The Art of Creating a Memorable Boss Fight

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Only a few games succeed in crafting an antagonist or boss fight that can stand out among its peers and stay in the memory of gamers for a long time. There are certain important aspects that make up a memorable boss fight. Ideally, the two opponents have a history or a rivalry, and the game mechanics must challenge you. There are other factors like presentation or impact on the game as a whole that play a role, as well.

While I could create a list that would consist entirely of Metal Gear Solid bosses, I tried to think of examples from various games and genres. Here are some of the most memorable boss battles and why they leave a lasting impression on players.

Metal Gear Solid — Psycho Mantis

Psycho Mantis is one of the most impressive boss fights to this day, not because it’s challenging or graphically remarkable, but because the implementation of gameplay mechanics in this boss fight is one of a kind. Psycho Mantis might be one of the most innovative boss fights in video game history.

The beauty of this fight is that your enemy is using psychic powers. Looking at the original PSX game, the boss fight has already started once you’re in the hallway approaching the actual room. You’re playing as Solid Snake, accompanied by Meryl. It’s silent, with only a faint sound being audible. When you try to go into first-person mode, you look through the eyes of Meryl and not Solid Snake. When you enter the boss room, Psycho Mantis tells you what you’ve played up to that point, basically reading out your memory card. He also judges you as a character depending on if you play it safe and save often or if you are more of a renegade.

When the fight starts, he controls Meryl and makes you fight her. You have to knock her out before you can fight Mantis. After that, he seems to be reading your every move, and you can’t hit him. At times he will perform a blackout attack, presenting you with the famous black screen featuring the word Hideo written in white. Like many Metal Gear Solid games, there are a lot of creative twists hidden in the gameplay. The true tactic for this boss fight, believe it or not, is to change your controller from slot 1 to 2, making it so that Mantis won’t be able to predict your actions anymore.

To this day, Psycho Mantis is one of my favorite boss fights ever because it was so much fun at the time to find a way to beat him.

What makes it special: Psycho Mantis represents the inner conflict of soldiers during a war. 

Psycho Mantis confronts Solid Snake with the conflict of war and his feelings for Meryl. His last breath leaves you almost feeling sorry for him. Usually, Solid Snake fights to win, but the first phase of the fight forces you to think about someone else, to protect them, before you can start the real fight. This crisis is at the core of the philosophy of Metal Gear Solid. The boss fight reminds you that you are vulnerable outside your own skin and that you have to show humanity, even in an extreme situation.

Ocarina of Time — Dark Link (Water Temple)

However sweet the childhood memories of your favorite 3D Zelda game might be, there is one thing that gamers unanimously agree on: The Water Temple in Ocarina of Time is one of the most frustrating dungeons ever. Even with the simplified version on the 3DS, it still is the bane of every 90s kid.

While the temple itself can be seen as the enemy here, the most memorable moment of the entire dungeon is the mini-boss known as Dark Link. The first time you encounter the dark reflection of adult Link, you will struggle as he seems to mirror all your movements and even counter your regular slashes. The first few minutes are just terrifying, fighting against an opponent that seems to read your every move.

After overcoming that initial shock, you’ll probably change your strategy. If you change your weapon to the Hammer or the Biggoron’s Sword, Dark Link will have no chance against you. If you know how to handle this fight, it’s surprisingly easy, yet those first few moments will still haunt you.

What makes it special: Dark Link is the antithesis of Link’s courage. 

Many of us know the saying: “You are your own worst enemy.” Dark Link represents this concept. Link owns the courage part of the Triforce and has to overcome many obstacles on his journey, but the most fearsome experience is facing himself along the way. While this boss battle could have been placed more carefully, the Water Temple was a great place for it. Not only as one of the most difficult and tedious temples of the entire game, but because water is reflective by nature.

Dark Souls — Ornstein and Smough

There are plenty of Dark Souls bosses to choose from, but Ornstein and Smough are the foes that I think are the most memorable. Not only is this one of the hardest battles, but also one of the most shocking. Two ferocious enemies at the same time, and if you beat one, the other will regain health and increase in size and power substantially. Even if you choose to summon the NPC Solaire or another player to help you, this fight is far from easy.

After facing Blightown and Sen’s Fortress, you start to think the devs must have already thrown their best stuff at you. Then you’re faced with Orstein and Smough — one of the best boss fights of all time. Well done, FromSoftware.

What makes it special: Ornstein and Smough are synonymous with Dark Souls difficulty and storytelling.

Dragon Slayer Ornstein and Executioner Smough are probably the toughest boss in the original Dark Souls. It’s the first time the game faces you with a two-phase boss fight. After all the challenges that Blighttown and Sen’s Fortress present you with, FromSoftware translate their level design into a boss fight that ultimately serves as the peak of the game. Also, the fight takes place in Anor Londo, City of the Gods. Both the city and the bosses are an enigma where nothing is as it seems. It’s the perfect boss fight to sum up Dark Souls.

God of War III — Poseidon

What an opening. God of War III offers astonishing moments all throughout, but the opening sequence of the game takes the cake. There are more brutal fights in the series, but no fight comes close to the presentation and intensity of the battle against the God of the Sea.

The opening fight doubles down on the core of the God of War games, and the final stage and bloody resolution makes this boss a worthy entry here. I still remember my first time playing the game and how I was simply mesmerized by the visuals of the fight. God of War succeeds wonderfully in making you feel like a badass taking on larger than life gods. The rewarding feeling you experience after beating them to a pulp is fantastic.

What makes it special: Poseidon is the best intro to an action game like God of War. 

It was genius putting this fight at the very beginning of the game. If you’ve played God of War — any title from the series — you’ll know Kratos means business. To top all previous games, SCE Santa Monica Studios utilized the (at the time) new strength of the PS3 and made the intro to the third game as bombastic and visually impressive as they could to let everyone know they weren’t done with creating amazing boss fights — no where close, in fact. They masterfully took advantage of the PS3’s hardware and blew us away with this fight. Many God of War fights over the years would be worth mentioning here, but Poseidon takes the spotlight due to his placement in the game and the fact that he introduced us to the next generation.

Batman: Arkham City — Mister Freeze

The Batman Arkham series is probably the best superhero trilogy gaming has ever seen. The free-flowing combat, the original voice acting, and the overall tonality of the games is all spot on. While there are many fights that could have been referenced here, the showdown with Mister Freeze is definitely among the best.

What makes this fight so great is that it truly feels like a Batman experience. The player has to plan out how to attack Mr. Freeze without getting hurt; meanwhile, Mr. Freeze will constantly adapt, making it impossible for you to attack him the same way twice. Just like the real Batman would, you have to observe your surroundings and find clever ways to attack Mr. Freeze, who behaves as a real person would. While many of the other boss fights are a lot more straightforward and based on brute force, Mr. Freeze sticks out because you need to be perceptive and thoughtful to beat him. Other bosses like Scarecrow or the Riddler deliver similarly fun fights, but none capture the feeling of Batman like Mr. Freeze. Brilliant!

What makes it special: Mister Freeze makes you think like a detective. 

This boss fight is brilliantly executed by the developers because it conveys the intelligence of the enemy as well as the actual Batman persona as the world’s best detective. There is nothing more to it really. It combines the heritage of the characters and translates that into amazing gameplay and a memorable experience for players.

Conker’s Bad Fur Day — Great Mighty Poo

Who would have thought that the furry squirrel Conker would have such a momentous debut on the N64? Sure, he was a playable character in Diddy Kong Racing, but Conker’s Bad Fur Day was the first entry with the “fluffy hero” as the focus. While Rare’s ability to deliver a masterclass platformer and jump ‘n’ run was untouched at the time, the story and language of the game were highly untypical for the N64.

What was possibly the most fun and entertaining boss fight of the game came fairly early with an opera-singing pile of $h!t — literally. The presentation, the level of absurdness, and the quality of the music are all turned up to 11 when you encounter this boss. On top of that, Conker has to throw toilet paper at the immense enemy to defeat him. It is easily the most disgusting enemy on this list and remains one of my favorite boss fights of all time. Please enjoy the video above, and feel free to sing along!

What makes it special: Perfection in absurdity.

It is simply incomprehensible to me how anyone in their right mind would ever greenlight a game like Conker’s Bad Fur Day. Don’t get me wrong; I love the game to bits, and I’m thankful to Rare for creating this unique and amazing game, but… seriously? Especially in an era when video games were not as widely popular and accepted as today, it feels like a miracle that this game was successful. And the Great Mighty Poo stands as the pinnacle of absurdity that is Conker’s Bad Fur Day.

Shadow of the Colossus — Every Colossus

Shadow of Colossus, which is currently slated for a full-HD remake on PS4, delivers some of the most visually impressive and innovative boss fights. Each boss puts you up against a giant being of almost sacred nature. Every titan you face has its own strengths and weaknesses, behaves differently, and will challenge you in totally unique ways. Because the presentation is so breathtaking, each win also feels like a loss as you know you’ve killed a magnificent being.

What makes it special: The simple, boss-focused structure.

Shadow of the Colossus is a game based on a very simplistic and stoic design philosophy. You face 16 unique titans that in many shapes and forms, and that’s it. There are no other enemies or other mechanics. The game is deeply philosophical, and ultimately sad. The Colossi with their huge bodies, sad eyes, and menacing presence will make you care about the game and its world. There is no character, voice actor, or big story twist behind this. And that just makes every encounter that much more impactful.

Resident Evil 3 — Nemesis

Resident Evil 3 was one of the more iconic games in the series because of one enemy: Nemesis. This boss featured a concept that we had already seen in RE2 with the Golem, but had become the main focus of the third installment. The Nemesis is the final boss of the game but is introduced very early to let players know that they are the ones being hunted throughout the experience. Additional terror came from the quick-time-esque choices: do I fight or do I run away?

Although Resident Evil 3 is one of my least favorite games in the series, this constant boss mechanic was something that made the game fun and memorable. I think most gamers will agree that games are a lot more terrifying when you can’t defeat a certain enemy that’s haunting you as you play.

What makes it special: Shifting from fear to terror. 

You can say what you want about the missteps of the series, but Resident Evil 3: Nemesis was not only the starting point for the more action-oriented future of the franchise, but also a paradigm shift away from traditional horror towards stress and emotional terror.

What do all these bosses have in common?

So, what makes these bosses so memorable? For starters, most of these bosses surprise you in one way or another. The surprise can be based on mechanics, like with Psycho Mantis, or story-based, like Nemesis from Resident Evil. The player is thrown into an unknown scenario and has to struggle through and learn how to overcome the challenge before them. In the case of Ornstein and Smough, they are not the first bosses to attack you cooperatively, but they are the first to hit you with a second phase, catching you off guard just when you think you’ve overcome the hardest part of the battle. The intensity and shock of these moments stay in our memories much more than fights that feel familiar.

Additionally, memorable boss fights like those I’ve mentioned play a significant role in the game as a whole, be it in their placement within the game, story, or even the entire series. Special relevance in the context of the game or series raises these bosses above the others and keeps them in your memory for much longer.

Lastly, these bosses are representative of the core philosophies of the games they’re in. For instance, the way that Batman’s showdown with Mr. Freeze forces him to employ his detective skills encapsulates what Batman is all about. The Way God of War 3 opens with a massive fight against Poseidon captures Kratos’ “no messing around” attitude.

These three things combined make for some of the most memorable fights gaming has ever seen. Here’s hoping that we’ll see more boss battles incorporating these aspects in future games!

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Guitarist, singer, console gamer, general nerd, marketer, contributor @obiliskgames.

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