The ultimate showdown. The grand finale. The end-all-be-all encounter of the video game you’ve poured hours of personal time into.
Plenty of video games have earned their place in the annals of history for their innovations in gameplay mechanics. Others, still, for their captivating narratives and deeply immersive storytelling. Although, there’s nothing quite like the feeling of having played your way through the entirety of an outstanding game that culminates in an even more outstanding confrontation with its final boss.
While some video game bosses have become icons of industry in their own right in name alone (yes, I’m looking at you, Bowser), those names pale in comparison to the sheer heart-pumping, adrenaline-fueled action that other less-known final bosses have put players through in their game’s final moments.
This week, I’m going to cover my personal picks for the top 5 most epic final boss fights in video games. Keep reading to see which encounters were picked, and why!
5. Baldur – God of War (2018)
Baldur is a particular case for this list, as he’s the only boss on it who is not only the final encounter, but also the first antagonistic enemy encountered by players in Santa Monica Studio’s 2018 masterpiece, God of War.
Whereas the previous installments in the franchise centered heavily around elements, characters, and locations mentioned in Greek Mythology, this eighth installment in the franchise and direct sequel to 2010’s God of War III changed to instead focus more on Norse Mythology, beginning—and ending—with the series’ leading protagonist Kratos facing the nigh-immortal Asgardian son of Norse gods Odin and Freya.
Unlike the game’s first encounter with Baldur, this final fight allows players to utilize the full arsenal of both in-game protagonists (Kratos, and his young son, Atreus) in order to bring the self-admitted broken god to his knees. Players must carefully swap between carefully-timed arrow shots, axe throws, and other tools and attacks to whittle Baldur’s health down bit by agonizing bit, all while the fast-paced fight never breaks stride until, inevitably, Baldur’s immortality is revoked with the help of a mistletoe-tipped arrow, and the once-broken god is finally allowed to experience the relief of his end as a content mortal man.
4. Sephiroth – Final Fantasy VII
There’s a reason why Sephiroth is the most popular villain in Square Enix’s Final Fantasy franchise. At the time of Final Fantasy VII’s (FFVII) initial release on Playstation consoles back in 1997, the game’s sheer size alone was enough to hint at players for the epic journey they were about to experience. Spanning across three separate discs, FFVII’s 40-hour gameplay time was, in the late 1990s, all but unprecedented for a game whose play style mimicked that of more traditional turn-based RPGs.
The game’s third disc alone was entirely dedicated to the in-game character party’s descent deep into an earthen crater to confront Sephiroth in his full self-proclaimed divine glory. The fight itself consists of three separate phases, but it’s the second phase of the final fight that truly marked Sephiroth as one of the most iconic villains in video game history.
Upon transforming into his final form, resembling a biblical angel, Sephiroth descends from the heavens as his aptly named theme “One Winged Angel” hits players with a strike of violin chords followed by the steady beat of drums and a chorus chanting in Latin. Sephiroth’s moveset is just as epic as the fight itself, primarily due to his ultimate attack “Supernova” that triggers a cutscene of a meteor hurtling through the solar system and into the sun, causing an explosion that hits the player’s characters square in the face. Once defeated, the game’s primary protagonist, Cloud Strife, descends even deeper into the crater to end Sephiroth for good, using his own ultimate attack “Omnislash” to do the job in a violent series of attacks.
3. Gwyn – Dark Souls
For a game (as well as its ensuing sequels) famous for its over-the-top difficulty, it’s not surprising that its climactic encounter would be one for the ages—be it the age of fire or darkness, depending on which ending for Dark Souls players choose.
Though only seen once during Dark Souls’ introductory cutscene, both mentions of Gwyn’s name, as well as monuments to his legacy as the Lord of Sunlight, are as frequently encountered as they are ominous. Gwyn, after all, was the leading figure in the lore of Dark Souls who harnessed the power of lightning to wage a genocidal war upon the Ancient Dragons, and the one who discovered the power of Souls to lead his army of gods and knights into the prosperous Age of Fire.
However, some thousand years before the start of the player character’s journey through Dark Souls, Gwyn sacrificed himself to link the First Flame and prolong the Age of Fire for the sake of mankind, becoming a mindless Hollow in the process. This is only realized when players travel to the area of the final encounter with Gwyn, the Kiln of the First Flame, and bear witness to his hollowing firsthand. All around, the Kiln is laid in ruins—overtaken and nearly entirely swallowed by ash. With the Age of Fire now fading, Gwyn’s title also changes upon entering his fight to “Lord of Cinder” rather than the one of Sunlight he once was.
The fight’s musical score is a stark juxtaposition to the battle itself, as well as others in the game and overall series. Instead of a braggadocious symphonic score, a somber dirge of piano keys taps lightly and discordantly as players clash blades with the now-forsaken Lord, and are ultimately forced to decide whether to take Gwyn’s place as kindling for the fading First Flame, or allow it to fade to dying embers and usher in a new age of Dark for humanity.
2. Ganondorf – The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker
The Legend of Zelda just wouldn’t be the same without a final battle between the series’ historic protagonist, Link, and his antithesis, Ganondorf. Or Ganon. Or any one of the Demon King’s numerous forms. With as many names and titles as a leading character in Game of Thrones, Ganondorf is almost always a force to be reckoned with, regardless of which game in the Zelda series players face him in. Following the immense popularity and world-renowned success of its preceding title, Ocarina of Time, its immediate sequel had some big, big shoes to fill. And boy, did it fill them and then some.
Prior to the release of Wind Waker, encounters between Link and the infamous Demon King were always expected, but often felt as if they happened out of necessity to simply conclude the game’s plot. In the case of Wind Waker, however, Ganondorf possesses something he had never shown before and has yet to do to the same extent since: personality.
Instead of riding atop his horse in mounted or ranged combat, this iteration of Ganondorf possesses a flair for the dramatic, swapping between antagonizing monologues and recollections of how his ambition failed him, his dreams, and his people in the past. By the time the final encounter with Ganondorf begins in Wind Waker, the Demon King knows he is once again doomed to fail, responding in kind with wild flips through the air and attacks from his twin swords that would put the most dextrous of fighters to shame.
To end the fight, players (as Link) must use their Light Arrows, but not in a traditional sense. The arrows have to ricochet off a reflective Mirror Shield held by Princess Zelda to avoid Ganondorf swatting them away like a zen master would a fly. After suffering enough hits from the arrows, players are prompted to attack Ganondorf, topping the fight off (quite literally) with a vicious jump attack that brings Link’s Master Sword straight down through the top of Ganondorf’s head as ocean waves consume the ancient land of Hyrule once more. Talk about an epic conclusion!
1. Isshin, the Sword Saint – Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice
While not widely considered an entry in the “Soulsborne” gaming franchise, FromSoftware’s 2018 title Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice (“Sekiro”) is both a masterpiece in its own right as well as a broad jump away from the studio’s traditional gameplay style. Rather than have players focus on the strike-and-dodge tactics and style of their other titles, Sekiro’s combat is more akin to that of a rhythm game, forcing players to get up and close to enemies and time their sword parries perfectly to wear down the opponent’s posture, opening them up for a deathblow strike.
As a result, even the most seasoned of Soulsborne veterans can easily have trouble taking down any one of Sekiro’s many bosses, and the game’s true final encounter is no exception.
Spanning three separate phases (four, if you include the fight’s preceding fight with Isshin’s grandson, Genichiro), Isshin wastes no time immediately showing players how he earned the title of “Sword Saint” or why he is the only one worthy of it. His strikes hit as hard as they do fast, pushing players to the limit through unforgiving combat that only gets continuously more difficult and faster-paced as the fight progresses.
Taking down Isshin requires a lot—and I cannot stress this enough, a lot—of patience and precision along with full mastery over Sekiro’s parry-heavy combat system. As each stage of the fight begins, the environment and music evolve to adopt an even more epic atmosphere as the Sword Saint unleashes his fury on the player.
There’s no easy way around this fight and no true way to “cheese” it either, unlike some other boss encounters in the game. Its payoff only comes through victory. Isshin taunts the player with one-liners, obtains two additional weapons (a spear and a gun; yes, a gun) in the second phase, and imbues his blades with lightning in the third.
For players skilled enough to land 3 deathblows against this final boss, they are rewarded with the opportunity to act as Isshin’s kaishakunin: the traditional swordsman tasked with severing the spinal column of one committing seppuku, or ritualistic suicide, in a final act of honor.