RetroVision: Phoenix & The Birth of the Boss Battle

Where would we be without a good boss fight? Nowadays, boss battles are one of the staples of the gaming industry, offering some of the most memorable moments in gaming.  However, there was a time when such a thing didn’t exist.

The origins of the boss battle can be traced all the way back to the golden age of the arcade.  In fact, they were originally created in order to prevent players from defeating the game too easily, and to keep them coming back for one more go. But what was the very first boss battle found in gaming?

dnd
A scene from the text based adventure dnd featuring limited animation.

Well technically, the very first boss battle would be found in dnd, a text based adventure for the PLATO computer system. Here players must retrieve an Orb from the innermost dungeon. However, in order to do this they must defeat the Gold Dragon, a high level enemy that awaits the player at the end of the game.

Nevertheless, despite this boss battles as we know them today, would be absolutely nothing without the iconic 1980 Taito / Centuri published schmup Phoenix. Developed by Amstar Electronics, not only was Phoenix an iconic shooter from the golden age of gaming, but it was also the very first game to pioneer the boss battle as a completely separate challenge from the rest of the game. Therefore making this gaming’s first true boss battle as we know them today.

Phoenix USA Arcade Cabinet
An American Phoenix Arcade cabinet.

Much like Taito’s previous mega-hit Space Invaders, Phoenix is a fixed based shooter set in outer space. Within the game, players control a spaceship moving it from left to right, whilst shooting the waves upon waves of ever changing enemies that attack from above. The final of which being the Mothership, the game’s final fight, and the world’s very first dedicated boss battle.

So what exactly makes the Mothership special? Well, to begin with, it’s big, very big. In fact, it’s so big that it covers the entire upper half of the screen. On top of this, it not only shoots a barrage of missiles at the player, but it also sends smaller ships to attack the player head on too. Finally, the Mothership is also considerably faster and far less predictable than any of the game’s other enemies, taking away the predictable nature of enemies that many had come to expect from the earlier years of the arcade era.

Phoenix Mothership
The iconic Mothership boss. A battle that went on to have a huge impact on gaming.

That’s all good and well, but how exactly do you defeat it? Well, believe it or not, all it takes to defeat the Mothership is one clear shot to the Alien in centre who controls the entire spaceship. Yes, that’s right, one shot and it’s all over.

Obviously it’s not as easy as it sounds though, and you’ll want to take a leaf out of Space Invader’s book to get past this boss battle. You see, whilst avoiding the missiles and additional enemy spacecrafts, your aim is to continuously shoot at the massive spaceship in order to break down its defences. Once all of these defences are gone, and if you’re still alive, you’ll be given a clear shot at the alien, and a chance to finish the game.

Well sort of anyway, as in true arcade style once you defeat the boss, the game begins again. With the game challenging players to take on the the game’s various waves of enemies, and of course the mothership, all over again in order to try and gain the high score. Although, take it from someone who has played, and beaten this piece of gaming history, it’s not as easy as modern bosses, and is without doubt a true retro boss fight.

All in all, Phoenix may be relatively simple, but just like Space Invaders, it’s a game that changed gaming forever. What’s more, not only does Phoenix predate the term “Boss Battle”, but it can quite justifiably be seen as one of the key games that helped coin the term. An point which only helps to cement Phoenix’s role in gaming history.

Phoenix Enemies
The third wave of enemies featuring the blue Phoenixes.

Ultimately, without the iconic Mothership boss battle, there might not have been any of the other iconic boss battles we know and love. Boss battles such as Dr. Wily, M. Bison, Ganondorf and even Mike Tyson. Truly, gaming has an awful lot to thank Phoenix for.

Simon Aubrey Drake

A lifelong gamer with a fanatical love of all things Nintendo and Japan. So much so that I've written a thesis on one and lived in the other. Currently on a quest to catch every last Pokémon. Follow me on twitter via @DudeXChill or @RingsandCoins.

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