When it comes to creating emotive moments and memorable storytelling in games, one of the most important tools in a designer’s toolbox is the soundtrack. A victory over a foe is nothing without a cheery tune, and a death scene is far less impactful without sombre pianos to pull out the tears. However, one of the more interesting areas of a game to compose for is the boss battles.
Boss battles can come in a variety of styles, attempting to pull different emotions from the player. Is this an epic emotional climax for the game? A moment of terrible dread as you face down a much stronger foe? Or an all-out fight between the toughest there is? Each type of track can bring out a different set of emotions in players and affect their attitude before the fight’s even begun.
These boss battles have themes that go above and beyond in focusing on one or more of these aspects to get the most out of their fights. These themes wrap around the most epic boss battles and pull everything together into one memorable package.
7. Rapture – Towerfall Ascension
While Towerfall Ascension‘s singleplayer campaign is not the primary attraction of the game, it still features a huge challenge for players to overcome. Featuring 14 levels of extremely tough waves of enemies, to even make it to Ascension, the game’s final level, is a feat worthy of celebration. When the player enters the stage for their final fight, they’re greeted with an intro that pulls in a sense of both intensity and triumph. The violins play in a strong major key, congratulating the player. However, the piano beats quickly in the background, reminding the player that their fight is not over yet.
The main melody moves through at a steady pace. The major key holds, pushing a sense of positivity and determination onto the player, keeping layers of intense piano music in the background to steady the threat. By the time the boss spawns in Ascension, this music will have reached the phases where the violins have faded away and the piano music carries the melody. These phases of the music are the most intense and reach higher notes for an emotional climax.
6. Revived Power – Shadow of the Colossus
The building-sized Colossus that roam the lands of Shadow of the Colossus are some of the toughest foes out there in gaming. What makes them such challenging opponents aren’t their powerful attacks, but how they use their bodies and environments to prevent the player from getting to their weak points. When encountering a Colossus, half the battle is working out how to get onto its back so you can stab it to death.
SotC understands that climbing on the back of these creatures is a feat worthy of celebration, and has appropriate music. Revived Power will play when you climb on the back of Colossus and approach its weak spot for the first time.
An entire orchestra hits the high notes and major keys to make the feeling of climbing up on the Colossus a hugely satisfying accomplishment. It creates an epic emotional climax as you run around this gigantic creature’s body in order to get to the location to take it down. While this is mostly a triumphant track, it’s sure to keep some level of threat in there too. Later phases of tracks bring in more intense violins and cymbals to remind players that their battle is only half-won.
5. Mine – Sayonara Wild Hearts
One of the more unique boss battle themes (and overall battles) now. Sayonara Wild Hearts is a wonderful mix of a rhythm game and an on-rail storytelling experience that touches your heart in all the right ways. The best levels in the game are the boss battles, where The Fool will fight against a variety of opponents. These are entirely synched up to an original pop song, written and produced by the game’s creators. This creates a unique scenario where what makes the song so good isn’t just the musical elements within it, but how those elements interact with the gameplay.
The track comes with a briskly paced and funky beat that carries the lyrics with a nice deal of satisfaction. Moving into the first chorus, the beat becomes far more prominent in order to synch up with the strikes of the sword battle playing out on screen. This backing beat fades back out for the next verse, putting the emphasis on traversal in the game before kicking right back into gear for when you come under attack once more. The final segment of the song is by the far the most climactic, as the bosses smash their giant swords together to turn it into a plane (don’t ask) and come at you.
Here, the theme pulls together all the elements of the boss battle and puts a gentle guitar rhythm in the background for an excellent finale. This style of gameplay combined with the clever music design pulls the level together for a near-perfect 2-minute rollercoaster ride.
4. Golem King – Moonlighter
When fighting a boss in Moonlighter, the game wants to remind you that these foes are far stronger than you. Will is not a hero of legend; he’s a dude with a sword who manages a shop as his day job. As the very first boss in the game, this is a no-frills fight. After conquering the first dungeon, the game needs to see if you’re up to the test of the next. You’re still a beginner, and the Golem King will take you down if you’re not smart and prepared. This is echoed in the music, as it’s a very simple track. The only parts featured are the piano, violin, flute and drums.
The piano carries the bulk of the very beautiful melody, but one that pounds at you with drums in the background to keep the intensity going. As the melody shifts to the flutes, the background percussion fades away. The track very briefly lets up and gives you more of a breather, in line with the Golem King’s attack patterns. This is a boss battle all about taking your time and finding the right opening to attack, and the music seeks to encourage that by mixing the emotional signals it gives the player.
3. Decisive Battle II – Octopath Traveler
This is a theme that comes at you hard and fast, with no letting up for even a second. From the word go, the orchestra hits you with a series of loud and impactful beats that set the intensity of the fight to come. Right out of the gate, this track bombards you with the high notes before diving into a lower, but more intense melody. Octopath Traveler‘s boss battles have you fighting all manner of opponents. From dragons to madmen, this is a track that carries the threat and intensity of such foes.
The strong, but melodic violin carries the bulk of the melody, giving the track a similar flow to the turn-based battle style featured in the game, making use of all of Octopath Traveler’s jobs. The violins are dropped only for the big and brassy notes that hit hard in these tough battles. This is a theme that mixes together the best parts of Octopath Traveler. It hits the emotional highs while keeping a strong sense of challenge and climax that such boss battles should carry.
2. Dialga’s Fight To The Finish – Pokemon Mystery Dungeon: Explorers of Time/Darkness
This theme is the very definition of an emotional climax. The Pokemon Mystery Dungeon games have the most complex and impactful narratives of all Pokemon games, with some formidable foes. This theme allows that aspect to shine through musically. The battle with Dialga is the final boss battle of the story; it’s for the fate of the world and against an extremely powerful opponent. This theme could’ve easily gone for something far more intimidating and worked wonders, but instead, the composers chose to focus on the emotional weight of such a moment.
The heavily synthesized soundtrack still manages to get across the weight and the instruments it wants to with some very simple tools. The flute-like melody plays through most of the melody and feels like the true emotional centre of the track. The quick percussive beat maintains the background — this is still a battle, after all — but happily gives away when the rest of the melody wants to hit the high notes. High notes which hold all the weight and stakes of the Explorers of Time/Darkness‘ incredible story.
1. Confronting Myself – Celeste
This theme is one of the most unique boss battle themes ever composed. It uses unconventional musical techniques to blend an intimidating theme with an emotional climax and still tell a story within the track itself. It’s some true musical genius from composer Lena Raine. The game sets out the threat immediately. Choir portions are haunting and the beat is threatening. Once the boss battle gets underway, things become far more emotional. The synthesized melody plays at the right frequency so that it sounds exactly like the synth notes used for Madeline’s voice.
This creates the effect of the story mentioned previously. The fantastic story behind this boss battle is Madeline trying to reach out to this part of herself, so they can connect. The boss battle has you physically trying to reach them over and over again. Using Madeline’s voice for the main melody makes it sound like she’s singing out the part of herself so they can work together.
Throughout this, the track slowly becomes more distorted and unsettling, like the part of Madeline is slowly corrupting it, showing her power. All these elements tie themselves together perfectly to create a unique, emotive and threatening boss battle theme.