What Makes a Great Boss Fight?

What Makes a Great Boss Fight?


Tea: Christmas Tea


In most games boss fights mark a high point of excitement at the end of an individual level. We love to challenge ourselves with these trials of skill and patience. But while there are truly amazing boss fights out there the vast majority succumbs to a repetitive back and forth with no real unique feeling to it. That is why we shall take a closer look at what makes boss fights great.

In my mind, the first step to a great boss is build-up. While a surprise drop in boss may excite the player momentarily, it has a far greater significance if the boss is someone that is vaguely familiar to you. Characters may speak in whispers about a certain creature and it stands to reason whether they are actually telling the truth until the mighty beast of legends stands right in front of you. Information should be treated sparingly, however. On the one hand the foe must be recognizable from the descriptions and hearsay to be identifiable as such, but he should still bear an element of surprise in his appearance. If everything is known beforehand the whole thing falls apart, or even worse the player is disappointed that the boss is “just like he expected”.

Now that the player has entered the arena and taken in his first glimpse of the boss it is time to back it up with a good fight. There are usually two major types I would consider suited for bosses: Large foes that cover a lot of the arena tend to be very slow and that is a major mistake right there. While they should have some draw back it should not be speed in my eyes as that only makes them appear weak and sluggish. I would propose a more punishable set of moves that is hard to avoid, but leaves the boss open to attacks. For an example look at Manus, Father of the Abyss in Dark Souls. He is fast and has a lot of different attacks, but his large swipes also leave him vulnerable to a quick attack.


– The Father of the Abyss is a worthy challange for the end of the DLC –

The second type is a player-character-like boss fight. An enemy with roughly the same size and move set as the player character. A typical rival fight can have the added bonus of a feeling of equality and not being faced with impossible odds. But simply copying the main character is not enough the boss should have a unique element to him that takes away some of the vulnerabilities the player has become comfortable with during his playing of the main character. Take for instance the fight against Vergil in Devil May Cry 3. The player is at this point comfortable with the combat and knows that Dante has to dodge out of the way and can only cover a certain area with that and is also a bit vulnerable after a combo. Applying this to the boss, the player will discover that Vergil can seemingly teleport across the arena, rendering his dodge vulnerability next to nonexistent. But he is open after a successful dodge of his attacks. Thus turning knowledge about your own character into a vital component of the boss strategy.


– There are a total of three fights against Vergil and each one is amazing –

Let’s talk music, since this is usually part of every boss and often misused. Most of the time the boss has a semi-orchestral track that is draped over the action to make it feel more epic. First of all, the music should fit the overall tone of the fight and add to the experience rather than simply be there to have music. The worst example for this kind of misuse is Dark Souls II’s soundtrack that endlessly re-used the Ornstein and Smough theme from the first game. It was fitting then, but seems less applicable to most of the fights found in the game. The Skeleton Lords for instance use a seemingly similar orchestral arrangement, but seem nowhere near in tone to the music. A much darker and more arcane feeling should also have been present in the music, instead it becomes the standard interchangeable boss fight music. The music should not only fit the tone, but also the fight. Meaning it should progress with the boss itself. If the boss finally uses his more powerful moves the music should amplify along with it. A truly perfect example of this is Father Gascoigne from Bloodborne. His first stage gives off an eerie vibe, as does Father Gascoigne. Why is he fighting, why is he so mad and relentless? Then as the fight progress the music amps up and Gascoigne switches his weapon mode and increases the pace. In the last stage the fight switches things up completely and Gascoigne transforms into a beast and so does the music. The orchestral tracks give way to pounding drums and a more primal feeling. Truly astounding and a proud example of a boss fight done well.


– The transition into the third stage of this fight is one of the best moments in Bloodborne –

The last thing a boss fight needs is that special something that is really hard to pin point. Some fights have it others don’t. There must be a certain personal involvement mixed into the exchanged blows. Build-up factors into this certainly and the general position within the game can also have a huge impact. While the final boss usually gets this simply because he is at the end of the game, the same is harder to achieve for other fights. Breaking with conventions is a great way to achieve this. For instance, the final boss of the Neutral Path in Undertale mixes up the entire art style of the game, thus giving a whole new edge to the fight. But since I don’t want to spoil that, let’s look at Jubileus from Bayonetta. The final boss of this amazing games breaks all limits in terms of scale and this game had huge bosses to begin with. Yet, Jubileus feels like a god and also fights like one. Her attacks are enormous and simply have a feeling of raw power to it. Actually a whole article could be devoted as to why Jubileus is the most perfect example of a final boss. Excess is the key here. The fight keeps constantly surpasses itself by raising the stakes even higher. Culminating in a final attack that grants power to the player that literally breaks the limit of infinity. Simply a beautiful video game moment and exactly that special something that makes it stand out.


– Dea Jubileus wins the prize for best fight –

Boss fights are a valuable tool and sadly they have become somewhat stale and dry. Simply because there has to be a boss fight a token enemy is placed in your path. But when done correctly a boss fight can immerse the player to an even higher degree. With a well-executed build-up, the right type of fight for the right moment, a fitting piece of music, and that extra something that set this particular boss apart from the rest. Then the boss will stick with the player long after his defeat and the fight becomes enjoyment rather than another boring diversion in a series of equally tedious fetch quest.



Image sources in order of appearance:


4 thoughts on “What Makes a Great Boss Fight?

  1. Very, very true! Bosses are a vital part of most games and should be designed and conceptualised accordingly.
    Paradoxically, one of the best bosses that comes to my mind ISN´T a boss-fight: In “Alice in Wonderland – Madness Returns” it seems that the March Hare and the Dormouse, who appear in a gigantic mecha, are going to fight you, before they are crushed by the Hatter and disappear under the debris of his crumbling house. I loved, how the game played with my expectations, here!
    Sadly, there are also plenty of bosses that leave me disappointed. Best example here is Corypheus, the self-proclaimed God who wants to rule the world of Thedas in “Dragon Age Inquisition”. Honestly, it was even a bit embarrassing how throughout the game all the NPCs whisper about him as if he was “You-know-who”, building up high expectations, just to finally, after over a hundred hours of gameplay, you have to realise, that this “ancient creature who saw the throne of the Maker and wants to destroy the Old Gods”, is nothing but an oddly designed whimp. I could have checked my mails during his boss-fight. The hardest part was to convince my companions to leave something of the fighting to me, because they were like: “It´s okay, Inky, play with the little pawns on the war table or go collect some herbs, we´ve got this.”
    In my opinion, Bloodborne (well okay, and Dark Souls I) has the best bosses of them all: They´re challenging and diverse, atmospheric and impressive and simply put, everything a boss ought to be.


    • Interesting example you picked as I know what non-boss you are talking about. The even juicier part comes into play when you consider that Alice’s budget was cut short of expectations and that there actually was intended to be a proper boss fight as well as at the end of every other major level, but due to time and money constraints they had to be cut.
      Yes, Corypheus was an aweful boss fight and had no special aura or even any edge to it. For this particular case it would have worked to give him a second transformed form. One the player has not seen a dozen times at this point. Oh well.
      Absolutely, Dark Souls and Bloodborne have to most amazing bosses. You might also want to check out the Castlevania series as they feature strong boss fights as well.


  2. Boss fights are the chance for a game to really WOW the player. I remember thinking the boss fights in Kirby’s Adventure for NES were so cool. Now look at Bloodbourne or even the first boss in Witcher 2. So cool.


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