Bosses & Fun
Posted on Sunday, May 11 2008 @ 10:58:10 Eastern
Almost every game has them; from Sonic to Super Smash Brothers, Jet Force Gemini to Earthworm Jim. Ever since the dawn of gaming, it appears that these overpowered enemies have become a necessity in any sort of linear game. Of course, the inclusion of this essential element is usually dependent on the genre and the game in question. Still, usually, it is one of the unwritten codes of gaming that a title features one of these novelties. Some games have gained fame by placing such attributes on a glowing pedestal; Shadow of the Colossus springs directly to mind, as the designers openly admit they had a sole intention not to have any ‘normal’ enemies. Whereas others have been the source of critique for not incorporating these showdowns at all; even Portal has faced ridicule for those ignorant enough to see the mediocre nature of the game’s foes as not challenging enough, calling for a boss-like enemy to improve the variety of gameplay*. My stance is indifferent and even irrelevant to today’s article, although I do believe that – if done correctly – boss battles can add a huge, beneficial edge to the experience. The specifics of such, namely those in the climax of stories, can be found within the award-winning “Hahaha! Now I Shall Reveal My True Form!”. Anyway, enough self-plugging, time to get to the meat of today’s journey of gaming discovery.
First-person shooters notoriously have a key enemy every level or so which can easily be beaten by pouring in every ounce of your inventory into defeating them. Even so-called ‘revolutionary’ FPSes such as Half Life 2 or Bioshock have followed this awfully generic standard. From battles against Antlion Guards to maddened art museum curators, these two games – like many of their peers – feel there is a requirement to periodically test the skills of the player in a way which doesn’t involve throwing more of the same old boring mobs your way. Defeating these bosses can signal a way for story advancement, or just give the game an excuse to introduce a new item or weapon to aid you following the fight, or even during it. After all, there have been countless times where I’ve had to rip off a giant alien’s arm in order to use it against him. Unreal 2 and PREY use the demise of extraterrestrial beings that happen to be wielding the most original (and usually powerful) guns to give more muscle to the player character. Such methods have even been carried over to almost all massively multiplayer games; slaying the blatant bosses in each dungeon rewards the player with better items, slowly enforcing a cycle of positive reinforcement which is essential if the company wishes to keep players subscribed during the huge drain which is end-game content. This makes such games differ greatly from the original, single-player purpose of boss fights, as only a small minority of those who conquer said superiors play to extend their knowledge of the story, or lore. Instead, people choose to tussle with such beasts in order to improve their long-term standing. Whether this means acquiring new gear for further encounters, or player-vs.-player combat, or simply to level up; bosses are even an essential part of online gaming, even if they are optional.
Such themes have been commented on a million times before, from lovers and critics alike. I can easily imagine many people already writing out several responses to this article, stating how not all bosses have to fit the criteria above and how ignorant I am by thinking that all bosses have to have a purpose in the game. After all, some can be thrown in for fun, right?
I absolutely agree. This is the part of boss fights which no writer ever touches upon: The inclusion of these small game segments to simply add variety to gameplay; as I touched upon in the opening paragraph. In fact, it could be argued that such moments have had more effort put into creating them; as the developers do not feel as pressured to have them in order to push the player’s advancement directly forward and thus enjoy the free creative reign. When the only strain that the developer has to cope with is the need to sling in a few boss fights, the outcome can be unintentionally awesome.
Think about your favourite boss fight. If the first game you ever played through properly was Halo, then this exercise may be a little too stressing for you. Still, does your fondest memory include throwing everything you have at the final enemy (a la the previously-covered Bioshock) or perhaps an incredibly easy puzzle, despite it being against the title’s supposedly omniscient antagonist (again; Half Life 2, Portal)? No? Surely these games have defined a generation and as such their final foes should be the embodiment of power, sophistication and grace, right? Unless of course the obvious weaknesses in such enemies is intentional and is only there to highlight the irony and stupidity in these characters; that they really weren’t as dominant as the last ten hours of game time has made out, which only aids their development.
Or, y’know, the game designers could have just been lazy.
I admit that, when planning this article, I thought about doing a detailed analysis of how great of an impact the surroundings have on players memorising a boss battle. If this was the case, then Half Life 2 would have taken the biscuit. Recall, after all, the finale takes place high above City 17**, in front of a super-reactor at the top of a thousand-foot Citadel. Really, how much more awesome does an area get? Or maybe a huge chamber in the midst of another huge castle is more of your cup of tea, as shown by the Legend of Zelda games? Again, great effort comes from map designers into making such settings as important as possible.
Then, after all that, you get to experience the sacred end sequence! The G-Man apparently condemning you to live in stasis until you’re called upon again (although this is rectified in Episode One)! What a conclusion! This applies to other games, too! The half-hour FMVs at the end of the Final Fantasy series! The subtly relaxing and yet enlightening round-up at the culmination of every Legend of Zelda game! Surely completing each end boss battle for such benefits alone must be worth it, right?
So why is it, despite all of these above factors, people opt for the likes of Omega Weapon or Shadow Link in their respective games as their favourite boss battles, instead of the finishing antagonists? Surely we all should prefer the almost infinite gain from actually defeating the story’s main adversary to a simple door opening, or receiving weapons we don’t need? Why then are often lesser and optional boss fights chosen as the preference of many gamers?
Again, I personally feel that a number of different characteristics signal that certain sub-bosses can be more favoured than a game’s final battle and it varies from example to example. For instance, the likes of Shadow Link – the Ocarina of Time version especially – happens to be a huge hit. I don’t believe this is due to the difficulty of the fight (although that could contribute) but rather the placement of the sub-boss. Think about it: You’ve had to face the most Hellish series of puzzles since trying to solve a Rubik’s Cube that your little brother has been playing with for the past three weeks and then suddenly you’re cast out into an enormous room. Unlike the rest of the dungeon, this new place only has water as high as your ankles. Gingerly, you approach what appears to be the exit, notably next to a sole tree upon a tiny island. Then, appearing out of absolutely no-where, you find yourself facing er… well, yourself. Anyone who claims the battle itself is hard is somewhat retarded, as you could simply get out your hammer and pound the Shadow to death. Still, the surroundings and the quick change thereof, play a huge part in making this battle notable in the minds of millions. This quick change of pace (and environment) is often used in modern games to keep the player interested and remains a legacy of such situations as employed by the Dark Link encounter. Environmental gameplay also plays a factor in huge hits as Shadow of the Colossus and Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater – where you often find yourself engaging a boss whilst making use of what aid the settings presents, or even the quick change of art to make the scenery appear that bit more surreal and memorable such as the Andross battle in Lylat Wars or many in Psychonauts.
Others claim that because of the challenge certain optional bosses pose, that they make the mightiest of battles. These players are the sorts who play Iron Mode on Audiosurf so they get that they still have bragging rights when they’re dethroned by a hundred thousand point difference on ‘Macho Man’. The most popular of such examples are obviously in Final Fantasy. Instead of using their profound abilities to, oh, defeat the game’s final boss easily and finish off, these players choose to venture into the most dank and unappealing of places to throw themselves up against a foe. Why? Well, loot cannot be a valid option, as the items these infamous enemies offer up can often be inferior to the gear you need to take them down to begin with and is therefore totally useful for the rest of the game. The pure exhilaration from attempting to tackle such random, non-compulsory and downright insanely hard task appears to be enough for some individuals to class the encounter as the best they’ve ever experienced. I don’t deny that, either. No matter what the game or genre, we’ve all faced assignments that we only accomplish through a mixture of top form and luck. In the minds of many, the opportunity to face such bosses makes people favour the games in which they are.
In summary, perhaps developers should take more notice of the masses preferring sub-bosses and surreal encounters to the big-hitters’ finale. Novelty is key and rather than hyping up the game’s climax, only to have it follow the same old ‘Hulk smash’ standard that has been the industry’s boon since Doom, games should have some sort of memorable quality about their encounters; whether the boss be in a new environment, have a unique way of fighting (or to be killed) or simply just be outrageously hard (thanks, Ninja Gaiden!). As long as the designers enjoy creating the boss for a reason other than to give players equipment or story advancement, then the players will enjoy playing it.
*Oh come on, you can’t call throwing in a few balls of AI into a fire whilst trying not to laugh a boss battle! It wasn’t as if it didn’t make it any more epic, just that it wasn’t really that difficult.
**Although the sky box for that map is actually New York at night.
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