I received this question for the Curiosity Shop from Benito, but was unable to answer it because my response was too long:
There have been dungeons where we are given information about the boss beforehand, such as Volvagia in the Fire Temple, and also instances where we learn about the boss as we progress through the dungeon, such as the with the Deku Scrubs and Gohma. However with most dungeons, we have never seen or heard anything about the boss until we face them. Which of these approaches do you prefer?
It’s a worthy topic to delve into. I’ve written about the Zelda bosses before, in my article “Zelda Bosses: The Bigger They Are The Harder They Fall?”. In that article I discussed the bosses and their roles as both areas of heightened challenge but also as transitions between sections of the game, while also criticizing their low difficulty and the repetitiveness of their massive size. It only dealt with themes and execution of bosses in game-play terms. This article will delve into more story-based aspects of Zelda bosses, as well as the progression of their unveiling. Who or what are these creatures we face, and how early should we find out? Which approach is better? Their mysterious appearance, or some level of knowledge about them ahead of time?
The original games that pioneered the Zelda series didn’t really have a story for the bosses. The lone exception is Ganon in the original Legend of Zelda. Even Thunderbird of Adventure of Link had next to no story to him, even though he functioned as the second to final boss. His only story revolved around his purpose as guardian of the Great Palace, a fairly obvious fact. Link’s Shadow – the original Dark Link – also had no real story. In essence, the bosses of both the original Legend of Zelda and Adventure of Link were nothing but a barrage of powerful monsters. In both games, you pretty much heard nothing about the bosses until you faced them.
A Link to the Past marked the first game where any boss other than the primary antagonists like Ganon or Agahnim had a story. That would be Blind of Thieves’ Town, the 8th dungeon of the game. Early in the game the player is told about a thief named Blind who hated light, and supposedly finds his old hideout. While it is only speculation, it can be assumed that Blind then went to the Dark World, possibly by joining with Ganon, and served as one of Ganon’s most powerful lackeys. This would make sense given that he is the only boss of the game with his own identity. Within the dungeon, Blind proceeded to impersonate one of the maidens that Link is trying to save and then revealed his true, monstrous form when exposed to the light. Thieves’ Town nor Blind the Thief would have been the same without this story, but as a result, he was somewhat revealed before it came time to fight him, even though his boss form was a surprise. Blind the Thief’s story was light, but it still added more personality to both the dungeon and boss.
As the series continued on, the degree to which the bosses had stories and identities increased and fluctuated. None of the bosses in Link’s Awakening had a well-developed story until the end of the game. While they initially functioned as simple monsters (though they did have dialogue that begins to reveal the secret of Koholint Island), it isn’t until the end of the game when you faced the Nightmare that their true nature revealed itself. This is interesting, as it’s the first time that the bosses, aside from those who had unique stories like Blind, had a role in the overall story. In Ocarina of Time, as outlined in Benito’s question, you learned about the bosses in different ways. But in that game every single boss had at least a function they were serving or some sort of identity, even if it was only revealed to you when they appeared (or in Phantom Ganon’s case, only when he was defeated). Games like Oracle of Ages or Oracle of Seasons had virtually no story for the individual dungeon bosses, whereas in Twilight Princess several did, but some didn’t.
But enough history. The real question is, which method is best for the Zelda bosses? Do we prefer the bosses that are mindless monster guardians, or mindless agents with a purpose? Do we like them as intelligent beings either acting alone or serving the game’s antagonist? And do we want their stories revealed gradually or kept a secret up until their dramatic unveiling at the climax of a dungeon?
I think there are merits to all of these. Having no knowledge of a boss ahead of time and being surprised when it shows up to block your path is a brilliant method, especially when done well in a grand, cinematic way. Good examples of this are Phantom Ganon from Ocarina of Time, or Morpheel and Stallord from Twilight Princess. Even cases where the knowledge of the boss is minimal function virtually the same. An example of this is Morpha from Ocarina of Time. We learned that there was a creature in the Water Temple, that it was the source of the cold that froze Zora’s Domain, but we weren’t told a single thing about this creature aside from those two facts. When Morpha appeared at the end of the dungeon, was it any less of a surprise? Of course not, because we didn’t know anything about it. Virtually all bosses should have a purpose or function, be it the root of a curse or the guardian of a treasure. Perhaps some exceptions would be fitting in the case of dungeons where you have to delve into unknown territory, in which case you could fight some mysterious abomination, but I think for the most part having a “giant monster for giant monster’s sake” is a bad move, at least in terms of telling a coherent story. I would be more accepting of story-less monsters if the dungeons took on a different flavor though, and we began to see dungeons taking place in a variety of locations and not just sacred temples and other important structures. The biggest strength of this method is the mystery and dramatic unveiling.
It’s also interesting when the player first starts to learn about the bosses ahead of time, whether the bosses have personal stories or not. The question I received cites Gohma as a boss that uses this method. Before entering the dungeon, you were told that there is a curse plaguing the Deku Tree which turned out to be Gohma, but her name was first mentioned by the Deku Scrubs within the dungeon. Technically Gohma was talked about both before you entered the dungeon and within it, but I already brought up the fact that this doesn’t truly reveal a boss. You learn few facts about a creature that still has its dramatic unveiling. It does however diminish the mystery of the boss, as it begins to tell you some information about it, even if the big unveiling is still dramatic. The best advantage to this method is that it reveals facts about the boss and builds its story while still keeping most of the surprise intact. The same method was used for Volvagia in the same game. Phantom Ganon was a different case, as he was not mentioned until he appeared, but his story was revealed after he was defeated, allowing the depth without much buildup. There have been cases where the boss was revealed in the middle of the dungeon, though, such as in the City in the Sky from Twilight Princess, where the boss Argorok appeared constantly throughout the dungeon, taking out bridges and circling his own battle arena which was visible from most of the dungeon. This marks a boss that had little to no surprise factor at all. The advantage in this case is that there is a dramatic build-up and the anticipation of knowing what you’re going to fight.
Revealing a boss before a dungeon, as indicated by Gohma or Volvagia, doesn’t really function any differently than revealing it in the middle of the dungeon. The only exception would be cases where there’s a deeper story to be told about the boss, but we’ve yet to truly see this in any Zelda game with the exception of the chief antagonists, and perhaps Blind. Furthermore, with few exceptions, for the boss to have more story it would have to be something more than a beast. Normal monsters – or perhaps animals would be a better word – function great as bosses in many cases, but there are other times where a being with more intelligence and thus more development would be better. Whether we’ve actually seen that within the series or not is unclear, as many of the creatures we’ve faced might not be animals so much as mystical beasts, spirits, or demons of some kind that may or may not be unique and have an intellelect. But certainly none of them have really shown this. It would be interesting to see bosses that speak or have storylines leading up to them. Depending on the presentation, this could be done without sacrificing the dramatic unveiling or the dramatic build-up. In fact it could easily enhance both. Obviously it wouldn’t be right for every boss and should remain a rarity, but how come we never see it?
As you can see, there are many ways to reveal and present the bosses of the Zelda series. Some of them haven’t been done, and some have been done to death. Each has unique traits to it that may or may not conflict with each other, and it really comes down to the presentation. Clearly the bosses should be original and not be squandered or written off as cheap giant monsters that you’re just supposed to fight. Whether it’s in their epic appearance, the setting and suspenseful build-up, or the story that surrounds them, they should be presented in a way that gives their own identity and does them justice.