In your typical Final Fantasy game, the drama builds to such incredible tension that the only release comes from murdering some version of god while an epic orchestral score plays in the background. It’s the perfect combination of emotional stakes, a jaw-dropping twist, and some rad new gameplay mechanic, all coming together to deliver another classic boss battle.
Of course, there’s no formula for the perfect boss battle, but the best ones usually have some combination of those factors — and a gorgeous cinematic cut-scene doesn’t hurt either. In an excellent year for gaming at large, 2023 had no shortage of top-tier boss battles. So from Ganondorf and Venom to giant mechs and fire demons, here are the 10 absolute best of the year.
10. Annihilation — Remnant 2
An under-appreciated B-tier game in a stellar year for AAA hits, Remnant 2 is a third-person shooter Soulslike game with Returnal vibes in which the hero travels the multiverse trying to stop the Root, a hive-mind of corrupted tree creatures hellbent on consuming everything. It culminates in a grueling fight against Annihilation, the eldritch manifestation of the Root’s destructive goals.
Annihilation warrants inclusion on this list for art design alone, but the fight is a dazzling, psychedelic experience that forces the player to “git gud” in a way that feels triumphant in the end. Because of the nature of the story, the evolution of the boss combines elements of hellish body horror with cerebral imagery hints that the entire experience is one big digitized simulation.
9. Roquefort — Hi-Fi Rush
Hi-Fi Rush deserves placement on this list for its totally novel rhythm-based combat. Even your average fight against lesser enemies inspires plenty of grins and head-bobs in a way that’s unlike any other game. But the manic anime energy and trance-like rhythm truly peaks in the penultimate boss battle against a cranky old man who loves crunching numbers. Everybody keeps saying he’s a “wolf in sheep’s clothing,” only for him to literally transform into an ultra-powerful wolf mecha. The multiphase battle takes place in several different locations with different mechanics at play, making for a fun and invigorating fight against a big bad wolf.
In the immortal words of that one furry on Reddit, “That part where he pins you to the wall gives me goosebumps every time.”
8. Laxasia — Lies of P
Timothee Chalamet’s illegal likeness waltzes through this reverent steampunk Bloodborne clone, and you feel every bit as frail against the hordes of clockwork monstrosities. A real highlight in a game full of excellent Dark Souls-style bosses is Laxasia, this sinister wonderland’s equivalent of Elden Ring’s Malenia. After the first, deceptively straightforward phase, it’s an unholy spectacle as she doffs her armor and supercharges her sword with a bolt of lightning. The whole fight is just so unapologetically cool.
7. Bode Akuna — Star Wars Jedi: Survivor
There’s a difference between a good boss fight in terms of mechanics and a dramatic conflict in the narrative that sucker punches you right in the gut. Star Wars Jedi: Survivor decides to have its Jogan fruitcake and eat it, too.
Bode Akuna is a Jedi Knight in hiding just like protagonist Cal Kestis, and the final fight in Jedi: Survivor is a dramatic showdown where Cal has no choice but to embrace the darkness to destroy the man who once called him his “best friend.” Because Bode wields a lightsaber and blaster, it makes for a fight unlike any other, with too many phases to count and a dramatic finale in which Cal is forced [spoiler alert!] to murder his friend with a blaster rather than a lightsaber.
6. Titan Lost — Final Fantasy XVI
If you had told me that a Final Fantasy game would one day feature the fire demon Ifrit sprinting and skating down a mountainside to a wicked tune that sounds like something out of Tony Hawk Pro Skater, I’d have laughed in your face. Yet Final Fantasy XVI delivers just that. Every boss fight in the game is jaw-dropping, but the battle against the giant earthen golem Titan is a real standout. Even the first phase against Titan’s base form is intimidating considering he’s 20 or 30 times the size of Ifrit. But after Titan devours raw Aether (the energy source of the land), he grows impossibly large and sprouts rock tentacles he whips at you.
Despite the size disparity, Ifrit matches Titan in terms of power, wielding its own tentacles against him. While the fight isn’t particularly difficult, the sheer scale and demonstration of Ifrit’s power is nothing short of awe-inspiring, capitalizing on the power of the PlayStation 5 to deliver one of the most memorable boss battles in gaming history.
5. Ibis Series CEL-240 — Armored Core VI
You can’t think when you play Armored Core, or you’ll lose. The thinking happens in between missions when you tweak and refine your mech. Much like FromSoftware’s more famous Dark Souls games and Elden Ring, twitchy reflexes and precise movements go a long way. But when you reach the endgame and encounter a mech powered and piloted by Coral itself (the highly coveted energy source in the game), it’s the kind of overwhelming boss battle you might spend an entire day on. By all accounts, the CEL-240 is an ancient mech, yet it’s far more advanced than anything else the player has faced previously. Not only is it faster and more powerful, but it has a dozen orbital drone weapons that hover around it.
The fact that this battle happens in an open field of shallow water with no cover is deliberate. You can tweak your build all you want, but Armored Core VI forces you to develop the skills needed to overcome this foe without any gimmicks.
4. Venom — Spider-Man 2
Insomniac took a big risk with Spider-Man’s coolest villain, Venom, by making the Symbiote’s host Peter Parker’s best friend Harry Osborn instead of Eddie Brock. But it pays off big time with what might be the definitive adaptation of the Venom arc outside Marvel Comics. Eddie is an embittered rival to Peter, but Harry is his dear best friend who evaded death by bonding with a goopy alien. Spider-Man 2 spends the whole game detailing their bromance with touching flashbacks and earnest bike rides while the Venom Symbiote grows powerful enough to threaten the planet.
The final confrontation fittingly spends most of the screen time with Peter vs. Harry where the emotional stakes are as potent as the dramatic ones, but it also manages to include a phase where Miles has to fight Venom as well.
Even the moveset Venom wields feels like an overpowered dark foil to Peter’s Symbiote powers (which evolve into Anti-Venom powers), and the fight escalates exponentially until Peter has no choice but to risk murdering his best friend. Hasn’t poor Pete been through enough?
3. Raphael — Baldur’s Gate 3
Despite being in early access for three years, Baldur’s Gate 3 felt like an overnight sensation that came out of nowhere upon its full release in August. Plenty of epic boss battles in the game have interesting mechanics, but only one delivers a unique and unforgettable spectacle: the devil Raphael. A secondary antagonist who speaks in riddles and bargains for the party’s souls early in the game, Raphael is a vain and capricious devil who throws tantrums and inspires fear in everyone he encounters. You spend dozens of hours quivering in fear at his very presence as he delivers cryptic threats like, “The mouse smiled brightly, it outfoxed the cat. Then down came the claw, and that, love, was that.”
It’s a masterclass in dramatic tension when, after the party steals their contract with Raphael rather late in the game, he appears in his devil form for a boss fight and belts out his own Disney villain musical number. Actor Andrew Wincott shines as the voice of Raphael throughout the game, but performing his own boss battle music with the spirit of a Broadway ballad is sure to go down in gaming history.
2. Demon King Ganondorf — The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom
You can spend hundreds of hours in Tears of the Kingdom crucifying Koroks and helping one idiot put up signs for his boss, but when it’s time to face the Demon King and actually save Hyrule, it’s an intense experience emotionally and mechanically. Ganondorf is a delightfully ham-fisted villain, and opening the fight with a more subdued one-on-one duel is a stroke of brilliance. Any damage you take also semi-permanently reduces Link’s overall health, which is a startling evolution of a mechanic you have to deal with throughout the game.
Phase two positively overwhelms you with a monstrous transformation and a squad of Ganondorf Phantom clones. When the Sages start appearing to back you up, it feels like Gandalf appearing over the hill at Helm’s Deep. In a game full of subtle, stupid wandering, it expertly nails the drama of the big finale, and having the final phase be a dual dragon fight is a stroke of brilliance.
1. Bahamut — Final Fantasy XVI
After years apart, brothers Clive and Joshua are united at the start of this late-game battle against the most Eikonic summon in Final Fantasy history, Bahamut. The greatest shonen fights ever have a hard time keeping up with the spectacle here, made all the more dire because it takes place over a city. Controlling Ifrit, then Phoenix, then Ifrit again, only for the two of them to fuse into a singular entity like some kind of Dragon Ball Z absurdity — and then you fight in space!? At no point is it possible to predict the bonkers escalation of scale here, and Masayoshi Soken’s orchestral score complete with a massive choir makes things feel almost biblical.
If anything, Final Fantasy XVI is a thoughtful lesson on how powerful it can be to just let the player participate in the cinematic moments happening on-screen with a simple and easy button press, blurring the lines between gameplay and cutscene.
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