By playing videogames for years and years, I’ve surely encountered a big amount of boss battles. Some of them unforgettable, others “just” pretty good, other with good intentions but deeply flawed, and a few that I consider just wrong even if for one, single element (hello Capra Demon from Dark Souls, you and your sweet and devoted dogs). Bosses are one of the major elements of way too many games to be nominated, especially older games. In theory, beating a boss means going forward in a game both in terms of mere progression and player’s ability: it’s not just gaining access to what’s next in your adventure, whatever it is (from platformers to puzzle games, it’s always an adventure although the quality may vary), but finally achieving a new level as a player of the game. You’ve beaten the boss because you learned from your errors, you learned what to do and how to do it in order to attack your opponent as efficiently as you can, you feel just great.
And no, don’t tell me about changing difficulty levels or GameFAQs or walkthroughs, I beg you to not ruin the poetry here with your reality, please…naah, seriously: I’m sure we’ve encountered bosses that made us so frustrated that we had to resort to cheats of any kind, it happens, it’s not a pity. But you can’t doubt that the feeling of finally beating a though boss on your own is one of the highest pleasures that a game can give to you, or your team if we’re talking about a multiplayer focused game.
So…what the hell is this, then? I don’t know if this could become a recurrent feature here (don’t expect it), but I’d really like to talk about my experiences (both emotionally and more analytically) with some memorable bosses, the ones that I remember fondly. So, let’s see from where we can start…
Oh, right. Luigi’s Mansion 2. Yeah, the title and the main screen were a giveaway I guess.
Luigi’s Mansion 2 is a great title, in my opinion. It has some definitive problems, even relevant ones (maybe a bit too long, the lack of checkpoints in levels), some more debatable ones (the structure of the missions themselves), but also some definitive major qualities (the design of the houses, the personality of the ghosts, the puzzles, the sense of wonder, the ideas, the charm oozing from start to finish), and everything mixes up in a title that, while characterised by some flaws, is a great game, a great experience. Strangely enough, one of the areas where the game…I wouldn’t say gets bad, just falls a bit flat on its face with mostly decent but not great moments, is the bosses. Decent, yeah, but again, not so memorable. Most of them, at least.
…Except for that friggin’ mindblowing first boss.
Yep, I’m talking about you. Oh, dear spider, I love you so much. Why weren’t all Luigi’s Mansion 2 bosses like you? You made me explode with joy the first time I played, you are amazing. But why do I love this boss battle so much?
You see, Luigi’s Mansion 2 is an adventure game based on exploration and puzzles. Each and every room of each and every mansion contains something to do, something that rewards the player for even just touching objects, and each mansion contains several moments where the player has to explore and, while exploring, think. Like “How do I get this key down from this fan?”, or “There must be a way to enter that room with the closed door”, or “Ok, me and the Toad cannot walk on this thin ice surface together, how can we go on in the mansion?”, etc.etc.etc. This is a game filled with moments where the rooms themselves become a character on their own for how much personality and creativity they share with the players. So, I believe a great boss in such a game is one that symbolise the nature of the game, playing on it and giving to the player a challenge that really make players feel engaged more than the rest of the game, even more captured by the game. And, oh boy, that giant spider does that.
Once you reach the cellar, you see one of the (already) classic paintings that hide something, like keys, coins and fire, where your stroboscopic light is needed. You just walk for a few seconds and ops! The small steps rotate, and you slide. No turning back, Luigi. Time to face your nightmares. Don’t worry, though, you’re still no Ben Affleck: your biggest enemies are ghosts and Boos with crowns and mega-sized egos, and you hum the game’s songs as a way to chill the mood…but, poor Ben, he has the laughter and the rage of the Internet to escape from, an army of mega-sized egos, and what should he happily hum on? The Sound of Silence?
Now, the boss is still not here, but the game gives you a first glance to the layout of the level, at least a part: you see knights’armours, and one of them moves. You know what happens with moving armours, you already encountered them. One of them holding a torch? A giant web in front of you with a small web ball? Sounds so familiar! There was a mission in the mansion involving deeply freeing it from webs spread in different hallways and rooms. Not just small and suckable webs, but giant ones where the only solution is the fire and web balls to throw. Or to suck it all and walk backwards till the fire, because they act like fuse. Oh, and red spiders, ’cause why not? But seriously, they’re there to act as a hint of what’s to come (they play a role in the battle) and to let you remember that spiders fear the lights (and by fear I mean they pop and disappear when they’re lit, just like political carrers when some papers from Panama get the light). But whatever, let’s try to reach that gigantic web…oh, look! I can pick up the ball/fuse, let’s reach that animated armo-oh man, here she is!
She goes to the giant web immediately, you can’t pick up the fuse freely anymore. But you can guess quite easily what to do, even if she’s strong: the light saves you. She doesn’t disappear of course (eh, it would’ve been too easy), but she gets distracted. So, we already see a variation of a formerly-introduced formula, which is a good sign for a boss when well executed: so far, you had all the time to pick up that fuse or ball, not anymore. And the spider is quick to recover, and she’ll start throwing…err…I don’t exactly know what they are, I’ll just call them purple posion blobs. No other enemy, but that’s because it’s just the beginning, don’t be so hopeful those spiders won’t come back, you already know they will.
Once you light the fuse, you get the spider reacting scared and crawling to her web…yes, it’s a great pleasure to see the boss reacting to our action in such a charming way, this greatily enhances the great feelings that this boss battle leaves. This game has charm, it’s made of pure charm, and it knows how to show it.
Since this is the first boss battle, you discover that bosses are just controlled by a phantom. A multi-layered phantom, sucking it once won’t be enough. Yeah, it’s one of the most classic setups for a boss: three hits, and you’re dead. But you must admit it’s represented differently here: not a life bar, but ghosts. Uh, life represented by spirits of dead; how ironic. Once the non-sucked up ghosts go back into the spider, it will run towards you, which means time to escape a bit! …By the way, I fear I’m enjoying writing “suck” way too much considering the context. It’s all your fault, false Valentine cards.
But it doesn’t punish too much the player for being hit, you get two Hearts that replent half life, and being hit by the spider removes 20 from your health points, the balance is still positive. And it’s right, this is still a first boss: it can’t be injust for players, but engage him/her in a great challenge that can be faced given the current level of knowledge and ability. This boss does a pretty good job in the difficulty department, it’s one of its numerous qualities.
And now here’s the second phase of the battle, which is probably my favourite part of the battle itself. Not because now the spider is farther and because there are red spiders already waiting for you, not because the big spider attacks you with those blobs as well. Nope, it’s because it requires you to think. You see, I believe there are several ways a boss can be good, if not great. One of them, IMHO, is by using concepts introduced formerly in the game and mixing them up, twisting them, change something. Upping the challenge cleverly, not just by “meh, let’s just add a mob here and there with no reason, whatev (I mean when this is done badly, of course)”. And I’m very glad to say that the sweet spider does that.
In fact, not even the games give you back control, and you can see there’s now a fan with a ball. The fire is near, you know what to do: moving the fan so much that the ball starts rotating and it reaches the torch, thus catching fire. But there’s nothing on the other part. Except for another armour hidden by a pretty big web. And this is all while our beloved spider throws those purple drops of tear to us. Ok, the fired up ball did something, by hitting the web on your right: the armour is now free and it goes in its place…an armour with a big stomach, at first sight. Well, it’s no Catarina’s knight, though. But this knight has his halberd standing vertically, and you see that, when he attacks, he goes horizontally. So, how? If you try to make it so the ball attached to the fan gets stack in the halberd, it’s impossible…there must be a way. Time to think, not so easy when those balls of mysterious purple material reach you so fast. And that’s when you remember about the fuse near the spider: that fits! The sensation when everything clicks is great. It’s not the battle fooling you stupidly, or outright telling you what to do, it’s the culmination of what you’ve learned by playing the game so far, by experiencing different situations…the experience prepares for the unexpected, after all. You realise the ruse is involved differently from before and from what you’ve done so far, you realise there are different concepts here re-arranged, mixed up. It’s possible you’ll take quite a bit of time to get it, it’s not an immediate conclusion for sure…but, honestly, once you pop those two red spiders, the only danger “distracting” you from figuring it out are those gelatine balls of death, but it’s right to have some challenge, it’s good to have obstacles while thinking, it helps later. Still, you’re not so in danger, it’s a gradual process of adaptation of the player helped by a gradual variation of difficulty.
Now that you figured it out, time to bring the fuse to the halberd, between blobs and spiders, the challenge escalates. Then, again, rotation of the web ball. So, it catches fire and it spreads to the fuse…and there it goes for the second time. So satisfying. And now, the final part.
Yep, now the spider is really distant from the fire, which means that reaching it will be more difficult, and surely the number of red spiders will increase. But you notice that web ball on your right. And another armour covered in shadows on your left. Yeah, you know what to do. After a second phase that felt more like a puzzle, it’s time to show more of the adventure side of the game, because picking up that ball and trying to reach the fire AND to go back to that web is the most difficult part of the whole level, at least action-wise. Spiders and blobs will surround you while going to the fire, their number sees a large increase. Once you light the ball, it’s true, you can now pop spiders immediately, but blobs are still dangerous and…columns fall? Yes, columns fall now too. But the reward is really, really sweet: it’s the initial setup again, with the spider not that far from a moving armour with a torch. If you think that it’s a bit disappointing as part of the finale of the boss battle…nah, it balances pretty well the difficulty of the adventure section, the game rewards you for your ability, you earned it. As already said, this boss battle manages the difficulty pretty well for being the first major encounter of the game while being great on its own. You remember pretty well how it goes: suck the fuse, go for the fire, profit.
…Ooor you can just launch the still-flaming ball stuck in the Polterguist, and the effect will be the same. Good! And the last ghost is in captivity, E. Gadd congratulates you, Luigi feels proud at first, scared then, and the battle is over.
And you’d like to thank the spider, now inoffensive, for the great time it gave you, but well, the game goes on, there’s another mansion to explore. But it’s a real pity most of the other encounters are not even slightly on the same level, or on the same line-of-thought. If they were as good (with more challenge!) as the spider, I would’ve considered Luigi’s Mansion 2 not “just” a great game, despite its other deficiencies. It’s the way the spider capsulates the nature of the game, its two souls, how it brings both the danger of a classic boss battle and new elements on the puzzle / adventure table…all of this makes me love it, and it’s always a pleasure to play it. Also because it’s not that long, but let’s ignore this for a moment, the poetry is in the air.
Such a pleasure that I replayed it while writing this article. Exactly.
See you soon, world