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Boss fights are not a thing exclusive to RPGs, but reading this list of great and awful boss fights brought to us by PC Gamer's editors, it becomes apparent that RPGs do have some of the most memorable bosses in the whole gaming industry. From The Master and The Transcendent One to Pinwheel and everything in between. A few examples:
The Master, Fallout
Jody: I've finished Fallout twice and never defeated The Master by just straight-up shooting him in the eyes or whatever other bits he has—he's a mutant lump of flesh so unfathomable if you try for an aimed shot half of him is just labeled "???"
The first time I made it to the end of Fallout it was with a sneaky, high-agility character who stealthed around his base and set off a nuke in it. The second time it was with a diplomatic, high-charisma type who talked the Master to death, choosing conversation options that exposed his flawed philosophy, made him realize his own monstrosity, and led him to suicide.
There's an option to just attack if you want to take the Master on with pulse grenades and a real big gun if that's your thing, but the fact you don't have to is what makes the climax of Fallout so great. Plenty of people hate bosses, so making them optional seems like such an obvious kindness it's baffling that 21 years later it's still uncommon.
The Transcendent One, Planescape: Torment
One of the biggest failings of boss fights is how often they abandon the principles of the game they're in, robbing you of agency or creativity in favor of a big arena slugfest or fancy cinematic. The opposite of that is Planescape: Torment, maybe the best RPG of all time, which utterly commits to letting you talk your way out of conflict, up until the very end. There are a number of ways your encounter with The Transcendent One can end, including combat if that's your wish. But dialogue, as always in Planescape, proves to be the more interesting option. Gaming rarely manages to get this philosophical, and even more rarely pulls it off.
Pinwheel, Dark Souls
Joe: According to this Dark Souls wiki, Pinwheel is: "A flying, multi-masked necromancer who stole the power of the Gravelord and reigns over the Catacombs. [It] spawns multiple copies of itself and attacks the player with projectile blasts." All of which sounds pretty badass, right? Except in practice it's not really like that. At all.
In a game that prides itself on its challenging encounters, Pinwheel is an anomaly. This run in is not only easier than every other boss battle in Dark Souls, it's easier than a fair whack of its standard enemies too. Its moveset is predictable, its cloned subordinates are a pain, and its drops—bar the Rite of Kindling—are rubbish. I almost lost the plot after my umpteenth death at the hands of Ornstein and Smough—yet the feeling of finally besting them was second to none. Pinwheel, on the other hand, robbed me of that eureka feeling by being so damn weak.
The suggestion that From Software expected players to invade the Catacombs early on goes a ways to explaining why Pinwheel in so underpowered later in the game, but the Catacombs itself is surely no place for pre-Anor Londo/Sen's Fortress/Blighttown players. In any event, FTRichter’s Prepare to Die Again mod reimagines a more formidable Pinwheel.
Wes: "It's terrible. You have this great game, and then you end up fighting this giant nude dude. We didn't have a better idea," Ken Levine once said. Well-put. Bioshock's final battle ditched everything brilliant about the game to end with a cliche slugfest with a big muscular guy. The game clearly didn't quite know where to go after the encounter with Andrew Ryan, but it definitely should've gone somewhere else. Maybe force the player to sit through a reading of John Galt's 80 page monologue from Atlas Shrugged? That would've been a better tonal fit, and a far greater challenge.