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Bark beats bite: 7 video game boss themes better than the actual boss fights

Gameologerinos, we’ve compiled this Inventory into a YouTube playlist, and we encourage readers to nominate your candidates to the list in the comments (with a YouTube link if you can find it, please). We’ll choose our favorite nominations, add them to the YouTube playlist, and present the final collaborative compilation in the Keyboard Geniuses column at the end of the week.

1. “Unknowable Geometry,” Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP

A game’s music can deepen the sense of immersion in a virtual realm or shatter the illusion, and nowhere is this dichotomy more prevalent than in the boss theme. Boss themes are the climaxes of so many game scores, buzzing with excitement that rewards players for making it this far and keeps them on edge for the challenge in front of them. But sometimes, villains can’t live up to their musical accompaniment. Take Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP, a beautiful game that, as the title implies, focuses heavily on music—specifically Jim Guthrie’s ethereal soundtrack. An epic quest of a lone warrior (and her dog) pitted against spectral visions of death and destruction, the quiet intensity of Sword & Sworcery builds to a thrilling mid-game fight with the mythical Golden Trigon. A slow, menacing swell of prog rock synths—married to the fearless boom of the bass drum-like distant thunder—“Unknowable Geometry” feels insurmountably massive, like a spectacular doom laying down as gently as it can. It’s a shame that the Golden Trigon fight consists almost entirely of waiting around for a floating triangle to do something, then occasionally batting a ball back and forth in the most overhyped game of one-thumb tennis ever. [DS]


2. “Gwyn, Lord Of Cinder,” Dark Souls

Dark Souls’ climactic fight with Lord Gwyn is a bit underwhelming, considering the expectation to fight a god of sunlight who has led an army to victory over a bunch of immortal dragons. As it turns out, Gwyn has become just another zombie in dirty armor. All he can do is jump around and swing a big flaming sword. Yeah, yeah—it makes sense given the “lore.” But after all that’s seen on the way to this fight, another dude with a sword and only a couple of ways to swing it is maybe the last thing players expect. It’s Gwyn’s music that makes this fight memorable. Just like the constrained battle against the fallen lord, the theme is small and understated compared to the rest of the game. Gone are the soundtrack’s pervasive wailing choirs and boisterous strings. All sad old Gwyn gets is the plaintive pounding of a lone piano. [MG]

3. King Dedede’s theme, Kirby series

King Dedede is a joke. The perennial foe of the Kirby series, Dedede is predictable, slow, and—more often than not—just a puppet for the real bad guy. Still, as Kirby’s primary foil, Dedede is bound to show up eventually in every Kirby game, so it’s a good thing he’s got such catchy theme music. Punchy with an almost frantic sense of momentum, Dedede’s theme suggests Olympic-level prowess. He may be a doughy layabout, but Dedede still swags it up with this fresh beat. [DS]


4. “J-E-N-O-V-A,” Final Fantasy VII

Jenova, the second-to-last boss in Final Fantasy VII, is a dud—just a weird space monster that stands in the way of the real fight players are after. So Jenova’s theme song, composed by Final Fantasy mainstay Nobuo Uematsu, does all the heavy lifting. The cascading synth line and horns are vintage Uematsu, congealing into a chunk of alien prog rock that makes the game feel like a pulpy sci-fi party rather than the gothic romance it is so often remembered as. Jenova may be an alien freak warping the planet, but she’s not that imposing in battle. Like a giant, tentacled Koosh ball fitted with a female figurehead ripped from a ship designed by H.R. Giger, she’s not even that cool-looking. And getting through the fight’s as easy as staying healthy and spamming the Ultima spell until the beast crumbles. Still, it pays to not rush through the fight. Lingering on this Uematsu tune is well worth it after the dozens of hours it takes to reach this point. [AJA]


5. Seth’s theme, Street Fighter IV

Nobody likes Seth. The final boss of Street Fighter IV, Seth obviously needed to pose a greater challenge than all the warriors who came before him, but the designers at Capcom went too far. Seth is smug. He laughs and gloats constantly in the midst of combat, and he can pull off impossible feats that seem outlandish even in the cartoony world of Street Fighter, where throwing fireballs and extending one’s limbs like Stretch Armstrong is standard practice. Seth is nothing more than a construct of artificial toughness to cap off the game. His theme music is just as preposterous, but in a sort-of-awesome way. The operatic strings stand toe-to-toe with breakbeat drums, creating a score that is both cinematic and industrial, celebratory in its destructive antagonism. Seth’s theme is just like the behemoth it accompanies, except the music isn’t a total dick. [DS]


6. Big Arm’s theme, Sonic Generations (Nintendo 3DS)

Big Arm is the final boss of Sonic 3, and its music is appropriately climactic. A sludgy bass line and panicked synths create an atmosphere of anxiety and dread as Dr. Robotnik’s latest contraption zipped unpredictably around the screen. When Big Arm was brought back for the Nintendo 3DS version of Sonic Generations, the theme got a pulse-pounding update that heightened the tension of the battle even further. Unfortunately, the new Big Arm was no longer the final challenge, instead reduced to the second position in a lineup of six bosses. And the difficulty of the fight was lessened, too, thanks to overly telegraphed moves and Sonic’s newfound ability to crash into enemies like a homing missile. Players might never even hear the extent to which this track has been remixed since Sonic 3, since the 3DS incarnation of this once-formidable boss can now be trashed in just one minute. [PL]


7. Boss theme, DuckTales

The bosses are the weakest part of DuckTales. Exploring the levels, pogo-sticking around as an elderly grave-robbing waterfowl—that’s the good stuff. Bopping a mutant moon rat in the face to steal its cheese just doesn’t compare. The boss theme, a funky tune that plays over every stage-ending showdown, saves these encounters from tedium. The staccato chip-horn blasts in the bridge keep every fight spicy while also evoking the slick metal-funk of Capcom’s best NES-era games. The boss theme is also a break from the rest of the game’s tunes. While the famous soundtrack, particularly the minor-key classic moon-level theme, veers toward pop, the boss theme positively swings. [AJA]


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