You’re playing your favorite game. You just finished your dungeon crawl/castle storming/merc murder spree etc, and you can’t wait to wrap it up and get your rewards. The experience isn’t complete, however. You must force yourself to face the timeless entity known as the Boss. They can range anywhere from giant reptilian monstrosities, to simply a man in charge. From brutes to brilliant tacticians. A Boss is meant to exemplify what the game is trying to portray and, for the most part, keep true to a set of guidelines formed through experience.
The first thing that is taken into account when you first encounter your newest nemesis is their appearance. A good Boss has to have something that visually distinguishes them from the average foot-soldier or else one won’t immediately know that they’re fighting a Boss . In most cases this comes from wearing heavier, customized armor or having a larger stature in relation to the regular units. For example, in Halo: Reach, Bungie made a grand total of 8 very specific armor sets for each class of elite. Seeing the up-armored headpiece of a Zealot or the glowing inlays of a General gives warning to the fact that these elites are not going to go down easy and, if you came to hear them beg, you will be sorely disappointed.
Another trick when it comes to appearance is to scare the crap out of the player just by locking gaze with their intended target. Games like Shadow of the Colossus do this by making their Bosses massive in size, towering stories above the faithful player character. This adds an obvious intimidation factor, and suggests that the enemy most likely has strength to match its substantial size. Dead Space, however, goes about the business of generating fear in a different way, by covering the Bosses in grotesque gore; fused body parts, melded flesh, and pus filled sacs acting as weakpoints are common features of the Bosses of the series. These offputting attributes are meant to fluster the player, teasing the player’s own fight or flight instincts and encouraging them to fire off rapid, frenzied shots. Since Dead Space Boss fights rely on killing your assailant before it can crush you, that stray shot could be the difference between life and death.
Probably the most important aspect that people notice about the Bosses is their fighting style. As a game progresses, Bosses need to vary in tactics and increase in difficulty, otherwise the fights themselves will get bland and repetitive or will not challenge the player. A good example of a game that uses this idea effectively is the action-adventure game Batman: Arkham City (spoilers ahead). From combat-heavy fights, such as that with Ra’s al Ghul, to tests of coordination and maneuvering, such as that with Solomon Grundy, the variation of fighting styles means that each new encounter offers the payer a fresh new mechanic to master and another familiar face from the DC universe.
Another mechanic that adds some flavor to the fights is evolution of bosses’ fighting tactics. Returning to Arkham City, the Boss fight with Mr. Freeze embodies this idea perfectly. As you find weaknesses to exploit in Freeze’s armor, he adjusts, making any future attacks by that method useless. The only way to win is to find new ways to attack Freeze as he reacts to your past tactics. The constant mindgame played between the player and Boss creates an environment where it’s more about fast thinking than being quick on the trigger.
Some of the most interesting Boss fights are those that deviate from these tried and true formulas while still working within a solid system. Borderlands does this by interspersing countless randomized Mini-Boss encounters in between the pre-established Boss fights. Any traveler who wandered the desert with company in tow, who then came to find themselves face-to-carapace with a Badass Spiderant knows this well. The initial panic, followed by the thrill of the fight and the rehashing of this as more Spiderants burst from the ground and join the slaughter; when the dust settles and all that’s left is your companions and yourself, you know it’s time to gather your loot and venture forth. Experiences like this are how Borderlands manages to keep the fun flowing.
A new and unorthodox approach to Boss fights, on the other hand, has added the silver tongue to the gamer’s arsenal. The reality is that words win more battles than weapons every day, and video games should at least give you the option to acknowledge that. The mission structure of Bioware’s first Mass Effect basically dictates that, at the end of every side mission, there be a situation that can either be resolved peacefully, or end in your enemy wishing he had better health insurance. The thing that makes this special is that it’s your choice. You can be the pragmatic warmonger who kills the weak because they were between him and what he wants, or you can be the peacemaker who prides himself in saving everyone no matter the personal sacrifice. This is Shepard’s story, and it’s your job, as the player, to write it.
These anomalies begin to alter the set-in-stone ideals that define a Boss fight. As time progresses, Bosses must keep up by being further refined and rethought whenever a project is undertaken and implemented in way that is fresh and creative. Sooner or later, however, these Bosses have the aforementioned features ingrained into them whether purposefully or accidentally. No matter how it comes about, a good Boss is a good Boss and should be given the respect (and fear) it deserves. That is what makes them the Boss.