have very particular characteristics when represented in film, and act as video’s unique take on narrative devices. Maybe bosses serve as the videogame form of plot structures, the various climaxes and hurdles for the story/character to experience. Bosses seem perfectly suited to provide the epic final struggle for the protagonist to overcome and 25 years of them in gaming have reinforced this structure.
Nevertheless, like cinema games have and must evolve. It’s a sign of maturity that games don’t always conform to the rigid structure of old, and the use of bosses is becoming ever more subtle. It is becoming harder to distinguish between regular foot soldiers and bosses and harder still to tell exactly when you are fighting one. Halo is a good example of this, where Scarabs and some of the harder brutes are seamlessly interwoven with the gameplay and story whilst still having the impact that boss fights have always had. The ability to reward players, a unique and cherished quality that is inherent in the videogame format, is symbolised by gaming’s love of bosses and is a contributing factor in why we must be very careful with how and why bosses are implemented, but also where we go from here.