A Series of Boss Fight Books Reviews

I've been working through these in the strange random order that my phone sorted the PDFs into. I assumed it was release order at first, and had planned to call this a review of BFB's Season 1, but it turns out that almost none of the ones I've read are from Season 1. So we're left with an arbitrary collection of them that corresponds to reverse download order or something. I really have no idea.

I'll be giving each one a grade from A to F so that there's an at-a-glance summary of what I thought. A-tier is the best that these get and are where you should start. B books don't quite reach those heights, but are still enjoyable to read. C books have major flaws that make them harder to recommend except to specific people. D books are mostly worth skipping, but may have a chapter or two that makes them worth a glance. F books are bad throughout and can be ignored completely.

Shovel Knight (David Craddock, BFB #19) (B tier)

This book is an account of Shovel Knight's development, starting with the main devs early careers at WayForward and ending shortly after the game's release. You get a lot of insight into how everyone's philosophies on game design and work styles led to SK being the game that it is, and I think it's most useful if you approach it as being a long GDC talk. Unsurprisingly given the success of their game, the team at Yacht Club has insights on game development that are worth sharing.

You can tell that Craddock is a huge fan of the game, but maybe too much so to be writing this book. He presents many of the decisions Yacht Club made in designing SK as if they're perfect, and fails to seriously criticize anything the team did even when it's obvious that there were serious missteps. It should be objectively clear that something went egregiously wrong with Yacht Club's project management given that the team had to crunch for three months without any pay (let alone overtime) to finish the game, but Craddock lets this go as if it was just a minor hurdle to overcome with team spirit. Most games that had failures of planning that dramatic would have to be canceled without release, and a development diary/post-morterm of SK that fails to properly acknowledge mistakes of even that magnitude feels incomplete. Someone who took this book as advice at face value would learn that reckless perfectionism makes a good game, and miss how only exceptionally favorable life circumstances for the dev team allowed it to be finished at all.

Katamari Damacy (L.E. Hall, BFB #17) (B-tier)

This book is one part a history of Keita Takahashi's early career, one part development diary and post-morterm of the title game, and one part ill-advised analysis of the meaning of KD. The first part is a fascinating, if occasionally frustrating, look into the life of a game designer with a very non-traditional path to the industry and some unusual ideas on what games are. It's frustrating that he doesn't seem to see much value in game's being anything other than "fun", but you have to give him credit for at least making a game that lives up to that ideal.

Part 2 goes deep into the internal publisher conflicts and marketing confusion over what to do with Katamari, problems that were only made worse when it blew up at E3. It's great to get a look into development of a game that we don't otherwise hear much about, and to be able to see the early signs of how the series ended up dying with a whimper. Nobody knew what to do with it even back then, let alone where to take the third sequel.

I'd probably have this book as an A-tier if it had ended there, but it unfortunately spends the third part trying to find deeper meaning in the game and going off on tangents about other people's experiences with it that add nothing to the work. This last part isn't terribly written or anything, but it's a chore to get through and I didn't come out of it feeling like I'd gained much.

Kingdom Hearts II (Alexa Ray Corriea, BFB #16) (B-tier)

This book reads like the author is suffering from Stockholm Syndrome with the game. Almost every chapter begins by detailing why some part of KHII is incomprehensible nonsense, tedious, poorly designed, sexist, or all of the above, and then goes on to say that it's beautiful and she loves it anyway. It has convinced me that I want absolutely nothing to do with this game more thoroughly than any negative review ever could've, but it's all written well enough to be quite entertaining even though I am slightly concerned that Nomura was holding Corriea at gunpoint while she was writing it.

I almost think this book is better for people who, like me, have zero experience with the series, because I'm not sure what value someone who already knew the game would get out of long chapters that mostly just recount what happens. Still, major points for being honest about the game's issues. Some the other books could learn a lot from that...

Jagged Alliance 2 (Darius Kazemi, BFB #5) (C-tier)

This book opens with the author admitting to being an unabashed evangelist for this obscure '90s strategy title, and it shows in how everything is presented. It follows a familiar pattern for BFB of opening by describing the development studio's history, then detailing the development of JA2 itself, and finally looking at the game's legacy. It's at its best in the first two sections, which follow an obscure Canadian company entering game publishing almost accidentally and then even more accidentally going on to be responsible for the hugely influential Wizardry series. It's great to see how a company that had no idea what it was doing made all the logistics of that work, and it's equally fun to read about the challenges they faced working on the JA games, which were part of an almost entirely new genre and faced a lot of unfamiliar challenges.

But it's at this point that the book starts to fall apart, as Kazemi starts to analyze things he clearly knows nothing about. The worst chapter of the book is a deep dive into the game's code that goes as far as to detail file paths (who cares?) and praise horrible programming practices like 5,000 line files and embedding a 500 line essay into the comments. That's part of a broader pattern of the author being so in love with the game that he can't criticize much of anything substantial about it, even when developers are making clearly jealous claims about how unfair it all is that XCOM sold better than JA despite being worse. This one desperately needed an editor to step in and be more objective.

Chrono Trigger (Michael P Williams, BFB #2) (F-tier)

I sincerely hope that this is as bad as BFB ever gets. CT is a masterpiece of a game, but CT the book is a confused mix of over-analyzing every part of the game and life anecdotes from the author that are almost completely irrelevant. You can tell that the author is very proud of his thesaurus and Literary Analysis 101 college course, because he is not remotely afraid to use big words when there is a tenuous way to link them to CT. Get ready for a whole lot of input from "rhetoricians" and other experts with titles no one uses.

It's at its very worst when it tries to analyze CT by projecting the real world on to it, especially considering that it will later say that you shouldn't analyze fiction by doing that. I also have to specifically call out one line that claims no early Square RPG had a female protagonist, which is only true if you've been hit on the head and forgotten Final Fantasy VI. Clearly no one bothered to fact-check anything here.

There is one interesting passage where the author interviews the translators for both localizations of the game, and while I would recommend reading that if you can find it, I can't possibly recommend buying this book for any reason. It is dreadful.


I've finished quite a few more than these, but this post is long enough as it is, so I'll leave the rest (all coincidentally very good) for another day.

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