El Jeffe’s Lounge: What Happened to Boss Fights?

In my last post, I wrote about Duke Nukem Forever and how I’m looking forward to it for reasons most people aren’t—because it will likely feel dated.  One of the things I miss most in modern shooters is the boss battle.  You don’t see them much anymore, at least not like you used to back in the day. 

Like most other genres, first-person shooters used to feature clearly defined levels with a boss battle at the end.  If not in every level, there were at least a few bosses, and you could count on one big final boss. 

Boss battles are defined by an end point (or arena) in a level, in which you must fight a bigger and more difficult foe than the rest of the level in order to progress.  Usually, they require endurance—being tougher than most enemies—and trial and error until you figure out their pattern and the correct strategy to defeat them.  One example that instantly springs to mind is the final boss in Metroid Prime, because it was huge, and I never beat it.  Great boss battles were sprinkled throughout Metroid Prime, and they boasted the doubly satisfying pay off of both beating the boss and earning an upgrade to your weapons or suit abilities. 

These days, boss fights are scarce in all shooters; you’re lucky if you even get a final boss.  Because it’s fresh in my memory, I’m going to use Crysis 2 as an example, but my specific criticisms apply generally to many popular modern shooters: Halo, Call of Duty, and Gears of War (yes, I’m aware it’s third-person perspective) being some of the main offenders.  In Crysis 2, you fight off an alien invasion of NYC using guns and a nanosuit that grants you all sorts of cool abilities, from cloaking to tactical support.  Along the way, you fight consistently tough, smart enemies who will stop at nothing to kill you.  The closest you’ll ever come to a boss fight is an encounter with a Pinger, a giant, bi-pedal, robot-like thing that looks like one of the invaders in Spielberg’s adaptation of “War of the Worlds.”  The encounter occurs about halfway through the game, and it is awe-inspiring and reminiscent of a boss battle, but it’s not the real thing.

Crysis 2 follows the same model of the false boss fight as many modern shooters.  It introduces a larger foe and makes the first encounter feel like a boss battle.  Outside of the larger mass, the Pinger lacks any characteristics of a boss.  The battle is not confined to an arena.  The Pinger is bigger and requires more firepower and endurance to kill, but you don’t have to learn its pattern or an elaborate strategy to defeat it.  There is no reward for defeating it except progressing further in the story.  How much cooler would it be if you unlocked your nanosuit powers after defeating multiple bosses throughout the game? 

Worst of all, the Pinger is the only enemy in the game that can be considered boss-like.  Like too many other modern shooters, Crysis 2 recycles the Pinger “boss” repeatedly until it just becomes one enemy in a larger battle.  Older games used to turn early bosses into sub-bosses later in the game, but they also had new real bosses for you to fight at the end of the level.  Modern shooters have something that resembles a boss, but it’s often one endlessly recycled enemy that just requires more firepower to kill.

And like most other modern shooters, there is a distinct lack of a final boss in Crysis 2.  There is a big battle at an intersection featuring multiple Pingers, followed by a battle with a bunch of cloaked standard enemies, followed by an end sequence.  Too many shooters now require a simple button press at the end, as if that was all that was really needed to save the world.  You have to fight through a horde of enemies so you can flip a switch and call it a day. 

I blame it on reliance to (shoddy) storytelling more than anything, which ignores the primary reason we play games.  The limp, clichéd story takes so much importance that gameplay gets shoved aside.  There are cases such as Call of Duty where a big final boss fight would make little sense and the scripted, plot-advancing encounters are a logical, perhaps stunning innovation.  I don’t expect to fight a 50-foot monster in Call of Duty.  That said, even Bioshock managed to have a pretty cool final boss, and it featured the greatest and most cinematic video game story of all time.

Maybe it’s part of the growing trend of making games more accessible to everybody.  Developers want more people to be able to experience the complete game and finish the story, so they end it with a simple button press followed by a cutscene instead of challenging the player with a final boss.  With shooters being the most popular genre, it makes sense they would lose the bosses.  Older games were shorter and lacked deep stories, so they often had to feature punishing difficulty and brutal final bosses that required dozens of attempts to retain value.  If I’m correct, that still points to developers favoring story (and mainstream appeal) over compelling gameplay.  If I’m wrong, then I’m clearly missing something.  Maybe I’m just dated.

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Author: Jeff Derrickson View all posts by
Jeff Derrickson is a member of the Perfectly Sane Show and co-host of Movie Dudes. He studied English and mass media at Northeastern Illinois University.
  • MovieGuru83

    I think what you’re missing is realism. Developers want games to be more and more realistic. It’s not realistic to encounter a super human enemy in COD especially. You’re fighting a war, in battles. The goal is to wipe out the enemy. If they throw something out there that takes 100 rounds to take down, they lose the realism. It still happens to a point, like taking a helicopter down with an SMG. You can say that that realism draws back to story. Also, in most modern shooters, they veer away from making YOU out to be this superhuman character. Most shooters don’t have an upgrade system because they’re not about the character getting better as the game progresses, it’s about you getting better. It’s unrealistic for some random guy to defeat a hulking boss. But even with that said, it still exists from time to time, in shooters. The first Dead Space had some excellent bosses, and kinda even a mini boss that you had to think outside the box to kill. Borderlands is full of bosses and mini bosses. Bullestorm, a recent game had both as well, though the things they called bosses were mini bosses, and kept recurring like you said. Even Resistance 2 had a boss like giant that was as tall as the Chicago skyline.

    I think another thing that they think of when it comes to this is that if you’re looking for bosses, they’re still out there in plenty other genres, where realism isn’t as important. You fight quite a few boss like battles in the ME 1+2 and Dragon Age, and you get the proper amount of experience…and you often get a pretty bad ass weapon too. Dead Rising is full of bosses, though they are virtually all optional. I do think they happen more often than you think, go through your games played list and you’ll probably see games that had bosses more often than you think.

  • http://vagary.tv Jeff Derrickson

    I’ll agree that there are still bosses in games. I loved the bosses in Dead Space. I just find it weird that in some of our biggest shooters, there are no bosses, and it’s hard to blame realism in a game like Halo. I did mention, however, that it would be weird to fight a big boss enemy out of nowhere in COD, so that series gets a pass.

  • http://vagary.tv Chris

    Gears has bosses. Gears 1 had The Berzerker fights, the Corpser battle and of course Raam. Gears 2 had the Leviathan and Skorge.

    Halo also has had bosses. Halo 2 had the awful Brute boss battle at the end and Halo 3 had the equally awful battle with the Oracle towards the end. Neither of which were very much fun and I can see why Bungie moved away from having them in ODST and Reach.

    As for what I think of boss battles, I guess it depends on if I feel that the battle itself was implemented seamlessly with the story (does the battle make sense in the context, etc…). If the battle doesn’t feel like the rest of the game then I am not a fan.

  • http://n00bketeers.com beezball

    I completely agree, though for military shooters it’s kind of impossible to do.

    “Oh no! A giant opposing force (Al-Qaeda) lobster monster, hoo-rah Marines!”

  • profit

    I agree. Bioshock 1 was one of the most rewarding shooters ever. The final boss battle was epic.
    So i was really really!!! disappointed with the ending of Crysis 2. The game was epic, and i expected to fight this giant CyberSnake at the end. BUT NO, only press space to jump => game ends.
    This was a very big let down for me, epic game, lame ending. So i searched the internet and found this, and i agree. We need more epic boss battles. Even in Call of Duty it would be possible. Fight against a helicopter for example(MGS style), there would be 1000 possibilities. Come on game designers – we want more epic battles. =^.^=

  • skilly skills

    i think more than not having central boss figure/s, which i did love – it is a trend of games becoming so easy that proper strategy is no longer important, therefore killing the whole “boss” paradigm in favor of a more engrossing storyline. in most cases i find this to be disappointing, sadly. there is a great sense of personal gratification in defeating something that is confoundedly difficult and having to be persistent in order to outwit or outmatch. i get much less satisfaction from the recent school of game development. i think it was the arcade game origin of a lot of the classics that made them what they were. now we are a captive market and the companies are appealing to the lowest common denominator. im playing crysis 2 right now btw…its enjoyable enough but not challenging any conventions and i will probably lose interest after 2nd playthru