We've all been there: Facing an end-of-level, or perhaps even end-of-game boss that seems to counter your every move.
No matter what you do, even when you know what you're supposed to do, you just can't seem to avoid getting fatally hit, smashed, roasted, eaten, electrocuted, or hurled to your death. Sure, you eventually prevailed, but not before having to seriously restrain yourself from smashing your joypad into dust.
That's the question we're pondering this week as we single out that one boss monster that caused us more aggravation and annoyance than any other.
Boss: Liquid Ocelot
Game: Metal Gear Solid 4
Man, what a piece of garbage this was. After I'd followed the Metal Gear saga for nearly 20 years, the whole grand epic resolves itself like this? The final faceoff of the Metal Gear timeline was so terrible that it actually tainted all the great things that had come before by mere association.
Let's walk you through it. After working his way through impossibly baroque plot machinations, Solid Snake finally goes up against his clone-dad's long-time admirer/rival/ally, Revolver Ocelot, who's pretending to be possessed by the spirit of Snake's clone-brother in order to fool a cartel of military Illuminating. OK, whatever, fine. But all of this culminates in a crappy fist fight that casts aside all the play mechanics that have defined Metal Gear Solid 4 — shooting, sneaking, etc. — in favor of a QTE-driven brawler. It's a self-referential wankfest nodding back to the previous chapters of the series, especially the fistfight against Liquid Snake atop the ruins of Metal Gear Rex in the original Metal Gear Solid, and it's terrible.
To properly understand the disappointment inherent in this fight, though, you really need to have played through the previous Metal Gears. They also ended with one-on-one battles, but each one improved on the last. Metal Gear Solid 3's in particular was a masterpiece of game design, pitting Snake's father against his mentor The Boss in a test of stealth and close-quarter combat expertise that made use of the game's core mechanics in a brilliant fashion. For the first time in the series, the obligatory showdown at the end of MGS3 felt like an extension of the game that had played out before it rather than a bit of an unrelated game awkwardly grafted on. MGS4's final conflict, on the other hand, threw that progress out the window. In trying to pay tribute to its past, it ultimately just felt like a step backward. I sincerely doubt I will ever play MGS4 again, just because I know what's waiting for me at the end. And honestly, I'm kind of dreading whatever awaits at the end of Metal Gear Solid V, because the odds are in favor of it being pretty wretched as well.
Boss: London Monitor
Game: Wolfenstein: The New Order
It's not that this Wolfenstein: The New Order sub-boss is particularly hard. I just made it needlessly so by being a moron.
It all went down when I was reviewing the game. I'd started early in the evening with the intention of blitzing my way through the game in one marathon sitting. I was making good headway, when sometime in the early morning the following day I reached the London Monitor and set about figuring out how to down it. Because my wireless headphones weren't working and my girlfriend was asleep in the other room, I had the TV completely turned down and was playing in silence.
The lack of sound hadn't caused me any problems so far, so I didn't even consider it as started to figure out which pieces of the giant Nazi robot I needed to destroy in what order. I thought I'd figured everything out, but then I got stuck. No matter what I did, I couldn't finish off the stupid London Monitor. I ran around for about 20 minutes experimenting with shooting different parts of it at different times. I tried different weapons too, but no matter what I did, it just stomped about, shooting at me.
Of course, I couldn't Google it, because the game wasn't out yet, so I just hammered away, not really thinking very logically, because it was so early in the morning. I ended up getting into that sort of belligerent, pissed off, determined, I will not be beaten, **** YOU mode that you sometimes get into when you're looking for a place and won't stop to ask for directions. You're just going to drive through it and find the place. Because it's around here somewhere. That was me with the robot. I'm going to figure it out. The solution's around here somewhere.
After about an hour and fifteen minutes - and this is with me only dying a couple of times - I was finally ready to give up. But then I had the bright idea of turning up the sound a bit. So I crouched right next to the TV, and as I ran through yet another cycle of the robot's behavior pattern, I heard a near-inaudible voice tell me to run right underneath it and shoot the engine when it opened up.
I'd actually tried that earlier, but hadn't quite gotten it right. But with the correct instructions, I finished it off in about 15 seconds. I felt like such a tool.
I felt like an even bigger tool when I rememerbed later that the game has subtitles.
Boss: Omega Rugal
Game: King of Fighters '95, King of Fighters '98, King of Fighters 2002
There is a darkness in some fighting game bosses, but SNK has created some absolute monsters in particular. Goenitz, Orochi, Igniz, Mukai, Magaki, and Geese are all evil, evil creations. I have no idea how the developers at SNK Playmore slept well at night throwing these folks out at players. But one of the earliest monsters to ruin my runs at King of Fighters' arcade modes was Omega Rugal. O. Rugal was one of the first bosses SNK created with a focus on simply being impossible to defeat.
Rugal operates on a different ruleset than the player. Rugal can throw fireballs from past bosses like Geese Howard and Wolfgang Krauser all, every day. If you try to jump in, he'll punish you with his vicious kick attack, Genocide Cutter. His Dead-End Screamer involves breaking his opponent's neck and then crushing them. Every single move has insanely high priority over whatever you're going to throw at it. And he does a metric-ton of damage if he hits with any of them; if you get hit with the full three hits of Genocide Cutter, your life bar jumps from full to almost gone. And that's before you get to any one of his Super Moves, the aptly-named Destruction Omega, Kaiser Phoenix, and Gigantic Pressure.
This is all backed up with A.I. that seemingly reads your moves before you can finish performing them. How do you beat and all-powerful god that can see your moves before you make them? Cheating. The best way to crush Omega Rugal was by exploiting the A.I. and cheesing your way to victory. Exploiting his ability to do moves at the drop of a hat and punishing him appropriately.
Omega Rugal and his cohorts are so hard that fans created a name for it: SNK Boss Syndrome. Bosses who cheat and break the rules so hard that you'll want to throw your controller in frustration. Any one of them is an exercise in tears.
Boss: The Human-Reaper Hybrid
Game: Mass Effect 2
(Warning: Three-year-old spoilers ahead) Mass Effect 2 is a great ride from start to finish, culminating in probably the single best moment of the entire trilogy: the suicide mission. Playing through it the first time, it's an incredibly tense battle in which you make decision after decision under duress, with the lives of your teammates all on your line. It's a great finale... and then the final boss happens.
After much suspense, it turns out that the Collectors—the game's primary antagonists—are out to build a new Reaper using human genetic material. The practical result is a Human-Reaper hybrid that looks like either a Terminator Endoskeleton or a boss from Contra. Or both! What follows is an exceptionally gamey final battle in which you leap from platform to platform and fire at the hybrids glowing weak points while fending off attacking Collectors. And... that's it.
The Human-Reaper Hybrid embodies a lot of what I hate to see in boss design. I love a good one-on-one duel, or a truly unique encounter like the battle with The End in Metal Gear Solid 3. I don't particularly like boss battles with glowing weak points and waves of mooks because it feels like lazy design to me. And I especially don't like it when such an encounter comprises the final battle.
I don't want to say that the Human-Reaper Hybrid ruins Mass Effect 2, because it's still a great game regardless (putting aside its emphasis on being a shooter rather than being an RPG). But when I look at that final boss, I almost feel like BioWare ran out of money and had to pull the plug early. Of course, Mass Effect 3 is still the king of disappointing endings. But that's a discussion for another time.
Game: Demon's Souls
While the Souls series is known for its punishing nature, it's actually grown a lot more user-friendly over the years. Take Demon's Souls, for instance: Some parts are legitimately hard, while others just feel cheap. I get the sense FromSoftware gradually learned the difference between these two qualities over time, because Demon's Souls contains a few stretches I dread whenever it's time to run through the game again. But no single moment in Demon's Souls hurts more than level 3-2's Maneater.
This boss encounter contains a "gotcha" moment the Souls series would eventually reuse multiple times, but in Demon's Souls, it was a brand-new nightmare. Even before Demon's pulls the rug out from under you, 3-2's boss makes for a tough fight: You're trapped on a narrow walkway, pitted against a massive, gargoyle-like creature who can fly, and perform several attacks intended to knock you off the ledge, into oblivion. Should you manage to successfully take on this creature and reduce his life by half, you're greeted by a second Maneater, who flies into the area with and greets you with all of his hit points intact.
Admittedly, a lot of the challenge stems from overcoming the stress of this situation: The Maneaters telegraph their attacks well in advance, and are easy enough to avoid, but you have to contend with two of them at once, all while keeping your footing on a narrow walkway. On mostly every playthrough of Demon's Souls, I usually lose all hope on the Maneaters, and I still haven't figured out a successful way to keep my cool while fighting them until around my 20th attempt. I've never resorted to the cheap way to beat these bosses—out of some misguided attempt to preserve my "honor"—but next time, I just might. Shooting arrows at the boss before the fight even begins might be the coward's way out, but at this point, I think I've earned it.