Bosses are a fundamental part of video game heritage. They not only represent a greater challenge that the player must overcome, but also embody that level which you’ve likely just reached the end of. There are far too many bosses to count now. Most games have them as a checkpoint, to allow the player to show how they’ve learned to use certain skills properly. When created with care, and precision, bosses can be some of the defining moments that make a truly great game. While there’s no direct X+Y=Z formula that makes the perfect fight, there are several innate factors that make a boss stand out among the crowd. When these things come together in unison, the end result is better that its parts.
A boss’ music is a part of its very being, and without it, they’re not complete. An amazing soundtrack can even sometimes make a dull boss great. Balancing the tone of the fight, with the previous level, and even the thrill of the battle is vital. Iconic tracks such as Wind Waker’s Gohma and Pokemon Emerald’s Team Magma/Aqua Boss Battle theme are both made better as fights because of the incredible music behind them. If, a boss battle is done in silence, it becomes totally distant from the player. Music adds a layer of intensity that wouldn’t be possible to fabricate anywhere else. But good music shifts with the fight, changing pace as the pressure mounts, when the inevitable second phase rears its ugly head.
Where the player fights the boss in question is not only vital, but it’s imperative that it’s made to be their home. As either a physical representative of that place or that they own it, each stage should mirror the boss in some way. If it’s a poison area, have the boss be rotted in some hideous way et cetra (like the Dirty Colossus in Demon Souls). Truly fantastic fights reveal the boss in sneaky previews, allowing the anticipation to build early on. Even if the boss isn’t shown, the area should let the player see where they will inevitably fight them at the end. One fantastic example of this kind of design is the Cathedral of the Deep from Dark Souls III. The boss, Aldritch, is shown to have been everywhere marked with an inky black sludge on the floor, a sludge that eventually leads to his antechamber.
Much like location, a boss build up/introduction is a wonderful way to showcase the fiend before the player has got to it. Showing off a massive suit of armour down a long corridor is bound to get any players’ heart racing. Directly showing isn’t the only way of doing this, however, hints are crucial to making players theorize what’s awaiting them at the end. Banners on walls, creatures fleeing away from the player, some hidden mechanism going off in the background: they’re all ways of setting off alarm bells.
In terms of the actual fight between the player, and the boss itself then it comes down to careful mechanical design that dictates how they fight. The greatest bosses have unique attacks that the player has never seen, and will likely not see from anything else in the game. These attacks separate them from just a regular mob enemy, as the player must learn to counter them or negate them. Specific attacks also allow them to test a player’s reflexes, making them better as players overall. If the boss doesn’t have anything unique about them, then they’re not a boss at all – merely a big enemy.
Whether they look like a copy of the player, a bigger version of something that’s already been established in the area prior, or something totally new: a boss’ look is absolutely vital to get right. Not for the sake of fashion, but for the memorability. Sledge from Borderlands was a bandit leader, so he dressed like a bandit. The difference was that Sledge was unique because of his full-face helmet, and his melee weapon (no prizes for guessing what kind of weapon it was). This allowed players to easily distinguish him during the boss fight and made him stand out among other regular enemies. Other, more outlandish, designs can focus on making them a little ridiculous, thus lulling the player into a false sense of security.
The actual place where you fight the boss is often the cherry on the cake for most players. Grand vistas of mountains, burning cities, or a storm surrounding you are enough to add that final touch of awesome which simply betters an already great battle. In some cases like Shadow of the Colossus, the boss is the arena. It’s a unique take on an established format, where the player is fighting the area around them, as well as the boss itself. But certain arenas hold the secret to that boss’ death, with key environmental interactions that can let you get that crucial blow.
A crux in any, and all boss fights. Nailing that perfect difficulty to challenge the player, while not making them feel as if it’s unfair, isn’t easy. This is where discussions about artificial difficulty come in, and people argue about how easy/hard a boss should when there are difficulty settings on the menu. Thankfully some RPG and adventure games have managed to create a fair balance. This balance often depends on the game itself. For example, you wouldn’t expect a boss as hard as the Nameless King from Dark Souls III in a Legend of Zelda title. Challenge is also dictated by the moveset of the boss, the AI itself, and potential damage output. All those things and more come together to create a truly awe-inspiring boss fight for the player.