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February 3, 2014

The Volties: My Top 10 Favorite Boss Battles

I don’t know if you’ve heard before, but video games?  They’re pretty cool.

Plenty of conventions have made their rise to fame and delight for the common gamer justified.  They’re like a book you can dive into as long as you’ve still got a connection to an electrical source!  They’re like a movie you can play, only about four times longer on average, for better or worse!  They’re like newspapers you can…uh…okay, the analogy breaks down here, but you get the point.  Any medium can accomplish a lot with its conventions, and games are no exception. 

In fact, games have been proving that little rule to be true for years.  Why?  Because it’s got the “boss fight” -- a true test of one’s skill, wit, and resolve; it forces the player to defeat their greatest foe in order to get closer to saving the virtual world.  They’re big, they’re brutal, they’re boisterous, they’re bombastic, and in a lot of cases, they’re brilliant.

So what do you say we celebrate a few of them?  Go on, then.  Press the Left Mouse button to start.

WARNING: Incoming spoilers.  If your fragile maiden’s heart is easily bruised by such slights, then I suggest you depart now, and take to sipping tea atop your tuffet while tending to your little lambs.

I suspect that this train of thought has long since derailed.

Okay, let’s get a couple of things out of the way before the list proper starts.  First and most obviously, this is a list of my favorite boss battles.  I’ll gladly acknowledge that there are better ones out there, but for now just read on and enjoy this one.  Or better yet, consider this a challenge; if you’ve got your own top 10 list -- and a blog to show it off -- then by all means go at it.  It’ll be fun.

Second?  There’s no overarching formula for why certain boss battles make it on this list, except for one thing: for one reason or another, they have to be memorable.  Obviously, there are plenty of ways to do that, but those expecting some kind of connective tissue are probably not going to find it.

Third?  I narrowed it down to a top 10 list, but there are a number of other candidates who could either make the cut or stand-in for other nominees on the list.  So I’m going to do something I don’t normally do, and offer up some honorable mentions -- to the games the boss battles are from, because I don’t want to spoil a couple of the things in them.  Now then, let’s have a round of applause for the following, appearing in no particular order:

Sin and Punishment: Star Successor
The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask
The Wonderful 101  (seriously, PLAY THIS GAME)
Tales of Xillia
F-Zero GX
King of Fighters XI
Super Mario 64
Trauma Center: Under the Knife
Gunstar Heroes
Is that all of them?  I think it is.  Okay then, let’s move on to The Top 10 Best Boss Battles (For Me, At Least).  Starting with…

10) Dmitrii Blinov (Castlevania: Dawn of Sorrow)
One of the key mechanics of Dawn of Sorrow is the ability for the player character, Soma Cruz, to take on the abilities of the enemies he defeats.  Beat a suit of armor, for example, and there’s a chance you’ll take on its soul, and use its special attack as your own.  It’s not a bad mechanic, but it is one that can be exploited -- not by you, but by one of the earlier bosses, Dmitrii.  It’s established in a brief cutscene that he can copy enemy powers, meaning that anything you throw at him becomes something he can throw at you.

My brother and I talked about the boss fight when he gave the game a run, and was frustrated over Dmitrii’s power-copying.  It’s true that he could probably be a tough opponent if you tried to hit him with everything you’ve got, turning it into a battle of attrition and survival.  But here’s the thing: despite his bluster, Dmitrii has to be one of the most hilarious boss fights ever.  I’m surprised my bro didn’t figure out the perfect strategy in an instant: all you have to do is run at Dmitrii, equip the Skeleton soul so you can throw a piddling little bone at him, and then use nothing else but physical attacks.  Dmitrii will copy that power -- one of the worst in the game -- and use ONLY that power.  So you’re free to wail on him from start to finish, and all he can do is toss a weak bone at you in an easy-to-avoid arc once every ten seconds or so.  Though there are other possibilities.

It’s the perfect unity of gameplay and story, it’s something that rewards the player’s wit, and being able to troll a boss so hard is insanely satisfying.  But it’s not the only example out there, let alone on this list. 

9) Jinpachi Mishima (Tekken 5)
Trying to fight end boss Jinpachi in a fair fight is like trying to stop a charging elephant with a rubber band.

He’s bigger than you.  He’s faster than you.  He’s stronger than you.  He’s smarter than you.  He’s got better combos than you.  He’s got better tools than you; he can stun you, teleport, and -- a rarity for the Tekken franchise -- he’s got projectiles.  He can shoot massive fireballs from his mouth-belly.  Massive, unblockable fireballs…and he can shoot them rapidly, and can zap away half of your health in about a second.  Tekken 5 used to be my jam, but pretty much the only time I went toe-to-toe with the big boss was with said boss’ son, Heihachi -- who I’m pretty sure is high enough on the tier list to shut down most challengers.

That said, Jinpachi has one massive, glaring weakness.  I don’t know if it’s because of his hitboxes or because of his AI, but as it turns out you don’t need to use a single combo against this guy.  All you have to do is the jumping kick that’s universal among the cast -- i.e. up-forward + Circle -- over and over again.  That’s it.  Jinpachi has absolutely no defense against it; he’ll take the hit pretty much every time and fall to the ground.  And once he gets up, he’ll leave himself wide open for another jump kick.  Lather, rinse, repeat; he won’t even get the chance to shoot a fireball as long as you’re exploiting your way to victory.

The answer lies in the heart of hilariously cheap tactics.  Otherwise…

Get ready for the next boss fight.

8) Sen. Steven Armstrong (Metal Gear Rising)
Okay, that’s enough of the joke bosses.  Time to get legitimate.

Really, any MGR boss could qualify for this list, but in the interest of keeping things fair I have to go with Evil Mike Haggar Senator Armstrong.  It really is the perfect way to cap off a game full of OTT fights -- a true battle between pure brute force and pure hardened skill.  It’s loaded with spectacle, from the arena -- shrouded in the blazing wreckage of a giant mech, for extra manliness -- to the events therein.  Thwarting an attempted elbow drop, cutting down the wreckage that comes your way, dodging earth-shattering moves and furious grapples…and it all comes to a head with Raiden seizing the nanomachine-riddled heart of his greatest foe yet.

A lot of people (myself included) have wondered just where the hell Armstrong was for the rest of the game, but when all’s said and done I’m not complaining about his last-act entrance.  This guy leaves a huge impression on the player, precisely because he comes straight out of nowhere.  I don’t’ need a backstory on this guy, because what’s important is that if I don’t slice him up, he’s going to explode in a burst of manly fervor and incinerate me.  Also, I’d just like to point out that Raiden mimicked my confusion when he asked “How the hell did you get elected?”  To which Armstrong replies, “I don’t write my own speeches.”

Platinum Games, you’re not allowed to be this godlike.  

7) Avion (Shadow of the Colossus)
It almost feels like cheating to pick a boss from a game that is almost nothing but boss fights.  And on the flip side, it feels like a disservice to pick only one boss out of a game that’s almost nothing but boss fights.  And by extension, it feels like an insult to pare down the “games are art” champion to a game that’s almost nothing but boss fights.

But whatever.  I agree with the sentiment that SotC is an artsy game -- or if not that, then at least one of the highest-quality games in terms of concept and execution ever released -- but it’s got enough spectacle to make even the most bloated triple-A title weak in the knees.  In essence you beat every boss by climbing its body and stabbing its weak point, but in practice each colossus fight is different from the last -- a puzzle, a code that the player has to crack.  There’s some real thought in each one, but my vote has to go for Avion.  I can’t think of another boss fight where you survive a tackle from a stone bird the size of a school, then proceed to squirm across its body in mid-flight, twisting in the wind as it does sweet barrel rolls at a hundred miles per hour.

Behold, ART!

Now behold MORE ART!

6) Koloktos (The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword)
Are people still hating on Skyward Sword?  I sure hope they aren’t -- especially if the only reason is because it’s on the Wii.  And that goes double for anyone who hates it because “it’s too kiddie.”  People who think as much strike me as the type who completely missed the intent and the point of the game…and are also a bit on the slow side.  And that’s all I’m going to say about that for now.

Now then.  I’m not going to say that Zelda is exactly the most challenging franchise out there, but to its credit it manages to make each new fight as memorable, if not more so, than the last.  Consider, if you will, Koloktos -- a six-armed mechanical warrior fused to the floor and empowered by a corruption-laden heart.  Its crushing blows are enough to pose a threat to unsuspecting players, but even those who keep their wits about them end up finding out that it’s not going to take a beating lying down.  So once you get in a few hits, it tears itself out of the floor and does its best Sengoku Basara impression by brandishing six swords the size of rhinos, all to the sound of some truly fantastic music.

And all that sets aside how you continue your offense.  You thought the Buster Sword was something else?  Close your mouth, son.

And now it's time to go old-school.

5) The Beastector (Mischief Makers)
Modern gaming may give a lot of people -- myself included -- the blues, but at least we can all take solace in knowing that there’ll always be a gargantuan library of quality titles for us to tap whenever we’re feeling sufficiently wronged.  That’s very true of the Treasure title Mischief Makers, a game which I have no idea why it’s taken so long for me to mention it on this blog.

Anyway, you play as a robot girl out to save her creator from an evil empire on an alien planet, and along the way you have scuffles with Lunar, Tarus, and Merco, a trio of beast-men better known as The Beastector.  (Get it?  They’re beasts, and they protect justice -- or at least their version of it.)  But you beat each of them in turn, first while they’re on the ground, and then when they have their personal machines on-hand.  And when that doesn’t work, they all come at you at once by combining their machines into a giant robot.  So it’s up to you to grab their Gundam’s legs and slam it against the ground, dash away from their chest laser, deflect their laser shots with your bare robot hands, and throw their rocket punch right back at them.

 …Why the hell haven’t I done a post on this game? 

4) Riku (Kingdom Hearts)
Pour one out for what was once a simple and clean franchise -- because we’re never going to get a fight like this one again.

Setting aside the fact that it’s the grudge match set up since the very beginning of the game, and it’s the culmination of all your struggles in Hollow Bastion (and the story at large) up to that point, it really is a fight that puts the “action” in action RPG while understanding just what the hell that means.  It is NOT just going boosh-boosh-boosh a thousand hits and particle effects; nor is it about making everything over the top at the cost of the game’s tone and credibility.  It’s about the purity of the fight -- the nature of it, and all the particulars that go into it besides a berserk offense.

This boss fight does exactly what a boss fight should.  It’s testing your skills, and making sure you’ve got the know-how to proceed to what lies beyond it.  You have to have learned how to defend yourself, from blocking and parrying to the UNBELIEVABLY vital Dodge Roll.  You have to have learned how to survive, and what magic spells you need to use and when to give yourself a slight advantage.  You have to have learned how to prepare yourself beforehand, building a setup that suits your style, needs, and the battle ahead.  And then, once you have all that, you have to have learned how to read your opponent -- to know his attack patterns and react accordingly.  It’s a straight-up fight with straight-up gameplay, and no amount of pizzazz will ever top that.

Has Kingdom Hearts peaked as a series?  We won’t know for a while yet -- but right now, this boss fight is saying plenty. 

3) Junpei and Koromaru (Persona 3: FES)
I’d like to think that at least one in three stories requires at least two main characters to duke it out at one point to settle their differences.  And while the circumstances are a little extreme -- and some would probably prefer that they didn’t happen at all -- I have to say that the fight against fellow Persona users Junpei and Koromaru definitely left a mark on me…for more reasons than one.

In a nutshell, the main cast has an argument about whether or not it’s their place to mess with the timeline to revive a fallen friend, especially when doing so could cause some real harm in the long run, or even if it’s worth it to get their hands dirty.  It’s an issue that tears the eight-man team into four teams of two, and the only way to decide what ends up being done is to slug it out with their Stands Personas.  But Junpei and the team dog -- yeah, the dog fights, too -- don’t really want the argument to go on in the first place, let alone think anyone’s making the right choice.  Despite their protests, they end up getting dragged into the fight too, and end up having to fight just to bring some peace to the group that’s literally survived the end of the world together.

It’s a painful fight -- one that was all the more painful for me because A) Junpei was one of my favorite characters in that game, B) the music really sells it, and C) my partner for that fight was cripplingly under-leveled (maybe about FORTY LEVELS BEHIND) forcing me to grind for days to get her up to speed against an enemy that could still slaughter me even if I was at my best.  

If only I could have spammed jump kicks…

2) Egg Nega-Wisp (Sonic Colors)
I don’t know about you guys, but if you ever needed proof that it’s safe to play a 3D Sonic game, Colors is more than happy to offer it.  Then again, everyone seems convinced that Lost World is terrible, so…I dunno, two steps forward, one step back?

Well, whatever the case, a boss battle like this understands the premise of Sonic without forcing him into any half-baked conventions.  Sonic is all about controlled movement, be it through speed, agility, or momentum; it’d be a disservice to cram him into an arena with a slow-moving and cheap-shooting boss (insert Sonic ’06 joke here), and thankfully the end boss of Colors handles himself fairly well.  He’ll throw out dark versions of the abilities you’ve been using through the entire game, hoping to have the blue blur slaughtered in an instant.  Eggman being Eggman, it doesn’t work.

But what really kicks this boss fight into a hall of fame slot is its progression.  It starts out as a grave battle in space against your deadliest foe yet, leaving you all alone and struggling to hold on to hope.  Keep attacking, though, and the odds will shift further and further in your favor.  You’ll free some of your alien friends.  Eggman’s latest machine will start to smoke.  The music switches to a track that screams triumph.  And of course, there’s the game-winning attack.  As a wise commercial once said, “taste the rainbow.”

Side note: the announcer who says the names of the Wisps in the Japanese version is the same person who calls out the names of the Gaia Memories in Kamen Rider W.  It just gets better and better... 

1) Vergil (Devil May Cry 3)
Let’s have a round of applause for DmC, because it made nearly everything that came before it look that much better.

But even if that game had never slithered into being from the dark depths, that wouldn’t change who gets top honors.  The first Vergil battle is, and for a long time will be, my number one favorite boss battle.  And the only thing that could rival it is one of the other two battles later in the game.  Seriously, this fight has everything -- an awesome arena, overlooking a city under demonic siege.  An unforgettable song, befitting a battle with an unforgettable rival.  An enemy that can and will obliterate you if you aren’t careful, or think you can cheese your way to victory.  A showdown that only serves to highlight just how airtight the combat system is, and how top-notch the game is overall. 

The fight ends with Dante getting floored despite your best efforts -- because Vergil actually has the sense to double-tap with a sword -- but it feels like more of an inevitable conclusion rather than a “you may have ruined the boss’ day, but you still lose in the cutscene” sort of situation.  At the end of the day, Vergil is better than you.  He has something worth fighting for, however twisted.  And unless you bring something more to the next fight, you’re going to lose more than just a few gallons of blood.  

And there you have it, folks.  Ten awesome boss battles, all wrapped up in a bow.  Agree with the list?  Disagree?  Have your own favorites?  Then go eat some cinnamon buns, because those are pretty tasty.  And then come back and share your thoughts in the comments.

As for me?  Well, I don’t know.  Maybe I should hook up that N64…


  1. Very nice picks. You have a few from games I haven't played or have yet to get too. Marina gets extra cool points for picking up a huge mech, saying "Shake! Shake!" and slamming that sucker down. Even better, she catches the missiles launched at her and hurls them back! This girl is getting a spot on my list of fav gaming females whenever I come up with the next one.

    I've heard so many people whine about Sonic Colors having a final boss that was too easy. OK, so he really isn't hard to beat, but I had a blast taking him down. The two phases of music that plays as the battle shifts in Sonic's favor is also a nice touch.

  2. I hear you on Sonic Colors. The fact that there even are two phases of music -- the second of which catapults into the realm of godliness -- is worth celebrating in its own right. And while the fight itself may not be hard per se, I can't think of a better way to send off THE game that proves Sonic can work in 3D.

    The Cerberus Alpha boss fight just barely missed this list, though (beating a heavily-armed transforming motorcycle while riding a talking cat? Brilliance). Actually, the same could be said for a few other fights; I was tempted to put the first Darkside Heartless fight from Kingdom Hearts on the list, because it really did set the tone in a big way. And Armstrong JUST edged out Sundowner from Metal Gear Rising, if only because "Red Sun" is such an awesome song. Especially the instrumental version.

    I would say more, but YouTube beckons.