Bossing the Bosses

An eerie silence surrounded me, quickly replaced by the distant hum of an engine far greater than mine. Then I caught sight of it, a monstrous warship… flagship of the empire and here was me. One ship who by rights should already be dead half a dozen times but still advances and never retreats.

I had been taught a long time ago to use my strengths to my advantage. I was young and didn’t entirely get this, but I figured that I could sneak into more spaces and maybe be a bit faster than my enemy. Here goes nothing. My first shot obliterates that monstrous engine and leaves the ship drifting in space and letting me take out its rear cannons. Bullets fly past me as I scream under the ship; it begins to break apart under my fire with debris threatening to end my suicidal attack. I come to the front and every weapon it has is trained on me. Where it has power though I have speed and agility. I sweep to the top and I see its Achilles heel lying exposed and vulnerable. Any sci-fi geek knows that the power core in a ship is what usually serves as the self destruct system, why should this be any different? I charge my primary weapon and move carefully into the opening next to the core… one bullet and the ship is torn apart. Explosions begin to rip apart the hull, fire licks up around me but not quickly enough to pull me into the firework show. I fly off into the black beyond and to a new adventure.

ALWAYS take out the back engine first

R-Type’s “mothership” level had a profound effect on me. The game itself was the first I ever played, and at the age of 3 I was good enough to knock my uncle off the high score table. Level 3 however stuck in my head as being something special, I guess now it’d be called a concept stage. Forgoing the generally accepted structure of a level, it set you against a staggering warship and its destruction was the end of the level. It can’t have lasted more than five minutes but the memories are still with me to this day. The exhilaration, the music and the sheer adrenaline rush of the rule book being thrown out for one set piece moment was genius and it probably more than anything else got me into gaming.

Easily the most terrifying boss fight...and it lasted the whole game!
Easily the most terrifying boss fight… and it lasted the whole game!

It’s the point in the game that’s iconic, the point you remember and talk about for years to come with your friends and usually the point where you are chewing the pad in sheer anger at the enormous task placed before you. Looking at the boss fights of yesteryear though it’s hard not to look at today’s efforts and feel a little deflated. Gaming is definitely getting easier, yet it was that difficulty that made the boss fights of our youth into such memorable epic battles. The feeling of elation after you sat for 8 hours trying every tactic under the sun was second to none and helped personify the bunch of pixels before your eyes.

Today though, despite graphical grandeur, the notion of a boss that is simply difficult has almost died and in its place are spectacular set pieces but with little gameplay substance.  Take Gears of War 2 for example when you fight Skorge, it’s a stunning set piece and is incredibly dramatic but when you boil it down you can’t actually kill him and all you are doing is moving to where the game forces you to avoid environmental hazards. It’s not about the design of the enemy, but more explosions going on around him. There’s nothing particularly skilful about concluding that battle because it’s more you taking part in an interactive cutscene.

The actual boss itself isn’t terribly innovative, looks wise a predator knockoff. Design wise you could argue that gaming is in decline, however back in the day we only had clusters of pixels and imagination yet it was the grandeur of the battle that brought them to life. Take a look at our buddy Nemesis from Resident Evil, ugly as sin and straight from the Resident Evil Generic Monster book but any fight with him was so epic that he was terrifying and stands as one of the best bosses in gaming. Surely it follows that now, amidst easy gaming, the generic artistry that passes for a baddie will remain soulless. Now though I read that New Super Mario Bros Wii will have a function allowing people to let the game play the difficult bits for them, surely a step in the wrong direction? It’s sad because the challenge aspect of old boss battles were a chance for you to show all the skills you had amassed over the game; that more than anything else made them memorable. For that brief moment when everything came together and you played your role well you felt like such a badass. That’s why I loved R-Type all those years ago, for five minutes I was engrossed in the game and it was tough but it was rewarding. Now between generic bosses and low difficulty levels I am always aware I’m playing a game and my belief is never suspended. Is it just age? I doubt it, because when I load up my old games I still get the same feeling I always did.

I guess some things never change.







5 responses to “Bossing the Bosses”

  1. MrCuddleswick avatar

    Skorge was quite challenging on the hardest difficulty, but not as tough as RAAM in the first Gears of War.

    I think you might have a point on the seeming decline of the sublimely designed boss. The biggest games this generation (certainly on the 360) – COD, Halo 3, GTA IV are pretty much devoid of bosses. I suppose COD and GTA are better off without some sort of boss shoehorned in (and in COD you could say that some of the hardest levels on Veteran provide more challenge than any boss could), but Halo 3 didn’t even try.

    Do Twilight Princess or MGS4 have decent bosses (don’t spoil me though)? Ocarina of Time had plenty of great boss battles.

    Is it a trend in the market – people seem to be buying millions of copies of games that don’t have bosses – or is it merely a coincidence?

    I’ve just thought about the Half Life series too – the first one had a boss that (some) people found disappointing…..and from then on the Half Life 2 series’ pivotal encounters all involved waves of enemies (apart from the odd Strider or Antlion Guardian, nothing spectacular) as opposed to one hulking behemoth.

    Maybe Episode 3 will deliver some sort of mothership-boss, a la R-Type? Maybe with a big cannon that fires Advisors towards you.

  2. Michael avatar

    Boss fights are still a staple of RPGs…

    About HL2, I thought those were bossfights – especially the, um, last encounter – as, despite there not being one boss you had to use a few different skills to defeat your enemies (which were tougher than the norm). The definition of a boss fight, no?

  3. The Rook avatar
    The Rook

    Ninja Gaiden Sigma have boss battles that had me infuriated. Got stuck on one of the bosses near the end of a level and haven’t gone back yet. Don’t know what Ninja Gaiden 2 bosses are like.

    And if you think games are not as hard these days, are you going for the harder difficulties or playing the Normal/Mdeium/Casual difficulties?

  4. John.B avatar

    I’m going for the top difficulty every time. 🙂 Although when reviewing I do normal.

  5. Lorna avatar

    I don’t really recall many boss fights from way back, though I never did manage to beat Dr Robotnik in Sonic and it has bothered me ever since!

    In this gen,some have been frustrating in that old way of…’what the fuck do I do to actually kill him/her/it’. Not many stand out as huge or iconic though, but that may just be related to my game choices and poor memory 😀

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