Good Game Design – Bosses


What makes a great boss fight? You can probably
think back to some of your favorite boss encounters out there – what makes them stick out to you?
Is it the way they looked? Is it the difficulty or accomplishment you felt when you overcame them?
Whether you’re designing a game yourself, or just want to see what makes bosses tick,
today I wanted to take a look at some of the different building blocks that construct a great boss
battle. Let’s talk about it. Bosses come in all shapes and sizes, but there’s
something different about them compared to the rest of the enemies in a game. What is
that X factor? Well, first off, I think for a boss to be enjoyable, it needs to be challenging.
Often bosses are commanders of armies or head honchos of enemy factions; they should put
up more of a fight than the average baddy. That being said, it’s also important that
your boss is fair. No one enjoys a cheap boss battle – if they can’t predict what’s
coming next or be able to avoid damage, a much easier option would be to just quit the
game! Make sure attacks are either telegraphed or at least part of a pattern that the player
can learn from. The first time a player fights a boss it might seem overwhelming, but if
they keep their cool and learn from their mistakes, they can persevere and feel great
doing so. As player skill and knowledge increases, the challenge of a boss should decrease, but
if it’s too random or cheap, that will be harder to achieve.
In the same vein, avoid padding boss health. An easy way to make a boss harder is to just
give it a giant health bar, but this is false difficulty and honestly, uninteresting if
that’s all that sets a boss apart. Don’t get me wrong, a boss should be beefier than
other foes, and even harder bosses should be more difficult still, but it’s not enjoyable
to slowly chip away at a boss’s energy meter if the fight doesn’t change itself. The
Binding of Isaac is an interesting example of this. Because of the random nature of items
you can get, some bosses that are supposed to be really hard can become pushovers if
you have the right combo of items, so when they released the Afterbirth expansion, they
added a few bosses that are just huge damage-sponges. Even if you do have great items, these guys
take forever to kill, and can become especially frustrating if you don’t have a lot of damage
or health. So it’s a fine line, but making sure a boss is challenging yet fair is essential
for fun gameplay. Next, your boss should be intimidating in
some way – this is what makes most bosses memorable. It’s okay for the player to feel
fear as a boss enters the arena, even if you’re supposed to feel overpowered in the rest of
the game. Player emotion is so important to the overall experience, and challenge combined
with an intimidating design can make for a truly memorable fight. That being said, you
can also use this concept to subvert player expectations. Shovel Knight comes to mind
with how they incorporate Tinker Knight’s battle. He’s one of the later bosses, so
he doesn’t seem very tough when you reach him. You can kill this little pipsqueek easily,
but then it turns out he has the biggest and baddest machine of them all, what a great
moment. Now what’s interesting is that you can actually
use the opposite of this principle to send a message to the player. Gwyn, Lord of Cinder
is the final boss of Dark souls, so you’d expect him to turn into the scariest monster
you’ve ever seen, but instead it’s just a regular guy while somber music plays in
the background. After all the other behemoths you’ve fought up to this point, Gwyn is
a huge contrast, but this makes sense with the narrative of Dark Souls. I guess he does
still have a giant flaming sword though, so he’s got that going for him! Third, a boss should test what the player
has learned from the game up to that point. Sometimes it can be fun to use a boss as a
teaching moment to try out a new ability. This is even more true for end bosses – these
should be a final exam of everything the player has learned and put their skills to the test.
It may be challenging to pull off in a realistic way, but it always adds bonus points in my
book if a boss can uniquely find ways to use special abilities to take them down. Some
examples include Gruntilda from Banjo Kazooie, where you’ll be flying around, shooting
eggs, and turning invincible to defeat this evil witch, or Mr. Freeze from Arkham City,
where you have to use a variety of gadgets to take him down because he adapts and won’t
make the same mistake twice. This not only keeps a fight fresh, but can cause the player
to feel more accomplished in their victory, because they used critical thinking to win,
not just brute force. Another thing to consider when designing a
boss is what the reward will be for fighting them. Most of the time the prize is simply
progressing the story, working your way from boss to boss as a means of rising action until
the climax. But sometimes the player is compensated with a special item or powerup. The Mega Man
series is an obvious example of this, and these new abilities can be used for an advantage
against later bosses. But occasionally, the boss fight itself can be the reward if it
is satisfying enough. Some games will have a “secret final boss” that is only unlocked
after certain requirements are met, and the reward is simply the pride you feel when you
best it. These are normally the hardest boss in the game, and can be very exciting, especially
if it’s a surprise. I think it’s important to ask yourself “why am I fighting this
boss?” and if your answer isn’t satisfactory to your overall goals of your game, then change
it! Finally, great boss fights are ones that stay
fresh and unique. Not only should bosses look different from regular enemies, but they should
behave differently too. Give them moves that connect with their theming, like a swamp monster
causing the screen to go blurry, or a musician attacking you on a giant piano. Many games
will reuse the same boss and just give it a color swap and slighty harder patterns,
but I would avoid this, it comes across as lazy. Donkey Kong is notorious for doing this,
but at least in DK 64, your rematch against Dogadon is with a different kong. So even
though the boss was basically the same, it felt different because your character’s
abilities had changed. Consider giving each boss multiple phases that change up the battle Every boss in Wings of Vi does this and it
keeps you on your toes. Just when you think you’re getting good at fighting back, they
introduce a whole new set of attacks. The final boss of Castle Crashers has 6 phases,
including one that’s a fake out where he turns into a giant spider hiding in the treasure
chest. This many phases certainly ramps up the challenge, but you also don’t want bosses
to overstay their welcome either. As long as it continues to be enjoyable, adding new
things is a good idea! It is not easy to make a boss that is both
challenging and intimidating, but rewarding and fair. That’s why I think it helps to
go back and look at some of your favorite bosses that you’ve fought before. In fact,
tell me in the comments below some of the bosses you remember most, and why you liked
them so much. And next time you fight a boss, put it to the test – does it hold up under
these principles? Now of course, these are just my ideas, there are other great concepts
to incorporate into your boss fights as well. But above all, don’t forget that the best
bosses are ones that are fun, that’s why we play games after all. Thanks for watching
another episode of Good Game Design, stay frosty my friends. Hey, I’m snomaN and if you enjoyed you can always subscribe for more analytical content,
or support the show through Patreon. Thanks!

22 comments

  • DQuiLon

    One of my recent experiences was buying a mint condition 2nd hand Metroid Prime Trilogy, since I never had a Gamecube, so I never player 1, 2 and I wanted to do so on my old Wii… Well it became one of my favorite game collections of all time, it all seems like a huge cohesive game to the point that there are parts I try to remember as being Prime 3 but that was Prime 2 and such… But the bosses on Prime 1 and 2 were not as memorable… even though the 1st installment was the best, I think fighting your Phazon Corrupted friends from Prime 3 was awesome and unforgettable, specially since they all seemed very badasses with unique abilities…

    Another recent example of good boss design for me is Cuphead, incredibly difficult but also very rewarding to win, and their abilities change so it is hard to adapt after just a couple of tries.

    Reply
  • Boo Bud

    My fav boss is of course, futaba's cognition from persona 5. I love it because it uses the type advantages well such as using a flying boss phase that makes physical attacks not effective until you knock it down with a crossbow summoned by futaba herself.
    Another fav is Galeem and Darkhon from SSBU. It uses all mechanics that you learned earlier

    Reply
  • Christian

    The final boss of Okami was epic.

    Reply
  • Cody Myhre

    Paper Mario TTYD Shadow Queen is Excellent (although the cutscene could be a little shorter afteryour first playthrough). The fact she has The two hands and the sea of dead hands that she cant summon summon right at the start, and how you loose the ability to gain Star power for part of it is fantastic, but Bonetail. He's Boring. Did a challenge Run where I Didn't up my BP and had to goombella tattle all enemies, but I failed with Bonetail cuz He died so fast.

    Reply
  • Ethan Serrahn

    The moon lord and Betsy from terraria are some of my favorite bosses of all time.

    Reply
  • Willocreeper Plays

    The radiance. Despite how hard it is, it is such a fun fight

    Reply
  • Jordan Brooks

    Dagoth Ur from Marrowind

    Reply
  • Key Family

    I really liked the super smash ultimate boss Marx it was insane and the trees he spawns
    And Moms Heart From Isaac Cus If U Beat It Without Taking Damage U Can Fight The Devil

    Reply
  • _Woozapapa _

    Sans is intentionally hard, and it applies to the story. It shows that you beat him by learning his patterns over and over by never giving up. Determination.

    Reply
  • BrightN'Night Dragon

    Inner agent 3 (splatoon 2 OE) and Marx from SSBU are really good boss fights, I like how there’s very little room to hide in the IA3 boss fight and how it’s happening in a PTSD event

    Reply
  • BrightN'Night Dragon

    2:15 I disagree, a boss doesn’t have to be intimidating to be good. Inner agent 3 from splatoon 2 OE is a great boss fight, and you play as her in the original game. They don’t need to be intimidating, just have a great design

    Reply
  • Brione

    I think something that makes great bosses is story significance. The player should think “I have to stop this villain” and not just “I have to complete the game”

    Reply
  • Dirty Dave

    Zelda Twilight Princess had two of the best boss fights in video game history: Stallord and Argorok.
    The Spinner and the Double Clawshot are just the most badass items in all Zelda games.

    Reply
  • Michael Visosky

    Confronting Part of Yourself, in Celeste, feeling that rush of confidence as you build momentum, chasing her down.

    Resorting to violence just to get Undertale's Asgore to look you in the eye.

    The panic you feel – overtaken later by a feeling of bewilderment as you see the sheer potential of the coming maps – as Three House's bandit leader Miklan transforms into a Black Beast.

    Retracing your steps on muscle memory alone for the 30th time on your way back to Ornstein and Smough, thinking – what mistakes did I make? What will I do to get closer this time?

    Confronting Doopliss in Thousand Year Door, after he's stolen your identity, having to fight against your own deceived partners.

    Playing Pokémon Soul Silver blind, doing a level-limit nuzlocke on your first run to see how far you'll get – feeling your whole being tense when Bugsy leads with a Scyther four levels higher than your Chikorita.

    Dancing to an elegant and deadly rhythm with Hollow Knight's Nightmare King Grimm.

    The tension and terror of the first time you reached the Dead Ringer's second phase in Crypt of the Necrodancer.

    One of your first Hardmode nights in Terraria. You're finally getting the hang of fighting these new, tougher monsters. Then, "it's going to be a terrible night…"

    You were unprepared for your first Don't Starve winter. This time, it seems you'll make it to spring. Moments later, you're protecting yourself and everything you've worked so hard for from a gigantic beast.

    The best bosses to me were the bosses that left me shaking – due to emotion over the story, the thrill of the fight, the sheer challenge I overcame, or the terror that their presence instilled in me.

    Reply
  • Riz Pilaf

    Just all of MGR's boss battles are thrilling

    Reply
  • DiceySpike

    My favorite boss i beat was sans. The reason why i liked sans' battle was because you never have a fight with him neither he never intimidated you in any run, and when you least expect it, he shows what he truly feels, resulting in a payback for what you have done mentally to him.

    Reply
  • Space noodles

    I love bosses with complex patterns. For example, when I first fought the Lunatic Cultist in Terraria, I was blown away by the amount of attacks it has

    Reply
  • Emma Payne

    Corey, final boss

    Reply
  • Kirby -DARIS

    You forgot a tiny detail: A boss should match up with the game you're playing. For example, Megaman is all about difficulty and getting different powers that best other bosses. Each level has a theme that corresponds to the boss at the end of the level. Now what if one of those bosses were… I don't know, an overgrown plant who's only method of attacking is by sending extremely slow flower petals (SHUT UP PLANT MAN IS A ROBOT OK) and the level was a burning manufacturing factory? Sounds out of place right?

    Or Kirby usually has cute and kiddy designs (most of the time…). What if one of the bosses in the next Kirby game was a way too realistic looking floating brain? How would that make sense while keeping Kirby cute and puffy?

    Bosses like these probably only work in Smash due to such a crossover of games and designs for those characters. Playing as Pikachu and killing a giant dragon in Smash isn't out of the ordinary because there are so many different designs for characters and they can't all have one design theme.

    Reply
  • ???

    For me, bosses need to reqire a respawn before beating them. Most of the game I play seam to just have bosses that can be beaten the first time facing them which doesn't feel rewarding atall

    Reply
  • RavenousRoss

    Ripto from Spyro 2.

    Reply
  • GodWorksOut

    My favorite boss was always Koopa the Quick.

    Reply
  • Jackson Bull

    Crippling student loans

    Reply

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