When we were putting together a list of the best boss fights in the Legend of Zelda series here at Kotaku, we all had a collective moment of accepting Breath of the Wild, widely regarded as a defining moment in the series’ long history, wouldn’t be represented. The Wii U/Switch game is an achievement in open-world design, with systemic depth in every nook and cranny of its world. But when it came to the bosses you encounter throughout your journey, they were mechanically interesting but ultimately forgettable as villains. As such, Tears of the Kingdom’s return to Zelda’s usual memorable character design, alongside the series’ top-notch fight design, makes each climactic fight stand out even among everything else that makes the game a marked improvement over an already stellar game.
The problem with Breath of the Wild’s boss fights
Credit where credit is due, the actual boss fights in Breath of the Wild are impressive from a mechanical standpoint, with each requiring to engage with different abilities and environmental systems in order to achieve victory. At the end of each of the Divine Beasts, Link faces off against one of the Blight Ganons. These creatures are made up of ancient technology and Calamity Ganon’s malice, and while they are intimidating, their visual designs run together in my mind. Even after facing them, I don’t think I could pick them out by name in a line-up.
That lack of visual identity doesn’t completely undermine the fights, though. There are a lot of really cool systems on display in these fights. Because Breath of the Wild is so open-ended, the game can’t account for you definitively having certain tools or abilities, often making these fights structured around the environment you fight them in. To defeat Windblight Ganon, for example, you take advantage of the wind turbines that will send you paragliding up into the air. Waterblight Ganon fights in a flooded room, meaning you have to find ways to attack it from one of the few pieces of solid ground you can stand on while leaving yourself open to damage as you swim across the room.
Even if the enemy you’re fighting isn’t that memorable, the mechanics you’re working with are. It makes fighting the Blight Ganons feel like an extended, more dangerous puzzle, rather than a fight. Tears of the Kingdom’s boss fights, meanwhile, marry mechanical mastery with visual design to create encounters that feel far more distinct than Breath of the Wild’s ever did.
How Tears of the Kingdom shakes up the boss fight formula
The first major difference is that Tears of the Kingdom’s boss fights feel cooperative, rather than isolating. By design, Breath of the Wild is a pretty secluded experience. Link spends much of the game disconnected from others as he travels throughout Hyrule, only passing through people’s lives on the way to his next Divine Beast. It makes sense given the state of Hyrule in that game, as the world is reeling from a century-long calamity that has torn the kingdom asunder. Much of Link’s work in that game is trying to rebuild bridges (figuratively, though he does that literally in Tears of the Kingdom) between parts of Hyrule that have become sequestered under Ganon’s reign. So when the sequel comes around, there’s a sense of community and companionship Link might not have felt when he first wakes up in Breath of the Wild.
Those bonds are represented in the game as Link recruits new Sages in Tulin, Sidon, Yunobo, and Riju, with each giving Link a new ability in their respective temples as they fight alongside him. Tulin’s gust ability gives Link more agility in the air, which is key to facing Colgera, an icy, airborne beast in the Wind Temple, as you dive through its weakpoints. Sidon’s shield envelops Link in water and can become a projectile, which helps you clean up the sludge emitting from Mucktorok in the Water Temple. These battles already contrast from one another because you’re no longer alone.
The mechanics give each fight a distinct flavor, but now that each boss isn’t just a variation of the same visual design, there’s a lot more character to the climatic foes you face. Where Breath of the Wild’s bosses were mostly faceless entities defined almost entirely by their mechanical design, every boss in Tears of the Kingdom is visually striking. They can be intimidating, but some of them are decidedly not. Colgera is terrifying, but Mucktorok is actually pretty pathetic when you do away with its sludge shield. And the Marbled Gohma feels like this unknowable rock beast scrambling around in the Depths. These bosses feel evocative of the Zelda games of old and make it clear that Ganondorf is not the sole source of evil in Hyrule, though he sure knows how to repurpose them for his own needs.
Like most of the dangers in Breath of the Wild, each boss could be traced back to Calamity Ganon. He was a force of nature and almost everything bad happening in Hyrule was an extension of him. Narratively, that remains true in Tears of the Kingdom, as each of these beasts exist to do Ganondorf’s bidding, but they’re reminders that there are things out in the world we still don’t know about, and fighting these beasts alongside the friends you’ve made across your journey feels like discovering and overcoming something new and frightening, rather than different variants of the same villain. It’s a return to form for a series that has excelled in this before Breath of the Wild, and it’s another example of Tears of the Kingdom’s strides over a game that was already considered top of its class.