Your average gamer doesn’t break a sweat upon seeing a Balrog in Moria; we’ve been slaying giants for so long that it might as well be a rabid bunny. There’s no sense of fear—not from appearance alone. Titles don’t convey power either; Dragon Quest VI features Mortamor, the King of Demons, but who shudders at his name without personally battling him? No one. Your average gamer hears “King of Demons” and says “Oh, please.” DQVI and Dragon Quest IX themselves make sure that he’s no big deal by introducing a bigger and badder dude who mocks the poor sap. Direct quote from DQIX describing one of the bonus bosses:
“Brutal bad-dream demon from another dimension. So strong that he makes Mortamor seem more like Snoretamore!”
Dialga and Palkia may be capable of destroying the world, but breaking out of a tiny ball is a tough order.
After killing Death a dozen times in Castlevania and enslaving creatures who control time and space in Pokémon, we’re all Gimli from DM of the Rings. We see an elder dragon the size of a whale and our first thought isn’t “AAAHHH!!!” It’s more like “you’re going down” or “huh, pretty cool-looking dragon” or “I’ve seen better.” Or maybe it’s something else entirely.
A monster hunter takes a dive in her best swimsuit only to swim across the Ceadeus. Not pictured: shortly afterward, she shrugged and continued enjoying her tropical vacation.
A monster can be memorable simply for its size, but imposing fear on players requires substance. Just like movies, stories, and plays teach the audience what to expect as they go along—a comedy usually opens with humor and makes minimal use of dramatic moments; a drama does the opposite—the challenge in a game directs players’ expectations. A monster’s real fear factor is rooted in gameplay.
To be clear, Monster Hunter is a great example of doing justice to intimidating bosses, especially in single-player. It just has very little to do with their size and more to do with the following factors:
- Most monsters can obliterate adventurers in a few hits when they’re first encountered.
- Almost all monsters’ roars are paralyzingly loud, leaving players’ characters involuntarily covering their ears for a few seconds.
- Monster hunters freeze in the headlights for a moment when a creature first spots them.
- Flying monsters kick up so much dust and wind pressure that standing nearby when they lift off or touch down can blow a hunter off her feet.
- Some monsters are so enormous that they can deal damage without even intending to; the elder dragon Ceadeus up above can innocently swish its tail to swim, but anyone crazy enough to get in the tail’s path eats pain like he was hit by a bus.
Monster Hunter demonstrates the magnificence of its creatures with every little motion. Not every game needs to get that complicated, though.
Mortamor and Dragon Quest may be old, but they can still teach you younguns a thing or two.
I riffed on the guy’s name and title, but DQVI‘s Mortamor does strike fear into the player because of the history of everything preceding him. Most Dragon Quest bosses can kill a character in two hits or three hits tops and the only resurrection spells either come late or have a dodgy success rate. Resurrection items are likewise extremely rare, making battles into legitimate struggles for survival. Although DQ tends to be balanced so that the player will win the war much more often than not, bosses can still change the course of the battle on any turn depending on which heroes they target, forcing players to react and adapt on a turn-to-turn basis. Dragon Quest bosses don’t present themselves as extreme threats visually, but their damage numbers tell another tale.
Seen it before, seen it before…
Final Fantasy demonstrates the opposite effect. Even in his unassuming first form, Mortamor is much scarier than ol’ Neo Exdeath here because most non-optional FF bosses take their salty time poking at the heroes’ HP and, even if they didn’t, resurrection spells are plentiful and cheap. Lots of RPG players have had good laughs about killing Safer Sephiroth in one hit with Omnislash or Knights of the Round or killing Kefka in one hit with Atma Weapon, Illumina, a Genji Glove, and an Offering equipped, but from another perspective the one-hit kill is only speeding up a natural progression. Zeromus in Final Fantasy IV doesn’t go down in one hit, but I never lost to him even when I was seven years old, had never played an RPG before, went through the story intro three times before figuring out that the Save option only worked on the overworld, and didn’t know how to equip new weapons and armor until I was about five towns into the game. By the time I got to him, I had a stockpile of Elixirs and would have won a war of attrition even if my attacks’ damage was cut by six sevenths. Final Fantasy monsters leave little to worry about; they’re more ceremonial than challenging.
Scylla, the fusion of an octopus, two crabs, an anemone, the spiteful spirit of a drowned lady, and two drills.
The three Etrian Odyssey games out right now make up my favorite modern example of restoring the fear of monsters; they’re my main reason for writing this post. Etrian Odyssey IV makes the jump to 3D models, but until now Atlus has used sprites, allowing dedicated people to rip the artwork and allowing me to show them off.
Some RPG fans would be shocked by the experience of these games; if you’re used to robots and humans taking the same damage from enemies, it can be stunning when an Etrian Odyssey boss deals eight or nine times more damage to fragile character classes than to tanks. EO bosses revel in extremes and can one-shot the unprepared; there are always ample ways to survive, but this is the last series where players should try to power through everything. Stat buffs and special setups are all the rage because they’re necessities—and every victory feels so much sweeter when beating a boss feels like knocking down a mountain with a toy hammer.
Etrian Odyssey also has the strongest synergy between gameplay and graphics. My favorite examples are a post-final boss, another post-final boss, and something I don’t remember seeing; the best thing EO does with its boss designs is to reserve Eldritch Abominations for the endgame. Scylla up above is pretty tame by EO standards of freak show monster design, but by the finale there’s no joking around.
Etrian Odyssey‘s warped mutants bring back the meaning of the word “monster.” They look like they will kill you—and then they do kill you. This is the proper embodiment of fear for even the most cynical of gamer audiences.