I’ve just finished Castlevania, and, in a game that has quite a few bosses, starting with the most basic of large-nosed Trolls, and working its way up to Satan himself, there are a few standouts. And they might not be the ones you think, like Death, or the King of the Lycans, or the Queen Vampire. No, the levels that really impress, are the ones that make a level of it. As in, the boss isn’t just a fight, it’s an entire level.
The first of these is a huge Frost Giant, standing in the middle of a frozen lake. You wait for him to lodge his fist in the thick ice, and start to clamber up his leg. So far, so Shadow of the Colossus. But, by turning these huge being into a level themselves, you’re avoiding the massive huge, throbbing, glowing weakpoint of boss battles; fighting someone who is illogically powerful and annoyingly trial and error based. To give Castlevania its due, the boss battles were rarely actually all that frustrating, but still, the ones that made the boss into a platforming puzzle rather than just another, slightly longer melee scrap, were the fun ones.
It’s because it’s transferring the satisfaction from besting a boss in melee and shoving it into a grand scale of things. Instead of just dodging at the right times and using the right combo, you’re traversing a behemoth. You get to learn every nook and cranny, clambering your way up and around, all the while sticking your puny little weapon in places that it probably shouldn’t go. Even something like Tomb Raider learnt the error of its ways with Underworld, with the only real boss being a giant octopus. And even that is a platforming puzzle; you have to maneuverer your way around it, keeping out of sight, before dropping a chandelier on its cranium. Fun stuff.
The master of all this, perhaps obviously, is God of War, particularly 3, and particularly the fight with Kronos. Fights on his arm, tearing off his house-sized fingernail, getting eaten and then having to figure out how to get out, then cutting him up from the inside, and then all sorts of other unspeakable things. It’s as gross as it is comical, but really, it’s the scale of it all that’s so impressive. It feels so much more satisfying than beating someone your own size, especially when you didn’t have to do much apart from a few normal fights and some impressive platforming. It’s the satisfaction of a boss battle without the frustration. Genius, right?
This doesn’t mean you have to limit yourself to gargantuan bosses, though; Batman Arkham Asylum (for the most part) figured out how to do things right, especially with the Killer Croc level. It wasn’t so much that you’re trying to outfight him, but instead he becomes part of the environment, something else to consider, as you sneak around on those floating platforms. It becomes brilliantly tense, and as you flee right at the end, before triggering the gel explose, the whole thing just reeks of satisfaction. You’re not getting killed over and over because you didn’t fight pitch-perfectly, but instead because you made too much noise, or didn’t run in the right direction when he was popping platforms. Even the Harlequinn fight is against her goons, before he quickly dispatches her; it doesn’t need to suspend logic and the rules of the game world so that you can have an ‘epic’ fight. It’s above that, and that’s admirable.
Even something like Assassin’s Creed has done similar things, especially in Brotherhood, where one of the best levels was a chase through the Basilica in the Vatican. It’s a chase sequence, sure, but the whole thing is about mastering the environment, and when you do finally catch up with the fleeing priest, he’s dispatched easily enough. It’s using the environment as a tool, rather than just buffing up his hitpoints. Hitpoints suck, and the more of them the game shoves on one person, the less fun I’m going to have.
This, like so many other problems with game design, boils down to an issue of creativity, but it’s a pretty simple case of thinking about something like this in a different way. Instead of relying on the same tried and true methods, instead think about what makes sense for your game, and work with that. Because you’re inevitably going to have something that is far more fun, enjoyable, and coherent with your game if you set about it that way.