The Boss Fight Problem

January 5, 2012 § Leave a comment

You’ve made your way through the dungeon, you’ve defeated spiders and skeletons, even skeletons riding spiders, you faced off against the mutant house-fly’s, and you’re almost ready for a rest. You’re low on health potions, holding on to what you have by desperately kiting your opponents around rooms, and then you see it. The door to the boss. You creep forward, wary of traps, you slip through the door, closing it silently behind yourself, when you hear a sharp click as it locks. You hear a harsh war-cry, a chill runs down your spine, and the boss reveals itself.

It’s a big spider.

Really? Look, games, I understand that you want to put some kind of “challenge” to the finale of a level, but this is not the way to do it.

And here’s our problem, boss battles typically fall into one of two categories, a “big” enemy, who has a lot of health, but attacks and moves in exactly the same way as some enemy you’ve already beaten, or an even bigger enemy, who telegraphs their enormous attacks, where defeating them is simply a matter of avoiding what they do, and whittling down their enormous health bar. I know that this sounds like two enormous strokes, lumping in a large number of diverse enemies into simple groups, but it really is how they work. So far as I know, the development of boss battles has come from two fields, RPG’s, and SHMUPS/Platforms. The RPG enemy, for lack of anything else to do, is just a big enemy. He’s designed to be hard, and to take a while to kill, but odds are, he won’t have any new tricks from all the other enemies you had to kill to get there. And the other type is designed as a reflex challenge, big attacks that leave you constantly moving to dodge them, often while firing as much as you can, but with obvious patterns to them and massive telegraph’s, so that you don’t feel quite as ripped off when they use their doom laser which covers 96% of the screen.

And here’s where they separate. The first type of enemy, can never really be fun. No matter how you dress it up, it’s just an attack sponge, there’s little sense of accomplishment to defeating it, as it’s essentially just something you’ve killed a hundred times already, except that it can possibly kill you. It is not a chance to use whatever you’ve learned thus far, unless that happens to be “circle strafe” and “hide behind walls.”

The second one though, it has potential. But, well, let’s start with the bad. I was playing RAGE recently, and it features a giant mutant boss. It’s a pretty cool looking boss, very large, and you attack it from inside a moderately high level of a building, so you’re a bit below its head height. So, thus far we have a good sense of scale, on an impressive boss, unfortunately, visual design is not the same as boss design. The game had repeatedly told me through hints prior to this point, that rockets were a good way of dealing with large enemies. And lo and behold, just before the boss battle starts, the game gives you a rocket launcher, and it even has a way for the game to give you ammunition for it throughout the fight. Unfortunately, then the battle starts, and it doesn’t even boil down to two things, it simply alternates between “attack that is so telegraphed you woud have to have no eyes to miss it” and “chance to attack the big glowing weak spot with a rocket.” As the fight goes on, it chooses to ramp up the pressure by… making him attack a few times, in his horrendously telegraphed way, before you can hit the glowing weak spot. Add to this the regenerating health, and there is no tension, and no sense of accomplishment, which is what boss fights are all about.

In the same vein, I wish to talk about one fight which had no right to be so boring, and that’s the Gaping Dragon from Dark Souls. Again, this is a very cool looking boss, it uses how it looks in a smart way to handle how it telegraphs its attacks, but I had no fun defeating it, and there was no accomplishment, unlike every other boss in Dark Souls. The problem the Gaping Dragon has, is that its attacks are too obvious, it doesn’t really have all that many, and then it has one move that is just kind of cheap. My biggest enemy while I fought it was the camera. I died twice while attemptng to beat it, and both were due to one move, where it flies upward. When it did this, it would fly around for a bit, and then drop down to the ground. Given the camera’s obsession with staring straight ahead, this meant that I couldn’t really see it, and so I had to resort to sprinting around, in the hope that it wouldn’t fall on me and kill me. This by itself would’t be too bad(just fairly terrible), except that the Gaping Dragon did stupid amounts of damage, with each of its theoretically easily avoidable attacks, and it had an absolutely ridiculous amount of health. On my third attempt, where I killed it, I did it without taking a single hit from it. And rather than feeling proud of my accomplishment, I just didn’t care. In comparison, the ridiculously cheap Capra Demon, who took a score of attempts, left me feeling proud, as did Quelaag, the lava-spider-lady, solely because she at least hurt me a few times. Even Sif, the Great Grey Wolf, who I defeated by making sure I was always underneath him, and thus un-attackable. It may have been cheap, but it got my heart pounding, as I made sure I was always in the right position.

So there it is, the super “designed” battle ends up feeling weak and unsatisfying, even though it mirrored the style of the old boss battles of old almost perfectly, it couldn’t stand up to the fun and challenge of the slightly more dynamic battles. Yet I’m not against these battles completely, thus far, I’ve finished two of the major bosses from Skyward Sword, and I was happy with my victories in both cases, even though, from a fundamental standpoint, they worked like the bosses of old, they still managed to mix things up enough, they never felt cheap, and so, they were fun, and satsifying. Any time I was hurt, it was because of a mistake on my part, rather than anything else. I’m not really sure what I’m trying to say here, I mean, firstly, keep bosses out of games that shouldn’t have them, and if you must have them, actually design them well, rather than how RAGE handled it, and while there is a place for boss fights that function like those of Zelda, or Dark Souls, it’s no fun to make them an attack sponge. If something’s going to kill you quickly, make sure that you can do the same to it.

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