by Quinn Levandoski
reviewed on PC
Sentient jet pack
Boss 101 is at the same time a simple and complex game. At its core, the game is about engaging large, single enemies in a side-scrolling bullet hell shooter but the game is made larger by a dizzying number of customization options and extras. Taking place in a world that’s been attacked by giant robots, it’s the player's job to grab their trusty sentient jet pack and hop through wormholes to find and defeat the titular Boss 101.
The core gimmick of Boss 101 is presented as being able to design your own bosses that you’ll fight in each level. This is partially true, but is also disingenuous for a few reasons. First, calling them “bosses” doesn’t seem quite right, because it seems to insinuate that they’re something to work up to. This isn’t true. In fact, each boss is an entire level, and it’s all you’ll fight in each encounter. I do think the game would have worked better if they’d used these bosses as capstones in a more fully realized mission experience, but that isn’t the case, and encounters stay on the “short and sweet” end of things. Secondly, “create” is, at best, an over exaggeration. You don’t actually get to pick parts or attributes, you just hit the “create button” and everything is pieced together randomly. That’s the extend of your engagement.
If the hat fits...
In your quest to stop the bad robot invader bosses you’ll be fighting, players have a staggering amount of customization options to choose from. “Hats,” or, more appropriately, skins, each come with various perks. I’ll give the developers credit, because there really is a bafflingly huge number of skins. Ranging from generic people to monsters and pop culture icons, each one has its own perks to help you take out certain types of bosses. The actual differences aren’t as exciting as I might have hoped, with most just giving you a time, damage resistance, or monetary boost in your engagements, but each one looks distinct, and that must have taken a fair amount of time to pull off. Your other option is your weaponry, which range from ordinary shotguns and pistols to more imaginative affairs like lasers and fist-guns. These two methods of customization are decent enough, and covering as many strengths as possible is key to success in Boss 101.
Beneath the crazy number of hats, guns, and perks, there really isn’t much to do in Boss 101. Sure, each boss is technically different. Each boss definitely looks different too, and each one is going to have a different combination of weapons, strengths, weaknesses, and abilities. Unfortunately, none of these really function in a terribly meaningful variety. In the early game you’ll just re-roll bosses until you hit one whose weakness matches up with the guns that you own, and in the late game you’ll already have enough combinations purchased to exploit many bosses and can just switch your loadout to match whatever pops up. Sure, one boss might shoot spears and the other energy blasts, but you dodge each of them the same while holding down the shoot button. Despite what the game’s general premise might imply, there just isn’t any requirement (or even possibility) to employ differing strategies. Whatever gun you have equipped you’ll let rip the whole time. Whatever they shoot, you’ll either dodge or just take the hit. Maneuvering is pointless for any other reason as dodging, as bosses don’t have hit sensitive areas or part-specific destruction. Leveling up weapons makes them stronger, and perks give you more strengths, but none fundamentally change the way you play, and after an hour you’re likely to find yourself bored and ready to move on to something with more substance.
In a simple bullet hell game about blasting away giant robots, there’s a ton of cumbersome design that gets in the way of getting to the action. The main menu/base where you’ll be in between missions that serves as a hub to access shops, mini-games, and more is absolutely abhorrent in its design. It takes navigating multiple menus and screens. Why am I in a room with my pet, the training room, a telephone, and mini games, but have to hit B to enter a separate menu to access shops, upgrades (shouldn’t upgrades be in a shop?), “begin game” (am I not already in the game?) etc. Boss 101 is stuck half way between an immersion and traditional menu, and it doesn’t seem to serve much of a purpose besides adding clicks. There’s also the odd addition of mini-games and other seemingly random additions (for instance, you can unlock pets that sit at your window as you progress). I won’t say it’s bad that I can play brick breaker at the arcade machine, but does seem out of place in a game that isn’t itself very large, and I did find myself thinking the whole experience would be better if more of an effort was placed on streamlining.
It’s not that Boss 101 is a bad game, per se, although it does have some questionable design decisions. The issue is that there it’s hard for me to justify recommending a game with similar depth and complexity as flash free flash games I’ve played. I’ll admit there are times when I enjoy ripping on games. Times when I get to call a developer out for shady, underhanded tactics, or for trying to sell an unfinished, buggy mess. This isn’t one of those times. I want to like this game because it really does seem like the developers wanted to make a unique, entertaining throwback to the side scrolling shooters of yesteryear. It just doesn’t work, and ultimately the experience fails to ever become anything particularly memorable.
So Boss 101 is a strange beast, at the same time jam-packed with guns, costumes, and perks, while also and deeply lacking any features that make time investment seem worthwhile. There’s an argument to be made that this makes it the perfect game to pick up and play in short bursts, but there are better options out there, so I can’t really recommend it for that either.
Boss designs are cool.
Unintuitive UI, every fight plays out largely the same.