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Final Boss Battles

September 20, 2009

In days of yore, boss battles boiled down to one major pattern: hit it in its weak spot, usually the head. This could also be varied up with hitting it with its weakness (like Mega Man master robots) or just straight up hitting it until it dies. As awesome as Shadow of the Colossus was, once you managed to climb up the boss it all boiled down to this one simple pattern.

The question has been posed on Adam Sessler’s Soapbox podcast, “What is a way of approaching an interactive resolution to a game that is not ways that are being accomplished now?” I believe the best way to approach the ending of a game is to focus on the mechanics that your game has presented to its players and not on game design patterns that have already been established.

The best example I can think of for this is Portal. All you have is a gun that shoots portals, and you are facing a robotic mastermind that is shooting missiles at you. That is a battle that is more about ingenuity than about knocking off hit points. Sometimes using the game environment to your advantage can also make for a more dynamic final boss battle. Take Max Payne, for example. The first one had kind of a downer final boss battle, you only lost if you took too long and overall it wasn’t very challenging. Max Payne 2 may have rehashed that final boss battle, but it added in the fact that object physics was already an integral part of the game and you had Vlad tossing molotov cocktails your way the whole time. It was more about pure survival than figuring out the final boss’s patterns, especially because you didn’t see the boss for most of the battle.

The lamest boss battles are ones that introduce some kind of “ultimate weapon” that can only destroy the final boss. The games that come to mind are Unreal 2 and DOOM 3, both of which introduce, oddly enough, a cube which, when thrown at the final boss, destroys it. Whoop dee freaking doo. You mean to tell me that I’ve built up this huge arsenal of rocket launchers, laser cannons, and machine guns during the course of your 6-12 hour game, and your final boss’s weakness is a box? When you are establishing gameplay for a 6-12 hour period of time, players expect to use what they have learned during those 6-12 hours in order to overcome the final challenge, not some half-assed final mechanic you threw in at the last minute because you ran out of ideas. For example, Unreal 2 had a great system of setting up barriers and turrets in order to take down invading armies, similar to the Team Fortress engineer. These setups were used twice during the entire game, and the parts that used them really added some flavor to the gameplay. These were not used during the final boss section, yet could have made for a much more dynamic and player-choice friendly final level, instead of expending all my ammo on a single gigantic alien only to be given a cube which destroys them in one hit.

Simply put, use what you’ve already got. But more than that, make the player be resourceful with what they’ve got and use the mechanics you have introduced to them in new but recognizable ways. Give your players a final challenge that, based on consistent reality logic, are able to understand how it works in the game-world. The best games open the experience up to player choice, and allow the player to try new things based on the game world’s rules and mechanics. If you make that your starting point instead of “you must do this to beat the final boss” then chances are your final boss will be that much more awesome.


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One Comment
  1. Definitely.

    I could leave it at that, but I dislike one word comments.

    I think the root problem isn’t necessarily the bosses, but inconsistency within the game. I actually plan on writing a blog on that topic and now this has tainted my thoughts with more examples XD

    What I mean by inconsistency is that lessons learnt aren’t applied or are contradicted later on. e.g. Mario Bros. Goomba? Jump on head. Koopa? Jump on head. Flying Koopa? Jump on head. Weird blue shelled koopa thing? Jump on head. Bowser? Do NOT jump on head.

    Sure it’s a well known fact of gaming now that you hit the switch and drop him into lava. But I still say what the hell? I never had to do any switch hitting before. I still remember jumping on the boss in my first mario game, Mario Land on the gameboy and DIED because of it. It’s inconsistent with the games rules.

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