I just finished Shovel Knight, or, I suppose I should say I’m finished with Shovel Knight. After overcoming puzzles, platforming, and boss fights, I found myself completely unwilling to finish the last couple of levels. My issue wasn’t with the coming challenge, but with a poor design decision. One of the final fights has the player defeat every boss they’ve beaten in succession without a save point in sight. Not only does Shovel Knight force you to replay old content, but it wants you to replay it perfectly. Sadly, this isn’t the only problem with boss fights in video games. Here’s a list of my most objectionable:
Nasty fight at the end of a long dungeon
This happens in almost every game. The game includes a super long dungeon with incredibly dangerous enemies only to top it off with ridiculously tough fight at the end. The idea is to have a brutal slog to the finish that the player remembers well after the credits role. Developers seem to believe that this is the best way to introduce a sufficiently climactic conclusion to their magnum opus. Unfortunately, it’s also the most dangerous. While the tough final dungeon and fight can produce great stories, it also produces frustrating fights with repeated reloads. Balancing on a knife edge means the players will fail sometimes and so will face having to replay difficult content in hopes that this is the time they’ll succeed. Overlong final dungeons and fights also make it harder for the player to boost their strength if they need to. The number of hours invested and the difficult terrain traversed isolate the player from content they could use to make the fight easier. If the player wants to grind for levels or acquire a particular item, they need to give up several hours’ worth of gameplay to do so. Not surprisingly, that’s not fun.
Getting the gang back together
It inspired this article so it had to be on here. When the final boss fight is proceeded by a run through of previous boss fights or levels, it’s incredibly boring. While I understand that it builds a sense of progress (look at what you’ve accomplished!), this technique also revisits old content. The only difference is that now the player is likely seeking completion of the game and fighting old bosses feels like meaningless filler. Returning to old bosses also robs the player of defeating the boss in the first place. If the boss is still around to fight, then the awesome battle against boss 7 that occurred three hours ago doesn’t mean as much. Furthermore, once the player does vanquish them, the death feels more like a return to the status quo. Can the high school yearbook approach and let the defeated lie.
Now you see my true form
I’m not sure if I can blame Dragon Ball Z for this, but it seems like I should be able to. Final bosses collect numerous “forms” that only come out once they’ve been beaten to a pulp. This means that the player grinds a hard fight, feels the taste of victory, and groans as yet another version of the boss manifests to artificially extend the battle. Multiple forms for bosses ensure that players can never go all out against the last boss for fear that another one lurks in the corner. Oftentimes, the many “forms” are also a narrative hole where new versions of the boss magically appear to ensure that the required “three fights to finally victory” notion holds true. The story never supports the idea and it’s clear that the developers are pulling a dues ex machina.
Strategies you’ll die for
In a drive to create spectacular boss fights, some developers insert incredible new attacks that devastate the player and really force them to come up with new strategies. At least, that’s probably what it sounds like in the developer’s heads. For the player, this technique ups the frustration while sapping the final fight of a climax. It results in repeated restarts where the exposition leading up to the moment is undermined by the fifth time the player fights the third form of the final boss. The relief the player feels is not from saving the world, but rather getting past frustration.
Instant death attacks
No. JUST NO.
Bring it all together
Perhaps the worst sin of a final boss fight is bringing all of the above together. Each problem feeds on each other to create what is a fairly common experience. Multiple forms require repeated playthroughs to learn new strategies to get around instant death attacks and complete an ugly last slog through old bosses. Each part of that equation makes the other parts even worse. Please, developers, when you’re creating your final boss, don’t do any of the above.