There were bosses in games ever since 1975, and I don't think I really have to define 'boss' here. But how did the word get stuck? And when was the first time when the challenging enemy was referred to as a 'boss'?

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    Because everyone wants to shoot/kill/defeat their boss? Err... except me, if you're reading this boss man. – Doozer Blake Oct 27 '11 at 0:56
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    While not a complete answer, Wiktionary has a little bit on the etymology of boss. – CyberSkull Oct 27 '11 at 3:38
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    Fun trivia - for some reason, in Singapore, Chinese gamers tend to refer to bosses as "kings" in English. So the "final boss" is called the "last king" etc. Direct translation ftw. – Seyren Oct 27 '11 at 7:40
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    In many/most games, to get to the boss, you first have to fight through a lot of smaller bad-guys who literally work for the big bad guy (voluntarily or not), thus making the big guy the boss. – Synetech Dec 17 '11 at 21:07
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    I never wondered about this... – Jont Nov 24 '13 at 3:48

Sorry for the necro. I find this immensely interesting, and have done some deep digging and made a video about the topic:

The earliest source I found is from a 1980 arcade operating manual of Space Panic, mentioning bosses. Another enemy in that game is a 'don'.

In early 1980's Japan, "bosu" (loanword from English) had a derogatory connotation to do with Mafia. Translating "bosu" would give you "boss", but in English the negative meaning is not present.

Old Kung Fu films use this term for mobsters too (Bruce Lee in The Big Boss).

~ GeoKoer

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    Accepting your answer since your researched all the way to the linguistics missing piece... and went through the trouble of making a video :) – Septagram Dec 4 '15 at 18:30

From what I can find, the term's origin has been lost, however I did find some interesting details.

  • The earliest usage seems to be from around 1983 in Joystick magazine, as discussed on Wikipedia.

Take a wild shot in Galaga-- you might fire (at) the Boss

  • The term "Mini-Boss" appeared in the "Metroid" Instruction Booklet (referring to Kraid and Ridley, on page 15) when the game was released in 1986. Note that "Mother Brain" is not referred to as a "Boss" where she's discussed in the manual.
  • "Boss" was spread more broadly by Nintendo Power, starting around 1988. I have a feeling that the term was coined inside of Nintendo as the magazine writers needed a term for the end-level baddies.
  • The (translated) term "Boss" is also used in Japan. It might be that the term originated in Japan, but I have not found any information to back this up.
  • When you say it's used in Japan, do you mean a translation of the word? Or the actual syllable 'boss'? – Clyde Oct 26 '11 at 19:57
  • @Clyde - I don't believe the difference matters. Where it would matter is if it's a word that is known in multiple cultures (eg, Nintendo, Samsung, Sony, etc) -vs- a word with a natural translation (house, boss, door, car). – Brian Vandenberg Oct 26 '11 at 20:00
  • @Clyde It's translated, but uses the same word as "executive boss" – Pubby Oct 26 '11 at 20:02
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    Maybe they were taking a cheap shot at their own superiors at work. – Tesserex Oct 27 '11 at 0:53
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    Given the earliest reference you can find being from Galaga, which has swarms of enemies acting together, "boss" as in "leader" makes perfect sense... You have to kill the underlings before reaching their boss, after all... – Izkata Oct 27 '11 at 3:30

It could be that the word boss meant something different in a Japanese or something and since they didn't have a proper word for it in English, they just used the word boss. In the same way that Naruto says "Believe it!" in the anime Naruto, when in reality, it means something more like "Yeah!"

Another possibility, and don't quote me on this, is that a lot of the original bosses had minions or underlings working for them, think of king dedede and the waddle-dees/doos, Bowser and the koopas/goombas. When bosses first came out, no one questioned it, it just was so.

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    I'm inclined to believe your 2nd paragraph. – Raven Dreamer Oct 27 '11 at 0:41
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    for the second paragraph only – Sufendy Oct 27 '11 at 4:15
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    Seems like a reasonable line of thinking (paragraph 2), but it's only speculation. – Brian Vandenberg Oct 27 '11 at 15:01

I will have to quote wikipedia on this one!

The first interactive game to feature a boss was dnd, a 1975 computer role-playing game for the PLATO system. One of the earliest dungeon crawls, dnd implemented many of the core concepts behind Dungeons & Dragons. The objective of the game is to retrieve an "Orb" from the bottommost dungeon. The orb is kept in a treasure room guarded by a high-level enemy named the Gold Dragon. Only by defeating the Dragon can the player claim the orb, complete the game, and be eligible to appear on the high score list.

The page in question is this one.

I hope that answers your question!

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    How does this relate to the word "boss"? – BoltClock Oct 26 '11 at 19:39
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    Before you down-vote, perhaps you should do some digging to determine whether 'dnd' used the word 'boss' to describe the end-of-level or end-of-game character. – Brian Vandenberg Oct 26 '11 at 19:53
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    @BrianVandenberg If it did, the answer should be edited to explain that. As it is now, it doesn't look relevant to the question. – Adam Lear Oct 26 '11 at 23:02
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    @Brian: Perhaps author should "do some digging to determine whether 'dnd' used the word 'boss'" before posting an answer? – BlueRaja - Danny Pflughoeft Oct 27 '11 at 1:01
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    @BlueRaja - The author did do some digging, and found something that could be useful in tracking down the origins. It gives a good baseline; no known example of a 'boss' prior to 1975 is known to exist. Since the earliest example posted about in this thread is 1983, that gives you an 8 year span to search, as opposed to the period of 1972 (creation of 'pong') through 1983. That's still a valuable contribution, even if it doesn't give the correct answer. – Brian Vandenberg Oct 27 '11 at 14:57

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