Over the last few years, I’ve started playing more difficult video games. Unfortunately, tough video games tend to include tough boss fights, and I don’t really like tough boss fights.
This piece originally appeared 6/27/18.
From the blood-starved beast in Bloodborne, to the Valkyrie queen in God of War, to Diablos in Monster Hunter: World and Hornet from Hollow Knight, a lot of the games I’ve loved over the last few years have featured brutal boss fights. Those fights are seldom my favorite things about those games, and in fact can get in the way of my fun. I’ll spend an hour or two merrily exploring a level in Nioh, only to feel totally stuck when I get to the boss. I just wanted to keep exploring!
I’ve gotten better at surviving when a boss fight comes around, but I still approach each boss with some apprehension. Some bosses are no problem, but each one has the potential to be a roadblock. When that happens and I’m stuck on a boss fight, I can feel trapped. My progress through the game and its story has come to a screeching halt. I’ll spend a half hour trying to beat the boss, failing a dozen or more times. On one attempt, I’ll get so heartbreakingly close, then choke with victory in sight. My subsequent attempts will fall well short of that one, blessed attempt. I’ll begin to feel cursed. I’ll consider just quitting the game, and maybe quitting video games in general. I may or may not ponder taking some cues from the official Kotaku guide to how to throw your video game controller.
After years of fighting and (eventually (usually)) defeating difficult video game bosses, I decided I’d write down some generalized tips for anyone else who’s feeling stuck. Some of these tips are echoes from game-specific tips posts I’ve written over the years. If you’re stuck on a difficult boss fight, I hope they help.
I’m writing this as the first tip to head off those who might want to write it in the comments. Yes, you can beat a boss if you can spontaneously get better at the game in question. If there is a way to quickly and effortlessly increase your hand-eye coordination and master the timing of a specific set of controller inputs, by all means, use that to achieve victory. The rest of these tips are prefaced on the notion that while you may not seem to be Gud enough at the moment to win the fight, your innate Gudness can still carry you through if you slow down and focus.
If you’re fighting a tough boss, you’ll probably notice that your performance has peaks and valleys. You’re doing great one minute, and then it’s like your brain can’t keep up. You may have every one of the boss’s moves memorized, but at some point you’ll just lose the ability to focus. That means it’s time to take a break. You will not want to take a break. Last night, I was suffering through the second Hornet fight in Hollow Knight and let me tell you, I did not want to take a break. It was past midnight, and I just wanted to win the fight already.
In part because I was in the process of writing this article, I forced myself to stop. I stood up. I shook out my arms. I rolled my neck and shoulders. Even just that can be enough—you don’t have to walk away from the game entirely, but it can help. I recommend going outside. Or vent to your roommates or your dog. Go on a walk with your roommate, or your dog. Make dinner. It’ll be a lot easier to focus when you get back. (I did finally beat that fight, though I can’t say it was a relaxing experience even after taking a break. That is a hard-ass fight.)
Unfortunately, taking a short break from a difficult boss fight can easily turn into taking a much longer—or permanent—break from the game. If you’re not feeling a fight or are sick of the game, by all means, quit and never play it again. But if you want to finish, try to push yourself to go at the fight again before letting too much time pass.
If you’ve failed a boss fight a bunch of times in a row, turn off the music. Those dramatic choral chants and crashing orchestra cues are exciting the first few times, but they’ll quickly grow overbearing and exhausting as your losses pile up. What’s more, they can be distracting and can make you play worse. Sound effects and audio cues can be helpful, depending on the boss, since some enemies make certain sounds before preparing certain attacks. Loud music can get in the way of that, particularly if you listen to it over and over during repeated attempts. It also deadens your senses and can make you lose focus much faster than if you just turn it down and focus on sound effects. I love video game music and everything, but sometimes the best call is to turn the music off.
A variant of the above approach is to just turn everything down. Sometimes I take off my headphones and let them hang around my neck. I can still hear everything, but from a distance.
It can be helpful to adjust your distance from your TV or monitor. I generally like playing video games close to the screen, but after a handful of attempts against a tough boss, I find it can be helpful to push farther back. It’ll make that towering monster look less intimidating, and might help you keep a better read on what’s going on on-screen, too. This doesn’t work quite as well with mouse and keyboard PC games, of course.
These days, your gaming system of choice probably has a built-in gameplay recorder. Or maybe you own a game capture device. Either way, it can be helpful to go to the videotape after a loss, rewinding, rewatching, and studying how and why you went wrong. A dispassionate viewing of a boss fight will show you all kinds of things you might have missed in the heat of the moment. With no adrenaline coursing through your system, you may notice that the boss betrays a small tell each time it’s about to fire off that devastating area-of-attack spell. Or maybe you’ll see a flaming urn hanging from the ceiling, which you’re supposed to drop on the boss for massive damage. Or you’ll just get a better sense of the boss’s move-set, all while taking note of the many times you so stupidly walked into an attack you should’ve dodged. It may seem painful to watch your failures, but trust me: it’ll give you a much better shot at success the next time.
As you watch a recording of the fight, take some notes. Make a list of every attack the boss does. With few exceptions, even the most elaborate-seeming video game bosses only have a handful of moves. Watch the whole fight, and just write down every instance of every attack in order. Try to notice patterns. Does it ever do its long-range laser attack two times in a row? Does it always follow a close-range melee attack with a pounding area-of-attack spell? Does it always open with the same attack (looking at you, Onryoki from Nioh), or does it initiate a phase shift with the same combo? Look for patterns, and you’ll begin to unlock the sequence of responses required to win.
Calling in a co-op helper, whether online or on the couch n ext to you, can make a boss fight a lot easier. That’s a well-known thing in Souls games and Soulsalikes like Nioh, but co-op can be a good option in a lot of games, and is often included as a way to adjust for the difficulty without totally upending the balance of the fight. Boss fights in online games like Monster Hunter and Destiny become much easier not only because the boss will have to split its attention between you and your friend, but because death doesn’t always mean the end; in some fights, your partner can revive you and you can keep fighting.
Most games with tough boss fights give you a variety of possible strategies. You could go in close with melee attacks, or you could stick to ranged attacks. Maybe you exploit the environment in some way, or use some special mechanic unique to the boss room. If you’re losing over and over, however, it’s safe to conclude that whatever you’re doing isn’t working. In that case, try doing something radically different. Sprint directly to the boss and begin attacking—could be it can’t actually hit you if you stay up close. Or maybe do the opposite; try hiding behind that cliff in the corner and kiting the boss in your direction while whittling its health down with ranged attacks. Spend a few attempts trying wild, weird ideas in an attempt to break through. Your weirdest ideas probably won’t win the fight, but they’ll almost always open your eyes to new (and more effective) strategies you could be combining with more tried-and-true techniques.
More games are adopting the nonlinear Souls approach to bosses, where you ultimately need to defeat a boss to progress through the game, but you can always just go do something else if you get stuck. If you’re stuck on a boss and a game gives you the option to bail and go try something else, consider taking it up on that offer. It might mean you have to do some backtracking, but it’ll let you get back to exploring without needing to beat that boss right this very instant. You can also probably level up, get some new items and abilities, and otherwise acquire the power needed to make the fight a lot easier than it was.
“Fuck!” “No!” “God damn it!” It is understandable and even natural to cry out or curse upon defeat. All that built up tension and excitement deflates at once, as your character crumples to the floor and you deal with the fact that, nope, not this time. However, it can be helpful to try to laugh at the game instead of cursing it. “Ha ha ha… oh my god.” Even the toughest boss fights can be a little bit funny, particularly given that they were designed by humans who probably knew exactly how they would make players feel upon encountering them. Instead of cursing, try to laugh. It can be a rueful laugh.
Everyone chokes. It’s human nature. But the lowest point in any prolonged struggle with a boss fight comes on the attempt when you finally, finally had it, then you choked at the last second and blew it. Any of a number of things could cause you to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, but greed is the most common culprit. You saw the boss’s health bar was near zero. You had a few healing items left, but you decided you’d just go for it and finish this thing. And you paid for it. This most recently happened to me on a protracted rematch against Bloodborne’s Cainhurst Castle boss Martyr Logarius. (One of the game’s best bosses, btw.) I could’ve had it, I got cocky, and it was another hour until I finally beat him.
I would’ve done well to mentally prepare myself for that moment, and for the urgent downshifting required before I overcommit and get myself killed. If I have half health, and the boss is almost dead, every instinct (and every ounce of adrenaline) is screaming at me to charge in and finish this. Stop, I’ll think. Back up. Heal. Be careful. Don’t rush. You’re almost done, and if you just relax and get focused, you can finish this. Picture this sequence of events in your mind before the fight even begins, and you’ll be more likely to make the right call in the heat of the moment.
Last tip: Maybe you can lower the game’s difficulty? It’s okay to do that! There’s no prize for suffering, and sometimes video game bosses are too difficult. Game designers include difficulty settings for a reason, and they can be helpful for smoothing out spikes in the game’s challenge.
I hope those tips are helpful, and that you keep some of them in mind the next time you’re beating your head against a tough video game fight. Of course, you could also just ignore everything in this article and power through like people have for decades: by blindly charging forward, growing steadily more enraged with each defeat until you just go and look up some cheats so you can get on with your life. Totally your call.
Your turn: how do you approach a tough boss fight? Got any other tips or techniques you use?