In real life, if you encounter a large being hell-bent on beating the crap out of you, you call them “an asshole” or “a fully grown polar bear, but in my backyard, like in those nightmares I have.” In a video game, you call them “a boss.” That’s weird! Plenty of people want to fight their bosses, sure, but the term is not commonly associated with combat outside of games. On this week’s Splitscreen podcast episode, we try to figure out why, alongside the final boss of video games: ex-Kotaku editor-in-chief Stephen Totilo.
To kick off our boss-focused episode, Michael Fahey takes Ash Parrish, Stephen, and me down a rabbit hole of video game boss history in an attempt to pinpoint when we started calling them that and why. Then we move into a discussion of our favorite (and least favorite) types of video game bosses, concluding that truly great boss fights tell a story. Think about the end of Super Metroid, for example. There’s also Metal Gear Solid 3's The End, who’s practically a piñata of stories and gimmicks. Oh and of course, there’s gaming’s most heart-rending tale of all: the giant evil house from Final Fantasy VII Remake, which will literally rend your heart, if you let it. To finish out the episode, we interview Stephen about his 12 years at Kotaku before banishing him from the website forever, something we definitely have the authority to do.
Get the MP3 here, and check out an excerpt below.
Fahey: Where did the term “boss” come from? When did we start using it for video games? I wish I could tell you all that it was a specific moment, but it kinda grew organically. One of my favorite early uses was in the Bruce Lee movie The Big Boss, which was actually Fists Of Fury. It was a 1971 film in which he had to fight a drug kingpin, and he fought the big boss at the end. So that name came from mob bosses and mafia bosses. Gang bosses.
One of the first video game usages of the idea of a boss—the final big battle at the end—was a  dungeon crawling game called dnd, like the letters.
Ash: Like... delta nitro delta, is that what you’re saying?
Fahey: It was based on Dungeons & Dragons, but you really couldn’t call it that.
Nathan: Right, they would have gotten in trouble.
Fahey: It was for the Plato system, and it was a text-based dungeon crawler. If you’ve played actual D&D, you know there’s a certain format that all the dungeons generally follow. You have a bunch of random encounters, and then at the end of the dungeon, there’s a big treasure trove with a big, giant... what do you call that big giant thing? It’s a boss. So dnd had a big dragon at the end of it. You had to retrieve an orb from the bottom of the dungeon, and there was a giant white dragon guarding it. That was one of the first video game bosses, technically.
Ash: I wonder why we didn’t call them “guards.” Seems like “guards” would be more intuitive, based on a boss’ function.
Nathan: Even “dragons” makes more sense. It wouldn’t have to be a literal dragon necessarily, but that gets the point across that what you’re fighting is big and imposing and stands guard over a big pile of gold or something.
Fahey: So you’re saying that right now we could be saying, like, “The dragon fight at the end of Mario”?
Nathan: Video games would be so much more metal if we called them all “dragon fights.” We should call the medium “dragon fights” instead of video games. It’d be like “We’re all big into dragon fighting. Instead of gamers, we’re dragon fighters. That’s our thing.”
Fahey: We are dragon fighters. Now the term “boss” has been used in games for a while, but it’s kind of fuzzy where it first shows up. Nintendo Power magazine is a big citation when you’re trying to find the origin of the term “boss.” It really started showing up in Nintendo Power in 1988. That’s when it really started being used a lot.
Ash: I’m curious what was used before—what the vernacular was. I’m very fascinated by etymology. I think I remember asking John Walker, formerly of Rock Paper Shotgun, about this in our Slack. He said they used to call them “mayors”? But he’s also British.
Nathan: I think he might have been messing with you.
Ash: Really? I believed him. Oh no!
Nathan: They used to call them dukes.
Ash: I would buy that, too!
Fahey: Well, there was the duke of hell in that one game, Satan’s Hollow. Didn’t you have to fight the duke of hell in Satan’s Hollow?
Ash: I don’t know what that is.
Fahey: Oh my god, you people are so young. Stephen, you know Satan’s Hollow, right?
Stephen: No, I don’t truck in Satan, Mike Fahey. Don’t they call them “bosses” because they’re in charge of all the enemies? Like a crime boss.
Fahey: That’s the general idea, yeah. Joystick Magazine—not to be confused with Joystiq—they called the things in Galaga that take your ship away a “boss.” The boss Galaga is the one you had to shoot twice to get your ship back.
Stephen: How weird, because I wouldn’t call those bosses.
Fahey: I wouldn’t call them bosses, either.
Stephen: I would call Donkey Kong a boss, kind of.
Fahey: Donkey Kong is a boss. There was an arcade game called Phoenix—kind of like a Space Invaders clone—where toward the end, you had to fight the mothership. That feels like one of the first boss battles I had. But there is no real “This is the first game that called them ‘bosses.’” I think it evolved from role-playing—from tabletop role-playing, D&D sorts of things. I remember us calling things “the dungeon boss.”
Ash: When Stephen said it’s because the boss is in charge of the minions you fight, that’s what made it click for me. That makes sense to me now.
Fahey: Right. It’s the same as when you think of a mob boss. He’s the toughest. You fight through all the other mobsters, and you get to him, and that’d better be one hell of a fight. Otherwise, why was he the boss in the first place? If you were to fight through, say, the Kotaku staff a few weeks ago, you would expect that once you got to Stephen Totilo, you would have to start using all the weapons you’ve collected off of us: Nathan’s hair, Ash’s...
Ash: Fahey, what weapon do you drop?
Fahey: My weapon is a motorized wheelchair with cannons. Ash, your weapon is thirst for giant monsters.
Ash: [Laughs] I was going to say, like, a big staff, because I’m a magical girl, so I carry a magical staff.
Nathan: What does Stephen drop?
Fahey: Apparently the job, because he left.
Ash: Stephen, when you are killed in this theoretical fight, what do you drop?
Stephen: Oh god, I don’t know. I drop all the best jokes, that everyone likes laughing at. Nobody’s gonna laugh at my jokes on this podcast because you don’t work for me anymore.
Nathan: We don’t have to, it’s true. We’re free.
For all that and more, check out the episode. New episodes drop every Friday, and don’t forget to like and subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or Stitcher. Also if you feel so inclined, leave a review, and you can always drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org if you have questions or suggest a topic. If you want to yell at us directly, you can reach us on Twitter: Ash is @adashtra, Fahey is @UncleFahey, and Nathan is @Vahn16. See you next week!