Videogames force you to kill (or at the very least, brutally beat down) a lot of people. Whether you’re playing Halo, Skyrim, or even something as seemingly innocent as Mario, by the time you see a game’s ending credits you’ve likely killed more people/aliens/turtle-things than you can count. The amount of Chinese peasants you kill in one level of Dynasty Warriors would be enough to get you branded as a war criminal in real life. Hell, play a few hours of Call of Duty and you’ll likely kill more faceless soldiers on screen than Arnold Schwarzenegger has in all of his movies combined (538, by the way).But while it’s disturbingly fun to cleave, shoot, or eviscerate your way through wave after wave of cannon fodder, the most memorable battles in videogames are often the ones that pit you mano-a-mano against one opponent. Yes, I’m talking about boss fights, and while boss battles usually only make up a fraction of a game’s total content, they’re often (when done right,) the most intense, challenging, and fun parts of a game. Tearing through a forest full of Booma’s or decimating an entire battalion of Covenant troops is fun, but nothing beats the satisfaction of having bested a singular opponent who was as strong (or even stronger) than you are.
The best boss battles are ones that make use of all of the gameplay mechanics and tricks that you’ve learned while playing through the rest of the game and force you to push those honed skills to their absolute limit. A lot of modern action game boss fights are little more than extended QTE’s, and I think that’s a damn shame, because as anyone who’s played any of the following boss battles will tell you, there’s nothing better than using all your abilities to just barely scrape by a tough battle.
Anyway, before I get started, here’s the usual caveats: This is by no means a definitive list, just a selection of my personal favorites. If you dislike my choices and feel the need to tell us all why your opinions are obviously so much more “right” than mine, feel free to write your diatribe in the comments section, where I will simply chose to ignore you and/or go on to mock your nerd-rage fueled rant at some other point in time. Or, umm, if you want to leave the rare civil comment and just tell me about your favorite boss battles, that’d be cool too.
Anyway, now that I’ve got that fluff out of the way, here’s my top 10 favorite boss battles of all time:
De Rol Le (Phantasy Star Online)
You can technically play through Phantasy Star Online by yourself, but the game’s intense boss fights will all make you wish you had some back-up, and there’s no better example of how integral teamwork is to PSO than the battle with De Rol Le, the game’s bizarre sewer dwelling sea serpent.
Not only is the giant eel physically imposing, but his complex and brutal variety of attacks requires players to respond with a perfectly coordinated strategy that plays to the strengths of each of the game’s character classes: While De Rol Le spends most of the battle launching ranged attacks, Hunters (PSO’s tanks and melee fighters,) are needed to hack away the serpent’s armor when he ventures close. Rangers (long range DPS) are needed to further continue the counter-attack during De Rol Le’s barrages, while Forces (mages, basically,) are needed to keep everyone healed and buffed while dealing some occasional elemental damage. Like I said earlier, the best boss fights are the ones that make you use every skill at your disposal, and PSO’s epic, protracted battle with De Rol Le makes you appreciate each character class’s specific skills and specialties and also reinforces the importance of communication and teamwork. By the time you finally put this giant worm to bed, you’ll share a bond with your teammates that will make you all feel like old war buddies.
Every boss from Mega Man 2
Okay, so listing every boss from Mega Man 2 as one of the entries on this list is kind of cheating, but it’s so hard just to pick one — they’re all so iconic and fun to fight. Whether you were up against the blade-tossing Metal Man or the giant robot dragon at the end of the game (which, by the way, was one of the most impressive looking graphical feats I’d ever seen back during the NES days,) all of Mega Man 2’s bosses were challenging but fair, and each one was filled with more personality that most other games had in their entirety. Mega Man 2 may have been the second game in the series, but it set the standard for all of Mega Man’s many sequels that would follow.
Mega Man 2’s cast of robot masters were so popular that in Japan they spawned a series of fan-made songs about each of them, the most well known of which, Airman Ga Taosenai (I Cannot Defeat Airman,) became a sort of internet meme which remains popular to this day. How far reaching is Mega Man’s influence? The karaoke parlor near my house, thousands of miles away from Japan, has Airman Ga Taosenai as one it’s selections. Take that, Tay Zonday.
Kefka (Final Fantasy VI)
Fan favorite Kefka is a cut above most other J-RPG villains for a number of reasons; his nihilistic, carefree attitude about life and death is a far cry from the tortured, self-centered angst that most painfully cliched, pretty boy J-RPG villains display, and his self aware sense of humor makes his dialogue far more entertaining than the usual vague non-sequiturs and trite soliloquys that bad guys usually speak in. Plus, he’s just goddamn insane, and though some careful backstabbing and manipulation, he manages to elevate himself to the level of godhood and actually pretty much succeeds in destroying the world . He does this not because he wants power (i.e. almost every bad guy ever,) and not because he has mommy issues (*cough*Sephiroth*cough*,) but simply because he’s goddamn crazy.
Kefka’s volatile personality is perfectly embodied in the final battle against him, where he assumes an angelic appearance and spends as much time gleefully insulting and taunting the good guys as he does assaulting them with powerful magic spells. The long, protracted battle against Kefka uses nearly every special effect at the SNES’ disposal, and the beautiful, gothic pixel art of the scene is augmented with one of the best songs that Final Fantasy maestro Nobuo Uematsu has ever composed. The Final Fantasy series is filled with memorable moments, but FF6’s biblical clash against Kefka is my personal high point for the franchise.
Tower Knight (Demon’s Souls)
Demon’s Souls has basic enemies that are hard enough to deal with, and the bosses are obviously much, much more difficult. While there are plenty of bosses in DS that are technically tougher than the Tower Knight, the battle against this, uh, towering knight and his cadre of support archers was one of the coolest and most memorable moments of the game for me.
Trust me, you haven’t lived until you’ve tried to beat this behemoth with a character that’s only equipped with melee attacks. I’ve played through dozens of survival horror games, but never before has a game made more terrified than during this battle: I’d run for my life along the castle’s ramparts, desperately consuming all my herbs during every short reprieve from the Tower Knight’s assault, while carefully looking for any openings from which I could take a few cheapshots with my sword before running away again like a complete pussy. My battle against the Tower Knight wasn’t my bravest moment, but it certainly was one of the most exciting experiences I’ve had since I started playing games.
Manfred von Karma (Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney)
Not all boss fights have to be physical confrontations: bumbling defense lawyer Phoenix Wright’s confrontation with the corrupt prosecutor Manfred Von Karma is one of gaming’s most intense life or death battles, despite the fact that the two opponents are simply exchanging words rather than physical blows.
The Ace Attorney series is all about using logic and evidence to prove your client’s innocence, but that job becomes many times more difficult when the opposing prosecutor more or less cheats his way to victory: Von Karma has a perfect conviction record to keep, and he’s not above faking evidence or manipulating witnesses to get what he wants. In true series fashion, players have to use some very round-about logic in order to point out the logical fallacies in Von Karma’s case. Watching Wright and Von Karma verbally attack and counter-attack each other was far more intense than any hackneyed episode of Law and Order, and my DS nearly slipped out of my hands because I was sweating from all the tension. By the time you finally back Von Karma into a corner he can’t lie himself out of, you’ll feel as though you’re ready to pass the state bar exam.
Malus, The Grand Gigas (Shadow of the Colossus)
By the time you face Malus, The Grand Gigas, the last of the 16 colossi in Shadow of the Colossus, you’ve slayed beasts that were hundreds of feet tall and capable of smashing you into mush with a single step. But all of the previous colossi pale in comparison to Malus, who’s massive size and powerful ranged attacks make even veteran gamers stop and hesitate before attempting to take him down. Even though he’s stationary, fighting Malus feels like you’re trying to take down an entire battleship by yourself.
The entire game feels like it was just prep work for this final battle, and you genuinely feel accomplished (and kind of depressed that it’s all over,) when Malus finally goes down. While the game’s beautiful, melancholy ending makes you question what you were fighting for, it’s hard to regret what you’ve done: sure, Wander’s quest to destroy the colossi may have ended up putting the entire world in danger, but when all of them were so much fun to fight, can you blame him?
Mr. Freeze (Batman Arkham City)
As much as I loved it, I have to admit that the first Arkham Asylum had some pretty lame boss fights. Abandoning the awesome stealth mechanics that made most of the game such a joy to play, most of the boss fights in Arkham Asylum felt unoriginal and uninspired, and felt like they were copied straight out of a bad Zelda clone rather than being a legitimate part of the best superhero game ever made. Out of every major superhero out there, Batman has undeniably the best stable of villains to fight, yet the battles against Arkham’s most famous “super criminals” were often cited as the worst parts of the game.
Thankfully, Arkham City corrected that flaw with several boss encounters that were actually fun, the best of which was the battle against Mr. Freeze. This one boss fight made me feel more like Batman than any other moment in either game, which is saying a lot: While Batman is tough, he obviously doesn’t have any actual superpowers, so he can’t take down the armored, freeze-gun wielding super villain with a frontal assault; rather, just as Batman would, you have to use your wits and the environment around you to disable Freeze. Batman has always survived thanks to his smarts and not necessarily through brute force, and games based around the Caped Crusader often forget this. Here’s hoping that the third game in the series features more fights like this.
Luca Blight (Suikoden II)
The main gimmick of the Suikoden games is the massive number of playable characters you can recruit into your ranks: like the Chinese epic it draws its name from, each Suikoden game sees you amassing an army of 108 heroes in order to save the land from some despot. The second game in the series pits you and your army against the forces of Highland Kingdom and its sadistic prince, Luca Blight. While Blight may not as well known as the antagonists from Final Fantasy or the Tales Of series, he’s easily one of the most vicious, detestable, and frankly well written villains to have ever appeared in a J-RPG, and the battle where you finally take him down is easily one of gaming’s most epic and challenging fights. Suikoden 2 gave you an army to command, and you needed each and every warrior at your disposal to take Luca Blight down.
It’s pretty common in games to see a battle where one lone ultra-skilled soldier has to fight off an entire army of challengers, but its rare to see a game that casts you in the role of the army — Your band of heroes may have Blight outnumbered many times over, but even then, the odds are still in his favor. The almost hour long battle against Blight forces players to use every trick and strategy at their disposal to gradually wear the demonic prince down, and even when he’s finally exhausted, battered, and broken, he does everything he can to go down fighting.
Sudden Diarrhea (Parappa the Rapper)
Sure, Parappa the Rapper may be a game about a rapping dog who’s in love with a flower, but Parappa’s biggest struggle — trying not to crap his pants after eating some bad seafood while on his first date with the girl of his dreams — is a far more realistic and relatable struggle than the comparatively high concept climactic battles against aliens or demons in most games. Sure, it might not as be as epic or bombastic as some of the other battles on this list, but there’s no denying the appeal of having to rap-battle a talking onion, a moose drive instructor, a rastafarian frog, and a master chef chicken for the chance to cut in line at a gas station bathroom.
Ganondorf (The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker)
I could have filled this entire list with Zelda boss battles if I wanted to, as the series is home to some of the best fights in gaming history, but I decided to just list my favorite: the final battle with Ganondorf from The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker. Almost every encounter against Ganon in the series’ 25 year long history has been epic and challenging, but Wind Waker’s climactic showdown with the King of Thieves was particularly memorable.
While most of Wind Waker was bright and cheery, the final battle atop the remains of old Hyrule castle was one of the series’ most dramatic and atmospheric: with ocean water flooding in from all sides and a fierce storm raging overhead, it’s impossible to not feel at least a little tense as Ganondorf slowly and deliberately lumbers towards the much smaller and seemingly ill-equipped Link. While Zelda herself lends some assistance with her iconic light arrows, for the most part this battle is a one-on-one sword duel that pits Ganondorf’s brute force against Link (and the player’s) ingenuity.
The real highlight of course, is the coup de grace, which, despite Wind Waker’s “kiddy” veneer, is easily one of the most gruesome deaths in the series’ long history: Link finally sees an opening, leaps in the air, and proceeds to drive the entire length of the Master Sword through Ganondorf’s forehead, impaling the giant brute where he stands. Sure, there’s no blood or gore, but seeing cuddly, cute “toon” Link put a broadsword through a dude’s forehead wasn’t how most people expected this Sanrio-looking adventure to end. Every final battle in every Zelda game is fantastic, but none of them, not even the more mature Twilight Princess, have managed to make you feel more… well, bad-ass, than Wind Waker’s surprisingly brutal conclusion.