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Why hopeless boss fights are a good idea

Not all fights end victorious

A screenshot of a game over screen in Paper Mario The Thousand Year Door
[Source: Nintendo] While boss fights sometimes end up like this, few open the path to more complex scenarios.

Video games pit players against countless odds. No matter the difficulty, the player should come out victorious, driving them to continue playing. The player should feel like they are in control and that the only limitations are determined by the player’s skill. However, that is not always the case in certain games. Some titles require the player to bite the bullet in order to progress further, which completely deviates from the traditional stance. Why then, does this trend persist today? Does the game want the player to suffer from defeat? While that may be the quick and dirty answer, the reason is much more intuitive: a hopeless scenario highlights a game’s narration and connection with the player.

What makes a conflict unwinnable?

A fight in Paper Mario The Thousand Year door where the player and the boss attack each other with little impact.
[Source: Nintendo] In Chapter 4 of Paper Mario The Thousand Year Door, the player encounters a boss who cannot hurt them. However, the player can’t damage the boss either, causing a deadlock.
A fight can be unwinnable if the enemy is immune to the player’s attacks, making the skirmish one-sided. Another scenario could be if the opponent possesses an attack that instantly kills the player and their party in a single turn, even if the player has the chance to defend themselves (such as in the first Shroob fight in 2005’s Mario and Luigi: Partners in Time). Then, there is a situation in which the boss itself is not invincible, but the fight conditions are heavily weighted against the player. The enemy could fully heal itself after each turn (the fight with Bahamut in Final Fantasy 3) or outside elements force the player to retreat which would result in a stalemate (the chapter 4 boss on the GameCube’s Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door). There are also scenarios that play with the player’s emotions, regardless if they have a direct say in the fight or not. Everything the player has built up to at that moment could be taken away without a second’s notice, regardless of how well the player is doing (the final boss of Persona, released in 2006). While these battles vary per game, they all share the same feeling of unsatisfaction.

But these unwinnable fights add more to the game than just agony. Many of them are staged, paving the way to a proper fight or a story cutscene that sheds light on the situation. Others open opportunities to remind players about the game’s overarching themes. Two games, in particular, Paper Mario and Persona 4, highlight these two scenarios.

The taste of defeat in Paper Mario’s hopeless fight

Mario is severely weakened from Bowser's attacks.

The first Paper Mario game, released on the Nintendo 64 in 2000, showcases an unwinnable fight early in the adventure. The player’s first battle is against the game’s final boss, Bowser. The battle plays out as normal until Bowser makes himself invulnerable by using the stolen Star Rod, which quickly turns the tides in his favor. Thus, the player can do nothing except witness Bowser effortlessly KO them with an unavoidable attack.

Bowser using the Star Rod to make himself invincible. The concept of a baddies easily turning the tables on the player sets a foreboding tone for the rest of the game. For the first time, Bowser defeats Mario in a one-on-one fight and achieves his ultimate goal of kidnapping Princess Peach. He has full dominance of the Mushroom Kingdom and there is nothing the player can do about it. Bowser’s sudden victory plants fear into the player. They can no longer win the game if Bowser is the last thing standing between them and the end. However, the game quickly reminds the player that this is only the beginning of Mario’s quest to reclaim the kingdom from tyranny. By losing all their hope, the player now understands what is at stake. It opens their eyes, motivating them to play the game and overcome the impossible. Thus, when Mario encounters Bowser at the game’s climax and challenges him to a rematch, Bowser’s defeat is made all the more sweeter because of it. That feeling of dethroning Bowser, who had achieved ultimate power over the player, could only be made by Mario’s humiliating defeat earlier.

The somber message of Persona 4’s hopeless fight

Yosuke, one of the player's party members, succumbs to a OHKO move the boss executed.

Persona 4, originally released on the PS2 in 2008, drives this point home as well with its true final boss. At first, the fight plays out like any standard boss battle. But instead of becoming invulnerable, the enemy begins a series of unavoidable, instant kill moves on the main protagonist. However, three of these attempts are foiled by the player’s current party members who sacrifice themselves in order to save the protagonist. With the player all alone with the monster, the boss succeeds in killing the protagonist, but a heartwarming cutscene miraculously revives him.

The ending screenshot of Persona 4, showing all of the main party members.Persona 4’s gameplay and narrative revolves around the theme of meaningful relationships. The player is required to forge connections with various NPCs and their own party members throughout the game. Each bond the player makes allows them to not only pursue greater powers in battle, but also connects them on a more personal level. As a result, the player establishes a sense of respect for every person they have talked to. All of that is immediately taken away from the player in the last moments of the adventure. With each party member the player trusts falling to a demise too gruesome to imagine, the player becomes more and more distraught. They were about to discover the truth behind the game’s plot points, but now they have to pay the ultimate price. It is a feeling of loss, which is exactly what the game wants to remind the player that they are dealing with. However, the boss fight prompts the player to recognise what allowed them to reach that point: people. Despite the player losing everything, the authenticity of their bonds with others grants the player the strength to endure the boss’s onslaught. In other words, the player has had that power the entire time; it just needed to be realized. That realization could only come from the devastating nature of the boss fight.

Closing thoughts

Ike and the Black Knight exchange dialogue.
[Source: Nintendo] Hopeless boss fights allow for dramatic conclusions to a strolling struggle, such as Ike avenging his father’s death against his murder, The Black Knight.
A conflict that the player must lose is more than just a glorified cutscene opener. It grants the game an opportunity to remind the player of their purpose and to establish key points for future cutscenes and in-game dialogues. Hopeless fights present players with truths that they may not discover otherwise — not through static dialogue, but through actions. While being pitted against an overpowered foe is seemingly unproductive, it establishes new details that wouldn’t have been realized at first glance. If cutscenes use visuals to convey meaning, hopeless fights tap into the player’s empathy. From witnessing an impossible situation unfold to attacks that can wipe out an entire party, the players start to become anxious. Anxiety puts people into a position where questions need to be answered. Will the hero survive? What will become of the main villain? These boss battles create an optimal scenario for plot points, whether they’re minor or major, to be conveyed to the player with little trouble. Thus, when properly executed, a hopeless boss fight accomplishes more plot narration and player empathy than any CG cutscene or standard boss fight ever could.

Have any thoughts on the games mentioned or wanted to bring attention another game that does a great hopeless boss fight? Start a discussion below!

Written by Matthew Shiroma

Matthew Shiroma is currently an undergraduate student studying for a B.S. in Computer Science while minoring in Game Programming and Development. While his main prowess is coding, he is open to experiment with other fields such as writing and drawing. When Matthew is not buried under schoolwork and outside projects, he loves catching up on his exponential list of video games, binge watching YouTube and Netflix, or managing his gaming YouTube channel.

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