Boss battles: the changes, the techniques, the challenges

Bowser, Psycho Mantis, Ornstein and Smough: gaming history is full of exhilarating, teeth-grindingly difficult, stand-out boss fights. As an element of game design, boss battles are meant to stand out.

They’re climactic moments that offer challenge and catharsis in equal measure, testing our skills and distilling hours of gameplay into singular, epic moments.

There’s an art to crafting those moments, and, like any form of art, boss battle design has evolved slowly but surely over the years.

Whether they’re shifting focus from challenge to character, or paying homage to classic boss design by melding retro influences with a modern mindset, modern designers are experimenting with boss battles in ways that expand and evolve the form.

We spoke with designers at three studios – Ubisoft San Francisco, Ninja Theory, and Studio MDHR – to find out how they’re bringing boss battles into the present – and why there’s still value in one of gaming’s longest-standing traditions.

Action-Packed Punchlines

Ask players what makes a good boss battle, and you’ll likely get responses like ‘gruelling difficulty’ or ‘challenging attack patterns’. A fair amount of boss design involves both of these things.

If the levels leading up to the big bad are class assignments, a boss is the test at the end of a lesson. A good test is difficult because it asks you to critically engage, perhaps in new ways, with material you’ve already learned. Most classic bosses from every era of gaming history are difficult tests of skill.
While working on South Park: The Fractured But Whole, the team at Ubisoft San Francisco knew this wasn’t the right approach.

This was a game that would be played by more South Park fans than hardcore gamers, and that meant expertly timed punchlines and well-written jokes were more important than difficult gameplay.

“The game was about making you laugh, not necessarily proving you had all the skill checks in a row,” says Kenneth Strickland, lead game designer on The Fractured But Whole.

Most bosses are designed around specific mechanics or attack patterns. With The Fractured But Whole, Strickland and game director Jason Schroeder worked to shift the focus from challenge to character. For a team of designers that are used to asking, “What’s challenging?”, it took a while to start asking, “What’s most appropriate for this character?”

“There was a lot of retraining people’s brains, in terms of, ‘No, don’t give me something I just played but 50% harder with just slightly bigger numbers,’” Strickland says. “‘Tell me what makes Butters, Butters. And how do we use our tools to express that?’”

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South Park relied on placement and pushbacks; a surprisingly smart design

Writing and designing boss encounters around comedy comes with unique challenges. Worrying about the pacing of a boss’s gameplay is hard enough, but the team also had to pace jokes and the characters’ constant barrage of insults. Comedy is about timing.

A good joke at the right time can release tension; a bad one can completely deflate a situation.

“The challenge was pacing, because what you don’t want to do is cut a dramatic situation off at the knees before it’s had a chance to build, and you don’t want to steamroll whatever you’re doing with five jokes so that people forget what they’re even there for in the first place,” Strickland says.

Luckily, Strickland and Schroeder worked with South Park writers Trey Parker and Matt Stone, who also wrote the script for The Fractured But Whole, to figure out the narrative and comedic goals of each dungeon crawl and boss.

Ubisoft’s designers could then start to build levels and bosses around character and comedy. Strickland was quick to point to the boss battle with fan-favourite character Butters as an example of this approach.

“[Butters] comes up with this plan that is distinctly horrible, but because he’s so innocent he doesn’t quite understand it,” Strickland says. “A Butters plan always falls apart. In the show, he tries something and it gets undercut and undercut and undercut until it’s nothing, which is literally how that boss battle works. He got more and more pathetic as the whole thing went on.”

Working from a core understanding of the character and South Park’s provocative, absurdist humour, the design team crafted a hilarious fight that uses the game’s turn-based combat in ways that are specific to Butters, and incorporate classic boss design philosophies.

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As well as challenge, it pays to make people laugh and/or offend them

The Fractured But Whole’s combat system revolves around a tile system and pushing and pulling characters from one tile to the next to deal damage. The fight with Butters, with its ‘floor is lava’ mechanic, relies on the player having mastered those tools.

“We saw a couple of good opportunities for jokes that dovetailed nicely with mechanics,” Strickland says. “That second stage where you have his minions running over with tacos to heal him: that started as a gag, but then we realised pretty quickly, because we had that chance to iterate, that’s actually great gameplay, trying to push people away from Butters so it doesn’t happen.”

Throughout development, the team’s mantra was character first. The designers didn’t ditch what’s worked in boss design for decades – they just added some extra spice.

“I still think of difficulty as a shortcut to getting you those memorable moments,” Strickland says. “We approached getting those memorable moments through character, humour, putting those things in the mechanics. A nicely tuned difficult boss is just an engine for giving you those ‘saved yourself by the skin of your teeth by doing X’ sorts of stories.”

Psychological Warfare

Boss battles are defined by a fight against some seemingly insurmountable enemy. Ninja Theory’s action game Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice made that enemy cerebral.

Filtered through the lens of a Celtic warrior suffering from psychosis, the boss battles in Hellblade are nightmarish psychic skirmishes. Characters were at the heart of Ubisoft San Francisco’s boss battles, but in Hellblade, Senua’s heart and mind are the battlefield.

Here, myths transform into terrifyingly real battles as Senua journeys into Norse Hel. Ninja Theory designed its core trio of boss battles – the fiery Surt, raven-themed Valravn, and monstrous Fenrir – around a mix of mythology and Senua’s traumatic experiences.

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Hellblade made for some thrilling boss encounters

“Surt is the god of fire, and Senua’s home was destroyed by fire. Norse mythology has a recurring theme of characters jumping into fire to reach the underworld,” says creative director Tameem Antoniades.

“Similarly, the idea of ravens being spies of Odin are common. When Senua returns home, ravens are pecking the corpses, which sticks in her mind. From these kinds of ideas, you start to form the mechanics of the boss encounter.”

Surt and Valravn are both humanoid fighters designed with mythology and trauma in mind, but they’re still physical challenges for Senua and the player.

Fenrir is something else entirely, and it’s here that Ninja Theory’s cerebral boss design shines. A massive, rotting wolf that lunges from the shadows, Fenrir plays on Senua’s – and the player’s – fears, both psychologically and mechanically.

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Making a boss gorgeous – and unnerving – helps

“It’s very difficult to create a compelling fight with a giant quadruped in a melee game,” Antoniades says. “So instead, we focused on the idea of fear, claustrophobia, and uncertainty.”

A spotlight shines down on Senua. Everything outside the light is shrouded in darkness. That’s where Fenrir lurks. It’s frightening not only because we’re naturally afraid of the dark, but because the game has taught us to fear it.

“The whole of the level leading up to the boss teaches you to panic whenever you are in darkness,” Antoniades explains. “The fight is intentionally set up to happen in a small spot of light in a dark cave. Then the boss himself either hides in the darkness or fills the arena with dark fog to get you to panic. This also reflects the story of how Senua’s father used to keep her trapped in a dark hole where she experienced panic attacks and fear. [It’s] where her mental state deteriorated.”

Hellblade’s boss fights stand out not for their mechanical complexity, but their empathic power, and the fight with Fenrir forges psychological bonds between character and player. By the time Hellblade reaches its finale – a boss fight with Hela and a literally endless horde of enemies – Ninja Theory’s psychological approach to boss design really pays off.

Instead of a traditional boss battle, Hellblade offers an alternative: don’t fight.

“We are always taught to never give up, never surrender, but what if we are fighting the wrong battle?” Antoniades says. “How do you let go when every fibre of your being is telling you to keep fighting?”

Retro Fun, Modern design

As nostalgia for the 8-bit and 16-bit eras has risen, some developers have started to offer modern spins on classic design principles. There are always lessons to be learned from the past, and while games like The Fractured But Whole and Hellblade forego challenge in favour of character and depth, there’s something to be said for the challenging, puzzle-like design of classic boss battles.

The members of studio MDHR, the team behind Cuphead, freely admit that they borrowed from the games of their childhood.

“Lots of our bosses are direct homages to our favourite bosses from the [16-bit era],” says Chad Moldenhauer, art director at Studio MDHR.

“Take Hilda Berg, for example. One of my favourite boss fights from Contra: Hard Corps on the Genesis has you fighting in a VR stage where a boss changes pattern based on an astrological sign that they reference. We took that idea for Hilda Berg and had her morph into her own versions of those astrological signs.”

In Cuphead, homages to the past are rendered in a gorgeous, Max Fleischer-inspired art style, with modern ideas about integrated learning and pattern design. The result is something wholly new, with bosses that represent the best of the past and present in boss design.

The game is largely known for its difficulty; but here, lead game designer Jared Moldenhauer learned from the sins of other, earlier games.

Cuphead wasn’t just about the difficulty, though there was a lot of that

“It’s easy to throw a million things at a player and just tell them to figure it out, but they probably won’t have a very good time,” Jared Moldenhauer says.

“You can make anything impossibly hard by just narrowing the reaction time and making everything require frame perfect inputs to overcome. Hard is easy, hard but fun is tough.”

Like the best boss fights, Cuphead’s many big bads are a complex series of patterns that allow the player to fail, adapt, and learn. It’s a cycle as old as time: live, die, repeat.

The team had a classic approach to designing many bosses: start with a specific pattern idea and then create a thematically appropriate character around it. Other times, the team had a character in mind and, with a modern, character-first approach, retrofitted patterns onto that character.

“For Djimmi [the Great], there was a series of patterns that we knew we wanted, but we never had a boss that suited it so we designed him to fit those patterns,” says Jared Moldenhauer. “Djimmi, being a genie that could take basically any shape we could come up with, meant that he was extremely malleable to work with.”

Boss battles, like so many elements of game design, are always evolving. Technology sits at the core of the games industry; it never stands still. But, after 50 years, games have a history that needs to be recognised as well.

Every developer that reinvents or recreates boss battles is a part of that design legacy. All the players that gnash their teeth, leap back from the screen, or shout out in joy during one of these moments is in conversation with that history.

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