How to make a great boss fight

Lewis Denby



This is a plea to game developers around the globe. We understand you want to put some boss fights in your game. They can be a lot of fun, those epic battles with the most ferocious of foes. But there are some things we'd like you to consider - some things that could help you create a boss fight that'll leave us in awe, rather than banging our heads against the monitor in frustration. So here, dear developer, is a list of boss fight dos and don'ts. Ignore them at your peril.

Don't feel you have to have one

Boss fights might be the traditional way to up the challenge at the end of a level, chapter or game, but since the early days of gaming we've come up with a whole host of other ways to keep things interesting and varied. Boss fights can be invigorating, but only in the right context - if your game doesn't need one, dear developers, don't put one in.

Worst offender: BioShock

After the intricacy of BioShock's story, the precision of its design and the creativity of its combat, why on Earth did Irrational feel it necessary to include an utterly incongruous boss fight at the end? Your confrontation with Rapture leader Andrew Ryan, and the subsequent escape, were wonderful moments, their quiet understatement elevating them above other games' attempts to do something similar. And then it ends with a giant bad guy with glowing eyes and ludicrous powers. A fine example of when to not bother at all.

Do make the boss huge

Of course, there are exceptions. There have been a great many boss fights against enemies who are all wee and tiny. But as a rule... huge bosses are cool, right? They're a visual spectacle, something intimidating - something to get your adrenaline pumping.

Star pupil: Gunman Chronicles

Half-Life-powered indie game Gunman Chronicles, released back in 2000, was famous for its enormous bosses. From huge dinosaurs to massive alien beings, it was a game that fully embraced the idea that bigger really is better. Few other games have rendered quite such spectacular bosses, even with today's new-fangled graphics engines.

Don't make it an awful difficulty spike

Boss fights are supposed to be challenging. That's the point of having them in your game in the first place. We get that. But what we don't get is why, developers, you so frequently opt to make them quite so ludicrously difficult. Managing a game's difficulty is certainly no easy task, but when your boss requires ten, 20, even 30 attempts to beat, the chances are you've got the balance wrong.

Worst offender: Batman: Arkham Asylum

Some of Arkham Asylum's boss battles are admittedly brilliant, but there's one that stands out for all the wrong reasons. Your fight with Poison Ivy is an absolute nightmare. Organic spikes stab you every which way, while Ivy fires upon you while you're pre-occupied with avoiding the environmental dangers. Also, there's nowhere to take cover. Also, you have to "beat" her a bunch of times in a row before she finally pops it. Come on, Rocksteady. Your game is great! You don't need to cheat like that.

Do build up to it

There are few things worse in gaming than being unceremoniously dropped into a boss fight you've had no chance to prepare for. At best, it's confusing. At worst, it can feel like a lazy, jarring excuse to increase the difficulty just for the sake of it, with no attempt to weave the battle into the fiction of the game, or no attempt to build up the suspense beforehand. But with even just a few minutes of introduction, a previously inexplicable boss battle can be transformed into something remarkable.

Star pupil: Half-life

Half-Life had a few boss fights, and if we're honest we'd probably have to concede that not all of them were brilliant. But your tip-toed fight against the tentacle monster, midway through the game, saw Valve's debut at its best. As soon as you enter its vicinity, you can hear the blind, three-headed beast clanking its beak against the metalwork. Soon after, you get a real sense of what this frightening thing is capable of as it drags a scientist through a glass window. It's only then that you get to set about solving the puzzle that leads to its fiery demise - and by that point, you're already utterly terrified.

Don't have the boss "win" in a cutscene

Sometimes it's dramatic, in a story, to make it look like the bad guy is going to emerge victorious. The hero gets struck to the flaw, the villain about to strike the final blow, when a friend comes along and saves the day. But these are computer games. They're supposed to make us feel like the hero - and it's not nice to have someone else save the day, especially when that health bar told us we were on the front foot!

Worst offender: Zeno Clash

No, Zeno Clash. Look, I understand. I really do. You want to make these encounters tense, and you want an excuse to be able to bring the same boss back at a later point. I get that. But why, when I've obviously just run down this guy's health bar to zero, do you feel it okay to then show a pre-rendered animation of me getting my bottom kicked? I was winning! It was going fine! Stop being so ridiculous.

Do think outside the box

Ultimately, boss fights are tired things. They've all been done before. There have been bigger bosses, dear developer. There have been more ferocious ones, and there have been better weapons to kill them in the face with. The absolute best thing you can do is make a boss fight that isn't really a boss fight. Be creative. We're desperate for it.

Star pupil: Portal

Your eventual confrontation with GLaDOS, the dreadful, malevolent AI who's been taunting you throughout the game, is a fantastic moment. It isn't by any stretch the game's biggest challenge. There's no combat involved. You simply have to use the basic skills you learned a few hours ago to dismantle this pile of metal and wires, and chuck her, bit by bit, into a furnace. It helps that the writing is hilarious, admittedly, but the concept alone is brilliant. Valve are good at this stuff, as evidenced by the finale of Portal 2, which it's probably a bit too soon to talk about yet. Otherwise, here, we'd be going on about the awesome bit where--[CENSORED.]

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