The evolution of boss battles
by on October 10, 2016

When I was four, before I even began to comprehend my ABCs, I got the greatest gift imaginable for a child at the time: the Nintendo Entertainment System. This magical grey box came with a single game called Super Mario Bros., and I was overjoyed that it was mine to own. “It doesn’t get better than this,” I said.

However, six months later, I went to my cousin Pat’s house and was blown away by a shimmering, gold cartridge that read The Legend of Zelda. I watched for the first hour and was just mesmerized by the sword that appeared to shoot lasers, the dark dungeon rooms (most of them near identical so that it was quite easy to get lost in), and the vast array of weaponry. I had to have it, so I begged until I received it for Christmas a year after it’s initial release.

Now, here I am nearing my mid-thirties and reflecting on how much I have changed along with how much the Zelda series has changed. Link and the entire universe that surrounds him has evolved and kept up with the last three decades of transforming technology. For me, one of the biggest parts of The Legend of Zelda was and always will be the bosses. The last stronghold before whatever it is that hides behind that door that they’re guarding, whether it be a heart, a princess, or the coveted triforce.

When did Ganon start pumping iron?

In the beginning, bosses were very simplistic: size, speed, and little glowing balls of energy were nearly identical across the board. Their weaknesses didn’t differ much either throughout the first game. Basically, if the sword didn’t work, just use the last weapon that you acquired. The only exception to this was a little scurrying spider in Level 6 that could only be hurt when her eye fully opened; this boss got me in a lot of trouble with my stepmother for swearing too loud.

As the series progressed over the years, the bosses seemed to get meaner, faster, and larger. From Helmethead, who had to be disarmored, in Zelda II to a giant scorpion-like dinosaur named Helmasaur King in A Link to the Past. In just a short time, bosses had grown to enormous sizes, so big that new abilities had to be introduced such as dashing and rolling just to give our hero a fighting chance against these gargantuans.

In just a short time, bosses had grown to enormous sizes, so big that new abilities had to be introduced to give our hero a fighting chance.

But alas, enemies didn’t always get bigger; sometimes the smaller the villain the stronger the punch. Vitreous in A Link to the Past was literally a pile of eyeballs for a boss, yet fighting it still managed to be very fun to fight thanks to the Indiana Jones-like hookshot that could bring them to you at your convenience. But nothing can blow your mind more than a seemingly weak baddie that becomes more than you possibly could have bargained for.

In 2004, we saw Zelda’s first full-color handheld game entitled The Minish Cap, and it brought a completely new aspect to the series: miniaturization. Suddenly becoming a pint-sized version of yourself was a truly great concept that just gave me a sense of enjoyment and cute perception… at least until the first boss fight of the game. I traversed through the enlarged Deepwood Shrine until I reached the final room that housed a single green Chu Chu. And seeing that caused me to began laughing, at least until it grew to a towering stature. This very concept would happen again with an Octorok in the Temple of Droplets; one of my most hated foes since the first game at age six had grown up and started to menace me.

Though bosses could be quite large as they led up to the finale of each adventure, the ending itself could be epic as well. Nothing shocked me more than when I reached the final form of Ganondorf in Ocarina of Time after an annoyingly tedious game of follow the leader. For the first time in my life, a Zelda boss was so intimidating that it left my mouth agape. Even now, several years later, I was forced to relive this horror at the culmination of Twilight Princess when going toe to toe with the beast Ganon.

It’s not about the destination but the journey

You can’t talk about Zelda’s epic bosses without mentioning the path that leads you to them: the dungeon. In the beginning, the dungeon started out simple by providing you with an obvious path where the monsters grew increasingly more difficult as you progressed. Then, with each new installment of the series, the dungeons and temples themselves became more treacherous like they were a villain of their own with the addition of multiple floors, traps, and mini bosses.

Stallord

More and more, dungeons have focused on ambiance and atmosphere, not just their final battles.

In the first two Zelda adventures, items were simply just left on the floor, ripe for the taking. But that soon changed with the inclusion of treasure chests. The chests evolved over the years to include small chests containing things you usually don’t need like a handful of Rupees, medium chests with maps and special items, and eventually the big chest the size of a coffin that housed the key you needed to unlock the dungeon’s final door and face your possible demise.

The keys themselves would evolve from game to game as the series grew up. It began with a tiny gold generic key and quickly became a bigger key, complete with the image of a skull affixed to it. Then, most recently, keys became a puzzle unto themselves in Skyward Sword, a construct that personally gave me carpal tunnel syndrome as I tried to twist it so that it was just so perfectly aligned with the carved hole in the cathedral-like door.

Music has always been a staple of the series and that is no different when we think about the sounds of the dungeon. Since the first adventure, when we first set foot into the dark depths of the underworld, that drastic shift in music altered our emotions as we played through. Inside the scariest of the boss’ lair, the only solace we have is the occasional chime of an unveiled secret or cheery applause of opening a big treasure chest.

Which button does the Helm Splitter again?

The controls required to survive and thrive have changed drastically over the years.

The controls required to survive and thrive have changed drastically over the years.

During Zelda’s adolescence in the first four Nintendo consoles, only four buttons or less were used to control the character. It wasn’t until Ocarina of Time that we were forced to utilize all fingers in order to defeat that who separates our hero from the triforce and his beloved. Soon after that, they completely flipped the script and introduced us to motion controls thus creating an entirely new experience and then taking it away again.

Walking around the land of Hyrule began so simply, by pushing in any of four directions, but 30 years of evolution would change that. Now it includes running (though not for very long), sidestepping, backflipping, and leaping over obstacles. Link’s movement looks quite different today with the continuous releases of snippets of Breath of the Wild.

Probably the most drastic change in Link’s abilities and appearance occurred in Twilight Princess where he not only transformed into a wolf, but also was granted sword skills, seven to be exact. It showed us what Link was truly capable of and it had me repeatedly saying “Link is a badass.” It’s not so much a special feature of this particular game but more of a peek into what is possible for the future of the green-tunic wearing hero.

The next and most recent control change occurred less than five years ago in the right-handed exclusive Skyward Sword. Playing this new style of Zelda adventure was so daunting that even the creators thought it necessary for a lengthy tutorial in the beginning. Fighting a boss with this style nearly gave me, a seasoned veteran of the series, a panic attack when Ghirahim licked his lips and rushed me like I was a new scarf.

Fighting a boss with 1:1 motion controls gave me a panic attack when Ghirahim licked his lips and rushed me like I was a new scarf.

Now, you’d think this would be enough to create a challenge against the bosses even with mild difficulty, but this installment in the series still houses some of the hardest villains in Zelda history. I personally found Scaldera the funnest boss battle I have ever experienced, thanks to its homage to bowling. The hardest would be fairly obvious to anyone who’s played Skyward Sword, the six-armed Koloktos who brought back my Tourettes from decades past.

Have we met?

There are a number of recurring characters in the Zelda universe, like most franchises of games, movies, and books. But it isn’t too often that the villains make a return, and, if they do, it’s usually just the patriarch that greets us. This is untrue with Zelda, but when your favorite bad guy makes an appearance you can’t help but smile. For you it may be the dirty tusks of beast Ganon or the mirrored abilities of your own shadow, but for me it’s the eight-legged queen.

When a monster returns, it doesn’t always look the same or even have the same name, but its original essence you can see. Let’s go back to the four-legged dinosaur Helmasaur, whom I believe was reborn into a colossal bird from The Wind Waker whom we call the Helmaroc King (or vice versa, depending on your views of the timeline); their weaknesses even match. Though one is a bird and the other is a dinosaur, they both have a steel helmet (hence the name) that can only be shattered by their respectable hammers.

Two of the most recurring bosses are King Dodongo and Queen Gohma, who appear in seven and six games respectively. The former, despite making more than half a dozen appearances, has not changed his appearance one iota. Sure, in the beginning he looked like nothing more than a triceratops, but he looks relatively the same near the end of his career, always representing some dinosaur-like beast. Her majesty Queen Gohma, on the other hand, has evolved more times than the cockroach. We’ve seen the queen mother as a spider, an alien-like arachnid, a lava-bathing lobster, and then back into an ugly, hairy spider that lives through an eyeball.

Given the connections, one has to wonder if Helmaroc King evolved akin to the Rito to survive on the Great Sea.

Given the connections, one has to wonder if Helmaroc King evolved akin to the Koroks and Rito to survive on the Great Sea.

Lastly, we come to the most infamous of all of the recurring bosses in The Legend of Zelda, the shadowy doppelganger Dark Link. His first appearance came in Zelda II after the “final” battle as an added slap in the face from this adventure’s extreme difficulty which is legend. Later in the series, he would make appearances as a mini-boss, part of a flashback, and the center of a mini-game. In the beginning, he was a mirror of yourself, copying your every move, but later in the series he had evolved into a more competent combatant in Ocarina of Time. His actions, intelligence, and abilities has evolved, yet he is still just a dim visage of our hero. He hasn’t had a huge part of the series, but has an extreme cult following among fans.

Final battle? But you haven’t changed forms yet!

Back in the good old days of straightforward bosses, once the ultimate villain was dead, he was dead. However, the adventure has evolved and so must the antagonist. Final battles are never meant to be easy, so when they are, we begin to question why is it so. “That was easy,” we say, “A little too easy.” Then, we find out why is was so “easy.”

Back in the old days, once the villain was dead, he was dead. However, the adventure has evolved and so must the antagonist.

With eight nicknames and twelve appearances (and one pending), Ganondorf takes the prize for biggest threat to all of Hyrule. His career began as we’ve seen him many times, as a boar-like beast who’s hellbent on destroying the world and becoming some all-powerful being by coopting the Triforce of Power. But since his first appearance he has taken many forms, much like Satan himself. Ganon and Ganondorf, the only male Gerudo we’ve ever laid our eyes on, has been a beast, a man, a wizard, a puppet, and simply just an entity that radiates evil.

On the opposite side of the spectrum, we have almighty foes that are only given one life to try and destroy Link and everything he holds dear. Look around and you’ll read posts and comments of fans begging for the return of their favorites such as Demise, Majora, and even Vaati, whom people can never seem to get enough of. Where is their second (or fourth) chance? In Twilight Princess we were treated with an incredibly sly and methodical villain by the name of Zant, only to have him ripped away to make room for Ganon. Why is this? Does Nintendo go back to the well because they’re afraid we won’t fear a villain as much as Ganon? In the back of my mind I like to think that they will evolve Ganondorf even more further down the timeline; maybe tell us why he is the way he is.

zant

These eaters of worlds provide a veritable challenge when faced in combat, but who are they? What truly drives their need for power? Is it vengeance against a cruel world or are they just wired the wrong way? Are they the serial killers of Hyrule? Nobody can be sure since in some cases we get nearly no backstory, but there’s plenty more time for that… right? In my opinion, I’d like to see more of Demise from Skyward Sword not only because he’s scary on sight, but I was intrigued that his subordinate Ghirahim followed him so blindly. By the end of the Wii adventure, I wondered what occurred in the past or if we may get to see him in a future game.

John Pond
Hardworking writer and author of the self-published novel, "Clouds of Tyranny." Avid fan of metal music, The Legend of Zelda series, Gotham, and everything apocalypse related. When I'm not writing, I'm cooking.
  • Michael Kelly III

    I always felt the dungeon was the boss battle, because the dungeon is more challenging than the boss in every single Zelda game. Sometimes I couldn’t believe I got through a level it was a real sense of accomplishment that no other game ever captured. (Skyward Sword had some tuff bosses.)

  • So much depth to this piece! Never made the Helmasaur/Helmaroc King connection before but it’s a great theory. You’ve got me in the mood to kick some boss behinds!

  • michael

    Demise was reincarnated into Ganon(dorf) and thats why Ganon has always been the way he’s been. he is the constant rebirth of Demise the same way most of the Link’s and Zelda’s are reincarnations of the original Link and the goddess Hylia.

    • Vitor Roma

      So much this. I can’t believe that author didn’t know that Gannondorf is Demise. It was such a in your face thing.

      • True Davad

        Who said he didn’t know? Where did that assumption come from? Furthermore Ganondorf is a manifestation of Demise’s rage, not a complete reincarnation. I feel its a status downgrade for Ganondorf honestly. I don’t like it.

  • Vitor Roma

    I really love Gannondorf in WW. Mano a mano sword fight, no Gannon.

  • Elven_Ariaera

    Huh, it’s totally funny how I never realized the similarities between the Helmasaur and the Helmaroc King (though it seems silly not to now that I think of it, haha)! Gohma has always been one of my favorite bosses (in particular Twilight Princesses incarnation), as well as Twilight Princess’s Stallord and Zant, and Wind Wakers Molgera. It’s really cool to see how far Zelda has come with making bosses. I really love the experiences fighting them in WW, TP, and SS because they felt so grand.

  • Matthew Krankall

    Oh man, what a trip down memory lane. You gave such a good string of how these different bosses have appeared and evolved over the history of the series.