Opinion – Final Boss Success

I must have been tempting fate.

Remember when I said the boss of Persona 3 met most of my criteria for a bad final boss fight?  It proved it this week.  After fighting for an hour and having a relatively easy time, the last boss reached 25% life and dropped a final attack that wiped out my party at nearly full health.  ISN’T THAT FUN???

Obviously, it’s not.

Having just gone through an example of a terrible final boss, I feel it’s time to identify what a good final boss looks like.  Final bosses are an awesome opportunity to put a satisfying ending on a game that the player may have invested tens of hours into.  It can be the ultimate moment of closure for an epic storyline.  In short, final boss fights have considerable potential.  Here are a few ways to take advantage of it:

Reflect the story of the game

Developers often feel the need to have a major boss battle as the conclusion to their game and there is something appealing about one final duel against all odds.  Unfortunately, that may not organically mesh with the game’s story.  Not all enemies are super-powered villains who destroy worlds and provide challenges to elite groups of warriors, yet some games try to jam them in anyway.  Consider the end of Wolfenstein: The New Order.  The final fight is against Totenkopf, a maniacal Nazi scientist.  To make Totenkopf a challenge for the player, they stick him in a giant mech suit reminiscent of mechaHitler from the first game.  Nothing up to this point suggests that Totenkopf has any great skill piloting a mech, nor that he wouldn’t be better off handing the controls to a trained henchmen, yet that is how he’s presented as the final boss.  Wolfenstein would have done better to play to Totenkopf’s established skills rather than invent a martial persona which clearly didn’t fit.  The end boss fight feels tacked on because it is out of character with the character as he’s been portrayed up until that point.  Of course, if a video game has set up the final boss as a destructive warrior, then it would do well to ensure he is one when the fighting starts.

Minimize frustration

Too often do developers confuse difficult with frustrating.  Bosses have a myriad of special attacks, absorb tons of damage, and always seem to have another form.  A good final boss fight shouldn’t have the player tearing out their hair.  Developers should minimize random elements that deny player skill and avoid overlong attacks or cutscenes.  If a developer insists on a long fight, then it ought to facilitate restarting that boss fight should the player fail.  Nothing destroys the mood of a final boss by having to restart a long sequence all over again.  In short, the fight should be a test of skill, not patience.

Build on the game

Most games have a signature mechanic or story that helps define the game within its genre.  Unfortunately, most games also have a final boss that ignores that element in favor of brute strength and endless repetition.  Persona 3’s final boss is a perfect example.  Until that point in the game, the player exploits enemy vulnerabilities to gain extra attacks and win fights.  The final boss, on the other hand, has no vulnerabilities.  The developer completely ignored the defining battle mechanic of the game in the service of avoiding an “easy” boss fight.  Instead, we get a boss that could fit into any RPG.  It would have been better if the developer could have used the skills the player already learned to create a unique and memorable boss.

It doesn’t have to be long or hard to be epic

The end fight of Saboteur has the player fighting their way to the top of the Eiffel tower in pursuit of a vile Nazi commander.  After killing the last guards, the player finds him waiting next to a ledge.  The game slows down and the player shoots the commander with the glittering city of Paris as the backdrop.  The fight wasn’t long, the battle wasn’t difficult, but the end imparted a sense of completion and grandeur that a thousand bloated fights couldn’t match.  Game endings can achieve superior conclusions without demanding time and skill from the player.  If the preceding game sets the whole event up, then sometimes a boss fight needs nothing more than a well-conceived shot to make a memorable end.   Give the player credit for all they’ve done up until this point and don’t demand more if you don’t need to.

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