Top 25 brutal bosses in videogames

Feature Aaron Birch 1 May 2014 - 06:33

Boss fights are almost always a game's highlight, but some are more challenging than others. Here's our top 25...

In the world of videogames bosses aren't the kind of authority figures that'll give you a last minute report to do, or delegate to you tasks they simply can't be bothered doing. No, these bosses would rather take that report, roll it up into a ball, set fire to it, and throw it at your face. The only delegation they're interested in is getting you to test the sharpness of their axe, or the effectiveness of a new spell.

The end level boss is almost as old as videogaming itself, and many genres have some form of superior foes awaiting you at the end of a level, area or mission. These bosses are often large, overpowered beasts that make the foes you've faced thus far seem tame in comparison, and they're usually the achievement you'll remember most from a game, especially if they're particularly tough.

Over the years we've come up against innumerable boss fights, far more than we could possibly remember, but ones that have stuck around are those boss fights that really pushed our abilities, and punished our mistakes. These bosses offered up so much challenge that they've stuck in our collective psyche, and we'll simply never forget the intense battles these foes delivered. The gamut of emotions is often run, and just one fight can encompass fear, optimism, anger, sadness, outright rage, and with a bit of luck, total joy and elation.

These are memorable, and special gaming moments, and we're going to share our own top 25 challenging boss encounters. Of course, given the sheer amount of games out there, and the army of tough bosses we could include, we're going to have to establish a simple ground rule. This is the limit of only one entry from a series. If not for this, the whole list could be made up of entries from Final Fantasy, Dark Souls and the like, so to keep it fair, and varied, we'll limit any double exposures.

So, let's get started with our countdown of the toughest bosses in gaming.

25. Tyrant (Cargo plane) - Resident Evil: Code Veronica (inc. X)

We'll kick off the list with the encounter from the seminal survival horror series, Resident Evil. Depending on your previous actions, it won't be as difficult as other bosses, but this is why he's on this list.

The fight takes place in the hold of a cargo plane, and the Tyrant himself can't be killed in the usual way. Instead, the only option you have is to damage him, keeping him at bay and weakening him until you can use a switch to send the plane's cargo flying into him, sending him flying into the great blue yonder without a parachute.

The problem here is that he can take a real beating, and normal weapons don't really cut it. For this fight you need powerful ammo, like the grenade launcher to. Many players, especially those playing through for the first time spend all of this ammo prior to the plane, and are left with little in the way of ammunition to take this beast on. Yes, you can actually beat him with no weapons, repeatedly hitting him with the cargo until he falls, but this isn't a tactic many know about and you have to do this multiple times, whilst running away from him and manoeuvring him into position before you hit the switch. So many people have been forced to restart the whole game in order to return to this point with enough ammo to survive. An evil encounter for the ill-prepared.

24. Psycho Mantis – Metal Gear Solid

Without a doubt one of the most memorable boss fights ever devised, this confrontation in the PS One classic, Metal Gear Solid, goes down in history as one of the best ever, and the most impressive use of a rumble feature we've ever seen, as well as ingenious use of a memory card.

Psycho Mantis himself is also a major challenge, at least until you discover his secret, which is to plug the controller into the second port to fool his mind reading abilities. Once you do this, he's easy. The thing is, back then, many didn't even consider such a thing, why would you? And so, without this knowledge, Mantis was a beast, able to predict each and every move you made, avoiding almost all damage. He's nigh-on invulnerable until you happen to guess his weakness, so deserves a place here.

23. Ghost of Lady Comstock – BioShock Infinite

Like Psycho Mantis, Lady Comtock isn't too difficult when you figure out what you're doing. The problem here is the fact that this boss is so different from every other encounter in the game, and her weakness, which is to kill off all of her soldiers and attack her whilst she calls for reinforcements, isn't so apparent. And, trying to figure out this weakness is pretty tricky when you've got a small army of undead soldiers trying to stick pointy things into you as well as peppering you with bullets.

Even when you do figure out her weakness, this ghost is difficult to bust, and unless you make full use of cover and have plenty of ammo (which is easy to run out of in BioShock Infinite), you'll still have a hard time, especially if you play on the higher difficulty levels.

22. M Bison - Street Fighter II

Traditionally, fighting game bosses are almost always ridiculously tough, it's something we've become accustomed to. But back when Street Fighter II hit the scene, this wasn't something we'd seen too much of, and we all remember the first time we met Mr Bison, before he promptly Psycho Crushed us to death.

The evil despot is a hard-hitting and agile combatant, with some erratic, hard to predict moves, and he can be very difficult to beat, with higher difficulties producing a truly huge challenge. Add to this the friend we all have who constantly spams the Psycho Crusher, flying from left to right over and over again, and you've got a boss character that can be a nightmare to fight. Over the years his challenge has waned, but when we first faced him, Bison was a tough one.

21. Kai Leng (final encounter) - Mass Effect 3

As with both the previous entries for Metal Gear Solid and BioShock Infinite, often the toughest bosses are the ones who shake up the tempo, and bring a totally different feel to a game. This is certainly the case with Kai Leng, Mass Effect 3's ninja assassin.

The boss fight against him is fast-paced, something of a rarity for the Mass Effect series, which often relies on cover shooting, and this ninja can hit hard too. He's also a bloody coward, and attacks with the aid of various robotic soldiers.

Kai Leng's powerful and relentless attacks make this fight difficult, as you have little time to heal or reload, and your AI companions are usually only so much fodder and simply act as a minor diversion. What you need here is a good aim and the ability to get the best possible tactical use out of your allies and powers. Even then, this can be a fight that takes many tries to best, and that's just on normal difficulty. On higher levels he becomes even more of a problem.

20. Ultimate Evil - Splatterhouse II

Many older, 8 and 16-bit titles were notoriously difficult, not just in terms of bosses, but in overall general difficulty (you'll all surely have many opinions on tough bosses form this era). As games were shorter, and less complex, the challenge often needed to be higher in order to give people good value and a title longevity. However, sometimes this challenge could be more difficult than others, and sometimes it bordered on ridiculous.

Splatterhouse II is a good example of a game being generally tough, and each and every second of this punishing side-scroller is difficult, with the most arduous, fittingly, being the last boss.

The Ultimate Evil is a floating blob of heads and tentacles, and it attacks by firing a range of different heads at you as it flies from one side of the screen to the other. These heads can be hard to avoid, and what's more, the boss often hides offscreen, so you can't even retaliate, or see where attacks will come from. Once bested, it then turns into a fast moving flying skull which is hard to avoid, and harder to hit. Rick, and you the player, need some luck with this one.

19. Yellow Devil – Mega Man

Series fans will no doubt have their own entry for Capcom's long-running Mega Man series, but here we have the original game's Yellow Devil, a boss that challenges your jumping and avoidance abilities, as well as perfect timing skills.

His attacks are simple. He fires at you with a simple projectile, and then splits into blobs and flies towards the opposite side of the screen. Each blob needs to be avoided, and once he's formed, the cycle begins anew, giving you time for only one or two shots.

The difficulty here is all about the timing and perfect jumping required to avoid his body parts. In later versions, such as Mega Man 3, this isn't as difficult, as only the bottommost layer can touch you most of the time. Here, the bottom two layers can hit you, and as the blobs fly in such quick succession, often while jumping to avoid a lower blob, you'll be hit by another. It's a memorably very tricky boss in a game series known for putting you up against tough opponents.

18. Sinistar – Sinistar

Sometimes difficulty isn't just about actual skill and tactics, it can be heightened by getting into your head, and that's just what the evil Sinistar does. As you blast away at foes in a level, you'll be happy enough going about you business, and then you'll hear it - “Beware, I live!”

These words, as well as a collection of other intimidating phrases blast out of the speakers at you, announcing the arrival of Sinistar, the game's perpetual end of level boss. At this point, you're already worried, not knowing where he'll come from, or when he'll strike, so when he does panic sets in and the battle is on. He's a tough nut to crack too, chasing you relentlessly whilst you try to fight back, avoid attacks and dodge asteroids. Very mean, and very tricky.

17. Technodrome - Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (NES)

A good deal of the original NES TMNT title is difficult, such as the infamous underwater section, but the battle against the Technodrome is particularly tough. This is for two reasons. The actual fight is hard as nails, with the Technodrome firing projectiles, spewing a barrier of lightning and sending Foot Clan ninjas into the fray, but before you can even fight the boss, you have to find it, as it's hidden in a cave, many of which you have to search (only to find nothing), and are full of dangerous foes. It's very easy to lose turtles during this search, meaning that you'll often face the boss with only one or two lives. There's just not enough pizza.

16. Wyvern (Second encounter) - Vagrant Story

Some may say this fight isn't that tough, but others would agree this is a big difficulty spike. Vagrant Story is always challenging, but the second encounter with a Wyvern (not the injured, tutorial one) is one of those boss battles that really slaps you in the face. Up until this point the bosses were tricky, but usually beatable without too much trouble, and they didn't require much mastery of the game's crafting system. This Wyvern, on the other hand, is a beast. Unless you've prepared ahead of time with the right weapon affinity levelling and skills, this fight is both tough, and long. Your attacks do little, and its attacks can devastate you in seconds.

It's a classic grinding boss, and to best it you need to level up, build your dragon affinity and nail those chain combo timings and dodges. Only then will you be able to slay this beast.

15. Flemeth - Dragon Age: Origins

Often in games, especially RPGs, you'll encounter some bosses that are totally optional, and these are often some of the most powerful creatures you'll encounter. Dragon Age: Origins is no different, and Morrigan's mother, Flemeth, could be a boss encounter you'll wish you'd never started.

Although she's a frail-looking old woman, she's also a shape shifter, and can turn into a great big, death-dealing dragon, one that can toast you to a crisp in no time. She's got a ton of health, hits like a truck, has fire breath, can fly, and her attacks will often cause knockbacks. Basically, she's a monster, and even in a game with as many tough bosses as Dragon Age, she stands out.

14. Shao Khan – Mortal Kombat II

Like M Bison, Shao Khan was one of the earliest fighter bosses that truly upped the ante in terms of difficulty. However, unlike M Bison, who's a well balanced boss on the whole, Khan is as chap as they came. He's strong, can block like a pro, and isn't afraid to taunt you mid-battle. The major problem here, though, is his cheap as chips charge attack, which he often spams mercilessly, negating any real fight, and turning battles into even cheaper, special move spam fests.

Often the best tactic to beat him is to hit him over and over with an easy, but powerful special, such as Raiden's torpedo attack, which requires little skill and more luck. His taunts provide an opening, but he'll more often than not retaliate quickly.

His difficulty has remained in most of his following appearances, with the 2011 reboot of MK boasting one of his most difficult, if not borderline broken, outings.

13. Spider Guardian – Metroid Prime 2: Echoes (GameCube version)

This is considered by many to be the hardest boss in Metroid Prime 2: Echoes, and we'd argue that it's the hardest in the series in many ways. We'd rather face several Metroid Primes and Ridleys in a row than face this.

The Spider Guardian fight takes place entirely in a Spider Ball maze, and the guardian is equipped with the Spider Ball ability, meaning it can run along the spider tracks, thus navigating the course easily. Samus hasn't got this power (she gets it from this boss) and so needs to carefully use bomb jumps to get around. At the same time, you need to avoid the Spider Guardian's aura hits, and place bombs in order to time the blasts to hit the enemy. It's a complex, finicky and downright tough process, made so by the damaging attacks of the boss, and the difficulty you have navigate the area whilst staying safe.

The confrontation was watered down in the Wii re-release, and was made far easier, with a weaker boss and Samus' new ball jump, but the original GameCube version of Echoes has the original, difficult battle, so if you want the real experience, try this.

12. Dracula – Castlevania III

Just as the Technorome in TMNT is made all the more difficult by the preceding level, so to is Dracula in Castlevania III on the NES. As a boss, Dracula ss certainly tricky, and takes on three forms, all of which have their own life bar and varied attacks. With practise, he's very beatable, but that's where the problem comes in.

In order to actually fight Dracula, and to work to his moves, you first have to get through one of the most difficult levels in the whole series, from the beginning. If you die, it's back to the start of the level, and that's even if you die in any form of Dracula. This makes for a long, arduous and tough boss fight that's hard on the mind as well as the fingers.

11. C'Thun – World of Warcraft (pre-patch)

World of Warcraft has plenty of difficult bosses, but there's one that any veteran WoW player will always place at the top of any list, and that's C'Thun, before he was patched.

Prior to the patch, C'Thun was infamous for being nigh-on immortal. This boss stomped on even the most experienced and high level warriors, and entire guilds failed to take him down. The challenge was simply off the charts, which lead to the patch taking down the difficult by nerfing this dangerous beast into a more manageable form.

When a boss can't even be beaten by the combined might of an entire guild of high level players, you know you're up against one hell of a powerful creature, so there's no arguing its place here.

10. The Ender Dragon – Minecraft

Minecraft isn't the kind of game usually associated with controller-breakingly difficult boss fights, and the game has a far more sedate pace to it. The Ender Dragon, though, it a boss that has to be respected.

The Ender Dragon is big, black and can deal out damage in no time at all. It's also very hard to hit unless it's right up in your face, and it's surrounded by magic crystals that constantly regenerate its health. Oh, and he's got an army of Endermen wandering around too, on a floating land that's easy to fall off. Nice.

A big part of the Dragon's inclusion here, though, is the sheer amount of painstaking preparation that has to go into this fight, which can all be lost in a split second, not just due to the dragon attack, but also a fatal and unintended glance at one of the army of Endermen populating the area (although a pumpkin can help here).

Before you even think of taking on the Ender Dragon you need to gather resources to craft good weapons, armour, enchantments, potions, arrow and more, and this takes a lot of time. One wrong move, and these supplies are lost, potentially meaning you've got to do a whole lot more preparation.

9. Ultimate Alma – Ninja Gaiden Sigma

The Ninja Gaiden reboot is known as being one of the most difficult games around, certainly in the hack and slash genre. Each and every fight in this game can be game over fuel, and the boss fights can be torturous, with Alma being a popular nomination for the worst.

The sheer amount of dexterity and perfect dodging you need to triumph in this boss fight is insane, and one slip up with an ill-timed dodge can mean the end of you.

Her range of attacks include energy beams, dives, homing missiles, throwing stone pillars at you, and summoning help in the form of speedy demons. She takes a lot of damage too, making this fight a long and very exhausting one where you have to keep up your guard and make few mistakes for the duration.

8. Senator Armstrong - Metal Gear Rising: Revengence

Alright, so this is technically a Metal Gear game, which we've already featured, but it's not in the Solid series, and it's a totally different genre too, so we're going to include this, as it certainly warrants a mention.

After a boss battle against an enormous walking battle tank in the last stage, you'd think your job would be done, let alone being extended by fighting a glasses-sporting politician. Even less expected is that fact that this politician is one of the hardest fights you'll ever engage in, especially on harder difficulties.

Senator Armstrong certainly does take a hard-line stance, and his mixture of hard hits and wrestling slams, sprinkled with some vicious AoE attacks and the ability to throw massive chunks of rock and debris at you create a murderously hard confrontation. He's a brute, and this is another fight where a single mistake can be your last.

This is made all the more difficult as the game's bosses up to this point were nowhere near as challenging, even the tricky fight against Sam. So, entering this fight you think you're ready for anything, but as it turns out, you're probably not, and you should get ready to have your backside handed to you.

7. Last Boss/Spiritual Larsa - Mushihimesama Futari Black Label

This confrontation defines the term bullet hell shooter, so insane is the sheer volume of projectiles spewed out by this three-stage boss. Although you may think that this should be number one, especially if you check out the myriad of YouTube videos of the fight, this battle, although ridiculously tough, is all about one thing, and one thing only – dodging. You don't really have to aim or do anything special, just hold down fire and concentrate on dodging the waves of bullets.

These waves are usually slow, if densely packed, and with some trial and error, the attack patterns can be memorised. Still, even with this knowledge and a steady hand, besting this boss will guarantee you a place in the gaming elite, and this is arguably the most difficult shooter challenge you can find.

6. Vortex Queen - Ecco The Dolphin

Ecco The Dolphin on the Sega Mega Drive was a tough adventure. The unique controls had to be mastered perfectly in order to solve some of the game's more difficult puzzles and survive the tougher levels, all the while keeping your eye on your air meter. Nerve-racking stuff.

All that went before was a cakewalk, though, compared to the end game boss. This terrifying, screen-sized alien queen's floating head wasn't only unnerving to look at, but she fired projectiles, summoned Vortex soldiers and took a whole lot of damage. The kicker? If she managed to suck you into her mouth, you'd have to start from the beginning of the previous level, 'Welcome to the Machine', which was also very difficult. Many screams of rage could be heard from Sega fans trying to beat this boss. A nightmare, both visually, and in terms of difficulty.

5. Sephiroth – Kingdom Hearts II

His appearance in Final Fantasy VII was very tough (which we'll come to later on), but Kingdom Hearts II also features Square's popular antagonist, and boy as he difficult.

Many KHII players have never managed to beat this incarnation of Sephiroth, as he's powerful, fast, can take a beating, and has a range of moves that can be almost impossible to defend against. Only with perfect timing, combo attacks, prompted dodging and a high enough level Sora can you hope to have a chance against him, and if you even think about healing at the wrong time, he'll punish you brutally. Well, he is Sephiroth, it's kind of his MO.

4. Mike Tyson – Mike Tyson's Punch Out!

A lot of games are all about reflexes and timing, but Mike Tyson's Punch Out! on the NES is possibly the best example of this. Despite being a fairly simple boxing game, the final fight against Tyson himself is notoriously difficult.

Beating Iron Mike requires absolute perfect timing, the reflexes of a rattlesnake and committing Mike's moves and combos to memory, so you know what tells to look for, and when the right time to attack and use star power specials. This may sound simple, and watching the game being played you may wonder what all the fuss is about as it's so deceptively simple. Pick up the pad, though, and try taking on Mike yourself (which you can with the pass code 007 373 5963) and you'll see exactly what its all about, as Mike plants you face down time and time again.

3. Ultimecia - Final Fantasy VIII

Seriously, we could fill several lists with the tough bosses of the Final Fantasy series, so it was very hard to come up with one. No doubt many would list Final Fantasy VII's bout with Sephiroth, or optional fights against Emerald and Ruby Weapons, and indeed, these ware very tough, but for us, number eight's final boss, Ultimecia takes the third spot here.

Ultimecia is a perfect example of Square's obsession with never-ending, multiple stage boss fights. She has not one, not two, but four forms, all of which can easily end your fight, and each takes an age to beat. This means you've got a boss fight that can last a ridiculous amount of time, and she's got a myriad of ways she can quickly eject your party members. The longer the fight, the more likely you are to mess up.

Did you ignore some characters whilst playing through the story, leaving them weaker than others? Well, you'll pay for it now, as Ultimecia can exploit any and all weakness, and you'll pay for every hole in your defence. Even a fully levelled team can be unceremoniously smashed, she's that difficult.

2. General Raam – Gears Of War

Gears of War has some very challenging situations, and some tough boss fights spread throughout the series, but the first game's final boss, the evil General Raam, easily takes our second spot. Here's here mainly for his insane difficulty level encounter, but he a challenging boss on any difficulty, depending on your skill. Well, maybe not on easy... And we're not including any glitching tactics here, that's just not cricket.

Raam carries a powerful mini gun, is covered in a shield of deadly Kryll, which he can send to attack you, and he's also flanked by Reavers. The poor ally AI of Dom doesn't help much, leaving this fight to you, and what a fight it is.

As Raam can kill you with a single shot, or a few quick blasts in less than a second, this fight is all about cover, well-timed shots and carefully timed dashes for new cover when he comes too close. It's truly brutal in difficulty on insane, and completing this solo requires immense skill. If in doubt, get a friend to help, it makes things much easier.

1. Ornstein and Smough – Dark Souls

We said we could fill several lists with Final Fantasy bosses, and the same applies to FromSoftware's Souls series. This game series is all about high fantasy, atmospheric adventuring and tough challenge, especially in terms of bosses.

It was very hard to pick a single entry, and it was a very close call. We almost went with the epic and tremendously tough battle against Knight Artorias in Dark Souls' DLC, but in the end we had to pick the infamous battle with Ornstein and Smough. At least Artorias takes you on in a one-on-one fight.

Earlier bosses in the game like the Bell Gargoyles may team up to fight you, but at least the beginning of the fight is one-on-one, giving you chance to even the odds a little. Not so with Ornstein and Smough, the notoriously brutal duo of Dark Souls. This boss fight rates as one of the most difficult ever crafted, in Dark Souls or any other game for that matter, and it can reduce people to gibbering, rage-spewing wrecks.

The tandem assault of the quick and agile Ornstien, and the slow but powerful Smough makes for a truly daunting proposition, one that has brought many a Dark Souls player to their knees over, and over, and over again. What's more, although you can attack both, wearing down their health, on one of the duo's deaths the remaining member of the tag team gets full health back, and turns into a super-powered form, even more of a threat than before. So, when you think you've got an edge, it's pulled from under you, as the remaining enemy becomes even stronger, able to crush you in one or two hits. This is bad enough on a NG playthrough, but on NG+ and above, this difficulty escalates through the roof. You genuinely feel a sense of fear before you have to face these guys, and if you want both armour sets and weapons, you'll have to do so more than once, as you only get the soul of the last one to fall. Prepare to die, indeed.

That wraps up our top 25, but we're well aware that this is a very subjective topic. One person's difficult boss is another's pushover, so please, let us know what your own nightmare boss encounters are. There are far too many to list out there, so don't hold back and regale us with your proudest victories in the comments.

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