Anatomy of a Final Battle

A case study in innovative endgame bosses.

By Joshua A. Johnston. Posted 05/15/2014 09:00 1 Comment     ShareThis

WARNING: This story contains some spoilers regarding endgame bosses, including several Zelda games and a few Final Fantasy titles, including the most recent entries of both franchises. Be warned.

Last week I finished the third game in the Final Fantasy XIII trilogy: Lightning Returns. I have already written on my rather lukewarm feelings regarding the recent RPG-lite direction of the Final Fantasy franchise, but I nevertheless decided to see the series through to its bitter end.

I was not sure what to expect from the game’s final boss, but I am experienced enough in such things to have a pretty good idea. My endgame foe would probably be a horrifically ugly collection of body parts, featuring massive weapons, screen-filling area attacks, and at least one cheap shot that would just about kill me if given the chance. I also expected a two-stage boss that would get significantly more dangerous on the back end.

I was wrong. It was a four-stage boss.

With the many roads that games have traveled over the decades, it still astounds me how absurdly predictable many games are when it comes to their final showdowns. There was perhaps a time when players reacted with genuine shock to see a hideously mammoth monster tower over your brave little warrior… or a time when players cried out in honest surprise when a boss unleashed a screen-shaking ultimate attack… or a time when one snatched up their controllers as the seemingly-defeated boss rose back up and expanded into something even more potent than before.

For me, that time was probably back in the 1990s. Back in the golden age of SNES, developers began upping the ante on bosses, making use of the console’s 16-bit processing power to deploy some truly wicked multilevel godfathers of global destruction: Lavos, Andross, Mother Brain, and so on.

Unfortunately, developers have taken subsequent developments in console power as license to get larger and more explosive with respect to the final battle. The temptation is certainly understandable, but it has also led to a rather mundane pattern in far too many games. In many cases the tension that comes with a difficult boss still endures, but the true awe of seeing that mighty boss loom before me doesn’t have quite the same punch as it did decades ago.

It is an especially sorry testament to the state of development when I struggle to think of bosses that have taken some other form. There aren’t many, and the risk there is that a boss can wind up being anticlimactic after a dogged campaign against the other enemies of the game.

Although I am sure there are perhaps more examples (comments, please!), my exemplar for a boss done in a way that is both unique and satisfying comes from the well-traveled franchise of Zelda. The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker was an innovative game in many ways, and not always without some accompanying controversy: it was ridiculed at the time by some for a cartoonish artistry which reinforced existing stereotypes about GameCube and its young target audience. Critics mostly liked the design, though, and its other unique elements, such as the high-seas setting, have aged well enough to justify a Wii U remaster.

Wind Waker has many memorable moments, but it really reached its peak for me at the end. The Zelda franchise doesn’t shy away from monstrous multi-stage bosses, and I must admit I was expecting something like that when I made my way into Ganon’s tower to face down the series’ ubiquitous antagonist. The game even sets you up that way, with fights against several massive sub-bosses as you near the end.

But the final fight flips the script entirely. There is no grotesque leviathan of destruction, no god-infused flying arbiter of overpowered destruction. Your final foe is a very human Ganondorf, armed with nothing more than a pair of blades. He does not fly and does not use magic attacks of any kind.

To fully appreciate the simplicity of this scenario you have to consider Wind Waker’s combat system, which remains my favorite in the entire series. Simple to learn and difficult to master, Link had an arsenal of attacks, counterattacks, dodges, and other nifty moves, many of them tied to clever use of the analogue stick and GameCube’s giant green A button. Properly controlled, the hero had ninja-fast reflexes combined with the bulwark protection of a shield… and that doesn’t even include the various ways he could daze, disarm, and blow up enemies using the varied equipment picked up along the way. I will concede that the Wii versions of Zelda were their own brand of fun thanks to the Wii Remote’s implementation of motion-enabled swordplay, but there remain actions that Link can do in Wind Waker that just weren’t quite as cool in the later games.

The final battle between Link and Ganondorf is a duel in the purest sense of the word. Although Link receives some assistance from Zelda, much of the fight is a one-on-one clash of blades. The first playthrough for me was unexpectedly difficult; throughout the game you engage in sword battles with others, but Ganondorf’s parries are more impenetrable and his sword more dangerous than any other foe in the game. It was not the most difficult boss I’ve ever faced down as a gamer, but it was one of the most compelling.

Subsequent Zelda games have drawn inspiration from Wind Waker. Twilight Princess had Link squaring off against Gannondorf in several different contexts, while Skyward Sword pitted Link in sword combat against an evil demon lord bearing what is essentially an evil counterpart to the Master Sword. For me, though, both of them just felt like variations on Wind Waker, and while that is not all bad, I still remember with fondness the way Nintendo crafted the beautiful endgame that was the inspiration for that which has come later. I wish more developers gave such thought to the way their games finished stories of good and evil.

One Response to “Anatomy of a Final Battle”

  • 1294 points
    Robert Marrujo says...

    Awesome piece. A lot of folks love Wind Waker’s combat system (myself included), but I have to give it up to Twilight Princess-on GameCube. I think this version gets overshadowed by the Wii iteration, but the use of the GameCube controller meant eschewing any of the tacked-on motion support, and what followed was an even deeper and more intuitive take on WW’s already admirable setup. The Galaxy games are perfect examples of boss battle perfection.

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