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Bosses in kaizo hacks are an entirely different beast. Instead of precision platforming, you get a really hard boss that wouldn’t be out of place in a normal Mario game, albeit with some kaizo touches here and there. That means play tends to be a lot looser in most cases, making players rely on improvisational skills in a way that’s very unkaizo. Because of this, creators have struggled to create bosses that feel like they belong in a kaizo hack. That’s what Kamek, the final boss of beloved kaizo hack Invictus, represents: an attempt at making a Super Mario World boss feel kaizo. But in doing so, Kamek also demonstrates a misunderstanding of what makes for good boss design, robbing the player of any good feelings of agency and progress along the way.
Kamek isn’t structured like a normal boss, but rather like a kaizo Mario level. You never really get the opportunity to hit Kamek until the end, when you’re presented with a shell you can throw at him. Until then, the name of the game is survival as you progress through a full six phases of attacks and platforming to make it to the moment when you can hurt him. In this way, the boss fight is really an autoscroller where you navigate platforms as Kamek attacks you.
Doing this approximates what a normal kaizo level looks like. The first phase has you jumping between winged blocks while Kamek swoops at you and bombs you with magic. This and future phases require you to manipulate sprites, meaning that you have to bait the things that could hurt you into passing you by. This removes the usual variance from boss battles and lets you become very consistent in your attempts, which is what kaizo tends to ask the player to do. Kaizo is about grinding down a level full of difficult but static obstacles until you can master each section enough to make it to the end.
But in doing this, Kamek’s fight removes an important element in boss fights: player agency. Because you never get the chance to hit Kamek until the very end, you’re at the mercy of whatever the game throws at you. Survival is how you progress through the fight, and though it’s a remarkably active thing in the Kamek fight, it in actuality feels very passive. You’re reacting to Kamek’s attacks and that’s all you’re doing even though you are in fact progressing the fight in doing this. It’s important to make the player feel like they’re actively participating in ending the fight through their own power, which is why having moments where you can hit him would have helped the fight feel less out of your control. Even if those moments would be relatively easy, they would make a world of difference for making the player feel like they’re actually doing something.
That leads into the bigger problem with the Kamek fight: You’re not an active participant in progression of the phases, instead merely surviving until the end. In the best kaizo levels, you feel like you’ve mastered the different obstacles and level segments after a long grind, but most importantly, every section you clear feels like a small triumph that you really earned. Even the same autoscrollers that the Kamek fight approximates features this dynamic and puts progression into your hands even though the level is constantly pushing you forward. With Kamek, though, it feels more like you’re being dragged through setpiece after setpiece. You’re not doing anything to progress the state of the boss, the boss is doing that. You just have to survive, so it feels like you’re flailing instead of working towards those little triumphs. This isn’t helped by the fact that there’s no checkpoints during the fight, so you have to start from the beginning every time. And since you’re not actively hitting the boss, you have no way to forecast how long you have to survive as it stretches into infinity. It’s demoralizing and makes the player feel helpless even when they finally succeed at hitting Kamek in the end.
Boss battles are about making the player feel empowered even if they’re designed to be hard. But most importantly, they should make the player feel like they’ve accomplished something due to their own When you’re making a boss fight, making the player feel like they have agency should be foremost in designers’ minds. You want to make sure the player feels empowered in the end no matter how difficult the boss is. The Kamek fight, though long and unforgiving, also feels unforgivably passive. By the time you figure out the fight, it doesn’t feel that fulfilling because so little feels in your control even though in reality you are actively doing things to win. The feel of a slice of gameplay is so important to nail, and Kamek’s particular loop feels stagnant for the player rather than triumphant once it’s over. When giving them an adversary to conquer, player agency is key. A foe overcome is more satisfying than one merely survived.