Chris' Top Ten Boss Fights of All Time

I decided to make this page because of the timeless underdog storyline that never seems to get old in all forms of media. The classic formula is to have a buildup, a climax, and a resolution. In the best of video games, it's no different.

A good way to establish a climax is to create a situation where the protaganist fights a much more powerful foe, often with an element of desperation or alacrity. For this reason, boss fights are never considered a cliche--they are a necessary staple for games that involve a battle of some sort.

Unfortunately, many game designers don't think that far ahead when it comes to designing boss enemies, which makes most of them quite forgettable. Anything is fair game to establish the boss fight as epic: buildup of story, boss character development, difficulty and length of fight, surprise and "wow" factors, shock value, humor, attractiveness (colorful, light-filled, extremely ugly, etc).

And don't forget the most important factor: intimidation. Why does the protagonist need to fight the boss? Does the boss evoke hatred? It should. That's the key to making any fight memorable: the gamer must feel a need to get to the climax and deliver the resolution.


My Criteria

  1. Boss fight must be memorable. You should be able to think back to that boss and say, "Oh yeah, I remember that one!"
  2. Boss fight must demand a lot of user concentration. If it isn't intense, it isn't good.
  3. The boss should be reasonably well-known to the public (not obscure). It's hard to assess exactly how many people have seen each boss mentioned, but maximum exposure definitely factors into my picks. Also for this reason, earlier bosses in gameplay chronology are sometimes favored over later ones, since gamers are less likely to get to later, harder bosses. Appearances of a boss in a demo or attract mode also increase exposure.
  4. Boss cannot be beaten easily. This is pretty straightforward: if the boss can be defeated with only a few shots with one very powerful weapon, it's not much of a fight.
  5. It is not necessary for a boss to be the final boss of the game or even the level. The extent of a character's difficulty and prominence at a point in the game determines whether it qualifies as a boss. Even if the character is not a de-facto "end-of-level" boss, it can qualify if it significantly shapes a person's memory of a game.

I limit my picks to those games I've played (and those bosses I've been able to actually defeat). Due to my preferences, there are a lot of classics in this list. This is not to say phooey on the more modern games with better graphics, animation, sound, and programmatic flexibility. I try to span the entire range of gaming history, allowing for the standards of the time period to determine people's impressions of the boss fight.


The Top 10

#10: Nightmare: Kirby's Adventure

The two forms of Nightmare in Kirby's Adventure are a ball of malevolent energy, and a vampire-like monster. There are many interesting bosses Kirby must face, but the awesome nature of the final boss, the intense music in the background, and the remarkably varied selection of attack modes make Nightmare one for the books.

Everyone expects a boss battle to be difficult, but if a boss seems to have an impossibly deep bag of tricks to use against you, it actually makes the gamer feel afraid. HAL did a terrific job putting together these complex and deadly bosses, and the final battle does not disappoint.

That a Kirby game made the top 10 is something I admit with the utmost pain--I personally HATE little pink amorphous blob-like characters. Makes me want to retch. But a good boss is a good boss.


#9: Tentacle Boss: Half-Life

There are a lot of memorable bosses in Half-Life. This is the first one you encounter, and I think it's one of the hardest because Gordon Freeman has to run a decathlon if he wants to triumph.

The tentacles can't be killed by shooting them with ordinary weapons. You need to fire up the truly enormous gun in the chamber to kill it...which means running all over the place, activating various components, and encountering unique dangers in the process.

The dangers include collapsing catwalks, dangerous enemies, a giant ventillation fan, radioactive wastes, and of course the tentacles themselves. To get past the tentacles, you need to employ cunning, stealth, coordination, and firepower. This boss battle is truly a test of your gaming intelligence.


#8: Chaingun Soldier: Operation Wolf

Some people might object to my selection of this character as a boss. My reasoning is simple: Operation Wolf is a very difficult, suspenseful game in its own right, so any character that invokes your ire on top of all that shooting action is one to remember.

The blond-haired super soldier has a bulletproof vest, making him difficult to damage unless you use explosives or shoot him in the head. In this respect, he's one of the first very memorable enemies to have a critical vulnerability that the game player must bear in mind. Even though he appears more than once, he inspires dread every time he appears on the screen. Good enough to qualify as a boss in my book!

But I can't just stop there. Taito actually DID make a boss character out of him in sequels to Operation Wolf. And I strongly suspect that this chaingun soldier inspired other intimidating game characters in Apogee titles, particularly Hans Grosse and Duke Nukem.


#7: Chthon: Quake

Quake is a game much inspired by the work of H.P. Lovecraft. The demons are truly monstrous, truly scary. The already spooky fiends and shamblers you faced leading up to the Episode I boss don't prepare you for this fellow.

Chthon rises out of the lava the moment you collect your prize, two storeys tall and mad beyond comprehension. Then begins a half-scary, half-comical suspense of your character trying to solve a dodge-the-fireballs obstacle course, running around trying desperately to electrocute this monster into oblivion. The fact that Chthon can't be killed with ordinary weapons is important, but it's the nonstop running you have to do in the fight itself that makes the battle truly epic.

I have no idea why id Software did not make more substantial use of this character or other characters like it in its later titles. This is a disgusting, intimidating abomination without a face, which you really WANT to kill. Remember that formula!


#6: Dracula: Castlevania

Let's see...a boss character modeled after a successful horror-flick movie character...who was modeled after a vile character in Bram Stoker's Dracula...who was modeled after the real-life Vlad Dracula Tepes, the ancient Romanian prince with an incredible reputation for brutality and vivisection.

That just sets the stage. The actual boss is very tough, and very memorable. Huge, teleporting, projectiles hard to dodge, big surprise factor when he teleports right on top of you, hard to kill. Beating him is a true endurance test, and appropriate for a final boss in an arcade hit.

But all of this pales in comparison to the gargoyle transformation that occurs after you've beaten Dracula's first form. This is one of the first "Aw, come on!!" moments gamers would have experienced in a boss fight, when you think you've won, but in fact the fight is just beginning.


#5: Catalina: Grand Theft Auto III

This was the main character's nemesis throughout the entire story. Although her appearances are few, every time she does appear (in person or in a message), she spells way more trouble than anyone could ever suspect!

Catalina shoots her friends, drugs innocents to attack you with suicide bombs, kills rival dons without a thought, and reneges on virtually every statement she makes. It wouldn't do to call her a bitch--she's a genuine queen bee. To make her vile status even viler, Catalina's voice actress (Cynthia Farrell) speaks in one of the most memorably condescending tones I've ever heard a female villain use.

So there you have it. She's dangerous, unpredictable, flippant, and capable of burning you if you're within 50 feet of her, physically and metaphorically.



#4: Mr. Big: NARC

Williams broke ground with NARC in the arcades because it had a 32-bit engine. And one of the nice things you can do with a 32-bit engine is easily support detailed image sprites, which means photorealistic blood and gore. Most characters in the game are photograph quality, and given that the resolution (512x384) was quite high for 1988, any boss with such technology is sure to be a hit.

But Mr. Big transcends technological leaps. A Frankenstein-like giant head without a body, he certainly lives up to his reputation. Knocks you back with a touch, seemingly impossible to kill, every blow you land on him just seems to make him even stronger. And then he explodes into a bloody mess, revealing a Nightmare on Elm Street-style Halloween monstrosity.

A disembodied spinal column with a skull that jerkingly drags the rest of the life-support system around? That nails every element of horror straight to the wall! Suspenseful danger, comedy, and plain gross-out, all rolled into one nightmare of a boss. A nightmare which, incredibly, continues to indirectly attack you with insects flying out of its skull even after it is killed!

Even though the 1980s were known for their right-wing censorship nuts, these nuts didn't truly wake up to the violence level in video games until the mid-1990s. By then, it was too late. Gorefests would become the norm in boss battles after this abattoir of a game!


#3: The Cyberdemon: DOOM

id Software gave us only three boss characters in the original DOOM: Barons of Hell (twin bosses), the Cyberdemon, and the Spider Mastermind. Even though the Cyberdemon is not the final boss, he's the most memorable because of the context in which the fight occurs.

The Cyberdemon is the strongest character in the game. He takes the most hits, and he dishes out lethal rockets that force the gamer to dodge constantly while firing back. Since FPS games were relatively new back in the early 90s, it didn't come second nature to most gamers how to effectively dodge projectiles in 3-D, which made the challenge all the more difficult.

Compared to today's bosses, the Cyberdemon fight from the original DOOM game, Episode II, actually borders on boring. But some context is needed. Back then, there was only one 3-D boss of this type and difficulty. Furthermore, the countless mission packs for DOOM ended up changing the dynamic of the battle significantly, introducing more enemies with strategic placements, limits to your mobility or the Cyberdemon's mobility, and making weapons and armor a lot more difficult to find and use. If it's a simple chorus with lots and lots of codas, it still works very well.

The physical size and shuddering gait of the character guaranteed that it would return in all the subsequent DOOM games. Face it, hornhead: you're a star!


#2: Bowser: Super Mario Bros.

At first, Bowser was just "that fire-breathing dragon you have to get past to save the princess." Even though you face him (or his decoys) lots of times in the game, he is memorable for a number of reasons. Big, intimidating (he didn't have to be grinning, you know), tough, and colorful. He looks like an evil guardian and acts the role.

Killing Bowser in this game is far easier than in most other games he appears in. But there's a reason his character was reused so much by Nintendo--despite the limited graphics and programming, Bowser had the potential, right from the beginning, to become one of the most dreaded gaming supervillains of all time. Is cute-looking Donkey Kong anywhere near as intimidating?



And now to #1...

Phoenix Mothership: Phoenix

Why is this pixelated sucker ranked #1? Because it could well be the first boss battle EVER FOUGHT! Phoenix was Taito's next big space shooter title after Space Invaders, and the slowly-descending mothership on Stage 5 has become almost iconic in how bosses are supposed to be represented in games today: big, intimidating, hard to kill, colorful, and, of course, MEMORABLE.

By today's standards, the Phoenix Mothership is not very difficult to beat. But in 1980, having to shoot through a double layer of rotating barrier was arguably one of the first "oh, crap!" moments gamers would have ever experienced!


Honorable Mentions

I considered the following boss fights to be very good, but for whatever reason, I didn't think them epic enough to make the top 10 list.

39th Slayer: Deadly Rooms of Death 2: Journey to Rooted Hold

DRoD is a very difficult but fascinating series of puzzle games. Because it came out much later in gaming history, plus the fact that no console ports exist, it is not as well known as other games. So no top 10.

Which is too bad, because 39th Slayer is a very well-developed nemesis. Matching your fencing talents exactly, you have no choice but to let him chase you further and further into the dungeons. His mad skills with a sharpened cane, his trademark evil voice, and his incessant taunting make him the best villain of the series.

He's not all bad, though: his vile nature borders on absurdity, and his persistence causes him to make comical mistakes in your favor. Like most good villains, you don't want to see him beaten until you absolutely have to beat him.


Apocalypse: X-Men vs. Street Fighter and related games

The "Street Fighter vs." titles and spin-offs have gotten quite numerous. Many of these games feature a giant boss that fights your SF-style character. With each new game, Capcom has made a boss character that is that much harder and deadlier.

Apocalypse is menacing, but not deadly unless you have no idea what he's capable of doing. Onslaught, a related boss, is decidedly deadlier, with two forms and heavier attacks. Abyss tops out with three forms and a plethora of attack modes.

The fights against enormous foes are epic, comic-book-like, and they are surefire crowd-gatherers in arcades, but they seem to jumble together after a while, with many similarities in the attacks across each boss. Perhaps if such patterns hadn't been subject to syndication, a single "big boss" might have been more deserving of a top 10 title.



Bald Bull: Punchout series of games

Even though Bald Bull is not the hardest character in any of the numerous versions of the Punchout series of games, he's the most memorable. "Bald Bull" has great consonance, making his name catchy. Sure enough, he's bald, and that's supposedly one of the reasons he's so mean (his barber "didn't know when to quit"). This backstory and other nuances about his boxing style (bull charge, etc.) make for a great villain. Not surprisingly, he's in virtually all of the Punchout games.



Dr. Breen: Half-Life 2

The final sequence where Gordon Freeman tries to ascend the Citadel portal reactor, dodging gunfire and hoping to dismantle the reactor altogether, is quite suspenseful. No classic "big boss" characters you need to shoot at per se, although your complex and charismatic nemesis, Dr. Breen, is in a protective bubble ready to teleport away, killing you in the process. He's been such a jerk up to this point that you'll want him dead even though he only actually "shot" at you once.

The intense nature of the interactive story up to this point is what makes this climax epic. You have to use every skill you've learned throughout the game, as well as improvise a few new ones, all within a short period of time. But...as bosses go, fewer people are likely to play this part. So no top 10.


Bob Page: Deus Ex

Like Dr. Breen, Bob Page is not one to directly engage you, and you'll need to find a creative way to deal with him (there are three different endings, depending on which way you choose). Bob Page commands turrets to fire at you and directs special actor-spawning devices to manufacture monsters and robots to attack you.

It's really Bob Page's character that makes him memorable. His evil nature is apparent midway through the game, and it only gets more corrupt over time, turning him into one of the most loathsome villains in any video game, ever! He tops his endeavors off with an over-the-top megalomaniac personality, one that pre-dates Syndrome from The Incredibles. You will want him dealt with--believe me.


Bowser: Mario 64

Yes, Bowser did make the top 10, but not for this game. The wonder of small Mario twirling Bowser around by his tail is memorable, but most people agree that the battle is far from difficult.

If I'd remember anything about this boss fight, it's that the unexpected often happens to the terrain, which directly impacts gameplay. Admit it--did you expect, in the Fire Sea level, for Bowser's jump to tilt the entire platform at a 45-degree angle, causing you to slip? That's creativity.


Claw Arm Boss: Heavy Barrel

Not the final boss. Not even close. But one most people remember. The claw is pretty simple: it moves back and forth on a track, and periodically tries to grab something in front (which kills you).

This Data East creation was quite popular. Heavy Barrel is well-known, but most of its bosses are not. Could it be because everyone expects a tank to shoot bullets and rockets, but almost no one expects it to grab you? Seems like it might be an oversimplification, but it does make a difference. To put things in perspective, Tiger ended up including claw arm bosses in its handheld version of Heavy Barrel.



The Commander: Thunder Fox

One of the many bosses that just never seems to die. With characteristic megalomania, he casually waits from his elevated chair while an attached turret menaces you. Then, he fires bazooka rounds at you. Then, he attacks using all manner of martial arts and spikes attached to his arms.

Difficult, intimidating arcade boss with lots of potential...but not as well known as others, and a poorly developed character. I would have loved to see him have more personality.


Damnd: Final Fight

AKA Thrasher in the game's home version. Yet another boss whose actual fighting characteristics are outweighed by his personal ones. In the arcade attract mode, he establishes himself as a supervillain right to Haggar's face, and then acts evil, arrogant and cocky throughout the rest of the time you see him.

Yeah, he's the first boss, and far from the hardest, but he's got a well-developed character. He's a good villain because you want to kick his ass. Bad.



The Gatekeeper: DOOM II

Even if you don't know about "The Man Behind the Mask" in this case, who is John Romero, the boss is still very awesome. You must fire three rockets into the deformed goat-head's exposed brain, all the while dodging a large number of demons that the Gatekeeper constantly spawns and sends in your direction.

This is a far more challenging fight than the one with the Cyberdemon. Yet it didn't make the top 10, because fewer people have played it. The non-intuitive means of destroying the gatekeeper, though, make it worthy of an honorable mention.


Giant: Kung-Fu Master

What makes this guy fun is that he's based on a real person--Kareem Abdul-Jabbar--from Bruce Lee's Game of Death. Although the giant on Floor 3 of the Devil's Temple appears without the shades and Jabbar's cool attitude, his size, grin, and powerful attacks are intimidating enough. Like all the bosses in Kung-Fu Master, though, the fight lasts only a few seconds. Not that epic.



Golem: Life Force

The first boss of Life Force, AKA Salamander, is a brain with a staring eye and two twisted, menacing arms, which try to grab at your spaceship. It looks disgusting and evil, and you'll want it killed. Even thought the boss is not that difficult, the boss battle feels like it should be epic. And sure enough, Golem did reappear in Life Force's arcade sequel.

I should note that the boss music, along with the slow disintegration of the background during the brain's appearance, inspires a sense of dread. This is very important in a boss fight--if the boss means trouble, make the gamer feel like he or she is in a lot of it!


Heinrich I: Return to Castle Wolfenstein

Great, great boss battle, but not as many people have played this to completion, so I can't rank it up in the top 10. Heinrich has many attack modes, including the ability to resurrect dead knights and summon powerful spirits against you. His armor is shockingly thick, making it almost impossible to kill him with any one weapon (you'll have to burn through multiple weapons).

The great thing about this battle is that you don't know, at first, if winning is even possible, thanks to the storyline that plants the seeds of doubt right at the beginning.

You end up getting so focused in this battle that you often fail to monitor your peripheral vision--and peripheral vision is very important, given the horrors around you. This battle will send your heart racing.



Mech Skull: Captain America and the Avengers (Arcade)

Data East has made many sensational arcade games, and this one stands apart from many of the other beat-em-ups. The final boss (Red Skull) is one of those many bosses who tricks you into thinking he's really easy. Mech Skull defies the Law of Conservation of Matter when he grows to more than twice his original size, into a "robot" version of a skinless muscle-bound bimbo.

Mech Skull has...how many attack modes? At least seven. Keeping with the comic-book nature of the game, most of these attacks are over-the-top, like the spinning machine gun attack.

The boss is hard to beat, having a lot of power. The sensationalism and humor are important, too. But the fight has one subtle problem--all the boss fights in this game have the same problem. Data East put in a strange algorithm that prevents a final attack from finishing the boss if the attack would ordinarily take away the rest of the power meter. Instead, each attack at low power causes the power to be reduced by HALF, meaning you can't kill the boss until the power meter has "halved" itself repeatedly to a size of 1 pixel!

Some people might find the above power meter quirk cute, but I find it really annoying. Just spell out how much power he has, already!


Nihilanth: Half-Life

The final boss of Half-Life is seemingly impervious to your shots, and has the ability to heal himself. You have to plan carefully how to beat such a large and dangerous entity. Hiding, aiming, and strategizing are critical to winning.

And once you've knocked out the crystals, then what? It is not intuitive what you must do, but once you figure it out, you'll feel like you've just done the impossible. Especially when Nihilanth goes through one of the most awesome lightshows of self-destruction in video game history!



The Skaarj Queen: Unreal

This giant, suspenseful boss teleports around you, fires huge numbers of projectiles at you, rushes at you and leaps long distances to crush you, can shield herself, and can shake the ground. Oh, and she takes a million hits to kill.

Sounds like a good formula for a final boss. But why didn't she make the top 10? I'd say it's because Unreal is a VERY long game to complete, making it unlikely most gamers have gotten to her. But this battle is made more epic by one very important, small detail: the musical track played during the battle is one of the most suspenseful you'll hear from Alexander Brandon's repertory, on par with one you'd encounter in a thriller movie.

I should note that Brandon's intense, percussion-backed musical tracks would become a staple of all future games that used the Unreal engine (and employed Brandon). Sure enough, Unreal set the stage for boss fights having superb musical tracks.


Super Soldier (Sgt. Allen O'Neil): Metal Slug series

Ah, Metal Slug...SNK now injects humor full-time, instead of part-time with previous titles. The Super Soldier is a tough boss in the classic "Contra-style" sense. He doesn't have a lot of attack modes, but he never stops attacking you, which is the point. He also tosses out tons of one-liners, even when he's killed. Doesn't matter if the villain is corny or campy--that works in video games.


The Tractor: Contra

Not the hardest boss, and not even a proper boss to some. But the tractor is a nice big hulk of trouble that you absolutely must get rid of--kill or be killed. It shoots at you, it's big, it's ugly, it runs you over, it makes you panic, and it inspires extreme hatred. Good attributes for a boss.



The Wizard of Yendor: Nethack

I swear I'm not kidding around when I mention this one. Nethack is an ever-expanding game that seemingly grows harder every year because the development team can't stand for any part of it to be easy. For this reason, the appeal is limited among more mainstream gamers, so I won't put this on the top 10 despite the fact that Nethack is a well-known classic.

The Wizard of Yendor is normally represented as a text character "@" along with other humans, per the standard mechanism for displaying characters in Nethack, which has a text-mode legacy display system. So, he's not going to be menacing in a visual sense. But he IS menacing...every other way.

Text messages are very important to Nethack, since the iconic representation of all the backgrounds, items, and characters is not sufficient to characterize more detailed, low-level events. Much of the "world" of Nethack is generated by one's imagination. This is how the Wizard of Yendor comes into being as a classic boss enemy. Numerous warnings throughout the game and documentation tell you he's someone you don't want to mess with, and when you finally do, he pulls out all the stops.

If you use your imagination, you'll get this impression: The Wizard of Yendor is an egotistical, snarky individual with seemingly endless power, tricks, and one-liners. He teleports around you, makes himself invisible, clones himself, spawns massive numbers of monsters around you, and uses "the touch of death." All while cackling, mocking you and your mom, and even pilfering your possessions.

And he never dies! Each time you kill him, he waits a while and then reappears, a little stronger each time! Given that he often reappears at some of the most inconvenient times during your dungeoneering, this makes the game seem almost like a carnival of misplaced and nonsensical vendettas, giving a dark but very silly atmosphere to the whole experience, especially the endgame portion.


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