Anyone that has played a game from Koji Igarashi (Castlevania: Symphony of the Night) knows that the developer loves to challenge the player from beginning to end. With his latest game, Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night, Igarashi arguably takes this to a new extreme with boss fights that are difficult but fair.
Balancing boss fights in Bloodstained was no easy task for the development team at ArtPlay, but they found a way to ensure that any player could beat every boss under even the most basic circumstances.
The rule for Bloodstained was that any developer designing a boss fight needed to be capable of beating the boss themselves without taking a hit and using only the dagger (a basic weapon in the game). Essentially, the developer needed to prove that with pattern recognition and practice even a low-level player could beat the boss fight.
According to Igarashi, he has the developers beat the boss fight with limited resources not just to prove that it's possible, but to instill in the player the idea that they can learn from each death. Players should strategize about different ways to approach the boss fight that could prove more advantageous.
I wouldn't call it a design guideline but Bloodstained does follow a strict rule that I always make the team [adhere] to.
That is...the developer who creates the boss must beat their own boss without taking a hit and only using a dagger! (We almost didn't make it...)
We make sure that it's possible to beat a boss without taking a hit regardless of the difficulty and by doing so, we reduce the number of unfair enemy attacks. Removing the "unfairness" allows players to think about what they could have done to avoid a Game Over. It makes them want to challenge the boss again using a different method. It's a golden rule we follow in our games. (Honestly, don’t ask us to complete this challenge more than once though...)
It’s a rather ingenious way to approach boss difficulty design and speaks to Koji Igarashi’s design philosophy. In early Kickstarter videos for Bloodstained, Igarashi talks about how his vision for the game was to challenge the player but for them to never feel like they are being cheated.
While this design method is certainly clever it likely isn’t the first time that a team has used the approach. Balancing raids in Destiny, for example, has always revolved around the team at Bungie testing encounters with different weapons and at different power levels.
On the other hand, some developers like to throw out boss fights that they themselves can’t beat in order to see what players are capable of, or willing to submit themselves to. Usually, these types of ultra-difficult bosses are not part of the main game and are side bosses, but there are instances where developers acknowledge that they have never beat a certain boss.
Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night is available for PC, PS4, Switch, and Xbox One.