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.