Like the icing on a cake or the cherry on your sundae, a great boss fight can turn a good game into an unforgettable experience. Bosses weren’t always a thing in video games. In the early days, you could compete against another person or the game itself, but it took a while for actual bosses to be introduced. These served as final challenges to the game, acting as the wall between you and ultimate victory, and were meant to test your skills in one final assault. Eventually, boss fights were expanded so that a game would present you with multiple bosses along the way. Usually, but not always, the final boss would be something like your prize for managing to reach them.
Boss fights originally just had to be hard. In the arcade days, that was done by design to keep you putting in more quarters, and later on to add length to how long it took you to beat a game. Now, bosses are so much more. They can be tests of wits, reflexes, problem-solving, or even just roller coasters of excitement you can barely hold on to. But bosses aren’t so easy to get right. They can take too long, take no thought to beat, or swing the other way and feel unfair and cheap. However, when done right, a great boss fight can make a game memorable for decades. It was a tough battle, but we managed to come up with the best boss fights of all time.
As a self-imposed rule, there will only be one boss included from any game or series. Also, obviously, there will be spoilers ahead for each game featured. Not every boss is the final boss, but some are, and some could be surprises. We will also be going into their mechanics a bit, too.
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Phalanx: Shadow of the Colossus
Even the most dedicated of fans of Shadow of the Colossus probably don’t know each of the Colossi, or maybe even any of them, by name. However, everyone definitely remembers the giant flying sandworm-looking one. This game is all about boss fights. Literally, there are no other encounters in the game (with one small exception at the very end that doesn’t really count) aside from tracking down and fighting the titular 16 Colossi. Any one of these bosses could earn a spot on this list. They’re nearly all unimaginably large, majestic, and terrifying creatures, and you feel utterly powerless when standing in their shadows. Finding out how to topple these creatures is never short of breathtaking.
Forced to pick from the 16 options, the Phalanx was our clear winner from Shadow of the Colossus. Yes, this isn’t the first flying colossi you face, and that first, smaller bird-like boss might’ve taken the spot if not for this one, but the Phalanx is just the more dynamic and spectacular fight. After erupting from under the sand, you need to chase down this flying beast, which is the largest colossus in the game, by the way, on your trusty horse Agro, and hit its gas sacks with arrows to drop its altitude. From there, you need to ride up alongside one of its fins that dips into the sand and leap from horseback onto the fin, holding on for dear life, before climbing up as the sacks refill and you’re lifted hundreds of feet above the sand. From there, it’s the usual task of finding and stabbing the weak points, but the act of getting on this giant colossus is heart pounding, and once you’re up in the sky, you’ll be gripping your controller until you deal the final blow.
Ornstein and Smough: Dark Souls
There had to be at least one boss fight from the infamous Souls series, and I’m going ahead and extending that to Demon’s Souls, Bloodborne, and Sekiro as well just to keep this list diverse. All that said, Dark Souls was a clear cut above its predecessor in just about every way, bosses included. Sure, there were a few stinkers (we’re all looking at you, Bed of Chaos), but by and large, the bosses on display in the first of the Souls trilogy set the standard of tough but fair. There were also imaginative designs and boss fights that FromSoftware would attempt to build upon with each new game. From that first entry, we had to pick the boss that makes the biggest impact on the most players. Often considered the “wall” that keeps out players who haven’t fully mastered the combat, we had to go with the duo of Ornstein and Smough.
The spear-wielding warrior and hammer-smashing executioner are your last encounter before getting the Lord Vessel and entering the final half of the game. They’re not the first boss fight with two or more targets, that would be the Bell Gargoyles, but they’re in a complete league of their own. Ornstein is lightning fast, lunging and diving at you, while Smough lumbers after you, swinging his hammer in massive arcs. Separating them is difficult, and finding an opening between their attacks is even harder. What’s worse, once you defeat one, the other powers up even more and regains their health. You also get different rewards depending on which you beat first. This fight is one of patience, timing, complete mastery of your character’s movement, and, most of all, focus. Finishing them both off can be more satisfying than beating the game itself.
Ganondorf/Ganon: The Legend of Zelda — Ocarina of Time
Ganon is the primary villain of nearly all the mainline Zelda games, so facing him at the end of The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time wouldn’t have been special on its own. The move to 3D would’ve obviously made it unique and probably the best fight with the demonic pig demon ever, but still somewhat familiar. Instead, we didn’t get any hint that Ganon, at least as we knew him, was in the game at all. Ganondorf, a man with an obviously referential name, took the lead as the game’s villain. His presence was somehow even more menacing, especially after becoming an adult and seeing what destruction he wrought across Hyrule while Link was absent.
When you finally reach Ganandorf at the top of his castle, you find him playing an ominous song on an organ before unleashing a wave of evil presence so strong Navi is powerless to help you against him. The first phase is tense but smartly calls back to a previous fight with Phantom Ganon so you can apply what you learned there to knock back his magic at him. After a few phases, it looks like you’ve won, and Ganandorf uses the last of his strength to try and bring his castle down on you as his final act. A timer pops up, and you and Zelda need to make it all the way from the top of the tower to the exit, dodging falling debris, fires, and enemies.
Once you make it, a moment of calm lasts just a moment before Ganandorf unleashes his full power and transforms into the monstrous Ganon. He immediately disarms you, forcing you to fight without your trusty Master Sword until Zelda can step in to assist you. She uses her magic to restrain Ganon just long enough for you to regain the Master Sword and deal the finishing blow. The entire sequence is cinematic, exciting, and surprising in ways most gamers had never experienced before. It felt like you were playing something that shouldn’t be possible. It may look tame and dated today, but for the time, this battle felt like nothing else.
Bowser: Super Mario 64
Before we got Link’s first 3D adventure, Mario paved the way with Super Mario 64. The team had a huge task in attempting to translate Mario’s platforming gameplay into a 3D space, let alone figure out how to completely redesign a boss battle. Every Mario game before had Mario either jumping or occasionally throwing things at Bowser to take him down. Both of those things could’ve been translated into 3D, but the designers must’ve realized how inconsistent and unsatisfying that would be. A boss fight needed to be unique or it would just feel like a normal encounter, after all.
The Bowser fights in Super Mario 64 are not especially hard. There are three in total, with each adding a new layer of challenge to the one before. The last encounter has you face off against Bowser at his fastest speed on a stage that has sections that break away as the fight goes on. In every fight, your goal is the same: Get behind Bowser, grab his tail, spin him around, and throw him at one of the bombs floating around the perimeter of the stage. Seeing Mario spin and throw the massive Bowser, who we’d never seen at such a scale before, was amazing. It felt like a real David and Goliath-type battle, and while we do wish there were more variety instead of three nearly identical fights, it still stands as a great cap on Mario’s first 3D adventure.
Mr. Freeze: Batman: Arkham City
Of all the superheroes out there, Batman’s so-called rogues’ gallery of villains is considered to have some of the absolute best. The Joker himself may even be more popular than the caped crusader at this point, which is why he was chosen as the Arkham game’s main antagonist. Rocksteady knew how popular the Joker was as a character, and after failing to make him an interesting or fun boss fight in their first outing, the otherwise beloved Batman: Arkham Asylum, they wisely chose to make him a more cerebral villain moving forward rather than attempt to justify how he could go toe to toe with Batman in physical combat. That said, there were plenty of other villains that do make sense for Batman to tangle with, one of which was only teased in the first game.
Mr. Freeze wasn’t even shown on screen in Arkham Asylum, but definitely gave us chills when he showed up in Batman: Arkham City. This boss fight felt like Rocksteady was proving they understood everything about what their Batman could do and how to use those systems to make the most engaging and tactical boss fight possible. Rather than the typical boss fight where you learn a boss’s pattern or how to exploit them into a vulnerable state somehow and repeat that process until you win, Mr. Freeze adapts to how you attack him. What worked on him once won’t work again, forcing you to stay on your toes and come up with new plans of attack using everything at your disposal. His suit makes a frontal assault ineffective, leaving you to rely on Batman’s gadgets and other modes of attack to win. It is surprisingly rare, even today, to have enemies actually adapt and counter you when you try to damage them the same way twice, making this boss encounter feel less like you’re just exploiting design or learning a pattern and actually dueling with an intelligent opponent.
Psycho Mantis: Metal Gear Solid
The Metal Gear games have some of the most iconic boss battles in gaming. What sets them on a level above most others comes down to two main factors: First is their personalities. Just about every boss in the series has a fleshed-out backstory, strong motivation, and charismatic personality that makes them hard to forget. The second is the way you fight them. Boss fights in stealth games are, almost universally, terrible. In a genre where you’re so focused on avoiding combat, being put into a situation where you’re forced to engage an enemy is often clunky and unsatisfying. All that changed with Metal Gear Solid way back in 1998.
There are plenty of amazing boss fights from this series, like The End, Revolver/ Liquid Ocelot, and The Boss, to name a few fan favorites, but we have to go with the first boss that really scrambled our brains back in the day, Psycho Mantis. By now, everyone knows how this boss fight works, but for the time, it was something no other game had attempted to do. After reading our minds (or memory cards, rather) to remark on other games we enjoyed, which already scared some of us, Psycho Mantis was basically unbeatable. It really did feel like he was reading our minds, and only when the Colonel gives us the tip to plug the controller into the second port are you able to put up a fair fight. No game had ever reached through the game and asked us, the player, to do anything like that before. Despite being a well-known trick now, very few games attempt to break the fourth wall like that even today.
Poseidon: God of War 3
From the jump, the God of War games wanted you to know that they were all about spectacle. The very first boss in the original God of War was an intense bout with a giant hydra on a ship and right away set the tone for what to expect from this series — massive bosses that only became larger over time and cinematic quick-time events as Kratos dispatched them in ever more creative and brutal fashions. Sure, now people are completely over quick-time events in games, but when done well and not relied on too heavily, they can be a satisfying end to a boss battle by allowing your character to pull off moves outside of your normal attacks.
God of War 3 starts off with perhaps the largest set piece in the entire series. Kratos, riding on the back of a titan as it climbs up Mount Olympus, is attacked by the god of the seas, Poseidon. Poseidon not only dwarfs your character, but the fact that you will battle him while riding a titan just raises the intensity to another level. Think of the train sequence of Uncharted 2, but with giant monsters instead of trains and soldiers. You will fight Poseidon in multiple phases, getting flung around like a flea, as he and the titan shift and battle themselves. When you eventually break through Poseidon’s multiple shells and rip the god from the giant water monster he pilots, you nearly feel as exhausted as Kratos himself. And this is all within the first hour of the game.
Sephiroth: Final Fantasy VII
There won’t be a lot of turn-based RPG bosses on a list of best bosses of all time, and yet anyone who made it to the end of Final Fantasy VII will absolutely bring up the magnificent and epic final battle against one of the best villains in all of gaming, Sephiroth. After hours of buildup, revelations, and even a permanent character death, there was no shortage of reasons for players to have a personal stake in taking this silver-haired fiend down once and for all. Still, as much as we were ready to bring him down, the way he was built up kept us unsure as to whether or not we actually could take this legendary soldier down. Ready or not, it all came to a head near the planet’s core as Meteor was approaching to wipe out all life.
The fight is broken up into phases, with the first splitting your party to face off against different forms of Jenova. Once these atrocities were dealt with, your main team would finally come face to face with Safer Sephiroth, the angelic being backed by the iconic chorus that can still send shivers down our spines. Aside from his epic appearance and musical backing, this form of Sephiroth seems somehow stronger than we were led to believe. His ability Super Nova specifically stands out for being an insanely long spell that takes about two minutes to fully play out, which can get a bit tiring when he uses it multiple times, but also for how ridiculous it is. He summons a comet to rush through the galaxy, obliterating multiple planets on the way into the Sun and causing it to go supernova. Manage to make it through this phase, and you get the reward of Cloud and Sephiroth standing one on one in a black void, swords drawn for a final duel. Your only option is the Limit Break Omnislash, a flurry of attacks dealing maximum damage and providing the most satisfying end possible for these two rivals.
Metal Gear Ray: Metal Gear Rising: Revengence
Before you start saying we’re breaking our own rules by having another Metal Gear game, may I point out that this is a Metal Gear Rising game, not Solid. Also, it was made by a completely different team and is nothing like the main series. Most of all, though, this game just had to be included. It was very difficult to pick just one boss from this game, so we just went with the first since it perfectly sets the tone for what all the boss fights will be like in this spinoff title. Now playing as the cyborg ninja Raiden, Metal Gear Rising: Revengence is a pure Platinum game through and through. Like their Bayonetta games, it’s all about stylish action. If you’re not pulling off cool moves, you’re playing the game wrong.
To make sure there’s no confusion about how this game isn’t a typical Metal Gear Solid game, the first boss is what would normally be a final boss: A Metal Gear Ray. The fight itself isn’t hard, but no one can say it isn’t one of the most thrilling and adrenaline-pumping first boss fights in any game. If you don’t feel like an unkillable cyborg ninja by the end, you may actually be a robot. What makes it so spectacular is the dynamic music, with lyrics kicking in dynamically at exactly the right moments to emphasis the crazy feats you’re pulling off. Yes, the coolest moments are more quick-time events, but when you’re watching Raiden pick up the giant Metal Gear, run along it while slashing it to splinters, or leaping from missile to missile in the air, all while heavy rock music cheers you on, it’s hard to really care. Just like God of War 3, sometimes spectacle and feeling unstoppable are just what you want from a boss fight.
Trainer Red: Pokemon Gold/ Silver
It seems like a trend that should be used way more often, but the trope of fighting the main character you played as in a previous game in the sequel is criminally underused. Just about every time it does come up is an exciting and tense encounter. I can safely say that I never expected it to happen in a game like Pokemon Gold or Silver, though. The main character from Red and Blue wasn’t really a character, after all. Canonically they were named Red, but how many of us actually used that name? While they weren’t a real character with a personality, we did learn just how powerful of a trainer they became because, well, we were the ones who did it. We beat the elite four, our rival, and became “the best there ever was.” Cut to the sequel, and we’re playing a new character on the same quest in a new region, with no idea that the two games would connect in any way.
Only after completing the main game, which includes returning to the Kanto region and getting all those badges, which already was a massive surprise, Professor Oak will give you an HM allowing you to climb up Mt. Silver. Once you reach the summit of the mountain, who is waiting for you but the legendary Red from the first game. And boy does he live up to his legend. Red is by far the highest-level trainer you can fight, with a team that is worthy of your legacy with him in Red and Blue. Not only does he have a level 81 Pikachu, he’s also rocking a Charizard, Blastoise, and Venusaur, all at level 77. If you’re not prepped with top-level Pokemon across a variety of elemental types, you won’t stand a chance against your previous incarnation. But manage to defeat him, and you’ll feel the thrill of essentially overcoming your past self and proving you’ve become a better trainer.
Jergingha: The Wonderful 101
The Wonderful 101 had a tough life. Originally a WiiU exclusive, this Platinum game had downright abysmal sales numbers for all the wrong reasons. It was a new IP, though originally pitched to feature multiple Nintendo characters, with a toy-like art style and control scheme that wasn’t the easiest to explain. But, for those who actually played it, there was yet another deep, satisfying, and complex combat system the studio is known for. The story as well was bombastic and as thrilling as its super sentai inspirations, but on a scale that couldn’t be done in any other medium than video games. On top of all that, the game had a ton of heart, with massive narrative payoffs you wouldn’t expect from a game with masked heroes facing off an alien threat called the Geathjerk.
Jergingha is the final boss of the entire game, the lead-up to which already raised adrenaline levels to near dangerous levels. After your crew of 101 get in a giant robot, go to space, and then gather up 100 more robots to make a team of 101 giant robots, you team up with your former rival to fight Jergingha, who itself controls a space station larger than a planet. Once again, the soundtrack does a ton of work to get you hyped up as the main theme roars in the background and you’re tested to use every ability the game has taught you. Follow that up with a Star Fox-style escape from the exploding space station and that alone would’ve made this fight qualify for this list. However, it doesn’t end there. You have one more phase, another new transformation into Ultra Platinum, and finally a Dragon Ball-style beam struggle as you unleash every bit of firepower the planet’s forces can muster. The final quick-time event simply tells you to “Protect Earth” by mashing the A button. Let me tell you, I’ve never mashed so hard in my life. When it was all said and done, I felt as exhausted but just as triumphant as the heroes.
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