What Skyward Sword Can Do to Improve Boss Encounters

Guest Article by Joshua Lindquist

The bosses of The Legend of Zelda have changed significantly over the years. They began as very simple fights that often required nothing more than striking the boss with your sword, but the latest boss encounters are complex fights that could sometimes be considered puzzles. These newer fights are fast paced and fun, but most of them boil down to a single goal: expose the boss’s weak point and then go crazy with your sword. The new boss encounters have made the bosses a lot of fun, but they have also locked players into a single method to defeating each boss.

In between these two extremes there was a time when bosses didn’t have weak points to expose and you didn’t need your sword. There is probably no Zelda game that demonstrates this better than A Link to the Past. The game includes several bosses where you are not locked in to any particular strategy. If you don’t want to use your sword then you can use arrows, and if you run out of arrows then maybe the ice rod or fire rod will do the job.

There’s a new Zelda game on the horizon and we already know that parts of the core Zelda experience are being changed. Hopefully all of those changes are for the better, but there is one more that I want to add to the mix. The new style of boss encounters definitely have their place and I hope they never leave the series, but there needs to be more variety in the boss encounters, a lot of which I believe can be pulled from the previous titles in the series.

Give players more freedom in what weapons to use

Many of the bosses in A Link to the Past do not have weak points to expose (although some do, which offers some variety) and players are not forced to use a specific item to defeat each boss. In recent Zelda games, especially Twilight Princess, you are almost always required to use whatever item you found in a dungeon to defeat its corresponding boss.

Defeating Lanmola with the ice rod.

The bosses of other Zelda titles may be weak to whatever item you find in their dungeon, but this item isn’t the only way to defeat them. Instead of fighting in a room filled with spinner tracks, you are left in an empty room with a boss who has no obvious weak points. You are left to try out various weapons until you find one that works. This approach gets more interesting because more than one weapon often works. So, you might have killed the Lanmolas in A Link to the Past with your sword, but your best friend may have completed the same fight using the ice rod.

This approach can also make your second or third time through the game more interesting. You aren’t forced to kill the bosses the same way every time through the dungeon. It also opens the opportunity for players to challenge themselves. Did you know you can defeat those Lanmolas using arrows? The challenge is landing the shots.

Giving players a reason to try out their various weapons also leads to fun discoveries. This could be something as simple as learning that the Armos Knights can be killed faster by arrows than with your sword, or it could be something odd like learning that the bug-catching net can reflect Aganhim’s fireballs. It turns out that the Master Sword isn’t the only weapon in Hyrule capable of destroying evil.

Give players more freedom in what strategy to use

It would be easy to leave this at simply allowing players to use their variety of weapons more often, but I’m not just asking for Nintendo to let me use the Megaton Hammer instead of the sword. A Link to the Past gave us that feature nineteen years ago. Instead, I’d like to see Nintendo step it up another notch. Rather than a boss that can simply be damaged by more than one weapon, how about we get some bosses that have more than one straight-forward strategy to follow?

Ever since Ocarina of Time, the Zelda series has been locked into the idea that bosses have weak points and weak points need to be exposed. Unfortunately, there is usually only one way to expose that weak point. That means that the fight is the same every time you play it. Other games have already given us boss fights that do this. I’ll illustrate with a game that is commonly brought up in boss discussions and is one of my favorites: Shadow of the Colossus.

Shadow of the Colossus is all about boss fights. Each fight is unique and there isn’t a minute of that game that Zeldacan’t learn from. Some of the fights are very similar to recent Zelda bosses; they are straight forward puzzle-fights with one method that can be used to expose a weak point. Other fights give the player a ton of freedom even though every player will ultimately end up at the same place: a glowing weak point.

For example, in one of the early fights in Shadow of the Colossus you fight a huge golem with a stone sword. Your first goal is to climb up the sword and reach the golem’s head to stab a weak point. That portion of the fight allows for very little freedom, but after that a new weak point appears on his stomach. There are several ways to reach that second weak point. It’s always in the same place, but how it’s reached it is entirely up to the player.

Remove the glowing and visible weak points

The Zelda series needs open-ended boss fights like those in Shadow of the Colossus, but they can do even better by removing the visible glowing weak points. You don’t need a weak point to create a compelling fight and the developers of Zelda already know this. Just look at the Darknuts in Twilight Princess. These non-boss enemies are often more difficult than any of the bosses in the game and they have no gimmicks and no weak points. Furthermore, up until Ocarina of Time was released, many of the bosses didn’t have a visible weak point.

I’d like to see more boss fights that are like Darknut fights. This gives players the opportunity to explore and change the fight even more. A boss can be weaker in a certain area or weak against a certain item without making it painfully obvious.

The previously mentioned Armos Knights from A Link to the Past are an easy example of this. You can hit them anywhere and in any part of the room. You can use your sword and it will work, but if you use arrows you’ll get the job done a lot faster.

Break the “bosses are weak against the dungeon item” mold. In order for any of these changes to happen, this idea has got to go. Knowing that the boss is always weak against whatever item you found in the dungeon kills all the potential for player exploration. This isn’t something that needs to be removed entirely from the series, but it needs to be removed from some of the bosses in order to allow more player freedom.

Rely on player knowledge

After removing the obvious weak points and breaking the “boss/dungeon item” mold, the experience can be improved further by making players think a little bit. Most of us live on the real Earth and spend at least a little bit of time actually living outside of The Legend of Zelda, and the real world is full of valuable knowledge that we learn as we live. The games should tap into that knowledge to improve boss encounters rather than always holding our hand through the fights.

Here are some easy examples: Can anyone tell me what happens to grass when you light it on fire? What happens if you pour water on a pile of dirt or send an electric current through a puddle of water?

Grass burns, water turns to mud, and the water is going to shock everything in it. So the next time you’re fighting Kalle Demos, should  you going to shoot fire arrows at it? Of course not, everyone knows that giant plant monsters are weak against the boomerang.

The Legend of Zelda needs to pull from the real world more. This gives players the opportunity to use what they already know to defeat bosses rather than relying only on knowledge they learned in the past hour while playing the game.

Looking Skyward

Yesterday, we were introduced to The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword. The demo at E3 included one boss, but unfortunately that boss doesn’t appear to take into account what I’ve written in this article. There are a couple of obvious weak points and the boss appears to be a very straight forward fight.

Hopefully, during the next six months, the developers will incorporate some additional play styles (like those mentioned previously) into some of the fights. I’m hoping to see a variety of bosses in this game, and even if the scorpion boss shown at E3 is a straightforward fight, there is still an opportunity for other fights to allow more player freedom.