Last year, both for fun and for critical purposes, I played upwards of fifty games. This year, I’ve been playing five or six games on a rotating basis, and a friend of mine recently asked a question that stopped me cold: “Fought any good bosses lately?”
And it dawned on me: No. No I haven’t. I’ve played great games, but I haven’t fought a boss I’ve cared about in a while. Here’s why it might be time to fire the boss.
A Lot Of Games Phone It In
DMC: Devil May Cry is a game that spent a fortune on art design and level design, where you platform your way through a Matrix-esque car chase, where you fight your way to the heart of a news network in a Tron-inspired sequence after getting there by traveling through an upside-down prison and subway… and where you have the same three boss fights, repeated. While the mechanics of the fight and the scale of the graphics are different, it’s one of three fights: Giant disgusting four-legged creature you have to dodge, giant two legged creature you basically fight from the waist up and occasionally platform to a new location to continue the fight, and normal sized guy who can throw stuff at you and rarely drops his guard.
If this sounds familiar, it’s because every single hack-and-slash game has these three boss fights. The God Of War franchise uses all of these constantly, for example, Zelda is prone to similar fights albeit with slightly more of a puzzle bent, and so on. But at least they have three. All Borderlands 2, and many other shooters, had was a boss where you dodged environmental hazards and shot at a beast, and if you knew where to park your ass on the map and just chip away at his health, it was pretty much just fifteen minutes of jamming a button. In every single case, getting there was all of the fun. Which brings us to point two:
Most Boss Fights Are Really, Really Repetitive
Want to know how to beat the final boss in DmC: Devil May Cry? Spam the shotgun. Seriously. All you’ve got to do for most of the fight.
I’m not picking on the game for this because this is almost every boss fight in every game: Work out the pattern, figure out the weakness, and then rinse and repeat until dead. And in otherwise great games, it can completely derail the flow: Deus Ex: Human Revolution was widely slammed for its boss fights, not least because there was really only three ways to fight the bosses, and only two of them were intentional.
Most Boss Fights Aren’t Challenging Once You Know What To Do
Dishonored has precisely one boss fight in the entire game, and you can beat it by using your powers cleverly or by being a master of timing. Or you can just sit in a window and smack him with crossbow bolts.
Granted, you don’t have to fight this guy. The real fun comes in not fighting him. But it’s still an illustration of a fairly serious problem: Boss fights are difficult to design to avoid a player essentially opting out of them. Deus Ex: Human Revolution featured a skill called the Typhoon that’s literally a Skip Boss button. Press it a few times, watch the cutscene, and move on to the part of the game you care about.
So is the boss fight unsalvageable? No. But game developers need to start being more creative. Fighting a boss is a chore, right now, but bosses that can be beaten multiple ways, or avoided entirely by clever gamers, are the way of the future. Most games are becoming increasingly nonlinear in how you can approach playing them even if your path is relatively straightforward, and the boss fight has to do the same.
Batman: Arkham City, for example, has quite possibly the best boss fight of this hardware generation in the form of Mr. Freeze: A tense and complex fight that requires timing, forethought, and coolness under pressure. It’s possibly the most Batman-esque moment in either game, where you go up against a stronger opponent and outthink him. God Of War III got around it by turning a boss into a level you crawl all over like a flea. DmC: Devil May Cry has moments in one boss fight where you fight enemies in the middle of news chopper footage.
That’s the key. Bosses need more tactics, more variety, and more ways to fight them. Rinse and repeat is for shampoo, not video games.