Warning: Minor Spoilers for Kingdom Hearts III
If you have ever looked into the concepts of level design or even game design in general, you may be aware of the Legend of Zelda dungeon structure. For those who do not, let me provide you a quick overview. Traditional dungeons within the Zelda series typically are centered around obtaining a new tool, traversing a dungeon using the newly introduced mechanics that it provides. These dungeons are structured in a way that there are a series of puzzles that requires the player to utilise, and learn, the functionality and applications of their new tool. As the dungeon progresses, the player will need to demonstrate an understanding of how to use this tool alongside other mechanics. A good example of this is in Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass. Within the Temple of Ice the player receives the Grappling Hook which allows the player to reach far off objects, pulling them towards them or vice versa. A unique interaction is the ability to create a rope bridge between two posts which they can walk across. To test the players ability to use multiple items together, there is a puzzle which requires them to create a rope bridge, walk to the center, and use two separate tools to reach the next area.
At the end of a dungeon, the player is faced with some sort of ‘test’ in the form of the boss, which usually requires using the new tool in some way to win. This structure of obtaining new knowledge, building upon that in a range of scenarios, and then testing the player is not exclusively to the Zelda series. Think of how many games you’ve played where the rules and mechanics are taught to you usually via a tutorial, then having to use that knowledge in progressively harder scenarios, ultimately leading to a test in a final level and/or boss. The feeling of accomplishment when players complete a game or level following this process keeps them engaged throughout the game and potentially across multiple games.
Kingdom Hearts is a series close to my heart, pun intended. Being fairly young when the game originally came out in 2002, I was mostly interested in playing alongside the Disney characters in a range of worlds and not much else beyond that. However, when playing Kingdom Hearts II a few years later I was more engaged with the main characters and story but fell off the series due to not being able to follow what was going on. This was because a large amount of the story was told in-between these two titles in a range of spinoffs. With the ongoing pandemic, I found an opportunity to finally get back into the series, completing most of the core games except Chain of Memories. Those that know will understand.
Many, many hours and games later I found myself at the end of Kingdom Hearts III. Eager for more, I downloaded the DLC known as Re:Mind. Outside of adding a few more story elements to the game, the core gameplay revolves around a range of what I will refer to as ‘Superbosses’. Superbosses are usually an optional enemy and are generally significantly harder than the bosses found within the main game. Superbosses can be found in a range of titles such as Final Fantasy XII with Yiazmat, a boss who can take multiple hours to beat with over 58 million hit points; and the Borderlands series with its numerous raid bosses. The existence of the superboss is primarily to act as the ultimate test to only the most committed players and should be as hard as the game could possibly get. Kingdom Hearts’ superbosses are no exception to this rule and are notoriously difficult, requiring not only great dexterity and skill, but extensive game knowledge and memory skills. Kingdom Hearts III: Re:Mind ups the ante with not one, not two, but fourteen superbosses!
I played the game in Standard Mode and found that I didn’t really struggle with the core game bosses, being able to muscle my way through most battles with novel use of dodging/blocking and mashing the attack & magic skills. This strategy does not work for these new bosses. They attack almost consistently, only lowering their guard for a few seconds at a time and if you are not familiar with the inputs for blocking, dodging & aerial recovery you are not in for a good time. It usually took me around two hours until I could beat just one, and techniques you learn in one battle may not be transferable to other bosses. It was during these fights that I noticed I was approaching these battles far differently from the rest of the game.
The Re:Mind Superboss Learning Structure
By the time the player reaches the point where they can take on these superbosses, they should demonstrate an understanding of the core rules and mechanics of combat. Actions are primarily controlled by a menu in the bottom left of the screen, but since navigating these menus mid-fight can be difficult there is an option to create shortcuts which can be accessed by holding L1 & pressing the button of the intended action. For a personal example, I had the Cure spell shortcut to L1 + Square throughout the entire series in order to be able to heal myself almost thoughtlessly. General combat involves moving around the environment, attacking with X and avoiding damage through blocking or dodging, both of which are controlled by Square but depends on whether or not the character is moving. An ideal player will be able to avoid damage using both methods whilst at the same time attacking the enemy when possible. For the most part, the superbosses’ gameflow follows this principle but with a significant emphasis on avoiding damage and finding opportunities to stagger the opponent. Without guides or tutorials, this is largely trial and error. For example, there are a few of the superbosses where it is possible to stagger them during an attack sequence by using Airstepping, a mechanic primarily used for navigating levels. So I was using the knowledge obtained from the core game and, in one way or another, deconstructing them for each fight. Some fights were far more mobile, requiring flexibility between varying techniques whereas others were looking for specific mastery of one tactic.
Besombes (2018) describes two key skills that competitive fighting players utilise during gameplay; being the automatic repetition of varied combinations of controller inputs, which was described as ‘execution’; and the second involving the decoding of the opponents intentions from the gameplay occurring on screen, referred to as ‘mindgame’. These definitions can be applied to Kingdom Hearts 3, although it should be noted that the opponent in this context is a non-player character where the original study was focused on competitive fighting games between players. During my various attempts at a single superboss, I would undergo two distinct phases of play. The first was to slowly adjust my playstyle until I could reasonably manage each individual attack, and the second would be to refine and perfect the sequences of input till I could win. This first phase of play seems to be oriented towards ‘mindgame’, as many of the attacks that a superboss performs is telegraphed through animation or audio cues. So recognising the upcoming attack and ensuring that I knew the sequence needed to avoid or otherwise mitigate was my focus. In short, I would not be focused on winning but instead on reading the opponent’s actions and determining a strategy. Once I was able to avoid most or all of the bosses attacks, my mentality switched from focusing on ‘mindgame’ to ‘execution’. Now that I was aware of what inputs were needed and what telegraphs a specific attack, the main focus was ensuring that I could pull off the specific sequence correctly. Whilst both execution and mindgame were utilised throughout the superboss, there was a distinct shift between one mindset and the other.
A new stage of learning in games?
As mentioned before, there are a large range of games that follow a structure of teaching players and giving them progressively harder scenarios in which to apply their knowledge, culminating in a test in the form of a boss or final level. It is expected that most players within the game’s target audience should be able to complete the game following this method of Learn, Apply, & Test. But the superbosses in Kingdom Hearts 3: Re:Mind don’t really fit cleanly into that structure, and by extension superbosses or optional bosses in other games do not either. These superbosses are intended as an advanced test of skill and knowledge for competent players, and so it can be argued that such challenges are simply an extension of the Test stage. However I don’t think that is the case. When players encounter or challenge a superboss, the learning that a player undergoes is not really comparable to the sort of learning that they were undertaking in the main game. They do share a similar structure of receiving new information and adapting their previously established knowledge to incorporate it as detailed by works by Perron (2006) and Heaton (2006). However, the learning obtained during a superboss is a refinement of game knowledge rather than the establishment and subsequent accretion seen within the main game. Therefore, I believe that it would be reasonable to consider the superboss, or any optional challenge that is equivalent, as within a subsection of the Test stage or even its own individual stage which I will refer to as ‘Mastery’.
Mastery is a stage in which no new knowledge is provided or constructed by the game. Instead, the player will construct new strategies using the mechanics provided to them in the most effective way, potentially with a need for mechanical dexterity. New mechanics can be introduced in this stage, if for instance the superboss has a unique aspect to consider. For example within Re:Mind one of the bosses has an ability in which a timer is placed on top of the player’s character which decreases over time and with any damage sustained; if it hits 0 the player is defeated even if their health hasn’t depleted. This sort of mechanic is not introducing anything new, but rather is forcing the player to adopt a new strategy using previously defined tools. During the ‘Mastery’ stage, players would be expected to experiment and refine their skills and knowledge, providing a new source of learning. Upon completing a superboss, the player would be considered an expert or at least proficient at the game.
In short, the numerous superbosses within Kingdom Hearts 3: Re:Mind, all of which are incredibly intense and difficult, demonstrated an alternative method of learning through consistent refinement of skills from analysing the enemy’s intentions through visual and audio cues to rhythmic inputs that can be performed almost unconsciously. During my time attempting these superbosses, I not only became more confident at fighting them but became more aware of how to apply any newly found knowledge in other parts of the game, especially when playing on harder difficulties. In addition, it helped me uncover a new personal mentality when taking on a difficult challenge in games, by deconstructing what is needed and consciously reviewing and adapting my gameplay. Regardless of whether or not ‘Mastery’ can be considered a new stage of learning, I do think that it is worth considering how games can provide tests for only the most diligent or skilled players.
Foster, G. (2020, February 3rd). Kingdom Hearts III Re Mind: Limit Cut Boss Guide. Retrieved from https://www.rpgsite.net/feature/9412-kingdom-hearts-iii-re-mind-limit-cut-boss-guide
GameWith. (2020). Limit Cut (Data Battle) Boss Guides & Difficulties. Retrieved from https://gamewith.net/kingdomhearts3/article/show/15019
ZeldaDungeon. (2019). Phantom Hourglass Walkthrough – Temple of Ice. Retrieved from https://www.zeldadungeon.net/phantom-hourglass-walkthrough/temple-of-ice/
Besombes, N. (2018). Exécution et mindgame dans les jeux vidéo de combat : les deux facettes de la vidéomotricité dans l’e-sport. Movement & Sport Sciences – Science & Motricité.
Heaton, T. (2006). A Circular Model of Gameplay. Retrieved from https://www.gamasutra.com/view/feature/130978/a_circular_model_of_gameplay.php
Perron, B. (2006). The Heuristic Circle of Gameplay: the Case of Survival Horror. Gaming Realities: A challenge for digital culture. pp. 62-71.