Saturday Soapbox: Horrible Bosses • Page 2

Are gaming's greatest villains an endangered species?

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...

Team Ico elevated bosses to centre stage with Shadow of the Colossus, and turned each battle into something strange and poignant.

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.

I'm not resting, I'm crying.

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.

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About the author

Christian Donlan

Christian Donlan

Features Editor

Christian Donlan is a features editor for Eurogamer. He is the author of The Unmapped Mind, published as The Inward Empire in the US.


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