Ah, the boss. Since 1975, games with combat have punctuated their gameplay with fights against characters that are bigger, meaner, tougher, or just cleverer than the average enemy. Zelda, most shmups, and Mega Man/Rock Man are well-known for bossy goodness. At its best, the boss fight can be a test of the player’s skill and a climax for each section of gameplay, bringing all of the aspects of the game together in one mano-a-mano battle. At its worst, the boss fight brings the fun crashing down as you scream at your computer screen.
I’ve been playing Prince of Persia: The Two Thrones on GameTap. I loved Sands of Time, and I’m eagerly anticipating concluding the trilogy. Sands was a masterpiece, we can pretend Warrior Within didn’t happen, and Thrones is all-too-happy to maintain our delusion. But there was one moment in Thrones that set my hands twitching and my blood pressure rising.
After a particularly tricky chariot sequence, I’m dumped, without the opportunity to save, into an arena with two boss enemies, one with a huge sword and one with a big axe. They’re invincible to all my normal tricks, and I can’t use the wall vaulting that has served me so well throughout the game thanks to a circle of fire around the arena. The trick to beating these two is to attack Sword until Axe makes a big swing, then dodge that blow and attack Axe as Sword harries you. Do enough damage, and you trigger a quicktime event that finally lets you damage Sword. Repeat once, and the battle is won.
Allow me to list the ways in which this is a disaster. First, it uses few of the skills learned earlier. This is a battle of defense and attrition, where the player can only block while she waits for the right time to strike. The bosses are all-too-capable of breaking the Prince’s blocks, but the Prince’s blows are useless unless done in just the right way. And that’s the other problem; the sequence requires programmer telepathy. It’s nearly impossible to beat the first time unless you know the exact sequence of actions required. There’s no improvisation, and no strategy. Just block, use the right combo at the right time, and then chip away. If the player fails — and she will — it’s try, try again, with a repeat of the unskippable cutscene at the beginning of the fight.
Boss fights exist either to reinforce the gameplay of the rest of the game, or to provide a break from it. Thrones‘s Sword and Axe battle takes the awful middle ground: no new gameplay ideas, but the player’s stripped of all the old ones. If a boss battle makes the player retry, retry, and retry again without making any progress, it’s not just too hard. It’s poorly designed.
Fortunately, though, the rest of the game is quite good. I’m struggling with the final boss now, and I’m pleased to say that this one is well-designed. Hard, certainly. But each time I die, I’ve made a little more progress, and when I retry, I can skip the cutscene at the beginning. That’s the way a boss fight is supposed to be.