When we think about the boss fights in video games that are some of the most memorable, we often think of those that feel like an extension of the game itself. Whether due to their innovative gameplay mechanics, storytelling elements, or simply just because they look and feel amazing to play against, the best boss fights allow players a chance to unleash the full arsenal of skills, tricks, and tools they’ve learned and gathered in the game prior to starting the fight itself.
Although, sometimes a player will begin a boss fight only to realize once it begins that it feels or plays drastically differently than the rest of the game itself. This is not to say that the boss fight or game in question is bad, but it can be startling (to say the least) when players expect a full-out action-packed brawl only to be met with a rhythm minigame, a series of quick-time events (QTEs), or a competition where stealth is the winning factor.
In this week’s list, I’ll be diving into my pick for 5 video game boss fights that—for better or worse—felt or played completely differently than the rest of the game itself. As a warning, bear in mind that this post contains several spoilers for a number of games. Keep reading to see which games (and fights) were chosen!
1. Killer Croc — Batman: Arkham Asylum
Rocksteady’s 2009 title Batman: Arkham Asylum (“Asylum”) has arguably done more to revitalize the Caped Crusader’s franchise than Christopher Nolan’s famed “Dark Knight” film trilogy. In Asylum, players don the mantle of Gotham’s famed superhero-by-night to stop Joker’s sinister plot to unleash his killer toxin over the innocents of the city, using every tool, skill, and fighting combo at their disposal to do so.
What the game rarely requires players to do is to slam the “stop” button on the action and opt for a less conspicuous and more stealth-driven approach when problems arise that can’t simply be beaten into submission. One of the game’s many antagonistic villains, Killer Croc, is one of those problems.
Upon delving into the sewer system underneath Arkham, players are immediately put on edge with tension as they’re forced to quietly, carefully trek their way across a series of floating wooden platforms. Walk or run too fast? Croc hears you and attacks. Take too long in one place? Croc hears and attacks you. You get the idea. To make matters worse, the entire encounter lasts even longer due to the player’s inability to run or zipline their way out of danger. When Killer Croc appears—and he will appear multiple times—the only hope players have to save Batman is to hit his shock collar with a well-timed batarang and send him sprawling back into the filthy sewer water below, then wash, rinse, and repeat this process ad nauseam until Batman manages to finally escape.
2. The Other Player — A Way Out
Video game studio Hazelight seems to have their co-op play formula down to a science. Between the successes of their titles like It Takes Two or Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons, Hazelight has practically perfected their narrative storytelling in a two-player element; a perfection that carried through to their 2018 action-adventure title, A Way Out (AWO).
In AWO, two players take control of the game’s two protagonists, Leo and Vincent, as they attempt to break their way out of prison through stealth, minigames, and narrative momentum in a true split-screen experience. The game possesses little in the way of direct combat, which is one factor that made the game’s final encounter even more gut-churning.
In a stunning twist of events, AWO’s final encounter pits each player against the other. As it turns out, the entire game prior to this was an unspoken competition, one that ultimately forces friend to turn against friend in a 1v1 battle to see who will truly find their way out. Just don’t play this game with your partner or roommate, or chances are that you’ll never hear the end of their inevitable virtual betrayal.
3. Giygas — Earthbound
Released for the SNES console in 1994, Earthbound (or Mother 2, as it was titled in Japan) is an often-overlooked albeit adorable RPG that chronicles the adventures of a 13-year-old boy named Ness as he and his friends travel the world to collect eight different melodies in order to save the future of their world from an evil alien entity seeking to cast reality itself into horrific, eternal darkness.
That entity is Giygas, who appears only once at the game’s conclusion as a sadistic, miasmic void of howling black and red energy. For first-time Earthbound players, the fight almost immediately feels impossible to win, as Giygas seems to not only absorb all damage your party unleashes on him, but relishes in it. The moves, skills, and techniques used to overcome enemies and bosses alike prior to Giygas are made all but irrelevant, and one by one your party members succumb to Giygas’s evil presence.
Until, that is, your party realizes—fully in-game, mind you—that their only hope to defeat Giygas is to pray for safety. Literally. Once Giygas reaches his final form, players have to pray nine times. Each prayer reaches the ears of other characters that players encounter throughout the game until, eventually, like Goku calling upon the universe’s energy to power up his Spirit Bomb, Giygas is undone by the power of hope and good. It’s a completely out-of-place mechanic compared to the rest of Earthbound, but still a very, very cool one that has yet to be properly mimicked in the 25+ years since the game’s release.
4. Ares — God of War (2005)
Santa Monica Studio’s 2005 hit action-adventure title was an anomaly for its time. On one hand, its gameplay felt extremely reminiscent of prior hack-and-slash action titles. On the other hand, it helped the entire video game industry reimagine the potential for new mechanics with the introduction of QTEs. The game’s narrative blend of original characters and stories, coupled with many of those found throughout Greek Mythology, provided a truly unique experience for players seeking to undo the Olympian god of war Ares.
Initially, the final encounter against Ares begins like most others in the game do: fighting off hordes of enemies. That is, until the game’s protagonist, Kratos, is enlarged by the goddess Athena to match Ares’ own monumental physical size and gifted an equally sizable weapon to fight him with.
This fight made my list because, in its second half, Kratos’ and Ares’ respective health pools completely disappear. Instead, a new health bar appears at the top of the screen, showing the two combatants as now sharing one joined health pool. Doing more damage to Ares restores more health to Kratos, and vis-versa, until ultimately, one of the two falls, crowning the other as the winner and new official god of war.
5. Sauron — Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor
When Shadow of Mordor (SoM) was released in 2014, the first noticeable innovation it brought was the introduction of the game’s Nemesis System. This innovation allowed players to “track” the orcish leaders (dubbed Uruks) they encountered throughout the game and either dominate those defeated to work for the player’s main character, Talion, or name those that defeat the player as their designated “nemesis.” By dominating more Uruks, players are able to commandeer a portion of the armies of Sauron, the dark lord of Mordor, and have them instead fight for Talion’s cause in the fight against Sauron.
Upon reaching the climactic battle with Sauron, however, it becomes immediately clear to players that the intricacies of the game’s Nemesis System didn’t matter much at all. Rather than allowing players to launch an all-out assault on Mordor, pitting army against army, the fight with Sauron essentially boils down to nothing more than a disappointing series of QTEs and button-mashing prompts.
Not only do the mechanics of this fight go completely against those of the rest of the game, but there was even a fight prior to the final encounter that did force players to rely on their knowledge and use of the Nemesis System to beat. Even if players had been forced to utilize the same mechanics against Sauron, it would have resulted in a far more epic conclusion to the game’s story, rather than one that only requires players to press a total of five buttons to win, as an added bit of salt in the wound.