Here’s a list for the nostalgic gamer or the curious. Each of the ten themes listed here has had an emotional impact on the way I view boss fights. Yes, I grew up during the console wars and mainly played JRPGS and side-scrollers from the SNES and PS2. Nevertheless, I think it’s amazing that, for some reason, I have yet to experience anything like that from a seventh generation console and onwards. Call it nostalgic rhetoric, but I think we take everything today for granted. In the past, we let the music pave the way for adventure, letting the grandeur of empirical genius promise us a most epic fight. Certainly, in most cases, current games deliver in gameplay, but I think there’s more to it than dazzling graphics and a decent story. Music is the secret ingredient, if you will, of gaming. Decipher that one for yourselves as you delve through the list and embrace my toast to the past.
Game and Platform: Secret of Mana on Super Nintendo
Composer: Hiroki Kikuta
Ah…now this is how you make a boss theme. Imagine you’re seven again and you’re fighting the first boss, the Mantis Ant. Chances are, if you heard this for the first time with the sound up, you went something like, “OH, MY GOSH! WHAT IS THAT THING? WHERE IS IT? WHAT DO I DO? I JUST STARTED THIS GAME! STOP THE MUSIC!” Perhaps not as dramatically as that, but you get the point. Secret of Mana is not only one of the best RPGs on the Super Nintendo, but it excels in its audio department, providing us with the beautiful classics like “Angel’s Fear,” and, of course, “Danger.” I always think of this song as having the most perfectly paced boss theme ever. Why? Everything happens when it’s supposed to in well-timed phases. Seriously, listen to it as you read the following segments and tell me I’m wrong. Phase 1: The screeching opening lets you know you’re in deep trouble and is the part where most will start their initial panicking. Phase 2: Right after that you most likely collect yourself and start thinking about how to beat it. But before you can do that, the intense music gives you an onslaught of strident violins. That’s where I’d place the boss actually attacking, with you frantically attempting to heal your allies and continue to scramble about. Phase 3-4: Following that comes a glimmer of hope. That glorious “aha!” moment of discovery where you’ve figured out what the boss hates and you’re letting him have it. This last part is invigorating, encouraging, and blares, “you’ve got this.”
2. “Lavos’ Theme” and “Last Battle”
Game and platform: Chrono Trigger on Super Nintendo
Composer: Yasunori Mitsuda
If you’re into RPGs at all, you either have played or will be playing Chrono Trigger some time or another. It’s not just another classic from the SNES era that still gets released to this day due to its memorable characters, story, active battle system, music, and its many endings. It’s more than that. It’s an emotional experience and timeless adventure that has remained relevant in the gaming world because it’s touched our hearts. To this day, I can think of no better time-traveling experience in a game or combination than Back to the Future meets Final Fantasy.
Back to the music, you get to hear both of these epic tracks during your conquest to defeat the alienoid of 1999’s apocalypse. The first is “Lavos’ Theme,” which plays whenever the great beast Lavos appears. It lets you know you’re in trouble with such an impending opening. Listen to that organ-esque sound and tell me you’re not hearing Doomsday. As you battle on, the pounding sounds shift to a more emotional tone where it gets quiet and plays a soft piano phrase with a choral background. I get goose bumps every time I hear this as the monster attacks with his deadly signature move, “Destruction rains from the heavens!” It’s the heart of the song that makes for a really effective way to get the player involved and attached to such beloved characters.
The second one, “The Final Battle,” is totally different. By this point, you’ve done all of the emotional side-winding and you’re ready to give that fiend a taste of your Rainbow sword. This one’s upbeat and rocking, yet still retains a dramatic tone with a choral effect. Also, during two different parts of this, you hear Lavos’ great cry. It strangely keeps the battle’s pace and you on your toes as you fight for the future. For best effect, listen to this one with headphones because the audio shifts from left to right and sounds that much better.
3. “Battle 2”
Game and Platform: Final Fantasy IV (II) on Super Nintendo
Composer: Nobuo Uematsu
This song sounds like a child’s nightmare. It’s a menacing remix of the normal battle theme that burns that first fight against the Mist Dragon into your memory forever. As you battle it out, the brisk theme bounces along and loops between attacks. Think of this as a shorter version of Secret of Mana’s “Danger.” Again, here’s a song that has phases that carry you through the fight—the devastating intro, the hope for a comeback, etc. It transcends the medieval sphere the game is set in and acoustically articulates malevolence and excitement. Moreover, you can’t go wrong with Nobuo Uematsu’s work on any FF game. On that note, other Final Fantasy contenders wish they had this track. Even FFVII’s “Fight On!,” while innovative, rocking, fitting for a futuristic apocalypse, and a close runner-up, cannot compare to this one. Admittedly, “One-Winged Angel” is on par with this and probably surpasses the general boss theme ranking, but I wanted to bring up this one because it is often overlooked and overshadowed by the latter.
As a sort of Easter egg, it was featured in Super Mario RPG‘s secret boss fight against Culex. Although SMRPG isn’t quite as difficult as FFIV, the fact that another game provides the opportunity to battle to this song says a lot about it. Add these to the bucket list, retro gamers. What’s really cool about this song is that if you listen closely, you can hear Mallow’s cymbals in both versions. Aren’t crossovers great?
Game and Platform: Sonic the Hedgehog on Sega Genesis
Composer: Masato Nakamura
The simply titled “Boss” has a booming opening that lets you know you’ve arrived. Dr. Robotnik (as he was originally called in the U.S. and still referred to as such by nostalgic Sonic fans who outright refuse the name Dr. Eggman) appears at the end of every third act, attempting to capture the animals and defeat Sonic with his latest death machine. The music gives the boss a lot of credit…even if Robotnik has only a swinging wrecking ball. It’s just serious enough to have you concerned about the fate of the woodland creatures in its glorious, “blast-processed,” 16-bit graphics presentation. Sonic 2 and 3 were contenders for this spot, but this one stands out for being much less comedic and matching the challenge of the fight. Now I wasn’t a Sega kid, but until Super Mario World came out, Sonic stole Mario’s spotlight for being the “fastest thing alive” (at the time) whose game was a wild and colorful spectacle to behold, and whose music made the Genesis sound GREAT.
5. “Divine Beast Dran”
Game and Platform: Dark Cloud on Playstation 2
Composer: Tomohito Nishiura
After completing the Divine Beast Cave, you open the gate to the possessed divine beast, Dran, who is highly worthy of this majestic track and title. The Pegasus-like, dog-faced chimera flies around and chases you as the floor crumbles, making this battle just as fast-paced as the music. The orchestration is superb and I only wish it had a longer loop.
For those of you who didn’t know, Dark Cloud is most likely developer Level 5’s answer to The Legend of Zelda. You have a silent protagonist out to save the world in a green turban. And that is where the comparisons stop. While there are puzzles, the main game focuses on eliminating the Dark Genie who wiped every civilization on Terra out of existence. You rebuild the world in a style akin to The Sims and the rest is dungeon-crawling fun. I highly recommend this for RPG enthusiasts because the weapon build-up system is incredibly rewarding and the soundtrack accompanies the fairy tale beautifully.
6. “Attack of the Koopa Bros”
Game and Platform: Paper Mario on Nintendo 64
Composer: Yuka Tsujiyoko
This boss theme is a ton of fun. It sounds like the 1960’s Batman theme stylized for the Mario series. Listening closely, you can even hear “Batman” being voiced through the music. The superhero theme is very fitting, considering the enemies this time are the notorious Koopa Bros, who are an obvious reference to the teenage mutant ninja turtles. Fast-paced and catchy, you only wish the battle were longer as these guys are incredibly easy. Feel free to insert your own onomatopoeia as you stomp these villains in a half shell to oblivion as you say dramatically, “…I’m Jumpman.”
7. “Mr. Big’s Theme”
Game and Platform: Art of Fighting on Super Nintendo
Composer: Seisuke Itoh
Technically, this is more of a sub-boss theme because it plays right before the final stage, but it’s so darn catchy, I couldn’t leave it off the list. Appropriately sounding, the track is heard in the factory arena where you fight Mr. Big. There is a rare anomaly going on here where, ironically, the SNES counterpart’s music is better than the arcade and other port versions. This pounding tune in particular makes you feel like you’re in a factory working and getting something done all while bobbing your merry head. It’s quintessential 90s painting music! Who says bosses can’t break it down?
Game and Platform: Dark Cloud 2 (Dark Chronicle) on Playstation 2
Composer: Tomohito Nishiura
The song that reveals Emperor Griffon’s true identity. “Sun,” is very dark, but still very powerful-sounding. Note that the one I chose is from the soundtrack and not the main game. This is attributed to the presence of bagpipes. I thought this to be an ingenious move by the composer because I never thought that such an instrument could give me chills. As the battle loads, you’ll undoubtedly do the same thing. Oh, and that choir? Just awesome.
The second entry in the Dark Cloud series is everything Dark Cloud was times ten. It is so refined from its predecessor that any criticism would be nitpicking because the presentation is perfect. Musically, it can be hit or miss, but when it hits, it really hits home. Check it out, gamers. This one’s a gem.
9. Final Fantasy X: “Fight With Seymour”
Game and Platform: Final Fantasy X on Playstation 2
Composer: Nobuo Uematsu
Oh, it is so on when you hear this one. Seymour basically declares himself a god among men and wishes to become the next Sin and wipe everyone out. Before the fight, he transforms into the zombified, robotic-sounding Seymour Omnis. The intro is hair-raising and once the metal drums take the bass, you’re ready to kill this bastard. Hopefully you’re not one of the following two things: A. Overpowered, because completing everything before going into Sin practically requires nigh sphere grid completion, thus, you don’t hear the track for very long; B. You have the new HD remix with a completely revamped soundtrack. Should you fall under the latter, play the original just for the sound. It’s more authentic that way and doesn’t feel tampered with. Newer isn’t always better.
10.”Introducing Anubis Thanatos”
Game and Platform: Metal Combat on Super Nintendo
Composer: Yuka Tsujiyoko
BAM. There’s a boss theme for ya.
Bob your head with this one; it puts the “metal” in Metal Combat. The song is an introductory track to the fake boss Thanatos, and I never want this song to end. It’s a quick loop, but it’s really catchy and tells you you’re in trouble now. You go to Mars to destroy the robot terror Anubis only to find out that the one you pursued was a clone, and the real evil still exists at the end of the solar system. He’s not too difficult as a stage boss, and the battle music doesn’t completely match the tone this was going for, but what makes this so memorable is his laugh that occurs right before he appears. Look up a “let’s play” and watch him in action.
If you’ve never picked up a Super-Scope, you missed out on a great game. Metal Combat is the sequel to the robot battle game Battle Clash. You shoot enemies with charged shots from your gun, attacking and defending as necessary. It’s really addicting, but unless you can find it on another medium, the infrared sensors from the original guns and receivers are likely dead or dysfunctional. And that’s a real shame because we didn’t get any kind of sequel or battle game for the Wii. Bring it back, Nintendo!