Game Philosophy: Bosses

And here we go again,

Welcome to yet another:


Today’s topic:

Bosses are of course pretty important in games.
They are usually the big finale to a certain important part of your story and makes you enter the next part. Whether that means every level or simply within the story, that’s up for you to decide.

However, it seems there are many people who kinda forget how bosses are supposed to be designed.
They usually are nothing more than a regular enemy with a new moveset and just happens to have a huge lifebar.

That’s kinda sad because back in those days (oh god I probably sound like an old man now) I was always looking forward to the bosses.
There’s is always build up to them and you would feel satisfied when beating them instead of feeling tired of fighting them.

Yeah, like that. That fight was really tedious…

Anyway, I was planning on making a list of games which had examples of a good boss battle, but ironically all answers already lies in a certain boss fight in a game I really like a lot.

Yeah yeah, I can hear you all saying “If you love Sonic so much, why don’t you just marry him?”. Well let me first say that the boss fight in question isn’t PERFECT.
It’s actually too easy and the bosses themselves actually lacks in terms of attacks.
Hell Sonic Colors actually isn’t my favorite Sonic game. That would’ve been Sonic Unleashed a few days ago, which just got replaced with Sonic Generations, which as I reveal now, was the game I’ve been playing over and over again for the last few days. Oh yeah, I went there.

Anyway, in general the boss fights in Sonic Colors actually aren’t even that good.
So why am I even putting this game as the example of how a boss fight should be?

It’s because it has everything a boss fight should be in it’s concept.

In execution, the boss fights are simply Homing Attacking their weakspots, but in concept you actually use what you learned within the levels to beat the boss, in this game’s case, it’s the Wisp powers.

However what I want to talk about is the Final Boss in that game.
I will not spoil it too much for those who want to experience it for themselves, but I’m going to list the things it did that makes it a good boss fight.

1. Build up
Within the boss fight, you will start off as how Sonic always starts in a level. Running.
But the great thing about the boss fight is how it builds up the difficulty over time.
And with that, Sonic needs to use more of his techniques during the battle.
You will use a simple jump for a certain attack, then use his Quickstep for another attack, which then teaches you to use them in combination for another attack.
Unlike most boss fights in games, it just keeps adding it up, which doesn’t make it a big Quick Time Even where you just press buttons at random, you actually are taught how to use your moves against every attack.

That is what a boss fight needs. It needs build up. It needs to show you how to beat the boss without there being a huge button prompt every two seconds.
Because THAT is how you immerse a player in the game. Not by showing a Quick Time Event where you just push a button and your character just does something to continue a mini cutscene, no. You immerse a player by having them feel in control of the fight.
A Boss fight should be challenging, sure, but that doesn’t mean you have to give cheap deaths within the boss fight for “Challenge”.
When done right, a player losing in a boss fight should be the player’s own fault for not learning, not the programmer’s fault for not showing a button prompt soon enough.

Yeah… like that… have I mentioned I hate Quick Time Events?

2. Visual Feedback
The boss fight of Sonic Colors in question has you rescuing Wisps, like you’ve been doing throughout the game.
However, the special thing here is how the Wisp won’t just be “collected” like usual in the game, they follow you.
I have to say that this is the best replacement for a boss health bar.
Yeah, the bosses in Sonic Colors don’t have a health bar. Because they show it with Visuals.
You see, the more you have damaged the boss, the more Wisps follow you, and not only do you get the feeling like you’re beating the boss, you get the feeling you’re conquering him.
As he grows weaker, you grow stronger. And that is visualized much better than any health bar can do.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying health bars should be removed, because they shouldn’t.
It’s always good to show your boss’s health throughout the fight. But the problem is how these days, that’s the ONLY indication of the boss’s health.
And I don’t mean every boss should be bleeding by the time they’re close to death. You don’t have to change the boss’s looks all the time during the boss fights or anything.

I mean look at how Mortal Kombat 9 characters end up looking after a fight… yeesh…

No, I’m just saying that working together with the story of the boss fight, you need to show a fitting visual throughout the fight besides the health bar which makes your progress all the more clear.
It’s not that gamers need confirmation to know that “Low Boss Healthbar = Almost Done”, but see, the confirmation itselfs feels good.
It gives you the feeling that you actually ARE making progress.
And that brings us to the next thing:

3. Feeling of Progress
This is something I miss a LOT in recent boss fights.
Like I just described, in Sonic Colors, you free Wisps and they follow you whenever you succesfully damaged the boss.
That’s it for the Visual Feedback, but there’s more.
You see, like the game’s title says, Sonic Colors is really colorful, and the Wisps each have different colors representing them.
That makes it really clear when a new one is added to your side, and really gives you a feeling of progress.
And then as icing on the cake, the music at the start of the fight that was in the boss’s favor, it slowly changes in your favor.
Yes, the friggin Music Composer is on your side now.

Music Composer to the rescue!

See, most boss fights in recent games are tedious.
And it’s not because there isn’t enough things to do in the fight.
But there just isn’t a feeling like you do anything that makes progress until the cutscene plays. (Either that or it just ends with a friggin Quick Time Event)
You see, you need to give the feeling that you’re earning your victory.
And that doesn’t mean you can’t have long boss battles, but the long boss battles needs to give you twists until the very end.
It should change around depending on how close the boss is to death, and it just gives you a more satisfying feeling.
You don’t need to completely reprogram the boss or anything, just give him new attacks and maybe subtly change the soundtrack the further you are in the fight. That’s usually more than enough to give a sense of progress.
You can be proud of your boss fight music, but that doesn’t mean we have to immediately hear it.
Give the boss his own theme, which, like the actual fight, gets slowly conquered by your character’s theme. And that makes the victory all the more satisfying.

So yeah, those three points really all that is to it to a good boss fight.
Despite what I said, the Final Boss of Sonic Colors isn’t perfect. I’ll say it again, it’s way too easy, and the patterns, while it teaches you throughout the battle, doesn’t end up being complex enough.
But the concept is there, and it shows what every boss fight should be.

And now I will apologize for the amount of Sonic Gushing in this post. I’m a Sonic fan, but don’t worry, I know his faults.
I’m just happened to find a great example in a Sonic game for today’s topic.

Published by Huy Minh Le

Huy Minh Le is a Video Game Enthusiast, Movie Lover, Writer, Content Marketeer and regular TvTropes reader! His studies in Game Design, Art, and Writing has led to a very creative, yet analytical mind.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s