Super Smash Bros. has gone through quite a few changes with each iteration, but one of the elements that has arguably changed the most is the bosses. Although the series has incorporated bosses ever since the first entry, each installment has taken a radically different approach in how it incorporates boss battles into the experience. The design of the battles themselves can also change drastically between installments, and even individual entries do not always stick with a single design template. The series’ history with boss battles is surprisingly rich, and while each title’s take on the idea has its own benefits and drawbacks, they all highlight the developers’ willingness to continuously rethink a common gaming trope that many take for granted.
64: Master Hand’s Debut
The first Super Smash Bros. is a simple title, so it’s natural that its approach to boss design and implementation would be simple as well. Much like other fighting games at the time, Super Smash Bros. only features one boss fought at the end of its single-player mode, the series staple Master Hand. The fight with Master Hand is notable in that it largely ditches the series’ trademark “smash-’em-off-the-screen” method of defeating opponents in favor of a more traditional health depletion system. This system would become much more commonplace with each installment, but the Master Hand fight is the only instance of it being used in the original Super Smash Bros., making it a very unique encounter. Master Hand himself functions much like the bosses seen in the Kirby series; he is a big target that uses one of a large variety of attacks between extended periods of vulnerability. This makes sense considering that Super Smash Bros. and the Kirby franchise both share the same development studio, but the key difference is that while Kirby bosses usually stick to a set pattern of attacks, Master Hand’s attacks are randomized, which means no two attempts play out exactly the same. The attacks themselves also follow the Kirby standard, which ends up setting him further apart from the regular Smash characters. Rather than having attacks that come out in a few frames, Master Hand’s attacks have exaggerated and often lengthy windup animations, making them more consistently avoidable.
The series’ first foray into boss design is an admirable one. Having a final battle at the end of an arcade ladder is a simple idea that has worked for decades, and the Master Hand encounter is no different. It’s a very different gameplay experience compared to the rest of the title, but that is by no means a problem. The Master Hand battle places the Smash Bros. mechanics in a different context, and it tests the player’s skills in a manner that is more consistent and less luck dependent than the rest of the game. The battle itself is enjoyable and challenging without coming across as unfair, an unfortunate rarity in the fighting game genre. But since Master Hand is Super Smash Bros.’ sole boss, it only gives a taste into what Smash Bros. boss design can be. Since Super Smash Bros. was made on a limited budget with no knowledge of what the series would become, it’s difficult to blame it for being relatively conservative with its approach to boss design and implementation. But it’s also easy to see that there was massive room to improve and expand on what this title accomplished with Master Hand. Thankfully, as the series continued and exploded in popularity and cultural significance, it would gain the opportunity to do just that.
Melee: Boss Battles as a Reward
The following installment, Super Smash Bros. Melee, would build upon the Master Hand battle in an interesting way. Much like the previous installment, Master Hand is found at the end of the arcade ladder mode, now dubbed Classic Mode, and aside from some tweaks, he behaves largely the same as before. But this time, Master Hand isn’t alone; if the player reaches the final battle on Normal difficulty in five minutes and 50 seconds, Crazy Hand will fight alongside Master Hand after the latter’s HP reaches the halfway mark. The difficulty of the fight spikes dramatically at this point, as the player will need to pay attention to both Hands’ windup animations concurrently and figure out how to deal with their attacks when they overlap. On top of this, Melee also features an entirely different boss that can be encountered in the second major single-player mode, Adventure Mode. Normally, the player will simply fight a CPU-controlled Bowser at the end of this mode, but if the player reaches this encounter on Normal difficulty or higher in 18 minutes, he will transform into the monstrous Giga Bowser after he is defeated. Unlike the hands, Giga Bowser functions much more like a traditional Smash Bros. match, as the player will need to launch him offscreen to win. Giga Bowser himself acts just like regular Bowser, but since he is much larger and has devastating elemental properties to his attacks, he is much more difficult to defeat than before. In addition to the above criteria, the Hands and Giga Bowser can also be encountered in the final two events in the Event Match mode once the player unlocks them, allowing the player to challenge these bosses at any time, albeit in much more difficult incarnations.
The ways in which Melee evolves the original game’s boss design and implementation are remarkable. Since both Crazy Hand and Giga Bowser can only be encountered through obscure criteria or reaching the end of the extensive Event Match mode, it really feels like the player has to earn the right to challenge them. These bosses essentially serve as rewards for being competent at the game, and their obscurity makes encountering them feel like a major discovery. The multitasking element introduced through Crazy Hand’s inclusion builds upon the original game’s Master Hand fight beautifully, and Giga Bowser provides a valuable showcase for how a boss battle using the series’ trademark mechanics can look. Their incorporation into the Event Match mode is very beneficial to the player, as it allows them to practice these bosses with any character without having to go through an entire run of Classic or Adventure mode to do so. Where Melee’s approach to boss design falters, however, is with the Giga Bowser fight itself. The encounter plays out much like other traditional fighting game bosses in that it takes a regular character and beefs him up with insane stats and properties that make luck a major determinant in the fight’s outcome. Overcoming him can be satisfying, but he feels much less fair than the Hands, who can be beaten almost entirely through skill and knowledge of their attacks. Melee makes major strides in experimenting with boss design, but not every experiment fully pays off.
Brawl: Expanding the Roster
Super Smash Bros. Brawl was a massive step up from Melee in terms of sheer scope, and its approach to boss battles really makes this evident. The Hands return in Classic Mode acting much like they did in Melee, but alongside them are eight entirely new bosses, some of whom are from classic Nintendo properties and a few others who are completely original designs. All eight of these bosses are encountered periodically throughout Brawl’s massive single player campaign, the Subspace Emissary, and they act as significant mechanical and narrative climaxes that punctuate the beat ’em up-style levels. Unlike in Melee, every boss follows the randomized Kirby boss template that the Hands use, making every battle consistent and skill-based. Higher difficulties also massively increase the speed of boss attacks, making the fights harder in more ways than just increased health and damage. Outside of the Subspace Emissary, the fights can be challenged again in the Kirby Super Star-inspired boss rush mode, which tasks the player with beating all ten bosses, including the hands, without dying, with extra healing items available between rounds.
Brawl’s approach to boss design and implementation is arguably the best in the entire series. The increased number of bosses makes them feel like a more integral part of the game in a way they simply weren’t before. The fights all feel challenging and exciting, particularly on higher difficulties, making each encounter feel fresh again through the increase in speed. The fights’ incorporation into the Subspace Emissary is a natural fit, and they make the adventure feel that little bit more varied. The boss rush mode is a particularly brilliant inclusion, as it allows the player to infinitely replay, practice, and master each boss in a self-contained experience. The only area where the boss design falls short is in how it represents Nintendo’s history. The Super Smash Bros. series is widely viewed as a celebration of Nintendo’s history, if not gaming in general, and it has received a great deal of praise for how faithfully it represents its source material. Brawl features classic Nintendo baddies like Petey Piranha and Ridley, but their fights only feature superficial similarities to their encounters from the games they appeared in. Petey Piranha’s fight is especially weird about this, as it involves him swinging cages around rather than flying and coughing up goop like he does in Super Mario Sunshine. As celebrations of Nintendo’s catalog, the bosses feel like missed opportunities, but it’s a good problem to have considering how solidly executed they are otherwise.
Wii U and 3DS: Crashing the Party
In Super Smash Bros. for Wii U and 3DS, or Smash 4 as it’s colloquially called, the approach taken to boss design would change dramatically. Rather than encountering bosses in specialized, staged encounters, Smash 4 has the player encountering bosses in the middle of regular matches instead. These bosses, referred to as stage bosses, are essentially glorified stage hazards, entering the fray and harassing combatants as they duke it out. To accommodate their new role, bosses have much more limited movesets, and the attacks they do have come out much less frequently. To justify the “boss” label, fighters are encouraged to take down the stage boss mid-match, as doing so rewards some kind of perk to the player who does them in. In the case of the Yellow Devil and Metal Face, it’s an explosion that harms other players, and in the case of the Dark Emperor in the 3DS version, it’s a temporary stat boost. Ridley is the most unique stage boss, as he will fight alongside the player who deals enough damage to him. He also can be launched offscreen much like a regular Smash character, and doing so even rewards the player who does so with a point in a timed match. Aside from regular matches, stage bosses appear in certain event matches, where they need to be defeated alongside a normal character. They also appear as random events in the Smash Tour mode, and the player who defeats them will earn a hefty number of stat boosts.
Alongside stage bosses, Smash 4 also has a few Kirby-esque bosses of its own. The Hands return in Classic Mode with greatly expanded movesets, and Crazy Hand is always fought as the final opponent in the new Crazy Orders. In this mode, players are encouraged to get into as many regular fights as they can to cash in rewards that can all be kept once the player challenges and defeats Crazy Hand. If players manage to clear enough fights before challenging Crazy Hand, then Master Hand will show up alongside him to raise the stakes. If players choose a high-enough intensity level in Classic Mode, then the Hands will be almost completely replaced by a new boss, Master Core. This fight features several phases depending on the intensity level chosen. Three of the phases involve the standard Kirby boss formula, while what is usually the last phase involves a stamina match with a CPU-controlled shadow clone of the player character. In the Wii U version, on intensity 8.0 or higher, an extra fifth phase will initiate what is essentially an extended platforming sequence.
It is clear that Smash 4 is very experimental in how it designs and incorporates boss battles into the experience. The stage bosses are an interesting idea that can spice up regular Smash matches for those in the mood for it, and the unique mechanics they introduce can be very creative, particularly the ones involving Ridley. It’s nice to see the Hands updated in some form, and most of the Master Core phases are incredibly fast-paced and thrilling. But there is ultimately very little to like about Smash 4’s approach to boss battles otherwise. Although the stage bosses work as unconventional stage hazards, they don’t work very well on their own. Their attack patterns and behaviors are too simplistic for them to function as proper boss battles, and this becomes very evident when the game requires players to fight them in their event matches and Smash Tour. Fighting Metal Face in an event match may sound cool, but considering that he only uses very basic claw swipes and dies in a few smash attacks, he leaves a lot to be desired.
The new attacks the Hands have are fun and interesting, but since they can only be fully encountered on low Classic mode intensities or by getting abnormally far in the Crazy Orders mode, players get very few opportunities to actually appreciate the changes made to them. While most Master Core phases are very enjoyable, the shadow clone phase feels pretty uninspired, especially considering it fights hardly any different from a regular character. The platforming gauntlet phase in the Wii U version may be the most unique boss idea in the series thus far, but it feels incredibly awkward and unwieldy to play through, and the punishing danger zone mechanic feels unnecessarily frustrating. On top of all this, all five phases of Master Core can only be encountered at the end of an already grueling Classic mode playthrough, giving players few ways to practice it and leading to a severe level of burnout when the player finally gets through it all. These problems make it difficult to see Smash 4’s boss battle approach as anything other than a downgrade from Brawl’s approach, despite its clever ideas.
Ultimate: The Most Faithful Boss Lineup Yet
The latest installment, Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, approaches its boss battles in a similar manner to Brawl. Every boss uses the same health depletion system, even the returning Giga Bowser, and the title largely abandons the stage boss idea outside of a few returning stages from Smash 4. But while Brawl’s bosses all featured Kirby-esque boss movesets made from the ground up, Ultimate features boss battles that are much more faithful to their source material, which makes the pacing and feel of each fight vary somewhat. Marx’s fight, for instance, is almost a full recreation of his encounter from Kirby Super Star, so he very much follows the Kirby boss formula. Rathalos, on the other hand, behaves very erratically and animal-like, which echoes its behavior in Monster Hunter, and it even features items that can help stun it much like similar items from its source game. Dracula’s two phases and head weak point evoke his battles from the Castlevania series, along with his varied, occasionally multilayering attacks that are ripped right out of those games. Aside from the World of Light-exclusive bosses, Ganon has the most original moveset due to how comparatively simple his fight is in Ocarina of Time, but even he retains his tail weakness from that game, making him more difficult to damage. The Hands return once again with a near-complete overhaul, but unlike past entries, they do not appear at the end of every Classic mode run. Instead, since every character has a unique Classic mode route, most of the other bosses can show up in place of the hands depending on which character is chosen. Every boss, including the Hands, is also encountered periodically throughout the World of Light single-player mode, much like they were in the Subspace Emissary, and they mark the end of each major dungeon.
Ultimate’s boss battle approach is a major improvement from Smash 4’s, and it’s almost as good as Brawl’s. Having each fight designed around its source material goes a long way in making each fight feel unique, and it gives each boss its own personality in a way. This design approach also makes them serve as much better celebrations of gaming history than Brawl’s bosses did. The Hands feel more fleshed out and fun to fight than ever, and having Classic mode’s final battle be character-dependent is a brilliant touch that makes Classic mode runs feel much less repetitive. The bosses are also the highlight of the World of Light mode, and they serve as welcome changes of pace from the myriad spirit matches.
They add so much to the game, but the biggest problem with them is that they can only be challenged through rather inconvenient methods. The fastest way to play them is to go through entire Classic mode runs, and since the final battles are character-dependent, not every character can be used for each boss in this mode. The player does have the option of using their preferred character when they encounter these bosses in World of Light, but considering how long the mode is and how spread out the bosses are, practicing them with every character is an enormous hassle. The player can partially circumvent this issue by replaying the boss rush section in World of Light’s final stage, but it is always preceded by a lengthy platforming section, adding yet another layer of inconvenience for those who want to practice the bosses. The 10.0 patch does bring a new boss rush, but it comes in the form of Sephiroth’s Classic mode route, which does little to alleviate the problem.
The faithfulness of the boss battles can also be seen as a negative. It’s great that the bosses remain true to their original incarnations, but there is something to be said about Brawl’s original boss ideas. Brawl’s Meta Ridley encounter, which sees the player taking on the massive beast as he attempts to sabotage the speeding Falcon Flyer they are standing on, is a novel and thrilling concept that probably would have never come to fruition had Brawl made its encounters more faithful. Ultimate’s boss design tends not to feature these unique ideas as a result of its approach, and some fights can be seen as a little too faithful. Some players may enjoy Marx’s battle more if they are familiar with its source material, but some may also enjoy it less since it does not provide a brand-new experience. Galleom’s fight is also a near carbon copy of the one from Brawl, which only exacerbates this issue.
Super Smash Bros. has never stuck to one blueprint when it comes to its boss battles, and this is largely to the series’ benefit. These varying approaches not only give each entry a distinct identity, but they also demonstrate how multifaceted boss design is and how different approaches can all add to the experience in their own ways. Each approach has its flaws, and some are certainly better than others, but they all lead to a series that has a surprising amount to say on boss battles and the value they hold.