Boss fights are a recurring element in most modern video games. While not every game out there features traditional bosses, many titles at least usually elevate an opponent far above the standard rank and file enemies. However, like all things in video games, the very concept of a boss fight had to start somewhere. The question is, “Which video game did boss fights first?”
If you were to guess what the first video game boss fight ever was off the top of your head, your mind might jump to someone like Bowser from Super Mario Bros. On paper, that assumption makes a lot of sense. Not only did Super Mario Bros. establish so many concepts that would later go on to become standard, but those battles against Bowser feature so many of the ideas we typically associate with standard boss fights. Bowser was big, required special tactics/mechanics to defeat, and he was more of a roadblock than a standard enemy.
Yet, the fascinating truth is that video game bosses existed long before Bowser strutted into our lives. Actually, the title of “first video game boss” belongs to a different powerhouse that predates the evil King of the Koopas by a decade.
What Was The First Video Game Boss Fight?
Dungeons and Dragons is arguably the most influential game ever produced. Without the original tabletop RPG, we wouldn’t have many of the best video game RPGs ever made, and we likely wouldn’t have so many other games that feature basic RPG elements. Most importantly for our purposes today, we wouldn’t have video game boss fights if it wasn’t for Dungeons and Dragons. Well…probably not.
In 1974 or 1975 (accounts differ), Gary Whisenhunt and Ray Wood published a digital title called The Game of Dungeons (which is better known as dnd). The game was released on the PLATO (Programmed Logic for Automated Teaching Operations) system, which was a series of computers connected to a central “server” at the University of Illinois. PLATO was designed as a computer-assisted teaching system, and its moderators didn’t take too kindly to Whisenhunt and Wood using it to play games. The Game of Dungeons eventually went through eight iterations, seven of which were deleted from PLATO. Luckily, the eighth version is readily available through emulation, which prevented the game, and its place in boss fight history, from being lost to time.
The gameplay in dnd was rather simple. Players utilized a simplified version of the original Dungeons and Dragons’ ruleset to wander around dungeons in search of a mythical artifact only known as the Orb. What does the Orb do? Who knows, but players have to fight their way through countless skeletons, wizards, and other fantasy enemies in order to reach it. One such enemy is the Golden Dragon. Unlike other monsters, which can pop up anywhere, the Golden Dragon explicitly guards the Orb. The only way to retrieve the item and beat the game is by slaying the dragon.
Granted it’s not the kind of epic encounter that we’d later associate with more advanced video game boss fights, but that dragon deserves the honor of being recognized as the first instance of a video game boss. He was big, he was powerful, and you couldn’t beat the game until you survived the unique encounter against him.
How Video Game Boss Fights Evolved Throughout the 1980s
Even though dnd’s Golden Dragon is the first example of a video game boss, it is certainly a simple boss fight by modern standards. In fact, the Golden Dragon was little more than a standard enemy on steroids, which is a far cry from the unique challenges we associate with modern video game bosses. Those kinds of opponents didn’t really make their presence known until arcade games started to evolve during the 1980s.
Since the concept of bosses was in its infancy when arcade games exploded in popularity, developers disagreed on the specifics of what a boss fight should even be. For instance, one of the first instances of an arcade game boss can be found in 1980’s Destroyer (not to be confused with the 1977 game of the same name). That arcade game is a fairly standard space shooter where players gun down enemies until they finally reach a battle against a giant head that flies around erratically and needs to be shot multiple times. Another arcade game that offered a somewhat similar (but crucially slightly different) approach to bosses was 1980’s Phoenix (another space shooter). In that game, though, the boss is a giant mothership protected by shields. Once players punch a hole through the barrier, they only need to shoot the core (or pilot) once to destroy the ship.
Despite their slight differences in design, the bosses in Destroyer and Phoenix share one key quality: they don’t change their tactics. Even though skilled players can encounter those enemies multiple times in a single run, they utilize the exact same attack patterns during each appearance. Luckily, gamers didn’t have to wait long to battle opponents that had the good sense to change things up from time to time.
In 1980, SNK published a ninja-themed shoot ‘em up called Sasuke vs. Commander. In that game, bosses challenged players in special bonus rounds. Unlike Destroy and Phoenix, though, Sasuke vs. Commander’s bosses aren’t one trick ponies. Some move slowly and spurt gouts of flame, while others teleport around the arena and shoot multiple projectiles. Players never know which boss they will have to face, and while most go down in one hit, some bosses required several precision hits. That makes the game a fascinating early example of multiple boss fights in a title as well as an early example of bosses that required (and utilized) different tactics.
What about the first individual boss fight with multiple phases or “stages,” though? That’s a slightly trickier topic to pin down, but Tokyo Denshi Sekkei’s Black Hole features an interesting early candidate for that honor. On the surface, Black Hole was yet another space shooter, but it offered a fascinating twist. See, the game is actually one big looping boss fight divided into two phases. The first phase consists of players shooting down a UFO protected by a shield and “neutron mines.” After the UFO takes enough damage, it spawns reflector shields that deflect incoming shots and soon tries to ram you down. In order to get past that second phase, players only need to hit the boss once, which is easier said than done. However, if a gamer’s aim is true, they can defeat the boss and restart the process all over again.
As time went on and games pivoted towards a level-based structure, bosses became more homogenized and served as the standard final challenge of each area/level. Interestingly, the 1984 arcade game Kung-Fu Master may have really kicked off that popular trend, as the bosses in that game block the exit to each level. The developers obviously took lessons from prior arcade games and combined them to create Kung-Fu Master’s bosses, as those challengers utilized different tactics and can take multiple kicks to the face. Ports of the game, including the NES version, utilized this same level/boss structure. As the aforementioned battle against Bowser in Super Mario Bros. demonstrates, it wouldn’t be long before basic boss fight ideas entered the public consciousness as a pretty standard video game concept.
While those are only a small sampling of boss battles in video games, they are widely regarded as the earliest and most important. Without them, we may still be reduced to working our way through waves of lesser foes.