Let’s kill a stupid videogame cliche

You know what really spoils a great video game? A gimmick finale. You know what I mean: Not just a bad boss fight, but a final sequence that goes wildly off the rails and takes a left swerve that undermines the (however many) hours that have come before it. It’s one thing for a final battle to fail to live up to expectations; yes, Atlas was a dumb fight, but I can’t think of a better final boss choice for BioShock short of simply not having one at all (which is a perfectly valid option that most developers forget about).

I remember a friend fuming about The Legend of Zelda: Minish Cap when it first came out. The game was fun enough, he said, but then he got to the final boss and found himself completely stumped because the battle required players to use a tool in a way that had never been shown elsewhere in the adventure. I think it was the cane, which throughout the course of the quest serves two purposes: Flipping objects over and serving as a slingshot to send Link leaping. Against the final boss, though, you have to use it to freeze his arms in place. That kind of “gotcha” really defies good game design; the last moment of a game should serve as a culmination of all that’s come before, putting the player’s experience to use in one final test.

Metal Gear Solid 3 got it right in its conclusive showdown with The Boss. And while I really enjoyed James Clinton Howell’s spirited defense of Metal Gear Solid 4, that game got it so horribly wrong. Abandoning all tactics and even stealth and eventually gameplay itself flew in the face of everything that made the first half of the game so good. Then to see it wrap up with an absolutely wretched excuse for a fighting game… well, that was just the ugly cherry on top of the sundae of sadness. The kind of thing that just breaks my heart.

Radical, last-minute changes to mechanics don’t always suck, though! Kid Icarus made good on the change by transforming its platforming action and occasional exploration into a straight-up side-scrolling shooter. I think that worked for two extenuating reasons, though. First of all, the platforming parts of the game were utterly tough as nails, whereas the shooting was a much easier mode of play. Generally speaking, last-minute mechanical changes frustrate because they artificially create difficulty; Kid Icarus’ shift, on the other hand, made the action more forgiving and manageable, handily subverting the standard shortcoming. Secondly, the final shooting stage represented the natural culmination of the entire quest: Pit spent the whole game collecting three mystical treasures, and acquiring the last of them gave him free flight supplemented by the other items he had picked up. Flight was pretty much the whole point of the game!

Aw, who am I kidding. Jetpack Goonies actually ends with a first-person dungeon crawler whose final boss battle transpires as a baseball-themed rhythm minigame. I was such a teenage hypocrite.

14 thoughts on “Let’s kill a stupid videogame cliche

  1. My favorite example of this is, and always will be, Banjo-Tooie: a platformer where the final boss requires you to play an FPS.

  2. A couple of Onimusha games come to mind, in particular the second one. It’s that idea of a transformation to your main character, making you crazy strong but changing the way you attack as a result. Close-quarters combat has now changed into you firing missiles. Fun in some ways but it’s generally not the way I want to be caught off guard by a final boss.

  3. Magic Knight Rayearth on the Saturn did this jumping from Zelda-ish overhead action/adventure to overhead shooter.
    It kinda worked since the source material had a similarly jarring NOW WE WILL HAVE A GIANT ROBOT FIGHT climax to the first story, though.

  4. Devil May Cry. I never beat the final boss – they turned it into a Panzer-Dragoon style shooter, which was a problem since I never played that series. I tried a few times, until I realized: I don’t care. Seeing the ending provided very little motivation. Previously, all motivations for getting through the bosses had been to progress in the game and get more of the fantastic gameplay.

  5. So many people didn’t finish Minish Cap because they couldn’t beat the final boss, it’s unbelievable. I remember it being quite difficult.

    I have to disagree about MGS4, though. The fist fight was a much better inclusion than having a stilted shootout or some vehicle chase sequence or something. This is supposed to be the end to a franchise, and I don’t see a more personal way for the main characters to settle things. That grudge match built up over four games!

      • Two old, broken men duking it out while constantly injecting the other with adrenaline so they can keep hurting each other.

        That’s brotherly love.

      • I don’t care how thematically appropriate it was; mechanically it was garbage and derailed the series’ grand finale by discarding 20 years of precedent for an overwrought gimmick. Yes, I remember the earlier games; I don’t need a musical montage. Absolutely terrible.

  6. I never really thought about it, but you are right. Why do games have to have a final boss? Maybe for games to become recognized as a legitimate art form they should try other ways of concluding.

    • Because if they skip including a final boss people vote the publisher the worst company in America and force them to release a patch to “fix” the ending?

  7. There’s definitely something to be said for not ending a game with an elaborate action scene. I don’t remember much about Lufia 2’s final battle, but I sure remember what happened after it.

    One kind of last boss I can do without is what I just now have designated the Hopscotch Boss. Think Mega Man Legends, or Metroid Prime 3. This is the last boss that has clearly telegraphed, simon-says style moves. The feel of these fights is less “epic battle for the universe” and more “do the hokey pokey.”

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