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Boss battles have existed for nearly as long as video games themselves, and once upon a time they stood at the end of levels to test the player’s abilities. Well times have changed and so have boss battles. Not every boss battle is there to challenge you. There are those that attempt something different with the concept of a boss battle and take the idea in a new direction.
This list focuses on interesting boss battles, and it is not a list of the best battles, the hardest battles or the most entertaining battles. Instead, it is simply a list of five interesting bosses from five different games. There are not ranks either. It’s just a list. There may be some minor spoilers ahead, but I’ll attempt to keep narrative specifics away as best I can (for the most part).
So the rules stand as one boss per game series, and this might as well be stated immediately: Psycho Mantis is not included in this list.
Poseidon – God of War III
This fight may just be the very definition of cinematic combat. First of all, this fight does not do anything different from the standard God of War boss formula, which involves hacking at your enemy for a while before tapping a few QTEs to kill the boss, but it’s the use of scope and camera perspectives that makes this boss fight truly memorable.
The player begins the fight before realising that you’re actually fighting a boss at all, as you get attacked by a gigantic watery-crab-horse hybrid thing. This monster keeps showing up and eventually it’s revealed that this creature is just one of the many tentacles of an enormous beast that holds the water god Poseidon right in the centre. It’s a lovely thought.
You fight many of these tentacles before finally wrenching Poseidon from his protective casing and this is where the most horrific part beings: the game enters a first person perspective through the eyes of Poseidon. The player taps buttons when told and Kratos punches and kicks at the screen before the game finally tells the player to click down on the analog sticks, causing Kratos to gouge out the water god’s eyes with his thumbs. A grizzly end so befitting of the chaotic rage of the God of War series.
The End – Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater
Naked Snake is on a lonely mission behind enemy lines; he has no real support, he’s been betrayed and on top of that his former mentor, now enemy, keeps throwing some of the most ridiculous individuals at him to fight. One man controls wasps, another is a space suit wearing flamethrower man with a jetpack and there’s even a guy that can go invisible, but the most memorable and fascinating of them all is the fight against The End.
The aptly-named The End is a sniper who’s rather ancient and incredibly patient. He meets you in a large open area where the player is forced to crawl so as to avoid getting shot, and depending on the difficulty setting chosen, this fight can last for hours. The player has to use all the tools at their disposal to find out where the old sniper is hiding and take him out. It doesn’t help that the sniper moves each time he gets shot and is able to take you down with one hit, although he does only tranquilize you and drops you off at a base in the distance, and thus forces you to backtrack until you can try again. Which is more irritating than being killed and simply starting over.
It isn’t just the slow methodical nature of this boss fight that makes it so interesting. In fact, the player can kill The End at a point prior to the boss fight without much hassle; you’re never told you can do this of course and have to discover it on your own (or use the internet). On top of that you can skip the boss fight by waiting two weeks, or setting the console’s internal clock ahead two weeks, and The End will have died of old age while waiting for you. The Metal Gear games have always had great bosses, but this one is the most interesting of the lot.
Practically every boss in the original Deus Ex
Boss fights usually go down with a certain air of predictability. For instance, the player enters a certain area, a health bar shows up at the bottom of the screen and the battle begins. However, the original Deus Ex refused to conform to these norms as a whole and so when a menacing German cyborg, who was graphically hideous when the game was released, happens on your path you can easily flee instead of engaging with him at all.
The bosses in Deus Ex can all be defeated in ways that reflect the game’s opened ended gameplay: if you decided to play as a muscle-bound killing machine then you can wipe the floor with these bosses. If you’re the sly foreshadowing type you can kill them before well before said boss fight by sucker punching them when you’re meant to be on their team. Harsh. Finally, you can often kill them through dialogue. Yes, you can kill them by talking to them.
None of the potential boss battles are particularly memorable on their own, but the way in which you handle them as a collective whole is incredibly memorable. Sadly you then get Human Revolution — the prequel released in 2011 — which destroyed that entire formula by forcing everyone to have a big old gunfight with its bosses even if you decided to play the game without guns of course. But the legacy of the original remains unchanged.
Avion – Shadow of the Colossus
Shadow of the Colossus is filled with some of the greatest boss battles ever created, and yet narrowing it down to just one was fairly simple. There may be debate over this choice but the fifth Colossus the player faces is Avion, a gigantic and peaceful bird that initially perches itself high above you and does nothing to harm you. Avion has no interest in a tiny speck of a creature like you anyway. That is until you start attacking him and pissing him off.
This boss is the one that makes you realise what gaming can achieve, and this is also the boss that made me instantly fall in love with the game. This fight typifies one major central theme of Shadow of the Colossus: you are the aggressor. Not the baddies, but you.
The boss only begins to fight when the player fires arrows in Avion’s direction, which gives him reason to swoop down at you. For the first-time player it may take a while to realise that you need to leap from a platform and onto his wings as he swoops down at you. This action does not take place in a cutscene, it’s all you.
As Avion flies into the air like an enormous bird of prey, the player begins crawling along his back and stabbing him in his weak points, until the beast finally falls. Avion never deserved to die, just like every other boss in Shadow of the Colossus, and yet in the protagonist’s quest there is no place for mercy. Which is a concept that is also explored in the last boss on this list.
Sift, The Great Grey Wolf – Dark Souls
The “hero” from Dark Souls battles countless undead soldiers, gigantic demons and ancient gods that have lost their minds, and through it all the player knows that these monsters need to be put down. The creatures you generally face are grotesque; and then there’s Sif. Your quest: find the grave of Artorias, an ancient warrior that served the god of that world, and take a magical ring from his body so as to continue on your main quest.
Seems simple enough, but as you enter the location of the grave, Artorias’s faithful wolf companion leaps from the tombstone to defend his long dead master’s grave from being desecrated by the player. The player is not putting some monster out of its misery here. You are the intruder, and you are you aggressor. As the fight continues and the player gets close to slaying the great wolf, the boss’s animation changes. He starts limping, has trouble fighting and one of his attacks even causes him to fall over and scramble back to his feet.
This is not the hardest boss in Dark Souls, and yet it is so mournfully powerful in the way it makes you feel uneasy when you think about what you’ve just done. Aside from the actual boss fight itself there is also a piece of downloadable content called Artorias of the Abyss, in which the player travels back in time and helps a much younger Sif. If the player does this before the actual boss fight against Sif, a different cutscene will play as you enter the graveyard and the wolf will remember you, howl sadly and still take up his weapon. He will not allow his master’s tomb to be looted by anyone, not even those that saved his life once upon a time.
In conclusion, a few honourable mentions must be acknowledged (mostly because these are the ones that many may argue are superior to the ones listed): Cronos from God of War III, Ornstein and Smough from Dark Souls, who didn’t make the cut simply because their boss fight is challenging rather than interesting (although it’s not hard if you know how to do it), and lastly there’s Phalanx from Shadow of the Colossus, who serves as the other flying boss and tends to be in the majority of gamer’s personal highlight reel, but I feel that the first flying boss was superior.
This list in no way attempts to be an objective list of the best bosses in gaming, and those listed are simply some that are interesting and worthy of note. Do you have a boss (or a few) that you feel should be remembered for doing something interesting or for just being great in general? Be sure to let us know in the comments.