There are normal bosses, there are difficult bosses, and then there are impossible bosses. We mean that literally. Every once in a while, a video game throws an enemy at you that you simply can’t beat—at least, not without modding the game or cheating. Your actions don’t matter. No matter what you do, you’re going to lose.
But why? Sometimes, a character needs to stick around to progress the plot. At others, developers want to drive home just how powerful a certain character is—or how powerful the player’s character isn’t. Occasionally, an unbeatable boss fight occurs early in the game just to make that character’s ultimate demise feel so much sweeter. And, every once in a while, an invincible foe pops up just to mess with players’ heads (yeah, Dark Souls, we’re looking at you). When you go up against these particular big bads, don’t waste your potions, your ammo, or your time. Just give in. Surrender is the only option.
Bowser — Paper Mario
Mario beats Bowser. For over 30 years now, that’s just how it goes. But Paper Mario doesn’t play by the regular Mario rules—to start with, it’s a turn-based RPG, not a platforming title—and that includes its treatment of Mario’s biggest, baddest nemesis.
When Paper Mario begins, Mario and Luigi trek to Princess Peach’s castle for a party, but it doesn’t seem like the Toadstool monarch has much interest in socializing. After briefly mingling with Peach’s guests, Mario heads upstairs to talk with the princess herself. Things go well—Peach can’t wait to "relax" with Mario, once they’re squirreled away where nobody can interrupt them—but before Mario gets too lucky, the ground starts shaking and the entire castle floats into the sky.
It’s Bowser, of course, and when the King Koopa shows up to gloat, Mario gets ready to take him down. It should be easy. After all, he’s done it before. But in the past, Bowser didn’t have the Star Rod, which grants its owner’s every wish. Bowser uses the wand, making himself invincible, and there’s nothing that Mario or the player can do about it. Mario gets thrashed in the following battle, and spends the rest of the game collecting the power-ups he’ll need to survive the inevitable rematch.
Calo Nord — Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic
Like other BioWare RPGs, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic is all about choices. Will you embrace the light side of the Force, or turn to the dark? Negotiate with the Tusken Raiders on Tatooine, or murder them all? And, most importantly, will your amnesiac Sith lord fall for Bastila Shan, Juhani, or Carth Onasi?
But even in a flexible game like Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, you can’t do everything you want. There’s a story, and you have to play by its rules. As a result, no matter how much you might want to kill Calo Nord on Taris, you can’t. The bounty hunter still has a role to play. Oh, sure, you can try. After watching Nord dispatch a few members of the Black Vulkars in Javyar’s Cantina, you’re more than welcome to challenge him to a fight. Just don’t expect to win. Not only does Nord have a weapon that’ll end you in one hit, but he’s totally invulnerable. Allegedly, even cheating won’t get Nord out of the way (at first, anyway—after Taris’ destruction, you’ll meet Nord again, and at that point he’s totally fair game).
Kain — Final Fantasy IV
Impossible boss fights are a common trope in Japanese role-playing games, especially the early entries in the Final Fantasy franchise. More than almost any other game series, Final Fantasy titles tend to use their gameplay systems as storytelling tools—Garnet can’t cast spells when she loses her voice in Final Fantasy IX, for example—and Final Fantasy IV (originally known in the USA as Final Fantasy II) is the weirdest and most creative in this regard. An old man, Tellah, loses stat points as he levels up, to show that he’s getting older. When the main hero, Cecil, undergoes a spiritual transformation, his statistics reset and he starts back at level one.
And, of course, Final Fantasy IV uses impossible boss fights to show you exactly how powerful your opponents are. Kain isn’t a memorable character because of his spiky armor and sharp spear. He’s a memorable character because he starts as a member of your party, goes missing, and kicks your butt as soon as he shows up again.
Final Fantasy IV doesn’t just show you the fight, however. You play it, at least for a few seconds. While Cecil has time launch a couple of attacks, Kain does heavy damage, and the skirmish is over almost as soon as it begins. It’s a smart and quick way to send players a powerful message: Kain is much stronger than he was the last time you saw him. Don’t take him lightly.
Seath the Scaleless — Dark Souls
In addition to its moody atmosphere, clever level construction, and impeccable world design, the Dark Souls is most famous for being brutally hard. Still, even by Dark Souls standards, Seath the Scaleless is unusually sadistic. See, whenever Dark Souls players die, they lose souls (the game’s currency) and some of their humanity (a stat boost). If they want to recover the items they lost, players need to fight their way back to their corpses without dying again. Often, that’s easier said than done.
And yet, to defeat Seath the Scaleless, you have to die first. There’s no way around it. When you confront Seath the first time, the dragon is invincible. Even the best Dark Souls player won’t be able to beat him. Once he kills you—and he will—you’ll respawn in a prison cell. From there, you’ll be able to battle your way to the Crystal Cave, where you’ll be able to put Seath down for good. Hopefully, you won’t die along the way—otherwise, all those goodies you lost when Seath killed you the first time will be lost for good. Not cool, Dark Souls. Not cool at all.
Vile — Mega Man X
Mega Man’s pal Zero may not have the blue bomber’s name recognition, but the dude definitely knows how to make an entrance. Mega Man X opens with a tutorial level that acquaints players with Mega Man’s futuristic new home and his brand new abilities. After mastering dashing, wall-jumping, and blasting, players enter their very first boss fight…and lose immediately.
As it turns out, Mega Man isn’t much of a match for Vile, one of the rogue robots known as the Mavericks. It’s not even close. All Vile does is hop up and down and shoot slow-moving energy balls, and he still manages to bash at Mega Man until the plucky young robot is down to a single bar of life. That’s when Vile stops to gloat. Wrong choice. An energy charge flies in from offscreen and disables Vile, the electric guitars start to play, and Zero rushes to the rescue, hair flowing in the wind. Vile takes off—beaten, but not broken—leaving little doubt who the hero is. It might be Mega Man’s game, but Zero is the real star.
Zeus — God of War II
So, you’ve killed Ares. Big whoop. Offing the god of war and taking his place (which is how the first God of War ends) is one thing. Killing the god of war’s dad—who also happens to be the king of Olympus—is quite another. When God of War II kicks off, neither Kratos nor the player prove up to the task.
Of course, before the fight, Zeus stacked the deck in his favor. He took the form of an eagle, stole some of Kratos’ power, and used it to bring a giant statue, the Colossus of Rhodes, to life. As Kratos fights the statue, Zeus gives him a weapon—but in order to use the Blade of Olympus, Kratos needs to give up the rest of his divine power. He does and defeats the Colossus accordingly. That’s when Zeus reveals that he’s been behind the whole thing, and arrogantly orders Kratos to pledge allegiance to the king of the gods.
Kratos doesn’t, so Zeus picks up his sword and, after an extremely short boss fight, takes the former Spartan down—but not out. Kratos escapes from the underworld (for a second time) and teams up with the banished titans to get revenge on the god king—who is also, Kratos learns, his father. Awkward.
Gunther — Deus Ex
The whole point of the cyberpunk action-RPG Deus Ex is that, if you can try it, you can probably do it. While developing the game, veteran designer Warren Spector created a set of rules to guide Deus Ex’s development team, which included nuggets like "no forced failure" and "players do; NPCs watch."
For the most part, Ion Storm met (and, often, exceeded) those goals. The game’s Battery Park segment, however, comes up short. After the protagonist JC Denton turns on the United Nations Anti-Terrorist Coalition, he and his brother become public enemies number two and one, respectively. UNATCO goons, led by the cybernetic assassin Gunther Hermann.
So far, so good. But JC’s showdown against Gunther in Battery Park only has one outcome: JC surrenders, and Gunther remains alive. While JC can wipe out Gunther’s UNATCO soldiers, the big man himself is invincible. Fight too long, and he’ll just kill you. Escape isn’t an option, either. While clever fans discovered a way to jump over the barricades designed to keep players fighting, there’s no way to progress the story without giving in to Gunther’s demands. Deus Ex might be a game based on player choice, but in this scenario, there’s only one ending—and for JC, it isn’t a good one.
Ridley — Super Metroid
Classic Metroid nemesis Ridley is a mother-lovin’ dragon who leads a band of space pirates. By its very definition, that thing should put up one hell of a fight—and when Super Metroid opens, Ridley doesn’t disappoint. Shortly after dropping the last living Metroid off at the Ceres Space Colony, bounty hunter Samus Aran receives a distress call from the same facility. When she returns in Super Metroid’s opening moments, she finds Ridley lurking in the laboratory, the Metroid sample clutched in his talons.
You can fight Ridley, but you can’t beat him—after all, if Ridley doesn’t escape with the Metroid, there’d be no game. The best you can do is pummel him with bullets until he drops the container holding the baby lifeform (the other alternative is to just let him hit Samus until she runs out of energy). Either way, the result is the same. Ridley scoops up the Metroid he fumbled and starts the station’s self-destruct sequence, forcing Samus to drop everything and make a mad dash to the exit. Still, Ridley doesn’t get away scot-free—as he flees, Samus follows him, and the adventure properly begins once she touches down on Zebes and starts hunting her prey.
Fortune — Metal Gear Solid 2
You don’t beat Fortune. You merely survive her. See, it’s impossible to shoot Fortune. Every bullet misses. It seems like a superpower, but in reality, she’s too lucky. Really, really lucky.
That’s good for her, but isn’t great for Raiden, who faces off against Fortune early in Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty. While Fortune may be effectively impervious to bullets, she can still shoot with the best of ’em, and after a brief bout of mistaken identity she decides that Raiden is better off dead. Raiden, naturally, disagrees—and since he serves as the player’s character, you’re on his side by default.
On paper, Fortune should be easy. Her life bar is ridiculously short. During the battle, she practically begs Raiden to kill her. In true Metal Gear Solid fashion, it’s all a joke. The only way to make it past Fortune and continue Metal Gear Solid 2’s twisty plotline is to use the environment to your advantage, letting Fortune’s shots go wide until help arrives.
Pyramid Head — Silent Hill 2
The best horror villains can’t be killed no matter how hard the protagonist tries. That’s what makes them so scary. It doesn’t matter what you do to stop Jason Voorhees, Michael Myers, or Freddy Krueger. Everything you try is a temporary solution. Sooner or later, they’re going to find out.
Add Pyramid Head, the ostensible antagonist of Silent Hill 2, to the list. As James Sunderland quickly learns, the Pyramid Head can take a licking and keeps on coming back for more. Oh, sure, he can be hurt—he takes a bullet just like anything else—and, in fact, you’ll need to wound Pyramid Head more than once if you’re going to work your way towards Silent Hill 2’s conclusion.
But while you harm him, you won’t kill him. Despite James’ best efforts, Pyramid Head returns to plague him again, and again, and again. When James finally escapes, in fact, it’s not because he’s managed to put his stalking foe down. It’s because James finally manages to forgive himself, ending the Pyramid Heads’ purgatorial function. And so, the beasties happily impale themselves on their own spears, letting James proceed—but never letting him forget that, without that suicide, they would’ve won, and there’s nothing James could’ve done about it.