Welcome to the final part of CelJaded’s list for Top 100 Best Video Game Bosses. This post features the final entries, #10-#1.
Spoiler alert: This post may contain spoilers for the video games it references.
#10 – Nemesis …For Resident Evil 3: Nemesis
Developer: Capcom | Year: 1999
Resident Evil 3: Nemesis was the first in Capcom’s wildly popular series to get subtitle treatment, but after finally playing the game for research purposes, I can at least say that the subtitle is very apt considering what it represents.
Nemesis is one of Resident Evil’s most notorious villains; a biological weapon whose grotesque appearance and Terminator physique compliment his immense strength and deceptive agility. His mission is to see the hero Jill Valentine dead and unlike most bosses in the franchise, he’s a recurring threat that cannot permanently be destroyed until the very final encounter.
A boss that follows you between locations was a new conceit where survival horror games were concerned at the time and there’s no mistaking the added shock value that Nemesis must have brought to the table. It’s unsettling just walking around in this game. You can never be sure where the titular behemoth will strike next, though players can fully expect a quick death if they haven’t rationed their resources or perfected their dodging ahead of time.
It feels as if the whole of Resident Evil 3: Nemesis was built around the idea of this one persistent boss character, sometimes even to the game’s detriment. The game is pretty short, the cutscenes are weak, and some of the puzzles are infuriating to say the least. It’s also a more action heavy experience owing to Nemesis’ frequent ambushes and as his rocket launcher proves; it isn’t exactly what you’d call subtle horror either!
Nemesis is a boss unlike most others; one that changes the presentation of the video game around itself in some profound and rather terrifying ways.
#9 – Alsigard The Maker …For Neverwinter Nights: Hordes of the Underdark
Developer: BioWare | Year: 2003
Building heroes of unparalleled endgame strength was a more uncommon feature in CRPGs of the pre-World of Warcraft era, though it didn’t stop BioWare from rising to the challenge with their second expansion pack for Neverwinter Nights titled Hordes of the Underdark.
BioWare’s painstaking recreation of Dungeons and Dragons in 3D is literally taken to the next level here with an ‘Epic level’ campaign story featuring some of the most powerful monsters, spells, and gameplay concepts from Third Edition D&D sourcebooks. Unfathomably, it’s during one of the campaign’s side quests where players face off against arguably the most powerful foe in the entire game.
After journeying to the Isle of the Maker by boat, players descend into a magical stronghold that the wizard Alsigard built in his quest to create the “perfect” life form. After fighting through construct-infested hallways and warring factions of sentient golems, players uncover the deepest sanctum where Alsigard; now a newly awakening demilich, resides in his deific contemplation.
True to its pen and paper roots, this demilich is an alarmingly powerful enemy with enough epic damage immunities and level 9 spells to wipe out your party a dozen times over. Defeating The Maker requires a fully optimized crew of adventurers (or one insanely powerful wizard) to weather his magical onslaught and crack his insanely potent defences.
It’s entirely possible that some character builds will be wholly incapable of besting this absurdly difficult encounter, but as an optional boss for what is meant to be an advanced campaign setting, The Maker is a spectacle for the ages and is a must-see attraction for fans of classic D&D.
#8 – The Enchantress …For Shovel Knight
Developer: Yacht Club Games | Year: 2014
Even with the spoiler warning being present and clear at the top of this page, I feel it important to reiterate that if you haven’t played Shovel Knight before, you need to stop reading this entry now and move on until you’ve completed the game for yourself. You’ll thank me later!
When viewed in isolation from one another, the individual elements that make up this boss battle won’t seem particularly noteworthy. It’s a solid and fairly tough platforming runabout with magic orbs, fatal pitfalls, and one seriously annoyed evil witch. What ties it all together is the game’s developing story which reaches its surprisingly dramatic climax here.
Once her first form is defeated, The Enchantress dissipates in mid-air to reveal Shield Knight; the captive companion that Shovel Knight has been searching for since the game started. In his fevered dreams Shovel Knight has saved Shield Knight from falling many times, only this time he needs to do it for real. Yacht Club Games made the brave decision to trust players with this big moment, as control is restored the moment Shield Knight starts to fall. As a cutscene it would look amazing enough, but it’s even better to personally take part in it.
Upon catching Shield Knight and enjoying the brief reunion things get even better. The Enchantress reappears in a gigantic new form ready to terrorize us all over again and it’s here that we see Shield Knight as more than just a love interest. Now as a fully mobile ally, Shield Knight’s raised shield creates barriers that Shovel Knight can shelter under and platforms that he can bounce on in order to hit the boss floating overhead.
Thus the history we’ve been knitting together since the beginning is made clear and we finally see the two knights as the allies that they truly are; two inseparable halves of a team-up that will always need both of them in order to fully realize its true potential.
The ending that follows is just the cherry on the cake, but even without it, The Enchantress boss battle is a tantalizing glimpse of how to sell a gripping story through nuanced gameplay.
#7 – Jubileus, The Creator …For Bayonetta
Developer: Platinum Games | Year: 2009
It seems fitting that in the world of Bayonetta, God would be a woman. An angelic woman to be precise, one nine stories tall and blessed of enough grandeur and world-altering magic to give the game the spectacular final boss it deserves.
Indeed, this multi-phased coda is everything that players could ask for in terms of style and over-the-top action and it’s all bookended by a wonderfully ridiculous scene where Jubileus is struck a mighty blow that sends it careening through the solar system and into the cleansing fires of Earth’s sun.
Now that’s how you go out with a bang!
#6 – The Thirteenth Colossus …For Shadow of the Colossus
Developer: Team Ico | Year: 2005
Shadow of the Colossus is the final game that I played in preparation for this list and with good reason considering it’s frequently said to be the authority on creative boss design.
This is a rare sort of video game that is almost entirely made up of boss battles, in fact. No regular enemies, no token collecting or puzzle solving here; just honest-to-goodness boss scenarios all the way through. There’s a certain purity to Shadow of the Colossus because of this and even if the exploration element fell completely flat with me, I must echo the praise because overall it really is that original an experience.
Players take control of an adventurer named Wander who, along with his faithful horse Agro, travels the land and slays huge guardians in the hopes of reviving a young woman from her eternal slumber.
Frequently huge and often just as majestic to behold, the unnamed colossi are the stars of the show here with each one mixing up the core gameplay in elegant and sometimes subtle ways. The Thirteenth Colossus – officially nicknamed Phalanx by fans – is my personal favourite of these beasties, though how it manages to be the best boss in the game whilst also remaining completely docile towards the player is a premise that I’m still coming to terms with!
What makes this boss so wonderful, other than its immense size and beauty, is the fact that players need to use all of their available tools in order to hunt it. Shadow of the Colossus is a video game of minimalist design; its core gameplay is very straightforward and thus the player is not burdened with many items or concepts that might detract from the cinematic experience. The only tools that players have in their arsenal are an enchanted sword, a bow, and their horse Agro and yet even these scant few boons are all necessary in slaying this boss.
When it first appears gliding through the air, players must shoot apart its air sacs in order to bring it closer to ground level. The thing still glides at an incredibly fast pace, however, and so Agro’s speed is essential in getting players close enough for a saddle-assisted leap through the air. Once clinging to a patch of fur on its wing, players must try to hang onto the flying Colossus and steadily climb their way towards the three glowing weak spots that must be stabbed with Wander’s sword.
It sounds quite systematic when put like that, but this is a hunt that feels both organic and poignant and is easily one of the coolest examples of video game bosses that you’re ever likely to see in motion.
#5 – Dragonslayer Ornstein & Executioner Smough …For Dark Souls
Developer: FromSoftware | Year: 2011
Achieving victory in the face of intense odds is all the sweeter for it and it’s a conceit that Dark Souls fans understand only too well. Every lesson in this peerless video game is learned in blood, with the harshest lesson of all coming from a boss fight that has since achieved near legendary renown in certain gaming circles.
Before the chamber of Princess Gwynevere stand two of her father’s most loyal knights, Dragonslayer Ornstein and Executioner Smough. This pair of battle-hardened warriors wield giant hammers and spears as if they were toothpicks, and that’s before you count their deadly lightning magic! When faced alone they’re formidable opponents, but together? Well…
I was awestruck the moment this boss fight began. There are many contributing factors to its genius, but perhaps most important is the placement. Ornstein and Smough bar the way to the mid-game proper and as such they need to be faced at a point where new players are always bound to feel underprepared.
Their attacks are carefully balanced to work in tandem with one another and to focus your attention too heavily on one boss results in an inevitable flanking from the other. Saying that the ordeal takes some finesse is an understatement!
When I walked through that fog door for the first time I can remember being anxious enough upon seeing Smough during the opening cutscene. The moment Ornstein appeared on the balcony above and leapt into the mix is when I officially lost it. Fighting just one boss in this game was hard enough, I thought. But two of them at the same time!? No friggin’ way!
And who could forget that moment when the first knight fell? A shimmer of hope quickly dimmed as the surviving boss consumes the corpse of the other and enters a super-powered state even more dangerous than the last. Wow!
Ornstein & Smough are not impossible of course, but they are very hard and very satisfying to finally take down. Their lessons are ones that stay with you for the entire game. Don’t get greedy. Choose your moments carefully, plan your attacks, and above all; never give up!
#4 – Prince Lorian, Elder Prince & Prince Lothric, Younger Prince …For Dark Souls III
Developer: FromSoftware | Year: 2016
Choosing which iconic Dark Souls boss to occupy the #4 slot was an agonizing decision, but I eventually went with the Twin Princes because they arguably have one thing that Ornstein & Smough don’t have; gravitas.
Walking into Lothric’s throne room has you expecting a tussle with a mighty king, sword in hand, ready to do battle, but instead you’re greeted by a sickly little boy and his cripple of a brother. Sure, Lorian is a huge albeit lame knight wielding a demonic greatsword, and Lothric is clearly a sorcerer of some power too, but the setup is still an odd one and that’s exactly what I love about it!
Lothric isn’t your typical Lord of Cinder and neither is he willing to sacrifice his life in order to preserve his kingdom. He was born a debilitated child unable to fulfil his heroic appointment and one fateful day he turned full John Connor and said: “You know what? F**k my destiny”.
Rather than suffer any more indignity, Lothric willingly plunged his kingdom into darkness and cast aside “the mantle of Lord”. Now horribly weakened by a resulting curse, you expect Lothric can only exist due to the compassion of his stalwart brother Lorian; a noble fighter who helps bear his brother’s curse whilst standing vigil for the Ashen usurpers – us – who would defile Lothric Castle looking to realign the natural course of fate.
This kind of impacting story is what sets these bosses apart, though everything else is of exceptional quality too including the voice acting, the backing music, and the character animation.
In the first phase Lorian presents a considerable challenge even in his laboured state. Without the use of his legs he must frequently teleport around the room in order to keep his foes off balance, but it’s during the second phase when Lothric enters the battle that business really picks up. Unlike Ornstein & Smough, this duo attacks as one unit with Lothric clinging to Lorian’s back in a brotherly embrace.
Lothric augments Lorian’s assault by empowering his sword, shooting sorceries into the air, and even resurrecting him should the player focus too much on the bigger brother. Only by slaying Lothric does the encounter end and adjusting your assault to ensure this happens is what makes the second phase such a fresh departure from the first.
If you can’t tell by now, this is a fantastic boss fight and it’s also one that puts a rather unique spin on the the old saying: “He ain’t heavy, he’s my brother”.
#3 – The Rebel Flagship …For FTL: Faster Than Light
Developer: Subset Games | Year: 2012
T.S. Eliot once wrote: “I will show you fear in a handful of dust”.
FTL: Faster Than Light on the other hand will show you fear in- WARNING! POWER SURGE DETECTED.
It’s true, I doubt that any other boss in the history of video gaming could inspire as much awe and dread as FTL’s last line of defence, The Rebel Flagship.
Fought in three tense and immensely difficult phases, this orange behemoth has access to more weapon systems and sheer overpowered trickery than any other enemy in the game and with FTL’s firm roguelike design; one defeat equals an immediate game over. The stakes couldn’t be higher in this battle and it’s a firm player indeed whose heart won’t be jumping in response to this boss’s incredible offensive capabilities.
Your ship needs to be fully optimised, your min-management needs to be spot on, and a lucky rabbit’s foot wouldn’t hurt either! And if that doesn’t make the fight awesome enough, you also have Ben Prunty’s fittingly-named backing music pulsing to every missile you fire and every whimper you utter.
#2 – Seven Force …For Gunstar Heroes
Developer: Treasure | Year: 1993
The final showing for Treasure here is their famous boss from their equally famous debut effort, Gunstar Heroes.
Piloted by your former ally codenamed “Green”, Seven Force is a transforming machine that attacks the titular heroes in an underground mining tunnel. This boss is fought at high speed and one of the highlights here is watching its current form chase after you whether on foot as Soldier Force, in flight as Eagle Force, or on all fours as Tiger Force.
The boss has seven different transformations that it can make and the accompanying 16-bit sprite work for each one is just stunning. Also superb for a game of this age is how the number of forms you need to defeat changes depending on your chosen difficulty setting, with Hard mode demanding all seven forms be destroyed in one sitting!
Further adding to the quality is the fact that the boss’s transformations are always random after the first with each state having unique power levels, attack patterns, and quirky move names.
It’s funny to think that Treasure created one of the most memorable boss battles ever in only their first game. What an extraordinary effort!
#1 – Gehrman, The First Hunter …For Bloodborne
Developer: FromSoftware | Year: 2015
In a corner of the Hunter’s Dream, in a visage of an old workshop, sits a retired hunter named Gehrman. This man is a mentor of sorts, a lame old codger who spends his time guiding young hunters like us to slay the werewolves and other hideous beasts who have ravaged the city of Yharnam and its outer territories.
As we unravel the mysteries of Bloodborne we soon come into contact with truths unintended for mortal eyes and upon returning to Gehrman in his realm of dreams he suddenly offers us a choice. Accept death willingly and awaken to the cherished “real world” or resist our fate by challenging him in single combat.
In terms of sheer poignancy, this is easily the best boss battle that I have ever witnessed in a video game. This confrontation represents so much more than just a mere skill check or chapter bookend, rather it’s a balletic duel between two evenly matched opponents who both believe that they’re doing the right thing. Neither is this a petty squabble over a princess or some magical trinket, ironically it’s a fight to secure the opponent’s future; an attempt to forcibly eject them from the realm of the unreal and back into reality.
There are so many little touches that make this boss battle superb and they’re found in more than just the well-balanced gameplay that Bloodborne is so cherished for. Look around the moonlit garden where Gehrman is fought; the many gravestones and commemorative flowers are a dead giveaway to the number of hunters that he must have ‘freed’ during his long vigil here and if that scary fact doesn’t sell the legitimacy of his character than perhaps his awesome transforming scythe and flintlock pistol will.
Gehrman might not be the perfect role model, but it’s his weaknesses, not just his strengths, that make him such an attractive character. His precious dream world could certainly be considered a desperate last grasp at personal relevance and the Dream’s sentient marionette resembling Gehrman’s beloved pupil Maria is just borderline creepy when you consider the seedier connotations of its presence.
If Gehrman truly is a man of appetites though, it merely completes the image of someone who is rapidly becoming a fading figure in their own tragic story. Similarly, in a rare piece of dialogue – impeccably delivered by voice actor Allan Corduner – players hear Gehrman muttering in his sleep as he tearfully begs his lost friends to free him from the shackles of his never-ending slumber.
FromSoftware wants you to believe that fighting Gehrman in his prime would have been a nigh impossible task considering that his current self sports grey hair and a peg leg. It’s something effortlessly communicated in the attack patterns too as his deep repertoire of slams and arcing slices betray the First Hunter as a warrior of the highest calibre.
Bloodborne spends considerable time teaching you the basics of parrying and rallying against a stunned opponent, and in this regard Gehrman is the ultimate test of those same systems. For the most part Gehrman is an enemy who plays by the same rules that we do, and there’s something undeniably fair and respectful about that. Mind you, Gehrman is not above using magic when the moment suits him, and at various milestones of HP damage will he deploy more advanced stances and a special ‘hyper mode’ that makes him even more dangerous.
Another thing that changes as the battle develops is the music. Tsukasa Saitoh’s beautiful boss theme here plays down the bombast of your typical end boss number for something more melancholy. This in no way effects the drama mind you, as at the halfway point the music speeds up its gentle strings alongside haunting choir voices that take the scene home.
The introduction post to this list briefly comments on the question of whether bosses are a good or bad thing overall and whether they still have a place in video games today.
Bosses designed by FromSoftware especially prove how much relevance a marquee encounter against a proper named opponent can offer to a game’s setting and overall fun factor. These are the Pay-Per-View events of video game slices; they’re the blow-off to a burgeoning rivalry or storyline and often act as a showcase for mechanics or spectacles that are sometimes only feasible in such tightly designed cameos. Boss battles can be educational or meaningfully punishing, but in skill-based video games they usually strive to have one thing in common; to make achieving the mantle of victor worth it.
As I sat in my room at 3AM watching Gehrman demolish my underpowered hero again and again, it dawned on me how much fun I was still having with Bloodborne. It was not frustration that I was feeling during my 30th restart of this battle, but rather a sense of privilege seeing as how the thrill of victory would inevitably be so fleeting in comparison to the thrill of trying.
You can only fight some video game bosses once before that heady first-time thrill weakens, but that might be the only thing about Gehrman that disappoints because everything else about him and his “horrible dream” is quite simply perfect.