Kid’s games: two words that can strike mortal terror into the hearts of any prospective game developer. For every 3D artist working on Bioshock or The Last of Us there are 100 having to work on the grass in Barbie’s Princess Dress Up. Having to continually model ponies and spangles would grate on anyone’s sanity, so perhaps it is no surprise that devs may want to get back at someone in the form of a creepy boss or two.
However, the developers of these five games are more the vindictive, cackling-in-a-high-backed-chair type. At a design meeting one day they seemingly decided that gaming shouldn’t just be a fun pastime for kiddies – it should haunt their nightmares long into adulthood.
Games in the modern era have been hounded by the media for so long that you’ll often know if a game has disturbing content before you’ve even had a chance to play it. This wasn’t as true a mere 15 to 20 years ago, when gaming was still trying to separate itself from the label of “something kids and nerds do”. You just have to look at how many kids were gifted the decidedly adult Conker's Bad Fur Day by their parents to see how misunderstood the industry was.
As a result there have been some games which, though marketed at children and slapped with that ever-friendly “U” rating, contained mind-meltingly frightening bosses and stages. Perhaps they’re unnecessarily dark, depressing or downright scary, but all of them have caused many a poor child to return to the days before toilet training.
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
Though the later Harry Potter films would descend into darker territory (as well as the deeper hells of puberty) the first few were a more light-hearted affair. They had their moments of peril but most of the time it was “laugh at how poor Ron is” or “isn’t Neville clumsy”.
The second Harry Potter game was cast in the same mould, allowing players to attend classes, play Quidditch, collect wizard cards and in general explore the grounds of Hogwarts to their heart’s content. It was all fun and games until you have to enter the Forbidden Forest.
Following a dimly-lit trail through the forest, Harry is occasionally pounced on by small creepy enemies and spiders. It’s annoying but not necessarily scary. It’s then that you come across Aragog (Hagrid’s giant ex-pet spider) hanging out in the middle of a huge web.
After a quick dialogue Harry decides that the best course of action to get Aragog to talk is to cut the web’s moorings and let the tarantula drop to the forest floor. Because the first thing you want to do with an arachnid the size of a bus is to piss it off.
Once the web has been cut Aragog plummets to the floor but drags Harry with him. It’s a classic setup for a boss fight – the hero is dragged into an arena by the big bad boss. No biggie, right?
Wrong. As soon as the game opens up to the player, with barely time to orientate the camera, Aragog bumrushes you. The sight of a massive spider hurtling towards the screen like a freight train was enough for younger me to jump three feet back.
You don’t even get to defeat it either, as Ron turns up in his car drive-by style to carry Harry away from the demon monster that would have brutally changed the phrase “The Boy Who Lived”.
4. The Shadow Queen
Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door
The Thousand Year Door is possibly the cutest RPG I have ever played. The art style is unique, the plot detailed and rich and stylistically it’s second-to-none among the genre. Nintendo wanted to prove they could make another great Mario RPG, but apparently they also intended to prove they could scar kids’ minds, too.
In the game Mario is called to action in the seaside town of Rogueport. Apparently undeterred by the fact the place is named after a type of criminal, Princess Peach has gone there and been kidnapped. No doubt rolling his eyes in exasperation, Mario sets out to rescue her.
The Princess is taken by an evil corporation known as the X-Nauts, who are looking for a treasure buried in a sunken city which can only be unlocked by collecting mysterious stars. As Mario you collect all the stars and rush to save Peach, where you find out the treasure isn’t gold doubloons but an ancient hell-demon bent on destruction. Whoops.
Not only does the demon - the Shadow Queen – possess Princess Peach’s soul, turning her into a sassier, purple-er (and, let’s face it, probably less likely to be kidnapped) Princess, it is impervious to every attack the player can throw at it.
Everything from the change in music (compared to the usual cheery affair), the muted cheering of the on-looking crowd and the fog that fills the stage as the Shadow Queen starts her attacks makes this one of the creepiest kids’ boss battles around.
3. Grim Reaper Mini-Boss
The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask
Let’s be honest, pretty much everything in Majora’s Mask is creepy. From the giant death-moon that slowly sinks towards the planet, grimacing all the time, to the man in the toilet whose hand flails out of the U-bend searching for bog roll. Some have even argued that the game is supposed to be a form of purgatory as Link deals with his death in another timeline.
This particular boss lies in the Stone Tower Temple. Up to this point the player has already had to get past one frustrating boss, which hops around the level with flaming hands and some rather fetching clogs (I’m serious, look it up). Once you’re past him, Link heads through a door and you see this:
A horde of bats appear from the deepest recesses of nope and descend to form a giant nightmarish demon holding a massive scythe because screw you. I'm not sure if the mini-boss has a name, so "Mr. Miyamoto’s cure for constipation" will have to do.
I was eight when I played this level. I barely had the concept of life, death and mortality figured out by this point and here I am having to face off against what can only be described as a personification of the Grim Reaper.
He’s surrounded by an ever-flying circle of bats and swinging a scythe that would make Zasalamel from Soul Calibur soil his undies. During his attacks, which consist of wild swings of his death-scythe, the boss has a massive red grin stuck to his face
At school we would boast that it hadn’t scared us at all but I still remember the shivers this guy gave me.
2. Vortex Queen
Ecco the Dolphon
Ecco the Dolphin is a game that many will point to as an example of how mind-numbingly difficult games were back in the Sega Mega Drive era. Released in 1992, the game was designed to be crushingly hard by developer Ed Annunziata, who was afraid that kids would rent the game and beat it in one weekend.
The game focuses on plucky dolphin Ecco and his pod, who, while generally being dolphin-y and jumping around, are struck by a storm of waterspouts and sucked into the air. Ecco, after falling back to Earth, discovers that the storm has wiped the oceans of most of its life and sets out on a mission to rescue them.
As if the difficulty of avoiding sharks, octopi and other hazards wasn’t enough, the player has to return Ecco to the surface (or air pockets) in time before he drowns. “Here you go kids, you get to play as a Dolphin, but if you don’t play it right you get to watch it writhe in pain and die!”
If the player is skilful enough (or guessed at the password enough times) Ecco finds out in later levels that aliens are behind the mass abduction. He travels to the lost city of Atlantis to defeat the evil aliens once and for all.
The resulting final level, named “Welcome to the Machine” is filled with metallic structures, green liquid and desiccated alien zombies that look like the remnants of skeletal sea creatures.
The final boss is located in a huge room at the end of that level (if you’re lucky to make it there in a sane state). At this point you have no idea what the Vortex Queen will look like or how it will appear. Then, as you swim about, it snaps into view:
This is a kids’ game?! Remember how I found the Grim Reaper boss in Majora’s Mask scary at age eight? I played this game at age four. That grimacing face, not unlike that of the Xenomorphs in Alien, appears from the black and attacks with such force that in two hits Ecco is dead. Two hits. Before you’ve had a chance to recover from the cardiac arrest it gives you it’s game over.
That final boss scared me so completely that it took me until my late teens before I summoned the courage to beat it on my old Mega Drive. The music still gives me the creeps to this day.
EarthBound / Mother 2
Those connoisseurs of scary-ass kids games among you (or those who have simply seen enough scary lists) will have predicted this one. For those who didn’t or have no idea what Giygas is: welcome to the party.
Giygas is the main antagonist for the EarthBound series. He appears first in 1989’s Mother before making his grand entrance into the world of WTF in the super-rare SNES RPG follow up, where he cemented himself as one of the most iconic bosses in gaming history.
Up until the final fight in the game, the player has no idea who or what Giygas is. They hear his name in reference only, so have no clue what to expect when they finally come face to face with him.
EarthBound is a strange game on its own: the game features a race of sentient musical noises and a puzzle which requires you to stand completely still for three minutes. The game starts to take a turn for the weird(er) when, represented by robots, the characters have to battle their way through a strange organic-looking level coloured in all shades of pink.
When they, and the player, finally encounter Giygas, it is in the form of a swirling red and black miasma that flashes and shifts in brightness.
What’s more, the player cannot damage the final boss, whose attacks do tremendous damage. The lore states that Giygas is so powerful that he can’t think rationally anymore and has gone clinically insane. When the player attacks Giygas he wails and screams like a baby.
Slowly but surely Giygas will kill all of your party. The only way to stop him is to use the skill “pray” over and over again, asking everyone you have met in the game to pray for his defeat. The game even breaks the fourth wall to beg the player themselves to pray.
If that wasn’t enough, the swirling background, which at first looks like a bunch of distorted, pained faces, zooms out to reveal the outline of a human fetus.
All of these things would be creepy in a horror game aimed at adults, let alone one that until that point is relatively colourful and cheerful and is ultimately marketed to children.
Giygas takes the trophy for creepiest boss by a mile. He has had such an effect on the gaming industry that he has his own Wikipedia page. Various theories have cropped up about the battle, including one prominent one that the entire fight is a metaphor for abortion. Giygas is by far and away the most terrifying boss ever to appear in a game for children.
I’m not sure why developers decide that they want to torment young gamers so much. Maybe in some cases it's revenge for the hours they have to spend creating 3D models for games they resent, maybe in others it’s pure vindictiveness. One thing is for sure, though, none of these games would have been the same had I not been able to sit back and say “wow, I made it through that” afterwards. Perhaps that experience is what young gamers need, the ability to triumph over even the most terrifying enemies?
Except Ecco the Dolphin. Sod playing that again.