Sure, every fan of video games wants to be the hero (since playing the villain is usually out of the question). But eventually, one thing becomes clear across every single genre and platform: to be the best, you have to beat the best. And thus one of the great rules of gaming rises above question, and cements itself in the history of digital dice rolls. No matter how impressive or well-designed a game hero may be, it needs an incredible boss to rise to greatness.
A head-to-head showdown is the most obvious solution, but it didn’t take long for some developers to learn from their competition – providing twists on the formula, grueling battles, and downright dastardly odds. Some proved to be brutally satisfying challenges, while others torment us to this day. But there’s no denying that our list of the Top 15 Video Game Boss Fights did their games proud, and ensured their place in our memory many console generations later.
15. The Archdemon – Dragon Age: Origins
In the world of Dragon Age, doing battle with one of the titular winged beasts is never – never – to be taken lightly. But dragons are merely a shadow of the Old Gods, and when one is corrupted by Darkspawn, it brings with it a terrible Blight upon the land – and one gripping finale for Dragon Age: Origins. It would be enough if the final battle against the Archdemon was simply a super-strong, invulnerable mega-dragon.
Instead, the developers thought it a particular challenge to embrace the creature’s mythology (neither a dragon, nor darkspawn) and make bonus effects against either entirely useless against it. Add its tendency to fly from one spot to another, demanding a mix of melee warriors and ranged, and one incredible finale (that can be twice as powerful depending on the fate chosen by the player) and it was a worthy conclusion to one of BioWare‘s best.
14. The Hive Mind – Dead Space
It may not be the most difficult boss on our list – its weak spots are quite literally glowing – but few Dead Space players can forget the moment when they realized the game’s last challenge would be defeating a Necromorph unlike any they had faced before. Equal parts alien, insect, and all around nightmare, the Hive Mind’s wealth of tentacles were made even more terrifying by the knowledge that only a small portion of the Hive Mind was visible.
Dodging tentacles, explosive canisters, and slicing and dicing the monstrous beast on the way to victory was a culmination of all the gameplay tricks that came before it. The worst part? Screwing up once treated players to a death animation that saw hero Isaac Clarke blown to pieces with a single blow, or dismembered by the monster’s enormous teeth.
13. Master Hand – Super Smash Bros.
Fighting games aren’t often thought to have traditional ‘boss’ characters like more linear games, but not matter the series, there is typically one fighter players must defeat to call the challenge truly beaten. With the Super Smash Bros. series, Nintendo once again decided to do things differently. Specifically, replace the comparable fighters of the single player campaign with one enormous, gloved hand.
The Master Hand (that of the game’s creator, presumably) is the epitome of a rigged game, able to slap, punch, or simply flick players across the screen. Fans have summarized some compelling theories about the greatly-misunderstood Master Hand, but all we know is the stress and sleepless nights brought on by his five-fingered menace (don’t even get us started on Crazy Hand).
12. Giygas – Earthbound
There’s no question that Giygas, the central antagonist of both Mother and Earthbound is something of a mystery. The villain’s evil essence is felt throughout the games without actually being present, and the final encounter itself is just as unconventional. Especially once players realize that every one of their most dependable and effective attacks are useless against Giygas.
In his first appearance, Mother, it’s only when the party joins to sing a lullaby that Giygas’ rush of memories weakens him into retreat. But in Earthbound, the ethereal antagonist can only be defeated when a party member calls out to the friendly allies on Earth (via the Pray ability) and the combined will reduces Giygas to nothingness. An odd path to victory, but one of the reason why Mother and Earthbound still hold a treasured place in JRPG history.
11. Riftworm – Gears of War 2
It’s not often that a boss ends up not marking the end of a level or game, but actually becoming the level – but that’s exactly what Gears of War 2 players got when their entire squad of COG soldiers was swallowed whole by an immense Riftworm. Sure, the intestines of the massive worm may not be a simulation of a real digestive system. But the ensuing level (and the enemies contained within) were worth overlooking scientific accuracy.
After travelling through what felt like miles of Riftworm innards, the squad finally found the means of their escape: the monster’s heart. Following the sounds of life to not one, but three hearts – and destroying them all – sent the Riftworm skyward in distress, removing one of the Locust’s best weapons. Ask anyone who played it, and the image of Delta Squad spilling out of its carcass drowning in blood is impossible to forget.
10. Ornstein & Smough – Dark Souls
Few games are as famous for their brutal difficulty as Dark Souls, but the designers outdid themselves with these two. Dragon Slayer Ornstein and Executioner Smough aren’t particularly heinous on their own; but combining both into a single encounter speaks to the ever-changing challenge of the series, despite being a relatively simple twist.
With Ornstein capable of charging forward at high speed, and Smough lumbering about dealing out devastating hammer attacks, both enemies demand equal attention. When players finally realized that it’s best to kill one before the other, they watched as the victory turned to defeat – the death of one simply makes the remaining boss even more powerful. If you’re not a magic user, we wish you luck surviving.
9. Bowser – Super Mario 64
Over the course of the Super Mario game series, the heoric plumber and villainous Bowser have tangled too many times to count. Not all have been as challenging (especially as the evolving series has made earlier battles child’s play), but as proof that a boss fight doesn’t need to be gripping to satisfy, the final encounter in Super Mario 64 is one fondly remembered by us all.
No overly-complex strategies to employ here – despite the preceding game’s honed platforming and timing – simply grab hold of Bowser’s tale and spin him in circles like every Nintendo fan has wanted to since they first crossed paths with the turtle-shelled tyrant.
8. Death – Castlevania
There’s a reason why the original Castlevania is still cited as a game that helped define a genre, so it should be no surprise that its boss encounters were some of the most punishing. The many showdowns with Dracula first come to mind, but looking back, we still can’t believe how unkind the confrontation with Death itself really was.
The challenge actually begins before Death is even reached, as players are forced to fend off two Axe Knights as Medusa Heads wobble through the stage; a primer for the kind of constant ducking/jumping/whipping to come. When Death arrives, the flying scythes (capable of removing 1/4 of the player’s health) make attacking the floating Reaper an afterthought.
7. Ganondorf/Ganon – Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time
The first time players came upon Ganondorf after churning their way through Ocarina of Time, it was already clear that this Zelda entry was one for the ages. When the dark king took to the air surrounded by a lengthy drop (and gruelling climb back up to the arena), players eventually learned to deflect his attacks back towards him, and unleash fury upon his stunned body. But just when victory seemed within their grasp… the other shoe fell.
Actually, the castle around him fell first. It was a shock to see Ganondorf rise from the rubble, but an even more stunning one to see him transform into the dual sword-wielding bore monster, Ganon. Every Zelda fan now knows that his tail is the key, but the memories of his sudden arrival, and the Master Sword’s final blow put the finishing touches on one of the best Zelda games to date.
6. Mike Tyson – Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!!
While a world famous game from the NES era, a boxing simulator Punch-Out!! was most certainly not. Over the course of the game, players beat the odds by taking Little Mac on a path to the title. Though he was lacking in size compared to the boxers he faced, Mac’s success came through classic game design: every fighter, no matter how vicious, possessed a tell that would bring them to their knees.
Except the famous boxer after whom the game was named. Simply weather the first minutes of the match was nearly impossible, as a single hit would floor Mac as easily as a knockout blow. Tyson had tells of a sort, but his speed and power made it nearly impossible to exploit them. Ask around, and plenty of old school gamers will admit that while they loved the game, the beating(s) they took at the hands of “Iron Mike” is the most lasting memory.