Like a boss. But not quite
Being a video game miniboss is a weird position to be in. On the one hand, you're certainly not an ordinary mook, and are therefor deserving of a bit more fear and kudos than the run-of-the-mill, common-or-garden bullet fodder. But at the same time, by the time the real big bad rolls around the chances are that you're going to be completely forgotten.
Fortunately a few minibosses manage to buck this trend, not only being better and more memorable than their level bosses, but actually being cooler than the final boss of the whole game. Well done to them, we say. They deserve to be celebrated. So celebrate them we shall. These are their names and these are their stories.
Star Wolf (Star Fox 64)
The fight consists of: Facing off against the Star Wolf team over planet Venom - provided the player reached the game's last level from Sector 6 - in another "all-range mode" dogfight. With upgraded, more dangerous ships this time around, lock-on shots and bomb launches against the rival squadron now longer work, forcing sharp manoeuvring, strong aim and stronger nerves in order to take the lot of them down. It’s pure dogfighting (literally and figuratively) from start to finish if you want to earn the right to face Andross in the final showdown.
It’s better than the last boss fight because: The battle against Andross basically sees you shooting at a giant floating head in front of a wobbly abstract backdrop. So, much the same as the original SNES game’s finale then. There’s an all-range mode bit afterwards, but it pretty much just involves chasing a couple of eyeballs around before doing a lot of flips around Andross’ brain and shooting the crap out of it. As a real example of how the series had developed between the SNES and N64, the preceding battle is a whole lot stronger.
The Berserker (Gears of War)
The fight consists of: Playing cat-and-mouse with a huge, lumbering super-Locust that can charge like a freight-train and flatten a man like gravity flattens an egg. Normal weapons won’t even touch it, so instead you’ll have to lure it outside in order to use the Hammer of Dawn. Problem being that there’s no way outdoors. To remedy that, you’ll need to sneak around, evading the blind Berserker before using sound to lure it towards the structure’s breakable doorways. Avoid being pulped as the Berserker charges and you’ll be that little bit closer to sweet, blessed daylight and even sweeter orbiting satellite lasers. And a very well-earned, cathartic monster-toasting.
It’s better than the last boss fight because: The final train-based battle against General RAAM is a bit annoying and dull, really. More an exercise in attritional frustration than a genuinely interesting tactical battle. Unless of course you use the Torque Bow + grenade-spam method to take him out in around a minute.
Kintaro (Mortal Kombat II)
The fight consists of: Fighting a giant, crazy, four-armed cat-man, rendered in lovely Harryhausen-esque stop-frame animation, who can jump a mile high to crush you underfoot, spit fireballs, perform a four-armed bodyslam, and who roars like a madman every chance he gets.
It’s better than the last boss fight because: Shao Kahn is a total anticlimax after the lunatic delights of Kintaro. Effectively just some bloke in slightly camp body armour and a loincloth, he looks like a He-Man figure and has about as much charisma. With only a throwing spear and shoulder charge at his disposal, he isn’t half the spectacle that Kintaro is, relying on a load of rule-bending cheapness to win. And unfortunately, even as his move-set has expanded, that’s a trait he’s maintained throughout the series. Kintaro is tough (and certainly exploitable) but overall he’s a whole lot more fun to fight than the game’s real final boss.
Dr. Salvador (Resident Evil 4)
The fight consists of: Running around like a (soon-to-be) headless chicken as a madman chases you swinging an insta-kill chainsaw around his bag-covered head. Said madman can survive more punishment than Jesus and always turns up (sometimes in multitude) when you’re stuck in a tight spot fighting a crapton or normal Ganados. This forces razor-sharp use of space and flawless crowd control if you’re going to make it through with all body parts where they were when the fight started. The faint chugging sound of a distant chainsaw ticking over rapidly becomes the most terrifying sound in Resident Evil 4 – possibly any game – and is used to horrifying foreshadowing effect as the game goes on.
It’s better than the last boss fight because: The final boss fight against the Saddler-spider is a great one, but while arguably built around massive spectacle it doesn’t have half of the intimidation factor of the Salavador encounters. You’re chasing a giant, easy to spot, not overly fast creature around a large, easy-to-navigate area, smashing his weak spot from afar and occasionally stoving him in with crane-mounted girders.
Darknut (The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess)
The fight consists of: A lengthy, one-on-one sword fight with a hulking great armored badass whose size belies a great amount of dexterity, speed and skill. A genuine sword duel demanding all of Link’s offensive, defensive and evasive capabilities, the battle gains a whole new dynamic when Link eventually destroys all of the Darknut’s armor, revealing an agile, even quicker enemy requiring even sharper fighting to defeat. It’s one of the purest, most entirely skill-driven fights in all of Zeldadom.
It’s better than the last boss fight because: This is another one where an intimate, intricate battle is far more meaningful than a large-scale, set-piece driven spectacle. No other fight in the game feels as personal or hinges as completely on the player’s still and combat finesse. Even the final battle with Ganondorf--as epic as it is in scope - fails to live up to a one-on-one Darknut fight. The first three sections are standard “watch for the opening, hit, repeat” stuff, and the climactic sword fight takes the old “boss is invincible until QTE” approach. Darknut is a far more satisfying opponent to battle, and the victory against him feels a hundredfold more earned.
Big Daddies (BioShock)
The fight consists of: Although always entirely optional, the Big Daddy fights are the most intimidating and creatively rewarding parts of BioShock. Going up against the game's multiple variants of a giant walking tank wearing a diving suit, Jack is always forced to use every weapon, plasmid and environmental advantage at his disposal to take the big guy down. Some battles will be tense sneak-and-strike affairs. Others will be about setting elaborate traps. Some will be won by manipulating AI in-fighting, perhaps even by bringing a Big Daddy on-side with hyponotism before letting the Splicers soften him up. All wins are well-earned, and every single one will make you feel like a bit of a monster afterwards.
It’s better than the last boss fight because: BioShock shouldn’t even have had a last boss fight. It was flat-out ludicrous for a game so smartly built around dramatic peaks and troughs, creative, freeform gameplay, and believable simulated environments to end with a bog-stardard three-part boss fight against a giant blue superman. The Big Daddy fights sum up all of BioShock’s key elements beautifully. The super-Atlas fight is their antithesis.
Birdo (Super Mario Bros. 2)
The fight consists of: Jumping over eggs spat out by a large pink lizard/dinosaur/thing with a disturbing hosepipe for a face, grabbing said eggs mid-air, and then throwing them back at said inexplicable freak in between a barrage of yet more eggs.
It’s better than a ‘proper’ boss fight because: The last boss fight against Wart is a variation on the same theme that somehow manages to be both mighty irritating and incredibly dull. Vegetables are pumped out of a machine in the middle of the room. You catch them and throw them at Wart. He spits a barrage of bubbles that hurt you and destroy the veggies. Birdo’s version is more immediate, more fun, and is much more about real player skill. Also, Birdo went on to become the world’s first openly transsexual video game character and spawned the most terrifying cosplay ever committed to PVC. So she wins. Hands down.