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On Secret Bosses

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If you think about it, secret bosses have always been something of a peculiarity. Ignoring for a moment the ones who wander around on their own, unrelated to the crux of a game’s narrative (like the Long Gui in Final Fantasy XIII), most secret bosses do not fit into any sort of reasonable hierarchy. Seriously think about this for a moment -- why doesn’t the head villain have its most powerful minion either leading the army or serving as his or her personal bodyguard? Given the added challenge these opponents typically provide, why don’t these powerful foes usurp their superiors and push their own agendas? Do these bosses serve the game’s villain, or are they outside the villain’s control? Are they just so powerful the main villain can't kick them out? Or maybe they lose a bet and are merely serving their time? Whatever the case, hidden bosses are often some of the most unique and satisfying battles to partake in, so let’s take a moment to reminisce on them.

Within the context of a video game, a super boss serves a distinctive purpose -- namely, providing an additional challenge for the most devoted players. Sometimes these bosses reward players with a unique and powerful weapon or skill, but other times they exist merely to challenge players. Numerous bosses in the Final Fantasy franchise are great examples which embody the concept of an optional boss with varying levels of reward. For instance, consider the three optional Weapons in Final Fantasy VII, Ultimate, Emerald, and Ruby. The Ultimate Weapon roams the world, forcing players to repeatedly seek it out to acquire Cloud’s strongest weapon, the Ultima Weapon. While Ultimate Weapon is without a doubt the easiest of the three, it is also the only one which players have an incentive to battle -- Ultimate Weapon is the only place to acquire the Ultima Weapon. Conversely, both the Emerald and Ruby Weapons provide rewards which players can acquire through other means (Master Materia and a subpar Gold Chocobo, respectively). Like the Ultimate Weapon, Emerald and Ruby must also be sought out, although both are more stationary. However, unlike their sibling, both require significantly more preparation, strategy, and skill to defeat. Rodin in Bayonetta is another great example. Rodin is the most powerful enemy in the game, requiring players to collect ten million halos over the course of their playtime in the game (typically across multiple playthroughs). Defeating him rewards players with the weapons which do the most raw-damage per hit in the game. Of course, by that point, there are likely no challenges remaining for players to use these powerful tools against.

Sometimes a secret boss exists as an endurance challenge, meant to push players to develop and refine their skills. Take Mega Man X2’s hidden bosses, the X-Hunters. After defeating two Maverick bosses, these foes randomly appear in the remaining levels to challenge X, carrying pieces of his fallen comrade, Zero. However, players were not required to challenge these foes who were more powerful and faster than game’s normal bosses. Defeating the X-Hunters required players to perfect their skills and preparations to a far higher level than most other boss featured in the game. One of the things that makes hidden bosses so challenging is that players who can defeat them typically have developed their characters or their skills in the game to the point that the game’s final boss becomes a minor pebble in the journey towards the game’s conclusion. In Final Fantasy X, the game’s most powerful secret boss, Penance, requires players to completely maximize their characters stats, from the ground up. However, in doing so, the game’s final boss, Yu Yevon, becomes so easy that the cutscenes between each of its phases require more time than actually defeating the boss.

Another interesting aspect of secret bosses is that they often require players to understand the mechanics of a game in ways they may have previously been able to brute force their way around. Just look at the way a beginner plays an RPG compared to a more veteran player. Newer players typically focus on their characters’ more tangible stats -- like attack and defense, or HP and MP. If you watch them play, they rely on the most powerful attacks, spells which do the most damage, and curative spells. Conversely, a player who has played numerous RPGs and defeated the most challenging foes in those games (or has spent ridiculous amounts of time in MMOs) is more aware of the value of buffs and debuffs, knows that maxing attack means nothing if you’re inaccurate, and is more willing to offset a few points of defense for an added stat bonus. Don’t get me wrong, battling super bosses is not the only way to develop these skills and knowledge. However, these powerful foes typically help the process along.

Within the context of the game, these opponents serve a clear purpose, but what about the context of the game’s narrative? That’s where the topic becomes a bit more muddled. Some of these foes serve a clear narrative purpose -- for instance, the aforementioned Weapons in Final Fantasy VII are massive lifeforms created by the planet to protect it in times of need. A number of games in the Sonic franchise feature hidden final bosses which require collection of the seven Chaos Emeralds to unlock the game’s true ending. In Sonic & Knuckles, if players are missing one or more of the Chaos Emeralds, Sonic defeats Dr. Robonik and merely starts falling back to Earth with the Master Emerald. Tails catches him and the Master Emerald vanishes off screen. However, if players have collected all seven Chaos Emeralds over the course of the game, they are able to enter the secret final level, The Doomsday Zone, where Super Sonic battles Robotnik’s final robot, defeating him once and for all. This time, as Sonic falls to Earth, Tails catches the Master Emerald, unlocking the game’s real ending. Fighting games are notorious for featuring hidden final bosses which are only unlocked by completing specific (and oftentimes extremely challenging requirements (such as not losing battles, not taking damage, completing all matches within specific time limits, and so on..) -- examples include the monstrous Night Terror in Soul Calibur III, the demonic Akuma in Street Fighter II Turbo, and Crazy Hand in Super Smash Brothers Melee.

Other times, a secret boss exists outside the game’s narrative, but can be explained within the context of the game. Take Avalanche Abaasy, the strongest monster which can be fought in Xenoblade Chronicles. Avalanche Abaasy is the highest level opponent players can encounter, coming in at level one-hundred twenty. To give this some context, the game’s final boss is only level eighty-two, and the maximum level players can achieve is ninety-nine. However, although it is the strongest creature in the world, at the end of the day, Avalanche Abaasy is just a wild dragon -- a ridiculously strong wild dragon, but a wild dragon nonetheless. Both of Final Fantasy XIII’s superbosses, Vercingetorix and Long Gui, are external to the game’s story and simply exist within the world. Like Avalanche Abaasy, Long Guy is essentially an incredibly powerful wild animal. Vercingetorix is the most powerful Cie’th -- a human who has failed to complete their focus. Both these opponents are encountered in Gran Pulse, Final Fantasy XIII’s savage and untamed wilderness and are more powerful versions of more common enemies. Bosses like these, although outside the game’s main story and often stronger than even the toughest opponent faced while progressing through the campaign, still fit within the existing world. However, there are even super bosses which are merely there, seemingly with no explanation. Consider Final Fantasy IX’s Ozma. Apart from a warning of its power before engaging it in battle, Ozma is never given any context. Ozma is especially unique in that its appearance is unlike anything else featured in the game. Ozma is a sphere which is strangely patterned in seemingly random colors -- almost like a piece of modern art. It doesn’t really match the aesthetic of anything else in the game and it really makes players question the purpose of the powerful adversary, apart from the challenge it poses for players.

Kingdom Hearts draw from several of these archetypes for the various super bosses featured throughout the franchise. Numerous games in the franchise feature opponents which seemingly have no bearing on a particular game’s story, but relate to the overall narrative of the franchise. For instance, in the first Kingdom Hearts, players could encounter a mysterious cloaked figure in Hollow Bastion. This foe does not look like or use moves resembling any other opponent in the franchise. Within the game, this super boss appears to exist entirely to challenge players. In the end though, this cloaked figure ended up being Xemnas, the head villain of Kingdom Hearts 2, challenging Sora to gauge his abilities. Kurt Zisa, another hidden boss in the original Kingdom Hearts, is one of the game’s strongest Heartless opponents, and the strongest artificial Emblem Heartless. And yet, rather than participating in the battle against Sora (or even actively trying to attack the heart of Agrabah), it is seemingly lounging in the desert, waiting until opponents come to it. If Kurt Zisa had done more, maybe Ansem’s plans would not have been thwarted. In Birth by Sleep, the Armor of Eraqus is Eraqus’ sentient armor which can be encountered in the Mirage Arena. It is one of the hardest opponents in the game and seemingly waits until players arrive to challenge it. Rather than waiting to be challenged at the game’s colosseum, it seems that this fearsome suit of armor which carries Eraqus’ will should be out there, trying to stop the main villain’s dark schemes.

When I was younger, super bosses were an obstacle I always set out to defeat. Now, admittedly, especially in RPGs, there are numerous bosses which I intended to defeat, only to get sidetracked by the grind of leveling or preparation, and have not beaten to this day (just about everything in Final Fantasy XII comes to mind..). However, even though there are many I have never defeated, I continue to be a fan of the challenge posed by super bosses. But what are your thoughts on optional bosses? I know I’ve left out countless of difficult bosses in this discussion (like anything from the Souls franchise..), so what are some of your favorites, and which have given you the greatest challenge and greatest satisfaction?

For the entrance to this cave is guarded by a creature so foul, so cruel, that no man yet has fought with it and lived.
Bones of full fifty men lie strewn about its lair!
So brave knights, if you do doubt your courage or your strength come no further, for death awaits you all with nasty, big, pointy teeth.


  1. Charismatic -
    Charismatic's Avatar
    For the Eraqus comment, I think that one would be easily explained.
    In the first place, that was only added to the Final Mix version of the game (Same with Xemnas to KH1) but secondly, in all cases thus far of an enemy that was an "Absent Silhouette" or similar enemy (Absent Silhouettes being fights against people who are actually already [I]dead[/I], similar to Terra's armor that you have pictured there from KH2FM) they seemed to essentially be bound to a specific spot.

    If you'll pay attention, where you fight Armor of the Master is the same place where Eraqus "died". Same with the fight against Terra's armor in KH2FM being in the Keyblade Graveyard and so on. Of course, the AS fights for the Org members don't follow this rule since all of those should have been in Castle Oblivion. Seeing as you don't actually [I]go[/I] there in KH2 I'll excuse them for just tossin' them in random spots.
  2. JeanPaul -
    JeanPaul's Avatar
    Would be interesting if the final boss of a game grew in strength as you beat more optional bosses. Thematically, I kinda hate when a final boss isn't the strongest, but it would be lame if you needed exceptional mastery of the game (through grinding or practice) in order to finish it. That said, I do find many of the bonus bosses to be rather gimmicky or simply requiring being of the highest levels, which I think is a symptom of uncreative AI development.