Top 10 Video Game Boss Battles.
As various people have noted, having heard my angry squawking, I'm currently enjoying a rented video game - Pokemon Conquest, which is somewhere between Game of Thrones and Pokemon Platinum, and is ridiculous. It also doesn't really have boss battles - the format just isn't really right for them - which is a shame, as boss battles have always been one of my favourite parts of games.
A bad boss battle can halt your progress, annoy you, or even just feel like they've failed to live up to the expectations the game has made of it. But a good boss battle carries a weight of storytelling behind it, feels sweeping and epic and important, and has gameplay that has you on the edge of your seat, usually screaming profanity at the screen.
So here's ten of my personal favourites.
Ninetails and Lechku 'n' Nechku from Okami - both excellent bosses in an amazing game which unfortunately just missed this list, in large part because I drew a blank on remembering they existed. Koloktos from Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword, who fell victim to my only wanting one boss from any given franchise on this list. Half the bosses in Tomb Raider, who fell foul of the same. Saren Arterius from Mass Effect, who was considered, then rejected out of bitterness.
Archimonde – Warcraft III: Reign of Chaos (2002).
“Um,” some of you might be saying, “you never actually fight Archimonde? It's a real-time strategy game, you just fight his armies of the undead, and you've faced them before. This is a terrible way to start a list of best boss battles, and you are terrible.”
Okay, yes. It's true, you never fight Archimonde – you can try, he'll spawn in the Undead camp about a minute before the end of the time limit and storm his way up the hill, killing everything he touches, but you won't succeed.
But this is the final level of Warcraft III: Reign of Chaos and it shows in how they totally changed the formula for it. Your task is simple: You're on a hill, there's a gate on one side, and three camps in between: Human at the bottom, Orc in the middle, Night Elves at the summit, the last of which you're controlling. Archimonde will send legions of the undead after you, along with demons, including at least one massive Pit Lord. You must defend the gate for thirty minutes.
The first time I played it, I just barely managed to keep his armies away from the gate. The second time, I picked up all of the Night Elves' moving bases, shifted them down to the Orc camp, and started producing as many units as I could, situating my heroes at the edges. That worked a lot better.
Bastila Shan – Knights of the Old Republic (2003).
|Don't let the mullet distract you.|
There is one dude who's on this list because he's a refreshing change from gameplay that was, at that point, starting to get repetitive, but who carries really no emotional weight and had barely appeared until that point. Bastila Shan is not that guy. She is the antithesis of that guy.
Bastila is a somewhat souped-up version of an enemy you've faced dozens of times before in her game, a Dark Jedi. So is the final boss who comes just after her, with the minor twist that he'll regenerate his health from enstasis'd Jedi when it gets too low. The gameplay is not anything all that special.
But from a storytelling point of view, facing Bastila for the second time is a big moment. She's been in your party since almost the beginning of the game – she's a friend, potentially a love interest, and the reason she's fallen to the Dark Side is because she was protecting you. But you have to either kill her or redeem her, because there's a larger battle raging that will be lost if her abilities aren't either turned to your side or shut off entirely.
There's two ways this can end, and either of them are pretty emotional, to be honest, so this boss battle's punch doesn't come from the gameplay, but from the emotional weight of forty or fifty hours of story leading up to this point.
Scarecrow – Batman: Arkham Asylum (2009).
|What a trustworthy looking fellow.|
Probably a less controversial choice for this list than Archimonde, despite the fact that actually, you don't really fight Scarecrow, either, he just manifests a nightmarish level of Tim Burton-oid fear-platforming for you to work your way through while avoiding his deadly yellow eyelights.
Nobody will disagree when I say that the Scarecrow sections were the best sections of Arkham Asylum, and that the fact that they have failed to show up in subsequent Arkham games is a travesty. The already unnerving environs of the asylum are warped and twisted into crumbling, overgrown platforms floating in a void, or worse, surreal manifestations of Bruce Wayne's fears and sorrows.
Feats of gameplay they are not, they are essentially games of 'avoid the lights, occasionally beat up some guys', and the final battle with Scarecrow more or less consists of entirely of the latter of those two gameplay elements. But they are astonishingly beautiful.
Deus – Asura's Wrath (2012).
|Wait, aren't you already on this list, just slightly further down?|
The boss battle with Deus, the penultimate battle of Asura's Wrath, is long but never outstays it's welcome – admittedly more for story reasons than gameplay ones, but the gameplay of Asura's Wrath is very much at its best during boss battles. Deus is your boss and your betrayer, the ostensibly weary but increasingly power hungry leader of the Seven Deities, who has spent thousands upon thousands of years putting into motion a plan to save the planet.
You start off as Asura, trying to wear Deus down with the help of your pal Yasha while Deus fends you off with his array of impressive lightning attacks, head into a rail shooter section or two on a flying motorbike in space, before finally facing off with Deus again, this time in a more powerful form. As the battle wears on, you play first as Asura, then as Yasha, then as Asura again before eventually, finally, defeating and killing him.
The gameplay is good – not startlingly so, but good – but the beautiful setting, the music, and the sense of pathos that the story so far has brought to the confrontation are much more so.
Galak Fyyar– Star Wars: Jedi Knight II – Jedi Outcast (2002).
|Look at this dork.|
“Who is Galak Fyyar?” Some people who played the game might well be asking at this point. “What did he see?”
Galak Fyyar is the left hand man of the game's main villain, Desaan. Unlike almost every other boss battle in the game, he's not a Dark Jedi. He's just a dude who happens to have a battle suit armed with a shield generator that will electrocute you if you touch it, and a concussion rifle that will never stop firing.
It's a refreshing change after fighting waves upon waves of Dark Jedi, with very little variation between them – and after this, you mostly just fight waves upon waves of them too. Galak harks back to the early parts of the game where you didn't have a lightsaber of Force powers, and his ability to easily keep you at range makes him the most interesting boss in the game, and all the more so as it takes place on an exploding Star Destroyer.
Also, at one point he yells 'Is this insane?!' shortly before snapping down the helmet of his evil orange power armour and cackling madly. Yes, Galak. Yes, it is.
Sophie Leigh – Tomb Raider III (1998).
|She has bravely not let having no fingers stand in her way.|
There were several candidates from the Tomb Raider games on this list. Set from The Last Revelation, a game I otherwise found utterly dire; the Dragon from Tomb Raider II; Amanda from Tomb Raider Legend. Sophie wins out because she's – different. You can't shoot Sophie to death. Her meteor-crystal-derived powers and sharp sense of business savvy means that she is impenetrable to bullets.
Instead, you must lead her on a merry goose chase, dodging her projectiles, which will kill you on contact, until you can lure her onto a bridge and electrify it, causing her to fry from the feet up and then, like all the meteor-crystal-empowered bosses of Tomb Raider III, explode.
It helps that Sophie is an independent part of something much larger. You encounter four pieces of the meteorite in total, and three of those in boss battles against enemies who can kill you instantly, and it really builds up the sense of the meteor as something mysterious and powerful.
The Mad Hatter – American McGee's Alice (2000).
|I hate you.|
The Hatter is terrifying, and quite possibly one of the best built up bosses of the game: He's on all the promotional material, just to start, but you also first meet him when he crushes the White Rabbit beneath his foot when the two of you are shrunk down. When next you see him, it's to interrupt your battle with the Tweedles and taunt you before sending you to his laboratory.
As you explore the laboratory, the game shows him pacing about in cutscenes, going to places where you've just been or where you're just about to go, but he's never there when you get there. You encounter what he's done to the March Hare and Dormouse, and you see his creations, the Automatons, which are powered by insane children.
Finally, finally, you meet him in battle. It's not the most original boss battle: He'll hit you with a stick, lob missiles at you, and occasionally vanish and summon smaller enemies to attack you while he watches from his clocktower. It's the little details that make it: The Hatter looms. He is tall, and skinny, and up close gigantic in a way no enemy up to that point has been.
Also, whenever he teleported back down, he always appeared behind me. Every time. Regardless of where I was looking.
Gabranth and Cid – Final Fantasy XII (2006).
|Gabranth wearied of 'well, aren't you horny' jokes a long time ago.|
“Okay, that's not even one boss battle. That's two boss battles that happen to be very close to each other,” some people might be saying now. “They're two different entities, who you don't fight together.”
To which I say: “Cid comes immediately after Gabranth, and there's no save point or non-battling gameplay between them.”
Anyway, so, there's a - …
“Evrae,” those people say. “You fight a few random nameless soldiers after the Evrae boss battle in Final Fantasy X, and you wouldn't call that 'Evrae and Some Dudes.'” To which I say shut up, hypothetical naysayer who has coincidentally played all the games I have.
Anyway. There's a massive weight of storytelling here: The Pharos at Ridorana, where you face them, is arguably the game's climax, bringing to a close the storyline of whether or not deposed queen Ashe will ally herself with the rather-questionable-gods of her world and use their weapon of mass destruction, or if she will hold with her own morals and take a more merciful route. It's also where you finally find out the details of what happened to Nabudis, and where another party member's storyline reaches a close.
Gabranth and Cid, too, have loomed large in the story so far. Gabranth, the game's resident vaguely-Vader-oid antivillain, is on all the promotional material, and has often had his viewpoint used to explore any political intrigue taking place amidst the antagonists. He's a character who, at that point, it's easy to have mixed feelings about, as his actions are reprehensible but he himself is clearly broken. Cid, meanwhile, is just plain hammy, in an incredibly Shakespearian way. You've fought him once before, and he has a familial connection to one of your party and has been a major power player, but more than that, he's just so delightfully grandiose.
In terms of gameplay, it's not as striking as some of the ones on this list, but it's not bad either. Both enemies – all three really, as Cid will partway through his battle summon an angelic superbeing to help him – force you to strategise and make good use of your party's abilities, and Cid especially will often force you into desperate positions where you're scrambling for a foothold, and that's more or less what you want from a boss battle, especially an RPG boss.
Of course, like all of Final Fantasy XII, it would be better if Vaan wasn't there.
Ganondorf – Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess (2006).
|Yeah, you beat up that diminutive teenage boy, man!|
Ganondorf's a classic, isn't he? Even people who don't play Legend of Zelda know, at least distantly, who Ganondorf is, he's a cultural icon. He enters Twilight Princess at the eleventh hour, with very little warning beforehand, and you don't really properly meet him until literally just before the boss battle. He should feel like some manner of giant space flea from nowhere, but the game handles his sudden appearance with such grace that, combined with the amount of cultural weight he carries, it feels epic.
The battle is one of the longest ones on here, matched maybe only by Deus. First you face him in a Zelda-staple, the game of energy tennis, while he possesses the body of Princess Zelda; then you face him as a monstrous boar, and in a nice twist, the game gives you multiple ways you can go about defeating him here, either trying to shoot him between the eyes as he charges for you, or turning into a wolf and doing animal-versus-animal battle. Taking the battle outside, you chase him about on horseback, before finally you face him in a duel, you with your Master Sword and him with the massive sword of light used to execute him centuries prior.
Twilight Princess has some of the best gameplay of the Zelda games, and the Ganondorf fight is ridiculously fun from start to finish, and really feels like an earth-shattering final battle in an already epic game. (I'm using that word a lot). Also, if it gets too difficult, you can always just produce your fishing rod. Doing so will make Ganondorf become confused and alarmed, allowing you to hit him a few times with your sword.
Bogey Alpha and Bogey Bravo – Vanquish (2010).
|Fuchsia suits you. It brings out your eyes.|
Frenetic third-person-shooter Vanquish is sorely underappreciated. It was introduced to me by a friend, who showed me and another friend its gameplay at one point, and I was immediately entranced. I rented it out the next day and played it, and it remains one of the games that'd almost certainly end up on a Top Ten Video Games list.
In the final battle of the game, your attempt to shut off a microwave emitter before it fries a city are, alarmingly, cut off by two men in enhanced, flying versions of your own power armour, swooping around after you. You've fought one before, as a boss a third of the way through the game, and it was the most difficult boss battle you had. Now there are two, and the station is getting ready to make a bunch of people crispy.
Like every battle in this game, this battle is a frenzy of movement, as you zoom about the arena and throw a hail of bullets at your enemies to try to bring them down. This time, though, they can zoom about too, and they can do it in the air, forcing you to engage in a game of cat and mouse where you're switching roles, zooming close to try to get shots in before trying to find shelter from their attacks. After you take down one, you'll start seeing pistons move, hearing ominous remarks from the station's announcement system about how it's just about to fire, the whole place will begin to intermittently glow orange. I'm not sure if I actually was on a time limit, but it felt like I was.
The game has some excellent executed quicktime events, too – this is one of the few games that uses them well – and finally ends by switching to first person as you desperately try to stumble to your feet and fire off one last shot, as your armour fails.