The final battle is an essential piece of any game. It serves as the culmination of the game's events, the resolution of the story and the payoff of your character's growth, the ultimate showdown and test of strength. I think it's even more important in games than in other mediums due to the presence of player agency, serving as a vehicle to utilize all of the skills you've earned and learned up until that point.
Let's visit a personal favorite of mine. It holds the distinction of working great on a very fundamental level, hitting all of the notes that it has to to function as the game's finale.
I'm talking about Sigma's Fortress, from Mega Man X.
The sequence of events that transpire here serve as the perfect culmination of everything that the game has been leading up to. Let's break it down piece by piece.
Infiltrating Sigma's Lair
After defeating the eight mavericks working under Sigma, you meet up with Zero. He informs you that he's found Sigma's Fortress, making good on what he promised to do the last time you saw him. The two of you storm his fortress together, with Zero going off first to "keep the main defense force busy." This reunion with your mentor is effective, as he's been largely absent from the game since he rushed in to save you at the very beginning. Now that you're together, it makes it feel like things are really starting to ramp up. Both of you are needed to take down the big bad.
You first find yourself in a futuristic city, and then scale your way up a mountain via floating platforms to finally enter his fortress. I love this - you don't beam right in. You physically infiltrate his fortress, which is hidden inside of a mountain, which has a very narrow entrance access. This tells you why it took Zero so long to find the place.
The music also helps with this - it's not a bombastic, in your face tune like the more famous Wily Stage 1. It's a slow, determined melody that picks up over time. This helps to bring out both the infiltration aspect of this stage, as well as the desperation and determination X and Zero feel in relation to finally fighting Sigma after a long rebellion.
As you make your way through his fortress, you see Zero facing off against Vile, that near-invincible bastard who defeated you in the intro stage. Zero completely overtook him the first time, causing him to escape in a hurry, so you think he's here to finish what he started. He should have this in the bag - there's no reason for the player to assume otherwise.
The two of them run off ahead of you, and you can only hear the vicious clanking of metal and the blast of energy cannons, culminating in the sound of a barrier being raised. Their battle occurs off screen, building suspense.
When you finally arrive on the scene, Zero, who has been played up to be far more powerful than you up until this point, has been captured. This makes Vile feel even more menacing and unbeatable than he was the first time.
You square off against Vile, and again, you cannot scratch him. It's a total repeat of your scripted failure at the beginning of the game, leaving you hopeless. After being defeated a second time, Zero breaks free of his capsule. His theme music starts to play as he latches on to Vile's ride armor, blowing himself to bits in a last ditch effort to defeat him. Zero once again jumps in to save X, only this time, he pays the ultimate price, making it a perfect extension of his rescue at the beginning of the game.
But despite this, Vile survives. X, who has been brought down to minimal health, suddenly breaks free of being immobilized. His life bar fills back up to maximum. Vile is in awe, wondering where X's newfound strength comes from. X doesn't say a word, but you know - he just saw his mentor die, by the hand of the same man who's made X fully aware of his weakness twice now. And the man who caused his death is still alive.
The emotional impetus has been set. He's your goal post, a walking embodiment of all of your failures, and the murderer of your only companion in the game. X's resurgence of energy, where his life bar fills up from nearly empty to completely full, makes it feel like he feels the sudden urge to win. You, with X as your avatar, have every reason to want to see this guy dead.
You fight Vile, and are finally able to defeat him. After the battle, you run to Zero's side and are treated to a death scene, where Zero passes on the job of stopping Sigma's rebellion over to you. If you haven't received the X-buster upgrade, he even gives you his own buster.
This is the perfect "full circle" moment - you, X, started off as the weak underling who couldn't match his mentor's strength. X was full of self doubt. X couldn't even touch Vile. Now, after becoming much stronger, he has defeated Vile, taken the place of his mentor, and is ready to enter the fight as Sigma's number one threat. This is his defining moment; the moment where he overcomes all of his weaknesses and steps up to be the person he wanted to be from the beginning.
You've done it; you've overcome the barrier set up for you by the developers at the beginning. However, a new goal has been set. Zero's death is your new motivation to keep fighting, and Sigma still looms over you as a threat to overcome.
This is a masterful execution by the developers. It's the seamless marriage of gameplay mechanics with the narrative being told that makes this so effective, creating constant motivation for the player to keep moving forward. The most impressive part is that it was all set in motion during the very first stage of the game, during your initial scripted defeat at the hands of Vile.
The player is essentially X, and, unlike a movie or a book, has the added notion of having overcome their own failure, as well as the character standing in for them.
A Menacing Menagerie of Bosses
The bosses in Sigma's fortress are menacing and inhuman, which really drives home the fact that you're in dangerous territory. Up until now, you've been fighting themed animals. Electric monkeys, frosty penguins, flaming mammoths, you name it. None of them would seem out of place in a Ninja Turtles cartoon.
But here, you fight cold, unfeeling, sinister looking machines, enemies more akin to something out of a darker sci-fi movie. Let's take a look at them all.
Rangda Bangda, a gigantic, imposing face in the wall with both ends of the room constantly closing in on you and threatening you with instant doom:
Bospider, a gargantuan spider that comes at X with lightning fast reflexes and spawns miniature versions of itself to attack him:
D-rex, a dinosaur themed tank with a levitating face that violently crashes around the room and crushes X between its upper and lower halves:
It should also be noted that the bosses throughout the rest of the game have weaknesses that allow them to be easily beaten. While some of these fortress bosses also have weaknesses, none of them can be "cheesed" the same way as the others, making them much more inherently challenging.
On top of being more challenging, all of these bosses look much more menacing and imposing than those you encounter in the main game. Their threatening aesthetic helps the player feel like they've truly entered into the most dangerous place the game has to offer, making the stakes suitably higher for the final series of fights.
As if these weren't enough, you have to face all eight mavericks again throughout the fortress. And they aren't placed in an arbitrary capsule room, either, as they are in other Mega Man games. They'll attack you intermittently, often without warning. They'll drop from the ceiling and ambush you outside. Sigma is pulling out all the stops to defeat you at this point, and it shows.
The Final Battle
Then you reach the final stage. It's a long, vertical shaft leading up to Sigma's "throne". The room is dark, and you can barely see. Sigma remarks that he was expecting Zero, not you. This has a double meaning - first, he's reminding you that your friend is dead, taunting you in your moment of supposed triumph. Second, this exemplifies the fact, again, that X has finally caught up to Zero in terms of strength.
While you may feel more powerful, Sigma doesn't think of you as highly. Sigma sics his dog on you, not finding you worthy of his time or attention. It's time to prove yourself, so you set out to dispatch him.
Sigma, recognizing your tenacity, decides to fight you himself, and you take him down, avenging Zero's death and setting out to finish what you both started.
Sigma explodes and you appear victorious, but it's not over yet. The room lights up, revealing a massive wolf construct. Sigma's disembodied head eerily floats from the ground, lodging itself in the head of this gigantic robot beast. The stakes have never felt higher than they are at this moment. You're now fighting someone who survived exploding into bits!
There's no hard rock, heavy metal-esque music for this battle, no sir - a sweeping, almost orchestral track plays as you ready yourself for the most challenging enemy in the game. The change in tone makes this form of Sigma seem more composed, more powerful, and - most importantly - more evil.
After finally taking him down, the fortress begins to explode. X teleports out and watches it fall into the ocean from the distance.
That music gives me the chills every time. It says more than any of the text does. It says: "Victory has come, but at what cost?"
Man, the end of this game is so good. Everything comes full circle from the beginning, helping the player to feel like they've overcome every obstacle thrown at them, and it uses narrative and gameplay seamlessly to do so. The stakes are consistently raised higher and higher, up until the very end.
Even after finally achieving victory, the game leaves you with the emotional gut punch of Zero's death, adding to the war-torn and oppressive atmosphere the game is going for. It's expertly crafted, and serves as the perfect end piece to an amazing game.
What are your favorite game endings?