In 1974 or 1975 (accounts differ), Gary Whisenhunt and Ray Wood published a digital title called The Game of Dungeons (which is better known as dnd). The game was released on the PLATO (Programmed Logic for Automated Teaching Operations) system, which was a series of computers connected to a central “server” at the University of Illinois. PLATO was designed as a computer-assisted teaching system, and its moderators didn’t take too kindly to Whisenhunt and Wood using it to play games. The Game of Dungeons eventually went through eight iterations, seven of which were deleted from PLATO. Luckily, the eighth version is readily available through emulation, which prevented the game, and its place in boss fight history, from being lost to time.
The gameplay in dnd was rather simple. Players utilized a simplified version of the original Dungeons and Dragons‘ ruleset to wander around dungeons in search of a mythical artifact only known as the Orb. What does the Orb do? Who knows, but players have to fight their way through countless skeletons, wizards, and other fantasy enemies in order to reach it. One such enemy is the Golden Dragon. Unlike other monsters, which can pop up anywhere, the Golden Dragon explicitly guards the Orb. The only way to retrieve the item and beat the game is by slaying the dragon.
Granted it’s not the kind of epic encounter that we’d later associate with more advanced video game boss fights, but that dragon deserves the honor of being recognized as the first instance of a video game boss. He was big, he was powerful, and you couldn’t beat the game until you survived the unique encounter against him.
How Video Game Boss Fights Evolved Throughout the 1980s
Even though dnd‘s Golden Dragon is the first example of a video game boss, it is certainly a simple boss fight by modern standards. In fact, the Golden Dragon was little more than a standard enemy on steroids, which is a far cry from the unique challenges we associate with modern video game bosses. Those kinds of opponents didn’t really make their presence known until arcade games started to evolve during the 1980s.
Since the concept of bosses was in its infancy when arcade games exploded in popularity, developers disagreed on the specifics of what a boss fight should even be. For instance, one of the first instances of an arcade game boss can be found in 1980’s Destroyer (not to be confused with the 1977 game of the same name). That arcade game is a fairly standard space shooter where players gun down enemies until they finally reach a battle against a giant head that flies around erratically and needs to be shot multiple times. Another arcade game that offered a somewhat similar (but crucially slightly different) approach to bosses was 1980’s phoenix (another space shooter). In that game, though, the boss is a giant mothership protected by shields. Once players punch a hole through the barrier, they only need to shoot the core (or pilot) once to destroy the ship.
Despite their slight differences in design, the bumps in Destroyer and phoenix share one key quality: they don’t change their tactics. Even though skilled players can encounter those enemies multiple times in a single run, they utilize the exact same attack patterns during each appearance. Luckily, gamers didn’t have to wait long to battle opponents that had the good sense to change things up from time to time.