Why are They Called Boss Fights?

Contributed by DJMMT

Looking back at my entire gaming history, there have been so many boss fights. I’m not exactly sure what my first boss fight was, but chances are it was either Bowser (King Koopa for the OGs) in the original Super Mario Bros. on NES or some random giant monster in a flying shooter at the arcade, like Darius. I remember a great many boss fights from over the years. Some of them I really liked fighting, such as the Minotaur in Dark Cloud (2001) and Bob Barbas in DmC: Devil May Cry (2013). Some of them weren’t necessarily fun to fight but were a funny, enjoyable experience all the same. I think back to the countless times that I shot out the leg of the first boss in Star Fox 64 (1997), making the fight, if it can even be called that, an absolute joke. Many of them I didn’t particularly like, but I respected them for challenging me in a way that was fair but difficult. Sadly, I can’t think of any specific examples at this time, but I know they exist. However, for me most boss fights aren’t particularly enjoyable. I know why they exist, and I do believe they’re necessary. But most boss fights today seem unbalanced, uninspired, and often out of place in the games they appear in compared to the rest of the game. That’s how I would sum up basically the entire Dark Souls experience. The boss fights aren’t fun or particularly relevant to the rest of the gameplay loop. Getting to them is the fun part.

I think the best boss fights are the ones that challenge the player to leverage everything they’ve learned since the last boss fight and display a mastery of those new skills. I find it extremely irritating when a boss fight doesn’t reflect the actual gameplay and takes the player out of their normal approach to the game they’re playing. A lot of open world games have this problem. Especially those from Ubisoft. The final boss in Ghost Recon: Breakpoint is a great example of this. You can snipe your way through like 95% of that game only to then be forced into a close-range fight against a guy with drone shields. The fight itself wasn’t terrible. But it didn’t match up with the way I played the rest of the game. I’m sure the fight seemed totally in order for people who played the game with a more close-range approach, but that’s an example of uninspired boss design. If the player is given multiple ways to approach the game, then all those approaches should be valid for boss fights. This is almost never the case though.

What I find most interesting about boss fights is the fact that we call them boss fights. Why is this the case? Clearly the practice comes from games where you’re fighting against an organization of some sort, like a gang or an evil corporation. The boss is a higher-ranking member of the organization, so they are literally a boss. But this is not the case for so many boss fights. When you play Nioh 2, for example, the boss fights are epic, difficult, and mostly relevant to the rest of the gameplay up to that point. But few if any of the non-human bosses are actually bosses of anything in the game. A boss is defined in the dictionary as “a person who is in charge of a worker, group, or organization.” Let’s not get bogged down by the term person. A boss is something that is in charge of others, for all intents and purposes.

We call Godzilla “King of the Monsters”, because the other monsters listen to his commands and follow his lead. Sometimes after a beatdown, but at the end of the day, Godzilla is in charge. He’s a boss. Dr. Octavius in Marvel’s Spider-Man (2018) is a boss because he’s commanding the Sinister Six. He’s in charge of the group. Yet we call all the fights against all the members of the Sinister Six in that game boss fights. Why? Scorpion and Rhino aaren’t in charge of anything in that game. They don’t even really have their own crews. We call them bosses but in reality, that’s a misnomer. Some of the monsters in the games I play are actually lording over other monsters. But most of them are just the biggest, strongest mindless beast in the area. They aren’t commanding the smaller beasts. They aren’t leading anything. They just live in their nest and you kill them. That’s not a boss fight. That’s a monster fight.

No matter what genre you play, a great many boss fights have no business being called boss fights. They’re just fights against tougher opponents in specialized arenas. King Koopa was a boss fight back in 1985, because he was actually in charge of the other monsters. Or at least the koopas. It’s in his name. He’s King Koopa. All these years later, his name is changed but he still retains his crown as king of the koopas, goombas, and shy guys, among other types of enemies Mario has to face. A true boss, if there ever was one. The gym leaders in Pokémon games are boss fights, because they lead their gyms, all of which have students or followers of some kind. But Pokémon in the wild, like Articuno, Zapdos, and Moltres simply put, are not bosses. They don’t have command over anyone or any other living thing.

I wonder how this trend of using the term boss fight to mean any significantly more difficult fight started. Why the term boss? Why not something more logical and exact like HLT (High Level Threat) or Key Obstacle? Does the term, used in this way, predate games? Like do they call them bosses in tabletop RPGs? The term certainly isn’t used in any fantasy novels I’ve read. How did such a human-centric term get applied in such a context? Was it Kojima’s fault by naming the character Big Boss in the original Metal Gear (1987)? I know we used the term boss as kids in the 90’s. So it’s been around a long time. But I’ve never thought to question why before now. Maybe that’s the real answer. It was always wrong but someone said it and then no one ever thought to question it so the term stuck.

To clarify, I’m not angry about this. This isn’t a hill I’m prepared to die on. This is more an observation that popped into my head while getting my ass handed to me by a boss. Funny enough that boss actually was a boss, because he was a human general of an army that had been mutated into a monster by dark magic. So I guess he lived a boss and died a beast.

What do you think of the term “boss” in the context it’s used in video games? Does it make sense to you? Are we all just willfully accepting an incorrectly used word, because of tradition? Are there any other gaming terms that you think are wrong?

XPG Terrence

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