Ever got to the end of a game and been met with a cheap, lazy or hilariously easy boss? From my experience, that’s more often the case than not.
In theory, a boss is meant to be the final challenge after a prolonged build-up, serving to test the skills a player has learned up until that point. Probably the best example of this in recent years would be Dark Souls; the levels in it usually follow a certain mechanical and aesthetic theme and conclude with a boss that fits the difficulty and tone of each area. On the other end of the spectrum would be Borderlands 2, which spends most of its excessively long storyline hyping up a mythical beast who ends up jumping around the arena completely unable to harm you if you stand ever so slightly to one side.
Like any dramatic ending, bosses must be hard to do well. But half the problem seems to be that many of the genres that are currently popular don’t lend themselves well to traditional boss encounters. Call of Duty, for instance, is about sitting behind a wall and occasionally popping out to shoot people sitting behind other walls. The mechanics and relatively down-to-Earth setting greatly limit the options when it comes to designing a memorable and satisfying final challenge, and often games following the Call of Duty template settle for giving the player a mounted turret and letting them mow down waves of suicidal baddies for a while.
Having said that, there are certainly some creative bosses out there whose designs fly in the face of gaming tropes. Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater is primarily about sneaking through a forest, and while many of the bosses are straight-up gun fights, the sniper duel halfway through embraces the core mechanics and is incredibly satisfying as a result. It proves that the basic concept behind a boss fight can be applied even if a traditional one-on-one brawl wouldn’t suit a particular game.
What helps as well is if the player’s been actually been given a reason to dislike the antagonist, so their grand showdown will carry some weight. Deus Ex: Human Revolution was highly criticised for dolloping bland evil-doers in your path when the plot demanded it, but it’s rare for any game to establish their villains as credible threats. One that does would be God of War. We find the titular Ares early on, a mountain-sized monster casually demolishing Athens. This sets up the impossible odds against the player, and because Ares’ rampage through the city directly impedes the player’s progress, genuine resentment begins to emerge even before we see why the main character has a particular dislike of the war god.
So give us a truly despicable bad guy whose downfall we’re invested in, and make damn sure that their final appearance is a swan song. If you think giving a game a good ending just means adding a pretty cutscene before the credits, you’re missing the point entirely.
Featured Image rights; SQUARE ENIX