How to (not) design (real and fake) unwinnable boss fights

Joyfully Rewarding Players' Guts: Winning or losing - are you really the boss in this fight? How to (not) design (real and fake) unwinnable boss fights.

There are a few JRPG tropes I really don't like. Jail time, for example: The party is almost always forced into imprisonment even though the player gets the impression he could have avoided this predicament through (further) fighting. Most times, the player gets to keep his equipment, which makes no sense at all story-wise, but (s)he wouldn't be able to escape without his/her equipment. Long story short: Almost all games don't get prison scenarios right, so I would prefer it if they didn't use them at all.

Can't win, don't like it

This article is about another of my least favorite tropes: unwinnable boss fights (real and fake). What's the difference? Real unwinnable boss fights are really unwinnable (who would have thought of that?), because the developer designed them properly. Fake unwinnable boss fights can be won or survived by grinding beforehand, and the developer rewards the player for his efforts (there are also hybrid forms, for example when the player can win the fight because of a bug, but the game still pretends that the player lost). Why do I dislike them? They don't integrate well into most stories. Losing a boss battle (or any battle) usually means game over. Thus, the integration of an unwinnable boss fight means the developer has to bend story and logic in order for the party to survive. Best-case scenario: The villain can't finish off the party because his final attack blasted all of its members out of reach. Worst-case scenario: An arrogant villain spares the party, because its members don't deserve death by his hands - or even his attention. Not only does the player feel bad about his powerlessness in this situation, the story is also spoiled, similar to a young boy who knows he could only win a game between siblings because his big brother let him win.

If a developer really insists on implementing an unwinnable boss fight, (s)he should at least implement them properly both story- and mechanics-wise. Let us explore how to (not) do this in various constellations.

Unwinnable - for real

One could be tempted into thinking that real unwinnable boss fights are easy to design. I mean: How difficult can it be to design an insurmountable obstacle that utterly destroys the player's party? This depends on whether you consider your approach (absolute or relative) for both offense and defense. Relative approaches are hallmarked by simple augmentations of a boss's level and stats, which means they're more likely to not fulfill their purpose when the balancing is off or the developer underestimates the eagerness of usually over-leveled players (like me). Two (negative) examples:

The unpatched version of Galer: A Plague of Heroes included a boss fight that the player is supposed to lose in order to advance. I - over-leveled as usual - won the fight during my first try, but couldn't proceed afterwards, since I was returned to before the boss battle started and could only trigger it again and again in an endless loop. Of course, I noticed that this boss fight was rather on the hard side, but only after a few tries I realized that I might be supposed to lose in order to continue. This example shows how spectacularly the relative approach for both offense and defense can fail. Many games, especially having been made with or having been published in the dominant era of RPG Maker 2000, simply pretend that the player still lost the unwinnable boss fight, even when (s)he didn't (which means this particular fight is kind of a hybrid between real and fake unwinnable). While this solution is preferable to the assumption of having encountered a game-breaking bug, it's still far from ideal. On the other hand, it's even worse if a game is so boring and grinding would take forever at this point that the player doesn't even try to win a potentially fake unwinnable boss fight (example: The Ino Chronicles - Ascension). Some games even punish the player with a game over, because the developer wrongly assumes the player must have cheated in order to win the boss fight in question, instead of blaming himself for having used a relative approach, which makes cheating possible and alluring in the first place (even when it isn't necessary to cheat, because grinding can suffice to emerge victorious).

Breath of Fire III features a pair of undefeatable bosses (Balio and Sunder) early in the game. Unfortunately, the game's official strategy guide mistakenly claimed they could be beaten. This boss battle features a relative approach only for offense (the bosses even run out of AP at some point, but still waste their turns by trying to cast magic), so as soon as curious players managed to permanently survive during this battle, they tried to dish out enough damage. Some fought for hours and even days to no avail, while others even powered up their party using a Game Shark, but finally they all arrived at the same conclusion: The bosses are invincible (absolute approach for defense), though the battle can be dragged on forever (because of the relative approach for offense).

Ergo: If you want to play it safe, use the absolute approach for offense and defense. Absolute approach for defense means that the boss can't be defeated no matter what (see the Breath of Fire III example above), either because it has infinite HP or because all attacks launched by the player always cause 0 damage. In order to prevent the fight from lasting forever like in the Breath of Fire III example, an absolute approach for offense is needed. This means that a certain skill of the boss in question (used at the beginning or after a few turns) either damages all party members for the maximum of HP that can technically be reached (fixed amount independent of other factors) or fulfills a special victory condition like causing (unavoidable) instant death for all party members. Either way, while the absolute approach for offense is technically the safe way, the story will suffer from using this approach. A gap of power this large can - story-wise - rarely be closed in a convincing manner, which is one more reason to avoid the implementation of (real) unwinnable boss fights. By the way: If you really want to piss off players, create an unwinnable boss fight whose outcome also leads to the player losing all of his/her items (which can be experienced in Astoria: The Holders of Power Saga).

Not really unwinnable

Being by far the more preferable one of the two, fake unwinnable boss fights only pretend to be unwinnable. While the player is supposed to lose the fight and is therefore allowed to lose without suffering any disadvantages, (s)he is also allowed and able to win the fight, which grants him/her a special reward and a slightly different story continuation. It goes without saying (I'm saying it nonetheless) that fake unwinnable boss fights require relative approaches for offense and defense, since an absolute approach for defense (the boss is invincible) or offense (the player's party is inevitably obliterated) means that the boss fight is really unwinnable. By implementing fake unwinnable boss fights, developers can demonstrate they really know what they're doing. The reward for winning a fake unwinnable boss fight must be valuable (but preferably not unique, since unique items shouldn't be permanently missable, but that's just my opinion). Once again two (this time positive) examples:

Estpolis Denki II (better known as Lufia II: Rise of the Sinistrals in the USA or just Lufia in Europe, because Lufia & The Fortress of Doom wasn't released in Europe) features one of the first and most prominent fake unwinnable boss fights. Gades is one of the four Sinistrals (i.e. one of the four big bosses) and the first one to challenge the player when he's still unprepared. His attacks are so overwhelming even against highly-trained parties that a player could believe Gades was really unbeatable, yet it's still obvious for experienced players that Gades's approach for offense is only relative (nowadays; the game was released 23 years ago during a time when experienced players had "only" completed the first six Final Fantasy games and the first five Dragon Warrior games). It comes as no surprise that many players that grinded for hours and/or found the optimal strategy were finally able to defeat Gades over the years. Their reward: the Gades Blade and its infamous octo-strike special attack (something Octopath Travelers can only dream of). What's so special about this reward (apart from slashing an enemy eight times in a row)? You may have heard of the Ancient Cave, a (within certain parameters) randomly generated dungeon in this game that consists of 100 floors. Entering the Ancient Cave means that the levels of all party members are reset to 1; they also can't use any previously acquired equipment in the Ancient Cave - except for equipment found inside blue treasure chests that are rarely generated inside the Ancient Cave. It usually takes the player several "dives" into the Ancient Cave, every time a bit deeper and as deep as possible, but the most important thing is to make it out alive with any blue treasure chest items found (the player can't save inside the Ancient Cave and loses all acquired items upon defeat). Securing these blue treasure chest items which can be used freely inside the Ancient Cave means that each subsequent "dive" gets a bit easier (especially on previously reached floors). Guess what can also be found in blue treasure chests inside the Ancient Cave? The Gades Blade. And when is Gades encountered? Before the Ancient Cave can be explored for the first time. That means: By defeating Gades, the player is allowed to wield a powerful weapon inside the Ancient Cave from the beginning, enabling him to conquer this beast of a dungeon significantly faster.

While not being as rewarding as in the aforementioned example, Forever Home still offers a decent fake unwinnable boss fight. The first boss fight in the game is fought in the very first village (the protagonists' home village) against a future companion (mistaken for an enemy). This boss fight ends automatically after a few turns (assuming or feigning the player's defeat), and while this means there's an absolute approach for offense in play, it also means the incorporated time limit gives the player a fighting chance (combined with an indeed relative approach for defense). Grinding for an hour outside the village enables the player to win this fight just in time. The reward: a whole lot of PP (equivalent to at least twenty successfully defeated random encounters) this early in the game. PP are used to level up shards (which essentially means Materia just like in Final Fantasy VII). (Leveled-up) shards grant (higher) stats boots. In addition to the aforementioned grinding, the player can gain a significant edge when it comes to the game's early parts by winning this fake unwinnable boss fight. As a bonus, both outcomes (winning or losing this fight) appear to be reasonable story-wise.

Fake unwinnable boss fights like the two I mentioned are prime examples of the principle "winning isn't everything, but winning is always better than losing".

Win them or lose them

Hopefully, I was able to demonstrate that unwinnable boss fights only compliment a game when done right both story-wise and mechanics-wise. By achieving that, it's up to the player to recognize if and how an unwinnable boss fight can be won and if it could be worth the effort. As long as many developers still don't realize the scope of problems inherent to unwinnable boss fights, I still prefer JRPGs in which every battle can and should be won, but I give every developer the opportunity to surprise me nonetheless - hopefully in a positive manner. Time will tell if implementing unwinnable boss fights is a fake or real unwinnable boss fight in itself.

What's your stance on unwinnable boss fights? Please tell us in the comments.


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Actually, for the Gades fight it is played as a True Unwinnable fight. Most people never found out it was winnable the first time around - however when you beat the game for the first time you got a new game plus that gave you much greater EXP and Gold during your second playthrough. In that playthrough you level up a lot faster and when you get to the Gades fight you are essentially over-levelled for it. It comes as a complete surprise that you can actually beat Gades at all - which is one of the reasons it's so memorable.

The issue with the Balio and Sunder fight in Breath of Fire III wasn't really the guide (though that was an issue) but that it just wasn't done well as a losable battle. By that I mean that there wasn't any actual real pointing out that you had to lose because you had to last a certain amount of time in the fight before you were supposed to lose. If you didn't you got a game over. This was a bad design choice because your first loss was going to be very fast due to the difficulty level - getting that game over made you think that you had to beat them. So then you'd try your best to beat them not knowing that all you needed to do was last a set amount of time.

Personally, frankly, I prefer both sides of the coin as long as they're done well.

I like a well-designed 'you are supposed to lose this to continue' battle just fine - as long as you understand that you're supposed to lose and you don't waste much in the way of items to keep alive during.

This is where the real annoyance comes in - if you have a game where items are hard to get a hold of, using them up in a battle that you're supposed to lose is pretty painful. I've seen games get around this by blocking your access to the item menu during this kind of battle, which is a nice idea and a good way of showing that you can't win - that it's a scripted battle.

That said, it can absolutely fit your story to lose in a battle against a superior foe who doesn't go out of their way to kill you. They can throw you in prison instead and force you to use your brain to get out (escape room style) or leave you on the brink of death in a tower that's about to explode or have to play the merciful card for the sake of proving loyalty/'goodness' to some of their current allies or just aren't cold-blooded killers when it comes to kids or have other things to do in a short amount of time or be testing your skills because they're setting the heroes up for a fall. There's a lot of reasons for someone to walk away from people they've just beaten the crap out of without actually putting them to the sword.

Honestly, if you're going to do battles that leave your party on the floor, make sure they're scripted in such a way that you don't question the idea that you can win. I played a game once where I spent about half an hour on a battle because it was too easy to keep fighting and wasn't being killed. I was supposed to give a cool new trinket I'd picked up to the enemy in order to trigger an end battle event, but cool new trinket! I didn't want to give that shit up! I wanted the new trinket for myself! So because the enemy wasn't hard to deal with I just kept playing, waiting for the battle to be over so I could keep the trinket.
Spoiler alert: there's no way to keep the cool new trinket. :<

So yeah, design your "You Lost" battles well.
Thanks for your input. Since I didn't play the classic JRPGs mentioned above when they were first released (only years later), I really appreciate these additional pieces of information. Someone somewhere during the early days must have said: "I want to beat Gades during my first playthrough, too." And from then on players haven't accepted defeat so easily. Nowadays in our interconnected digital world and with the concept of self-imposed challenges having being spread, it rarely remains a mystery if a boss fight is truly unwinnable.

I still think that it's hard to incorporate unwinnable boss fights into most stories, despite the situations you described. If the player loses against a demon or a lunatic bent on world domination, who has every reason to believe that the player's party is the one remaining serious threat standing in the way (and I think that's pretty much the standard scenario in classic JRPGs), then there's no reason for the boss to not kill the party, which means the party depends on some kind of outside intervention. Of course, if the boss - maybe later during a rematch - convincingly explains why he couldn't kill off the party, I won't complain, but it seems I haven't played games in which that happens.

Not wanting to waste items during unwinnable boss fights, that's a really good point! I remember that I repeated many unwinnable boss fights just to not waste any items, since it's likely that a player rather uses his/her best items before admitting defeat. On the other hand, I don't really like the idea of disabling the item command during such a fight - it's kind of a spoiler, and it still wouldn't prevent me from trying to figure out a way how to beat that particular boss (if possible). Having the used items magically reappear isn't a good solution, either. Maybe it's good enough when the player can save directly before confronting the boss, so (s)he wouldn't hesitate to reload a previous save file.

Sorry about the cool new trinket, that must still hurt. ;)
Honestly, a lot of times I've played games with unwinnable battles, I've not been too bothered about them. They're usually very good at making it obvious that you're not supposed to win - whether it be by having a lot of talking going on in the battle, having it be the main bad guy you're fighting or having other aspects that let you know you can't win (like someone in the party going "They're too strong! Hold out a bit longer and we'll try to escape!"). Another way out of unwinnable battles is breaking the battle before you die - basically going "you have 20% HP left, let's cut it here".

Pretty much the evil bad guy isn't killing you straight out for a lot of reasons - they might want to know where you got your information about them having stolen the super power weapon of doom, might want to steal your powers and add them to their own, might decide they need to break the rebel army's spirit by having them watch their leader die in a horrific way, might choose to let you live long enough to suffer by watching your family burn in the flames of their righteous indignation...

Even a demon lord might feel compelled to quell any future opposition by thinking about taking you captive after trouncing your ass in battle and then going "see these little shits who thought they could stand up to me? yeah, watch me eviscerate them. this is what happens when people fight against me! this will happen to you!" Usually, though, something happens after the battle that allows your party to escape - maybe an army attacks his base suddenly and he has to go kill them off before they get in and steal his super weapon, maybe he's knocked off the precarious bridge you're all on by an ally throwing an airship gust at his ass, maybe magical mcguffin suddenly shines a holy light that sends him running, maybe he breaks a nail. Something happens, though, and suddenly you're safe!

And yes, there are times when he chooses to just walk away, but a lot of the time those things end up making sense for him to do that kind of thing because of his personality or character. A lot of bad guys tend to have issues and those issues usually end up being their downfall but part of character-building is showing that there are those issues to exploit in the future, so the cocky villain who decides to slap you around and laugh in your face about how weak you are and leave you to bleed to death (a slow and painful death, btw - not very merciful) isn't being nice and isn't being dumb, but is assuming that he's rocked your shit hard enough that you're not going to be able to do much more than die. That's not him being a bad character, that's just luck that your party managed to be stalwart enough to survive long enough to get some help. You can bet he doesn't do that a second time.

You seem to forget that the main thing is this - the bad guy is used to people dying when he leaves them half-dead after a good old battle. He's not used to dealing with STALWART HEROES OF JUSTICE who JUST SO HAPPEN to be lucky and/or MAGICAL enough to survive after taking a stomping. He's likely killed thousands just by spanking their asses in battle and then does it to your group only to have them come back.

Coming back is when the kid gloves come off and he really wants your face stomped. Unless he has plans... then he's willing to let you live another day.
I wish the majority of developers would put as much thought into this as you do. Yes, not killing the opposition as an antagonist can be explained convincingly, but the developer has to invest so much to make this work that most of them simply fail (or don't even try at all). Maybe I'm just too calculating when playing "pretend to be evil" in my head, maybe I lose my "respect" for antagonists who don't go all the way and don't kill me off, maybe I think "arrogant" equals "stupid", maybe I can't bring myself to accept that in a world where a defeat against a slime means certain death, the party can escape death when losing against a much stronger foe. Thus, I will never be a great fan of unwinnable boss fights, and I still prefer the "outside intervention solution" story-wise (the lesser of many evils). Well, perhaps the boss can't kill me because his powerful moves cost too much MP, but this scenario should better be saved for a parody game. :D
Most developers do...
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