The Vault: Top Ten Boss Fights

by on November 11, 2011

The-Vault-Top-Ten-Boss-FightsI’m not really a fan of boss fights, overall. They seem as much a hangover from arcade times as the “CONTINUE” countdowns that still haunt beat-em-ups. Too often, they seen more like an artificial way of increasing difficulty and consuming your tokens than an interesting facet of gameplay. Growing up, I always dreaded them. But the more games I played, the more I realised that there were ways in which boss fights could not only be fun, but enhance the overall game. In general, there are three ways they can achieve this.

  1. By fully using and testing all the skills that the player has learned up until that pont, thereby proving a culmination of the game’s experiences.
  2. By overwhelming the player with their sheer spectacle, so that the boss truly feels lice a force to overcome, rather than an annoying obstacle to clamber over.
  3. By allowing the player to face down an enemy that has plagued them throughout the game, thus providing true emotional closure. Though this seems simple, few bosses ingrain themselves into the players consciousness enough for such a fight to be emotionally satistying.

Before you read on, a word of caution. Because bosses come at the end of games, or at least near the end of levels, each and every entry on this list constitutes a massive, unavoidable spoiler. The titles are safe, as are the still images that precede the videos. But if you haven’t played a game on the list and you’re planning to, don’t read the descriptions underneath.

10: Dead Space (EA Redwood Shores, 2008)

Gross. Dead Space’s Leviathan boss is a good example of how disgustingly imaginative design can make for satisfying enemies. Dead Space’s combat twist is that instead of headshotting enemies, you dismember them, a deceptively simple conceit that turns the shooter genre on its head. Whilst this makes the regular enemies disturbing enough, the bosses are something else altogether.

Of all of them, the Leviathan stands out, both for its confusing use of zero gravity and a circular arena and for the mightily unpleasant sphincters that shoot projectiles at you throughout the fight. Dead Space’s Necromorphs are mutated humans, so there’s a nasty thread of body horror running throughout the game. When you first encounter the Leviathan, it’s with a slightly sick feeling, as you wonder what – or who – it was before it got stuck in that air vent…

 9: Persona 4 (Atlus, 2009)

A cross between a JRPG and a social simulator, Persona 4 tells the story of a group of friends in rural Inaba who have to stop a nameless evil from killing the people it adbucts through their television sets. To do so, the party have to travel into the TV world themselves, entering a warped version of the victim’s subconscious and battle a vast manifestation of the side of themselves that the victim tries to suppress.

Success sees the victim in question acknowledge the feared part of themselves, at which point the monster becomes a “Persona”, a protective spirit born of the strength it takes to acknowledge your darkest self. The person in question then joins the party and fights alongside the protagonist and his other friends to save yet more victims from themselves. The symbolism here is extremely appealing. Victims do not destroy the part of themselves they try to deny, instead they accept it as part of themselves and use its power for good.

Nowhere is this more poignant than in the case of biker Kanji, who is deeply troubled by his emerging sexuality. To save Kanji, the party must venture into his subconscious, (a steamy bathhouse) and battle an enormous characature of a homophobe’s worst nightmare. If the gang were to destroy it and set Kanji “free” of his homosexual feelings, this would troubling, not to mention offensive, but they don’t. Kanjii accepts his feelings for everything that they are, and uses their power to create a formidable persona, allowing him to save others in turn.

8: Tomb Raider: Underworld (Crystal Dynamics, 2009)

A common feature of bad boss fights is their common inconsistency with the game’s central gameplay mechanic. In general, this will see a puzzle game climax in an awkward action sequence or a game focussed on choice and flexibility give you no option but to gun an enemy down (not mentinoing any game in particular, you understand). One of the worst culprits of this approach to boss fighting was the Tomb Raider series, solitary adventures consisting of exploration and puzzle-solving that culminated in akward shootouts with vast monsters that weren’t improved by the game’s ropey combat mechanics.

How welcome then, was Tomb Raider Underworld, whose climactic sequence has all the visual trappings of a clichéd boss fight (enormous room, megalomaniac supervillain shooting forebombs at you, etc) but is in fact a beautifully-crafted, multi-stage puzzle.

Players have to use all the skills they’ve learned over the last eight hours: observation, deduction, timing and acrobatics, to dismantle an ancient doomsday device that’s threatening to destroy the world (of course) whilst avoiding the attacks of Viking Thralls, the firebombs of an Atlantean Goddess and the venom of the Midgard Serpant itself. The fact that you can complete the entire sequence without ever drawing your pistols makes this fight all the sweeter. By making you think your way around the boss rather than just demanding large firepower, Tomb Raider Underworld’s Midgard Serpant ranks as one of the most satisfying bosses in an adventure game, and makes the ending to this otherwise unremarkable entry to the franchise memorable in the best way.

7: Bulletstorm (People Can Fly, Epic Games, 2011)

In most games, you don’t have much of an emotional connection with the bosses. You kill them because you’re told to, and because you want to finish the game. In some cases, you might want to exact revenge for something they’ve done, but rarely do you want to stick it to someone just because they’re a douche.

In General Serrano, Bulletstorm gives us a character so offensive, so charmless, so utterly unlikeably that the short, sweet boss fight at the end of the game is a joy simply because you get to kick him in the face. Serrano is a constant throughout the game as opposed to a shrouded evil or a looming monster, so you have plenty of time to become irritated by his non-stop racist, homophobic, sexist blitherings. Although these are funny in the way Eric Cartman’s anti-semitism is funny (and it’s hard to suppress not to laugh at Serrano’s insistance on calling your Asian companion “sushi dick”), they’re still irredemably nasty, making the fight against him a cathartic substitute for all those times you didn’t tell Billy Gibbs from 4C where he could stick his ruler.

6: Silent Hill 2  (Konami Computer Entertainment Tokyo, 2001)

It’s a shame that Pyramid Head’s success and subsequent iconic status have rendered him a characature of himself, because in his first appearence in SIlent Hill 2, his anonymity made him utterly terrifying. A masterpiece of enemy design, Pyramid Head’s, well, pyramid head made him completely inscruitable, and far more unsettling than any hungry, angry, toothy monster.

But let’s back up. Silent Hill stars James Sunderland, a man traumtised by the death of his young wife Mary. Even though he knows she’s dead, he still comes to the town of Silent Hill when he received a letter, apparently from Mary, saying she’s still alive. Despite the horrors he uncovers in the creepy lakeside town, James presses on with his futile search, which suggests a deep instability whitin himself.

When he first encounters Pyramid Head, the latter is brutally molesting faceless zombie nurses (as you do), and yet James watches. Pyramid Head’s unavoidably phallic knife serves to remind James of everything he could not do during Mary’s long degenerative illness, and his violent, grotesque acts reflect James’ anger and frustration at his wife’s decaying body. As the game progresses, the parallels between James and Pyramid Head grow ever more unavoidable, leaving their every encounter more terrifyingly Freudian than the last.

5: Prey (Human Head Studios, 2006)

Native American sci-fi horror romp Prey was a brilliant shooter with delightfully gruesome enemies, but one battle in particular stands out for its shocking beginning and heart-wrenching conclusion. When cynical hero Tommy is abducted by a vast alien spaceshop along with his beloved girlfriend Jen, all he can think of is saving her. Of course, he ends up saving the world too (spoilers!), but it’s Jen’s frightened cries which drive him deeper into the ship.

Near the end of the game, Tommy enters a suspiciously large room (as any gamer knows, large rooms spell trouble), at the end of which is Jen, encased in a pod with a window that reveals her body from the waist up. Like any dashing hero, Tommy vows to set her free, but something’s wrong. As Jen weeps that she can’t feel her legs, the pod opens to reveal Jen’s torso surgically grafted onto a hideous lumbering beast that heads straight for Tommy in traditional boss style.

You’ve got no choice, of course, but to kill the beast, which is hard because you’re effectively destroying the thing that you’ve just spent the last eight hours trying to save. Eventually, the monster falls, leaving Jen gasping for breath. Tommy tries to promise that he’ll save her, but Jen begs him to be realistic and put her out of her misery. How you do so (a shotgun is the merciful option, but the empathetically-challenged can use a wrench) is up to you.

4: Deadly Premonition (Access Games, 2010)

Deadly Premonition starts off as a free-roaming murder investigation that draws heavily on Twin Peaks for its plot, ambiance and characters. But shortly after you and your avatar, schizophenic FBI Agent Francis York Morgan, arrive in the sleepy town of Greenvale, things start to get weird, quickly. In a game which gives equal attention to coffee, fishing, zombies, gardening and flying dogs from hell, nothing should come as a surprise, but the relentlessly escalating strangeness of the plot and the scenarios will surprise even the most jaded video game veteran again and again.

The bosses are no exception. Though special mention must go to to the cross-dressing cabaret singer and the guy who looks like a cross between Lemmy from Motörhead and Blanka from Street Fighter, the final boss takes the crazy biscuit. You meet Forrest Kaysen near the beginning of the game as a travelling plant salesman who’s having it off with the local gallery owner. But one thing leads to another, and before you know it he’s a twenty foot tall monster with five chins who kidnaps women in order to turn them into juicy flower pots.

Sooo, you have to kill him. How? Well, first you have to shoot him as he bounces around like a hellish Violet Beauregarde before he chases you down a spiral staircase to a parallel universe in a sequence that features approximately twenty QTEs. Finally, after a bizarre soliloquy (oh, you’re playing as York’s alter-ego Zach now, who is actually you, the player, because…oh, never mind), you have to shoot a tiny little Forrest Kaysen doll held in the sweathy hand of the real Forrest, who is now the size of a house. Deadly Premonition’s final boss is a classic because even after one of the most peculiar game experiences in recent memory, every new scene eclipses the last in terms of utter weirdness, and yet the whole thing somehow makes perfect sense.

3: Bayonetta (Platinum Games, 2010)

With its combination of twisted Christian imagery and bizarre gothic horror in a universe with absolutely no rules, most of Bayonetta’s boss fights could qualify for this list. Unsurprisingly however, it is the final boss who eventually makes the grade. So enormous that it doesn’t even fit on planet Earth, Jubileus must be fought in space and is reachable only by driving up an enormous vertical tower on a motorbike.

The fight itself is both varied and gleefully imaginative, dispensing with trivialities such as gravity in favour of perspective-smashing spectacle. Bayonetta needs to transform into a panther and summon enormous demons through her hair (which obviously forms her outfit as well, so this leaves her naked) if she’s to beat up the bizarre disembodied heads that chase her around near the beginning of the fight. Then she has to leap around the inside of Jubileus’ sphere as it turns to fire and ice, punching its enormous golden tentacles, before summoning an gigantic woman (again with the hair), this time with vast throbbing breasts, who punches Jubileus with such might that the player earns a “Big Bang Bonus”. Of course, the whole thing is accompanied by an electro-jazz version of the Sinatra classic “Fly Me To The Moon”.

To end the fight, the player must steer Jubileus around all of the obstacles in our solar system (yes) before kicking it headlong into the sun. Now that’s a boss fight.

2: Shadow of the Colossus (Team Ico, 2005)

A startlingly minimalist game in which you spend two-thirds of your time alone on horseback in vast, empty environments and the other third engaged in epic battles with majestic, slow-moving monsters who you can’t really injure, Shadow of the Colossus stands alone in terms of concept and vision. Tasked with slaying the enormous Colossi that roam the land in exchange for the life of your girlfriend, the world’s history and your past are never explained, placing your solitary, almost silent quest at the very heart of the experience.

To kill the Colossi, you must find their weak spots, glowing sigils somewhere on their huge, lumbering bodies. But reaching those weak spots is no easy feat. Though you can climb the hair of the Colossi, reaching that hair isn’t an easy matter, and will always require lateral thinking, and possibly the use of the environment, your bow, or your faithful horse, Agro. Once you’ve grasped a Colossus, you have to hold on, not easy when you’re slowly losing your grip. Finding the glowing sigil and stabbing it enough times with your sword will release its lifeforce, mysterious black ribbons that immediately flood your own body, forever poisoning you with their power.

Though the mechanics of the fights are breathtaking, even today, it’s their emotional power which gives the game such a devoted following. The Colossi are somehow more than monsters, and killing one feels as though you are cutting down the oldest oak tree in the forest. You don’t understand why you’re being asked to do it until the end, either, so there’s no sense of a higher purpose to your destruction of these wonderous beasts.

1: Portal (Valve Corporation, 2007)

It’s been 4 years since the release of Portal, and what with all the T-shirts, companion cube desk ornaments and the triple-A sequel, it’s sometimes hard to remember how unpredictable the original game was.

At the beginning of the game there’s just you, a portal gun and GLaDOS, an oddly-pitched synthetic voice. Though you can’t tell where the voice is coming from or who (or what) it belongs to, there’s no doubt that whatever it is is watching you. For the first few hours of Portal, that’s all you’re really able to fathom, but as the game progresses, cracks start to appear, both in GLaDOS’ facade of robotic detachment and in the walls of the test chambers.

What makes Portal so clever is the way it makes you feel like you’re subverting a fairly standard puzzle game. As you glimpse the industrial workings behind its pristine walls and destroy the sentry turrets that stand watch over each chamber, you genuinely feel you’re seeing something you’re genuinely not supposed to see, something that you begin to wonder whether all puzzle games are somehow hiding from you. With her cold observations on your performance, GLaDOS is the personification of those slightly blank puzzle worlds, from Tetris to Bejewelled, that, as a gamer, you’ve battled through for years. So when her utterances slip from interested to insulting to paranoid to plain sadistic, it’s exhilerating because it feels like you’re subverting a world that you’ve shared a slightly abusive relationship with your whole life. The opportuntity to take that personification apart, bit-by-bit, is what makes Portal’s payoff so satisfying.

By interrupting her own taunts with babbling attempts to sweet-talk or flatter you into docility, GLaDOS is like a bad lover trying to convince her jilted partner to stay. And as that lover, you’ve had enough. Of course, the fight itself is brilliantly designed, challenging you to use all you have learned about portal physics to dismantle GLaDOS as she tries to dissuade you, either by reverse psychology or insults. It has to be said that your exhilaration upon beating GLaDOS is tinged with sadness. She is, after all, one of the best video game characters ever created. But any remorse you might feel is wiped away by a wonderful ending and that song.

Altogether now: “This was a triumph…”

The Vault is a monthly feature and will return on the second Friday of every month. Next Friday is Hall of Fame time!