One way to measure a game’s success is by looking at how long it stays relevant. Some characters have persisted for decades while others faded into the shadows mere months after their releases. Assassin’s Creed, Pokémon, and The Legend of Zelda are among the elite few that have emerged from their original games as enduring franchises. But perhaps the most prominent example of such success is the Final Fantasy series. Fantastical storytelling and recurring emotional themes have been the basis of 15 main iterations supplemented by spin-offs and sequels along the way. Square Enix has transcended JRPGs by varying the same formula since the ‘80s and amazingly, it does just as well today as it did back then. Among the several elements that can be found across every entry in the Final Fantasy lineup, the exhilarating boss battles manage to stand far above the rest. While the game’s mechanics have evolved over time, it’s impressive to see certain qualities that have remained with the series from FF to FFXV. Square hasn’t stuck with them because they’re lacking new ideas; it’s simply because they work.
The Bigger They Are…
This one is kind of a given. Bosses are huge. Don’t get the wrong idea, there are plenty of normal-sized boss enemies that are just as difficult as the big ones. But taking a general overview of every Final Fantasy boss, the prominent ones are generally far bigger than you are. FF’s Chaos, FFVII’s Sephiroth, and FFXIII’s Orphan all accomplish something with their sheer size—they make the player feel both intimidated and excited. Admittedly, you could argue that large bosses aren’t necessarily a Final Fantasy-specific trait. Plenty of games throw huge enemies at you, but Square Enix has perfected the art of using an enemy’s monstrous stature to stagger the player with simultaneous foreboding and exuberance. To channel my inner Son Goku, a fight is no fun unless you’re well-matched; it’s a riling experience to face a formidable opponent. Additionally, size can play a much more significant role than you might expect. With a large enemy, there are several strategic implications that become available. Appendages can be targeted individually and weaknesses more easily exploited. Suddenly these encounters become more than just reducing an HP bar to zero and require a carefully devised approach. The enemy’s size is a simple detail, but one executed well by the entire series.
Setting the Mood
I would argue that a lot of players take this aspect for granted, but a convoluted boss fight can be effectively tied together with a frantic battle theme. There is always so much going on and it’s easy to misstep (even with the turn-based system in many of the games). A Final Fantasy soundtrack does wonders for every entry in the franchise—especially during a boss battle—for two reasons, both of which help the player through the experience. For one, I’ve always found the music useful for staying focused. It makes the game more immersive in a variety of situations, allowing you to feel as if the protagonist’s danger is your own. Not only are you able to more accurately control the character with this level of connection; it’s more fun that way too. The second reason is the music’s synchronization with the battle’s sound effects. Sure, the Zalamander of FFX-2 will give you visual cues before it unleashes a devastating attack. But when the song crescendos in both volume and speed, you know to expect something dramatic. It complements the incomprehensible power of the boss before you, stimulating both apprehensiveness to danger and the gratifying road to victory.
In the case of FFXV, this is a literal road. Noctis and his friends spend many real-time hours driving a royal convertible from objective to objective, making for one of the most uneventful gameplay elements in recent memory. But it wasn’t intolerable because Square Enix made the genius move of providing in-game items for playing previous games’ soundtracks during the drives. It was impressively nostalgic, although the music of my next daemon boss encounter snapped me back to reality.
“You overreach yourselves.” -Orphan, FFXIII
The only way to get past any Final Fantasy boss is to use everything at your disposal. It seems obvious, but a surprising number of other games fail to pull this off with nearly as much creativity. Character development is a crucial piece of any quality RPG, but what’s the point of learning new abilities when you could just as easily hammer away with a primary attack? Square Enix has implemented several battle systems over the years, but the demand for varied technique has remained in every iteration so far. Elemental weaknesses, vulnerable body parts, and immunity to damage types have forced us to look for more viable options in the classic turn-based structure of the past as well as the Active Time Battle style of today. FFX-2’s dressphere mechanic and FFXIII’s paradigm shifts are perfect examples, transforming the party into the most effective lineup for every situation. Skyrim is one of the best RPGs ever made, but you reach a point where you can literally just hack everything to death, whether it’s a skeever or a Dragon Priest. Bosses have little meaning in a situation like that, so it’s refreshing when a game demands more.
Fantasy, Not Final
Generally, developers do their best to improve upon past work. A newer game is never created with a deliberate inferiority to the ones before it. But what I’ve always found so unique about Final Fantasy is its ability to use recurring elements over and over without them growing stale. Longtime fans are familiar with the following—there’s always a character named Cid, a spell’s suffix always determines its potency, and you can always find the perilous Adamantoise stomping earthquakes in the distance. With its numerous appearances as a returning enemy type, it embodies the permanence of the series. Final Fantasy has had its fair share of successes and disappointments, but I find that it maintains its status in the industry with the towering strength of a boss.