I love bosses. I always have. I love their blend of spectacle and challenge, and I love their screen-shaking scale or - if it's Treasure - their luminously stupid names. Fatman, Bowser, Pinky Roader - who wouldn't want to hang out with people like that?
But I love them in principle, too. I love the fact they're called bosses, suggesting that they somehow also manage the levels they top or tail, keeping grunts signed up to the health plan and collecting timesheets. I love the way they belong only to video games, and not books or movies or paintings or folk songs. Turner wasn't moved to draw a massive lizard-headed mech stomping out of the ice storm as Hannibal crossed the Alps, and Jane Austen didn't interrupt Mansfield Park every fifty pages to make way for a thirty-foot baby skull mounted on a scorpion's body. I wish she had, frankly, but she didn't. Why? Because bosses are ours, and this is the only art form where they really make sense.
Often these days, though, you could be forgiven for thinking that they don't make as much sense as they used to. In fact, sometimes they seem distinctly out of place. Is something weird going on? Are bosses in trouble?
"Deus Ex is the poster boy for horrible bosses, but it's far from the only game knocking about that makes taking on the big guys feel like an empty, inane faff."
Look at - you guessed it - Deus Ex: Human Revolution, and you might think they are. This is, after all, a game that's been universally lauded for its intricacy, its cold-edged battle-smarts, and its crate-stacking, vent-sneaking freedom of approach. Everyone agrees that Eidos Montreal did a staggering job on this one.
But you know what else everybody agrees with? The fact that the bosses stink. They force you to kill even if you're trying to just tranq-dart everyone, they turn the game into an all-out shooter, and they interrupt the elegant make-your-own-fun pace of the whole enterprise. They're the jocks dropping in to spoil your Dungeons and Dragons evening. They shouldn't be there, and now they won't leave. (Also, they've brought brewskis.)
It's alright, though. You know why? Because apparently Eidos Montreal didn't create the bosses. The team out-sourced them to a studio called Grip Entertainment.
Seriously, the team did what?
A boss should be the kind of thing a development studio leaps at the opportunity to tackle, right? A big showboating exercise in art skills and design brilliance. It shouldn't be the sort of work you hand off to the guys down the road - but apparently that's what it's becoming. Bosses in Human Revolution appear to have been included because, well, a game needs bosses. Any bosses. Even bosses that break key mechanics and do nothing but annoy everybody.
Deus Ex is the poster boy for horrible bosses, but it's far from the only game knocking about that makes taking on the big guys feel like an empty, inane faff. Sometimes it seems that everywhere you look, bosses are growing old, stale, and weary. There are still plenty of great bosses around - we'll get to them in a minute, in fact - but there are just as many that feel like vestigial tails, ideas that have outlived their time and their usefulness.
Where did bosses come from? I think they came from the arcades. If that's true, then their origins, as Eugene Jarvis, who worked on boss-masterpieces like Smash TV and NARC once said to me, were anything but respectable. Jarvis told me that the likes of Mr Big and Mutoid Man turned up in his games because someone came down to the design pit one afternoon and said, "Okay, at this point in the game, you need to take four dollars from the player right now." In terms of mechanics, they were pure road block, pure cash-sapper, and the only reason we loved them were because the people who created them were supremely talented at taking your money in a way that made you come back for more.
Here's a problem, then. It's not that designers aren't as good anymore - although, it's worth noting, almost nobody has ever been as good as Eugene Jarvis. It's that some contemporary games have changed in two crucial ways. For one thing, freed from their coin slots, they're now paced much more carefully, built around an insistent tug that keeps you moving at all times. Think of the endless forward momentum of something like Uncharted: bosses screw that kind of thing up pretty badly with restarts, reloads, and - eventually - the retreat to FAQs. Well-meant or otherwise, they're often nothing more than a wrench flung into the cogs and gears that keep the fairground ride zipping along.
Then, and I think this is particularly true for Deus Ex, there's the fact that the classic boss is often primarily a bullet sponge - and that's a problem in a world where more and more games are choosing to build their fun around mechanics that go beyond mere shooting. A boss worthy of Deus Ex would have to allow you to sneak your way to victory if you'd chosen that augmentation approach. Or one-hit-kill your way to victory. Or... Okay, I'm starting to understand why boss design was such a nightmare for a game like Human Revolution...
Luckily, the illnesses that plague bosses aren't terminal. In fact, as doctors often say, bosses just need to change their lifestyle a little. If a boss is really a blend of spectacle and challenge - a sort of walking set-piece - there's no reason they have to be a hulking damage sponge in the first place, is there?
Back in 2001, the first Halo showed that an end of game boss could actually take the form of a long Warthog ride across an exploding environment - the perfect final showdown for an adventure with such rangy, cinematic ambitions. And this week, the likes of Dark Souls suggests that it's alright if your boss is a damage sponge as long as it's also a puzzle - near impossible to defeat at first, but slowly made manageable as you learn your craft in playing the game.
And while some bosses are starting to look a little peaky, it's worth noting that others are really thriving: even a likeably middle-of-the-road offering like Spider-Man: Shattered Dimensions can have a little fun with them by stepping away from the standard template and threading its bosses right through the entirety of a level, so you're always fighting them, and always learning how to fight them a little bit better.
This, then, is why it would be a real shame if bosses ever left gaming behind for good and went padding off into the mist like those sorrowful ancients in that bit in The Dark Crystal. A really good boss doesn't just ramp up the challenge, it ramps up your own skills too, allowing you to revel in your emerging mastery. The best bosses aren't just about handing out punishment, they're about holding a mirror up to your dextrous brilliance, which is why the likes of Radiant Silvergun can offer you bosses that have the audacity to actually commit suicide if you don't finish them off quickly - and stylishly - enough yourself.
So bosses aren't on the way out. Sorry about all that: it was just a cheap starting point to build a discussion around. But, as with any game mechanic like traversal, levelling, or even health, it's worth taking a look at bosses every now and then just to make sure that they're still fit for purpose. Pinky Roader, after all, deserves nothing less.