The video game end boss, what should be a great achievement in monster design, is a dying art form. Games are always changing, bringing new ways to confront aspects of humanity that need to be addressed, and these are not always in the shape of ghoulish fantasy visions.
Final Fantasy, for all of its ups and downs, never forgot the importance of truly climactic end bosses. They're able to both satiate a desire for terrible beasts and, at times, bring about an emotional depth. Here are seven that I think deserve particular praise.
Writing in RPGs can be tricky. Jokes don't always age well, and a joke character can very easily tread into stale. In Final Fantasy VI, I believe that Ultros comfortably falls into the former and not the latter.
Truly an anomaly, Ultros has no reason for doing what he's doing other than to just mess with the party, and it just never gets old. I have no idea why "big purple octopus who keeps threatening to eat the player" works as well as it does, but it does. It sticks, and they play it just long enough. The sixth entry in the Final Fantasy series is one of the heavier ones in terms of story, so Ultros' comic relief role always comes off as more entertaining than annoying.
That being said, he's no Negative Man, but who is?
While Exdeath's gimmick of wanting to end reality by bringing the existence as a whole into the void was never really the most compelling goal (in Final Fantasy V, a game that wasn't really all that compelling to begin with), Neo Exdeath makes the list solely on the virtue of looking like a high-ranking Berserk apostle. Just look at this dude. This is monster design by way of the electric kool-aid acid test. There's a skeleton, he's got some kind of the Predator in there, a bunch of ladies, and a big ol' bat up top to bring it all back home. Neo Exdeath looks like something Ultraman would fight if Ultraman was created by Jan Švankmajer.
Throw in the fact that the Neo Exdeath boss fight actually has separate attack patterns that revolve around his jigsawed appearance, and it's a neat battle.
Whether you prefer "Warmech" or "Death Machine," just don't call it the wrong thing, or it might show up at the worst possible time.
You only have a 3-in-64 chance to encounter Warmech, and it only appears when you get into a random battle in the Flying Fortress, but I love everything about it: the weird choice of salmon pink for the color scheme, its one big eye just right in the center, always looking slightly up and to the corner. It reminds me of a bad early-gen Pokemon, but it certainly doesn't fight like one. Warmech is a beast, and it's called the first "superboss" in Final Fantasy, referring to optional fights against massively difficult monster. It boasts the same HP as the end boss, not to mention the ability to regenerate 5% of its massive health pool every round. Not only that, but it also has access to Atomize, an incredibly strong non-elemental spell that hits the entire party.
The fantastic thing about Warmech is that it's this odd robot monster that launches nukes, and Final Fantasy 1 takes place in a medieval fantasy world. This would be like if in the original Dungeons & Dragons, there was a secret entry in the Monster Manual for Tinker the Robot.
It's impossible not to have Safer-Sephiroth (or Seraph-Sephiroth if we believe the mistranslation fan theory) on this list somewhere. He's legendary, a member of the Ivy League of boss battle alumni along with Jubileus from Bayonetta, Liquid Ocelot in Metal Gear Solid 4, and those ducks that Warren Robinett claims are dragons from Adventure.
There's nothing I can tell you about Safer-Sephiroth that you don't already know. He looks like Tetsuo by way of Angel's Egg and can hurt you with a short film Supernova. One-Winged Angel is one of the most recognizable songs in video game history, and it was the first Final Fantasy song to include vocals.
While some people might say that Safer-Sephiroth has lost some bite so many years later, I disagree. The buildup to this fight is excellent -- you've spent all this time grasping at Jenova's clones, and then, when you finally come face to face with the man himself, you aren't shown a radiant, heavenly beauty but are instead confronted with a twisted quasi deity crafted out of jagged polygons. It's haunting, but you're unable to look away.
Gilgamesh is a combination of Ultros and Goku, and that's OK with me.
All he wants to do is fight -- so much so that he'll follow you into different games after being sucked into a dimensional portal. It is this tasteful repetition, not unlike our octopus friend from earlier, that makes Gilgamesh so memorable. However, what really lands him on the list is the fight in Final Fantasy XIII-2.
Gilgamesh being back, with yet another new arrangement of his theme song Pokey's March style, and ready to get right into it with you and the party. But this battle isn't just another fun but silly fight with Gilgamesh; it's a celebration of the character and the series as a whole. He comes equipped with famous swords from the Final Fantasy series, fourth wall breaks and references galore.
Gilgamesh has been with the series since Final Fantasy V, and to see such a lovingly crafted fight for him shows a real level of reverence for how far Final Fantasy has come since then. This is Final Fantasy's Liquid Ocelot v. Snake.
My favorite entry on this list: The Ball.
Ozma is strange, and I think legitimately frightening when you give it some thought. Really think about Ozma. A completely optional fight that you only encounter if you trade in years off your life to complete the Chocobo Hot and Cold treasure hunt side quest, which is the longest side quest in Final Fantasy IX, which is already full of long side quests because it's a Final Fantasy game. Once you've successfully cashed in your human energy for a digital reward in an old, old PlayStation game, you are granted admission to a cave tucked away in the back of the Air Garden. And there's Ozma.
Ozma doesn't talk. Ozma doesn't heal. Ozma does nothing but try to end your life. Just non-stop, never-ceasing dull thuds coming straight at you and your party the moment you're in the same zip code like nuclear god damn bombs. And Ozma is aiming for the throat. Ozma casts Curse? You're dead. Meteor? Dead. Have a party member susceptible to Lv5 Death? Not anymore because they're dead. Or it'll just cast Death and skip the formalities altogether. Oh, and Ozma has counter attacks, so watch out for Berserk and Curaga because they're in the mix once it hits a certain HP threshold. This thing has no brakes and no interest in explaining itself to you or anyone else, so your victory must be earned.
What I find especially cool about Ozma is how little we know about it. Just to reiterate, this is not the final boss or a mandatory boss or anything. Ozma is a completely 100% optional fight. Mene warns you when you approach the cave and says he "feels a strange presence...not of this world," but that's it. Eidolons are creatures that come from people telling legends, similar to personas, but Ozma is just a colored sphere. Maybe it's a legend so old that everyone who exists has simply forgotten what it is, and it's attacking you because you came into its home as the first visitor in eons, Shadow of the Colossus style.
Creepy, beautiful, mysterious, and a giant pain in the ass, Ozma certainly makes its ancestor Warmech proud.
The greatest video game bosses, like any villain, are ones that are made and not born. I find an end boss far more engrossing if I can see what they were like before they were such a horrible fear, and Final Fantasy VI is a documentary on Kefka.
If we break down the actual gameplay, Kefka's fight isn't really phenomenal in terms of raw gameplay. What makes this fight insane is we know Kefka. You know Kefka. Think about who he was when you first saw him. A weird little jester? Almost like an Ultros? And what is he now? God. Halfway through the game, Kefka turns into God.
I'll never forget this fight simply for that weight behind it, the weight that Kefka accomplished his goal. Kefka isn't Sephiroth, a tragic mistake who just couldn't accept his faith. Nor is he an Ozma, a natural force that you were unfortunate enough to disturb. Kefka is the God of Magic, and his rule is marked by an unstable disgust for the world around him. He got his hands on the statues of the Warring Triad and made the conscious decision to plunge the world into darkness. And he started as a joke, a character who the game he is in seems to care little for.
You really can feel a sense of agency behind Kefka, almost like Lucas in Mother 3. Lucas is NOT supposed to be the protagonist of Mother 3. Flint is. All you hear about at the start of the game is how much reverence everyone in Tazmily has for Flint, similar to Ness at the start of Earthbound. But Flint isn't the protagonist. Lucas has to accept this reluctant role, one that he is very much not suited for. The game tells us as much when it calls him a crybaby at every turn. Kefka is NOT supposed to be the villain. Gestahl is. Why would it be the weird clown, right? You just never see it coming. The story is written in such a way that it feels like it was hijacked. Kefka's rise to power (at halfway through the game) is such a fantastic bait-and-switch. And having to climb that tower to get to Kefka on his throne, this Luciferian figure? There's really nothing quite like it.
Boss fights are designed to be memorable because great villains always stick out in your head, no matter what the reason is, and that's the beauty of a boss fight. It can range anywhere from the brutal simplicity of an overwhelming foe to a climactic battle that caps off the entirety of the game.
And sometimes, you're lucky enough to get both.