When it comes to video game design, there are two major approaches to handling bosses. Players expect bosses to be harder, better, faster monsters than any they’ve met up to that point — a test of their skills. We’re wired that way. Yet at the same time, there are two ways to evoke that emotion: either through a real or perceived difficulty spike or through an increase in the spectacle.
This is because most bosses are unique enemies, and so they and their arenas can be synergistically designed — i.e. that the boss’ lair is truly a playable set piece. As such, a good boss is inherently not just a difficulty spike, it is also a spectacle. Your character is Daniel in front of the lions, and you the player are the audience.
One of the first things Nintendo figured out was how to make their bosses into spectacle. Think back to Super Mario 64. Although the graphics, by modern-day standards, are rough polygons, and the use of a second joystick for camera control was a Sony innovation that wouldn’t come about until the development of the Dualshock controller (still the Playstation standard) — resulting in fundamentally broken camera controls to modern-day eyes (it was good enough in 1996, mmmkay?) Super Mario 64‘s major bosses successfully evoke spectacle.
The first boss we meet in that game is the Big Bomb-Omb, at the top of Bomb-Omb Battlefield’s mountain. This is a neat design trick: the boss level is actually a mesa fully integrated into the rest of the level. Nintendo did the same thing with Thwomp’s arena in Thwomp’s Fortress and (rather less successfully) with the Big Boo being on the mansion’s roof.
In fact, in Super Mario 64, there are only two bosses that have dedicated set-piece arenas: Bowser — and Eyerok in Shifting Sand Land. The former are the game’s major fights: Bowser in the Dark World opens up the basement; Bowser in the Fire Sea opens up upstairs; and Bowser in the Sky is the final fight of the game — and this is what makes Eyerok’s set-piece arena so surprising.
Unlike any of the other bosses, whose set pieces are part of the level and as such can be entered and exited essentially at will (King Bomb-Omb throwing you off the mountain basically resets the fight if you live; the same happens if you miss a jump against the Big Boo on the roof and end up on the ground), there is no way to exit Eyerok’s lair once you’ve committed to the fight — and this is what makes his lair a true arena.
So we have here the sense of the boss as spectacle integrated into the very genesis of 3D game design. (Remember that Super Mario 64 is single-handedly responsible for around half of the major 3D game design tropes.)
But there is also a sliding scale to be had between difficulty and spectacle. Super Mario 64‘s bosses are not difficult for a skilled player. Yes, hitting that final spike bomb in Bowser in the Sky can be tedious and annoying, but the bosses are extremely straightforward, and — once you’ve mastered the controls — literally run circles around. (Indeed, this is the dominant mechanic by which enemies are defeated.) By contrast, Final Fantasy bosses — particularly in the purely turn-based era — were substantially more difficult to defeat. This is because, where Nintendo focuses more on spectacle and entertainment value, Square Enix has historically focused more on skill in set pieces, relegating spectacle to cutscenes. (The nadir of this trend was in the mid-2000s, when excessive cutscenes were clearly detrimental to gameplay in, say, Kingdom Hearts II.)
And that brings us to our now extremely buried lede. Zelda bosses focus on spectacle over difficulty. Anybody who’s ever played any Zelda game ever (i.e. most of us) have noticed how easy the set pieces become after about the second or third playthrough. But they also do this so well that we rarely notice — or, more accurately, the way we notice is that the bosses don’t last long enough.
By focusing on spectacle, Zelda is able to pull off some extremely epic set pieces: bouncing up and down on Bongo-Bongo’s drums; running Goht down as a Goron in Snowhead Temple; smacking the Helmaroc King’s helmet off, or pulling Molgera up out of the sand; and in Twilight Princess, pièce de résistance of Zelda‘s boss-as-spectacle trend, a very long litany of memorable set pieces ending with a midair battle against a dragon, a complex multistage fight against your now-insane primary antagonist, and a one-on-one sword duel with Ganondorf on Hyrule Field. These are not easy fights — certainly an order of magnitude more difficult than most Mario fights — but they also pale in terms of difficulty with major Square Enix bosses, many of whom are designed to take a long time to defeat even when you, the player, have the requisite skills to defeat them.
No 3D title can dismiss the power of spectacle in a set piece; it is not a coincidence that most of the most difficult bosses ever made were made for 2D games. Arenas designed around bosses, such as Gohma’s in The Wind Waker, are much more difficult to construct when there is no Z-axis available. Even in the king of 2D Zelda games — A Link to the Past — most, if not all, of the major boss chambers are recolored boxes. When Nintendo rebooted 2D Zelda with Phantom Hourglass (no device in the Game Boy line was ever able to deliver a truly 3D experience), they still elected to make the boss arenas 3D (I found Eox‘s particularly memorable, despite ever playing the game once — a decade ago.)
This is because 2D bosses have to sacrifice skill for spectacle, or vice versa, in ways 3D bosses do not. A Final Fantasy XII boss like Hell Wyrm or a Metroid Prime boss like my nemesis Thardus* can be both spectacular and tricky, while the spectacle of 2D bosses is generally relegated to the cutscenes. Platformers can construct arenas around bosses — consider the classic first encounter with Bowser, where Mario has to somehow get around Bowser to toggle the switch that drops him into lava — but RPG bosses of the era, which mainly relied on menu-based gameplay, were entirely about your skill at managing your party in the face of scripted AIs. There is no spectacle there.
Every dimension comes with opportunities and challenges. 2D bosses, more often than not, sacrificed spectacle — delivered it on a more limited scale, if at all — in order to deliver on skill-based gameplay. 3D bosses offer the opportunity to combine skill and spectacle in a deeply satisfying combination, but at the same time, this is a continuum, and games marketed towards different demographics will often step up or step down the skill level required to beat them.
One last thought: There is no purely boss-based game than Shadow of the Colossus, the antithesis of Square Enix and other studios’ mid-2000s cutscene overload and still considered one of the greatest titles to ever grace the PS2 platform. There is nothing to do in Shadow of the Colossus except explore a vast wasteland and encounter and defeat the Colossi, some of the most brilliant blendings of skill and spectacle that have ever been devised.
* I only ever beat the bugger once, and my howl of pure unadulterated rage after I died before being able to save that one time I beat it was enough that my mom took the game away and I never saw it again.