End of Level Bosses Suck

Controllers thrown across the room in fury, snapped joysticks and pounded keyboards, throbbing fists and aching fingers. How I hate those infernal end of level bosses. From Dr. Robotnik to M. Bison, from Yiazmat to The End, from Mike Tyson to Lucifer, from Hydra to Bowser, end of level bosses have been raising the blood pressure of gamers for years. They are the most frustrating thing known to man.

End of level bosses first appeared in the arcades in 1980. If you want to be pedantic the first one was probably in an old text RPG in the 70’s. End of level bosses as we know them are big enemies who require a different strategy from the player before they can be defeated. The first real end of level boss was the Mothership in the old Taito shooter Phoenix. You had to shoot through the protective wall and hit the alien controlling the ship to win the game.

Bosses used to be the final challenge. The end of the game finale would pit you against some gigantic super baddie. Over the years bosses managed to creep out into the individual levels of games and the end of level boss as a gatekeeper to your progression became an irritating standard. Bosses can now be found scattered liberally throughout games in various genres. After 30 years of stress and irritation I’m asking if it isn’t past time that we put end of level bosses to bed once and for all.

Don’t get me wrong. There have been some awesome bosses over the years and some of them have provided fitting finales to levels or games. My favourite boss ever is easily Psycho Mantis from Metal Gear Solid. He was the most imaginative boss ever created and he spilled his evil into the real world by talking about your save games and making your game pad move. No other bosses come close to that sort of innovation and in truth I can’t even remember actually killing Mantis, it was the build up that made him memorable.

So getting back to the topic at hand why should we ditch end of level bosses? For a start I’m going to say they are usually lazy and unimaginative design. They have become a staple format that is copied by new developers over and over but there is no development law that states “Thou shalt have an end of level boss!” Often they are tagged on in order to extend the life of a game. Sure it took me a whopping 40 hours to complete but 20 were spent repetitively battling this behemoth boss with a mysterious weakness that the developers decided to hide. Children of the internet may not understand this complaint but back in the dark ages you couldn’t look up how to defeat a boss online, you actually had to keep battling away with a process of random elimination until you hit upon the Achilles heel.

Every end of level boss has an Achilles heel. They are impervious to damage from any weapon except when they expose their left nipple every fifth frame of the roaring animation and all you have to do is fire the gold tipped spear into it and then run into the corner and hide until they roar again. Of course you’ll need to do this six times and they’ve only given you seven gold tipped spears so there isn’t much room for error.

The end of level boss logic, or lack of it, has always bothered me. Why are they impervious to shotgun blasts and rocket launchers? Why do I have to fire it down their gaping maw? Given that the boss presumably knows his own weakness why does he keep repeating the same animation and taunting me with that open mouth?

Bosses basically stick two fingers up to the game design up until you reach them. You can throw out all you’ve learned in the game so far about how to progress, you can ditch your tactics and most of your arsenal because it will be completely useless against the boss. Bosses change the rules entirely and reduce everything down to a simple trick of timing. There is no room for player cunning, there is no alternative approach to victory, these strictly scripted events play out exactly as planned and if you want to win you’ll perform whatever arbitrary action the designer decided upon and you’ll time it perfectly or you can just go back and watch that damn cut scene again!

This basic format of bosses hasn’t evolved over the years either. They haven’t moved on with the rest of gaming they remain firmly rooted in the distant past. The only innovations that have been made in the world of end of level bosses are designed to see how far you can push a human being before they throw themselves through a window. I’m referring to the pernicious practice of having an end of level boss health bar and then for a laugh making it totally meaningless by having it completely refill periodically. Either because you have to defeat them in three stages, each featuring a different repetitive action or weakness or because you haven’t figured out the Achilles heel that makes them stay dead.

When will bosses finally die? When will designers listen to reason? Perhaps when I throw my console into the street in the throes of a massive boss induced heart attack the game hating media will forget about GTA and target the real evil of the gaming world.


About Simon Hill

I'm addicted to gaming and have been since I was a wee boy. Worked in the industry as a tester, designer and producer. I'm now a full time freelance writer and editor.