The Art of Boss Battles

This article contains visual spoilers and boss descriptions from: Persona 5 Royal, Batman: Arkham City, Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater, Undertale, Bloodborne: The Old Hunters DLC, NieR Automata, Persona 5: Strikers.

Bosses. Sometimes we love them and sometimes, we love hating on them.

My time playing video games has put me up against a wide variety of bosses over time.

There are those bosses who took me through the five stages of grief and burned their faces into my memory forever (yes, I’m looking at you, Genichiro Ashina) and there are others who are… less memorable, let’s say.

Fighting bosses evokes emotions in me unlike anything I had up to that point. Tension, anxiety, aggression, annoyance, thrill, fear, confidence, and the list goes on. And it all culminates in the ultimate feeling of relief and sheer joy the defeat of a boss I had spent hours on.

Fighting bosses helped me discover new things about myself and and it taught me some new skills that I use in my daily life. Learning through trial and error being the biggest one.

In our previous parts of Anatomy of a Boss, we look at how good of a boss Gaunter O’Dimm, Takuto Maruki and The Boss are. We also took a look at how good of a final boss Isshin Ashina and Soul of Cinder are.

Today, I’d like to do something a little different. I’d like to take a more general look into what makes a good boss fight. What does a boss fight need for it to stand out from the crowd?

In this article, I’ll be taking you through what I think are the 5 key things a boss fight needs to nail in order to be memorable.

Let’s start our journey at the beginning; first impressions and lore.

The Story

Whenever I ask anyone what their best boss fight in gaming is, one of the first aspects of the boss they usually describe is their story and/or lore.

How good the story around the boss is can help to leave a lasting impression on you. Whether it is from a lore perspective, or they have understandable or justifiable motives for their actions, or their personal history can explain how they became the antagonist they are, a good story can go a long way towards selling a character.

All of this leads me to believe that if a boss has boring lore or personal history, chances of the boss making an impression on the player is extremely low.

A great example of a villain with a great personal history and understandable motives is Takuto Maruki, the final boss of Persona 5 Royal.

He is notable for having good intentions and wanting to do something good for the world. This is not a fake out. He has good intentions from start to finish. However, he ends up doing things that the game considers ‘bad’ to see his goals realized.

Despite this, the question of whether his perspective right or not hangs in the air to this day.

To some players, the great tragedy of Personal 5: Royal is that despite having good intentions and a kind heart, a conflict with Maruki was inevitable. Neither side was willing to back down, and understandably so.

A truly memorable boss fight.

The Mechanics

The second thing a boss fight has to nail in order to stand out are the gameplay mechanics of the fight.

You can think of a boss fight as a test given to the players to see that if they have picked up the game’s mechanics and have learned how to apply them in different situations.

Out of all of the 5 keys things that are mentioned in this feature, this is arguably the most important. I think it should be done right at all cost.

Even a boss with a disappointing or lackluster lore can be a better boss fight if it is mechanically well-designed.

This also happens to be the part which ultimately decides whether the fight will be easy or hard.

Mechanics and how they are used in the fight is one of the major contributing factors to difficulty in boss fights.

Bosses from the Soulsborne games, for instance, are often immortalized in the hearts of players due to their mechanical challenge. Though admittedly, there is more to it than just ‘hard bosses’, even in the Soulsborne games. More on that later.

The Mr. Freeze boss fight in Batman: Arkham City is the perfect example of a boss fight that pushes the player with excellent use of game mechanics. It stands proud as not only one of the best boss fights in the game but can also be considered one of the best Batman fights in gaming.

The boss fight felt like the developers wanted to prove that they knew everything about Batman and his capabilities, and were determined use all of what they knew to make the most engaging and tactical boss fight possible.

What makes this boss fight unique is the fact that Mr. Freeze will actively adapt to how you attack him.

Any method of attack that you use on him will work only once and never again. This forces you to keep switching tactics and use every single thing hanging off that Bat-Belt to its full effect.

This boss fight makes you feel more like a tactician as you are fighting against an intelligent opponent that adapts to your moves, rather than learning a pattern of the moves and exploiting them, as is common with most other bosses.

This type of boss fight is very rare, even in the modern gaming space. But this only makes the fight more memorable.

It is the ultimate test of game knowledge and tactics.

The Arena

The third thing a boss fight needs to stand out is a good boss arena.

A boss arena is a specific location where a boss fight takes place. This can be a large area to move in or a special combat screen where the fight takes place.

This is why most gamers are vary of large open rooms in games. It is often a sign that there is a non-zero percent chance that a boss fight is imminent.

These boss arenas tend to be designed with the boss in mind. Sometimes, it reflects their lore or the boss or even their personalities.

The arena also sets the stage for the fight and a good boss arena is one reason which can make a good boss fight experience and emotional.

The final boss fight with the Boss at the end of the “Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater” takes place in an open field filled with white flowers.

The field creates a wonderfully tragic tone of finality and serves to emphasize who the Boss was and what she meant to the protagonist.

It is also set up in a way that challenges the player by giving the terrain advantage to the Boss. She wears a full white suit that blends in well with the field of flowers, making it hard to spot her sometimes.

The location of the fight contributes to making this boss fight a challenging and emotional experience. Add to that a dash of tragic backstory and a pinch of deep lore and you have one of the most memorable boss fights in all of gaming.

Music

Boss fights are also known for the special or unique musical themes made for that fight. Boss music, some call it.

Boss music can be used in a lot of ways and can mean a lot of things. It can reflect the boss or their character in some way, synchronize with their moves, or even represent the environment/arena/stage the fight takes place in. It is the ultimate mood setter.

The music can also end up telling its own story. Sometimes, a specific instruments or vocals are used to express specific themes or even a callback to an earlier moment. Using music this way can take an already awesome boss fight and elevate its quality even higher.

The boss music is one reasons why I look forward to any boss fight. I don’t just want to beat the boss, I want to hear excellent music while doing it. To me, a good boss theme is vital to a good boss fight.

Often, boss music tends to favor epic presentation. You often see heavy use of choir and classical music to create that bombastic and epic feeling.

For the longest time, I did NOT like this type of music at all. It just wasn’t for me… or so I thought. However, video game music – specifically epic boss music – has completely turned me around on classical music and epic choral vocals.

Also, when games go epic, for some reason they tend to favor choir vocals sung in Latin. I have no idea what they are saying but it sure sounds epic!

It’s gotten to the point where if you hear a Latin chorus beginning during a boss fight, you know that it’s about to get real.

Out of the 5 factors I’ve mentioned so far, music is the one that has the most impact on me. All my “most memorable boss fights ever™” have fantastic boss themes that still live in my head rent-free.

The music can be one way in which a boss can be both memorable and instantly recognizable. Just four seconds of the opening of “One Winged Angel” from Final Fantasy VII is enough for most fans to recognize it. Some dedicated fans could probably do it in under two seconds, with the first note of the song! That’s how iconic and instantly recognizable the song has become.

There are times where the music ended up being so good it overshadows the boss itself. Sometimes, these catchy bangers boost the game’s popularity.

The Undertale boss theme, “Megalovania“, is one such example. The song was so beloved that it spread across the Internet like wild fire, becoming memed, remixed, and covered tons of fans and non-fans alike. This iconic song will likely be remembered as one of gaming’s greatest musical themes for years to come.

The song is so famous that a circus band performed it the Vatican earlier this year!

One great example of a boss theme is “Ludwig, The Holy Blade” from Bloodborne. This track begins with the second phase of the boss known as Ludwig. He occupies a significant position in the lore of the game as a former hunter, now fallen in more ways than one.

The second phase starts with a cutscene. This is one of my favourite boss cutscenes so no spoilers here! But what I can tell you is why I like it. Spoiler alert: it’s because of the music.

The cutscene uses Latin choir to build up the epic moment. The music properly starts when the cutscenes ends. This music hits so hard that it elevates an already great boss fight to legendary levels.

Both the instrumentation and choral arrangement are used to differentiate the “mood” of both the phases of the boss.

In Phase 1, the music is dark and foreboding. It creates this feeling of creeping danger using the strings and vocal chorus. It perfectly encapsulates the horrifying beast Ludwig has become.

On the other hand, Phase 2 drops that “slow and lumbering malice” vibe and goes for a faster-paced song. The music uses the same strings and choral arrangement in a completely different way. It sounds more like a waltz now. It almost sounds heroic, despite it walking the razor’s edge between sanity and madness.

It’s a lot. But it is a boss theme that uses its strings and vocal arrangement to perfectly encapsulate the character and his tragic tale. All without a single spoken word!

In fact, the choral part of this theme can serve as a constant reminder to you, the player, that you are not fighting a simple beast or monster; you are fighting a man.

It is also worth noting that out of all of the bosses in both base game of Bloodborne and its DLC, The Old Hunters, Ludwig is the only boss which has 2 boss themes. That’s how special he is.

Overall Presentation

Boss fights can be the crown jewel in a video game. A showcase of every idea the game has to offer. In this vein, final bosses are a culmination of all this.

It is one of the areas of development where the devs spends the most time on. Most bosses are given new move sets and mechanics, an arena to fight in, and a musical theme to complement them. Given all the special attention bosses get, it might be accurate to call bosses the “favored children” of the devs.

All of this to say that bosses tend to have unique or interesting presentations. A good boss fight needs to have a good presentation.

When I say “presentation”, what I mean is how the boss fight mixes all the factors I mentioned before to make the fight epic. How it all comes together, basically.

When the music, the lore, the mechanics, and the boss arena all work together, it can take a boss fight from merely being an obstacle to your progress and elevate it into your personal list of “most memorable gaming moments™”.

In fact, one of the things I really like is when the music synchronizes with the moves. It makes the battle come alive in a really hard-to-define but satisfying way.

One of the best examples of this sort of music and battle synchronicity is the boss Simone from NieR: Automata. She is an elaborately constructed machine that can be fought in the Amusement Park area of the game. Her look and presentation evoke the appearance of an opera singer.

This fight was designed with a “theme” in mind. The boss’s lore, the gameplay mechanics involved, the boss arena, and the utter banger of boss theme fits this thematic choice perfectly.

They all compliment and work with each other extremely well to take what might be just a boss fight against a robot and elevate it to what is essentially a tragic ballet of violence. This is what I mean by good presentation.

Good presentation doesn’t have to be limited to the “fight” itself. It can also include the prelude/epilogue cutscenes of the fight, along with any phase changes during it.

It can even be a moment during the fight where everything aligns to make an epic moment.

Akira Konoe is a boss fight in Persona 5 Strikers. It isn’t the best boss battle in the game or anything but I will always remember that fight because of the cutscene at the start 2nd phase.

He makes an epic intro where he walks towards you while an explosion occurs behind him (because cool guys walk away from explosions). That’s when this absolute banger of a boss theme, “Counter Strike“, begins.

It is perfectly executed to showcase what kind of character he is. The cutscene, the explosion, the music, and the vibe just comes together perfectly! That is good presentation.

In conclusion, boss fights are special. And I believe that they can be made more special when developers pay attention to those factors mentioned before.

When the story, the mechanics, the arena, and the music come together in an engaging and memorable presentation, you get the best version of what a boss fight can be.

But all that said, we would love to hear what you think. What do you think makes a boss fight memorable? What are some of your favorite boss encounters?

Let us know in the comments below!

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