Intro by Rob Leane, gaming editor: “When I first read Daryl Baxter’s new book, 50 Years of Boss Fights: Video Game Legends, its first chapter made a real impression on me. Rather than simply kicking things off with an obvious gaming boss like Bowser or Dr Robotnik, Baxter went all the way back to 1974 to get exclusive insight from the makers of gaming’s first ever boss. It’s from a game that younger readers may not have heard of, but it sent massive ramifications into the nascent gaming industry of the time, and its impact is still being felt today. In fact, it feels quite fun to be talking about this at the same time that present-day players are diving into Elden Ring’s Shadow of the Erdtree DLC, which you could call the pinnacle of boss battles (certainly in terms of difficulty, at least). The book goes on to touch on loads of memorable bosses from the decades that followed the idea’s inception, charting a progression from 1974 to 2024, one gruelling encounter at a time, with heaps of insight from the ingenious creators of the bosses. Read on to discover that first chapter for yourself!”



50 Years of Boss Fights by Daryl Baxter (White Owl, RRP £22) Available at

The cover art for the new book 50 Years of Boss Fights: Video Game Legends, written by Daryl Baxter, showing the book's title against a purple background. Bowser, Dr Robotnik and Metal Gear REX.

In order to look at the memorable bosses in gaming, we need to look back at what is considered the first ever boss in a video game, while having its two creators tell the story of how it came to be.


In 1974, two individuals created a game inspired by Dungeons & Dragons, the massively popular tabletop role-playing game, with this virtual version able to be played on a PLATO computer system.

This game, known as simply DND, housed an event for the player that made them face a dragon — this was to unofficially be the first boss in a game, ever.

The game is in orange and black, a standard for the PLATO operating system, and there would be no music — this would be where your imagination would kick into action, helping you to form the sounds and images of just what this Golden Dragon would do once you approached it for battle.

Gary Whisenhunt and Ray Wood first met as students, in a library at Southern Illinois University back in 1974, and both remember it clearly.

A PC screenshot, yellow text on a black screen. The title reads, 'The Game of Dungeons'.
An actual screenshot from the game's welcome screen. Gary Whisenhunt and Ray Wood

Wood kicks the story off for us, saying, "To go all the way back: there was a PLATO terminal on the first floor of Morris Library at SIU in Carbondale. One day, I looked in and there were a bunch of students huddled around it... probably six or so.

"So, I got permission to use the system and log on, and I began playing around with it. The room was about eight by eight metres. In order to see the screen, the lights were turned off.

"You could only sign up for one hour a day. Whenever you used the terminal, two or three or more people would show up and sit in the room with you. Sometimes we would just shoot the s**t, or just talk about the programmes. There was a group of maybe 10 people who regularly used PLATO, so we got to know each other.

"There were some games on it... MoonWar, Dogfight, and a few others. The PLATO rules were that you could only play games during ‘non-business’ hours — which was after 7pm and before 7am Monday through Friday. Also, games were given a low priority... so, users playing games were the first ones kicked off the system in times of heavy use.

"For some reason, Gary Whisenhunt and I hit it off, and we developed a friendship, which still continues. I think the reason we get along is because we had interests outside of computers and engineering.

"One day, a new game called PEDIT5 (written by Rusty Rutherford) became popular. PEDIT5, in modern lingo, is a God’s eye view dungeon crawl."

Whisenhunt takes over the story now, remembering the very first time he found that fateful computer: "Sometime in the fall of 1973 or the summer of 1974, I discovered the one PLATO terminal at the university. It was housed in the basement of the library — not many people knew of it, and it was more of an interesting oddity than something that was being used for actually teaching anything.

"I was fascinated by it. I had always excelled at Math, but had never actually interacted with a computer — which were pretty rare prior to any type of personal computers existing.

"Beyond that, PLATO was way ahead of its time, and represented what it would take many years for mainstream computing to accomplish — graphical interfaces, multimedia, interactive communication, touch screens, and more.

"I started playing with the PLATO terminal and taught myself how to programme it. The thought of creating a programme was actually kind of exotic at the time.

"The PLATO terminal was housed in a small room and you could sign up for time in one-hour blocks, no more than one hour a day. There were several other students there who were also intrigued by PLATO as well — people would often hang around the room looking for extra free time as I sometimes did. One of those people was Ray Wood. He and I became good friends.

"Of course, given the graphical and interactive nature of the PLATO system, it was a great platform for games. Games were generally frowned upon, especially up at the PLATO home at the University of Illinois. However, the system was perfect for gaming and of course people started writing them.

"Several of us in Southern Illinois University would sometimes play some of these games: Airfight, Empire, etc. Around that time, there was a dungeon game called PEDIT5 which had been created. Ray and I had played that, it was loosely based on similar concepts of the Dungeons & Dragons paper game that had recently come out.

"However, PEDIT5 would occasionally be deleted — games were seen as an illicit use of the PLATO computer in some places. Ray and I had done some PLATO programming before that, but had never written a game — no one at Southern Illinois had ever written a game.

"We decided that we should try and write our own dungeon game, and we were pretty sure that it wouldn’t get deleted because the person that oversaw the PLATO terminal really knew nothing about it and it was just something else he was supposed to manage. He’d never even know of its existence.

"So Ray and I set about writing the game. We would meet at different places when we had open times between classes — usually on the steps of the library, weather permitting.

"We would talk about what we wanted to accomplish and how the game would work. Then we would kind of divide up the programming tasks and each spend our allotted time on the one terminal to enter and debug the code."

A small yellow character with a sword and shield stands against a black screen in this PC screenshot from the game DND.
Games have come a long way! Gary Whisenhunt and Ray Wood

Wood picks up the thread again here: "The problem with PEDIT5 is that you couldn’t play it during ‘work’ hours. So, all the guys at SIU complained about it. The other thing, which is going to sound crazy to people now, is that the university admins thought games were a waste of valuable computer time, and thus would regularly delete the game from the system. So, it would disappear for weeks at a time.

"Being the devious college students we were, Gary and I became the system administrators for the SIU Plato site. Thus, we were in control of the programming space at SIU. So, no one could delete computer programmes but us.

"Anyway, Gary and I decided we would write our own dungeon crawl. Since we were SysAdmins, the game wouldn’t be deleted, we could play the game during normal hours, and all the guys at SIU could play the game whenever they wanted. So, everyone was happy. So, we started writing a version of PEDIT5.

"PEDIT5 had some severe limitations. The biggest one was that a user couldn’t save a game. If you logged off PLATO or were kicked out of PEDIT5, your game disappeared. You had to restart from the beginning. So, no matter what items you found in the dungeon, they always disappeared in a few hours. None of that seemed particularly fair."

Wood wants to stress an important point, for the record, at this moment in the story: "Gary and I worked together. DND was a joint creation."

Wood continues: "Since at SIU we were limited to one hour on PLATO, the first thing Gary and I implemented was a SAVE GAME function so you could return to the game without losing your gold, weapons and levels. This made the game an actual RPG (Role Playing Game). In some ways, the save function made DND the very first real RPG.

"We had some fun with the game, trying to introduce some cheeky humour into it. We even patterned one of the monsters in the dungeon after a particularly obnoxious student.

"In order to programme better, Gary and I would try to sign up for PLATO so that our times were next to each other. That way, we had a block of two hours to work on it together. We usually did it on Saturday morning. We would show up at the library and go to work.

"One Saturday after we finished programming, we decided to go out for a burger at a local greasy spoon. It was next to the train station in downtown Carbondale. They had a couple of pinball machine games there, so we started playing them.

"The pinball machines had a high score function. If you had one of the top 10 scores, you could enter your initials.

"Gary and I started playing. Gary, being the guy with good eye-hand coordination, got a high score. I started playing, and unbelievably, I beat Gary and got the top score. This was the first and only time I ever got a high score on a pinball game. I was, to be honest, pretty excited.

"Gary and I started talking about how neat it would be to have a high score for DND where people could put in their name. But, the question came up, 'What does a high score mean in a video game?'

"Because DND had a save game function, a person could simply play the game and get a new high score every time s/he played. So, it wouldn’t have any meaning. We said, ‘What if we put an ending on the game, you know, where the game stopped?’ If a player ends the game, then he gets to put his high score up, but his character gets deleted.

"We came up with the idea of the players going into the Elysian Fields, the mythical place where Roman heroes resided after their death."

Wood highlights a second important point here: "No video game in existence ended other than by the player getting killed or quitting."

Wood adds: "All other video games, the difficulty of the game increased until it was impossible to proceed further. The player would always ‘lose’. Take PONG... if you play single player, it gets so fast that no one can keep up. That is the way all the video games were prior to DND.

"Once we came up with the idea that the game would have a planned ending, the game changed. If there is a clear ending to a game, then ‘why’ would a character play the game? If you are not going in simply to kill monsters and accumulate gold, then why do it? So, we decided that a player venturing into the dungeon must be on a quest to recover ‘The Orb’ (a MacGuffin, as Alfred Hitchcock would say)."

Whisenhunt picks up the story at this point, saying, "While DND was a part of the Dungeons & Dragons genre, we had our own take on it. It had humour and was somewhat a tongue-in-cheek implementation of Dungeons & Dragons.

"Early versions — which some might call ‘alpha’ versions of the game — started being played at Southern Illinois and word spread to the University of Illinois and people began playing here. It was very popular. I had picked the name to be DND because when many people were saying ‘D and D’ it pretty much sounded that way.

"At some point early on, one of the things that we decided that we wanted to do is to give some goal for the game - in PEDIT5 you wandered around and did stuff, but there was no endgame. On top of that, PEDIT5 had few characters that it could store. We had enough for everyone, and we decided that there needed to be a quest so to speak — a purpose.

"So we created The Orb, a great sphere for which someone should try to find and take out of the dungeon. The name for The Orb was inspired by the recent Woody Allen movie, Sleeper, which has a scene where there is an ‘Orb’ passed around and whoever touches it gets aroused. The scene is pretty funny.

"So then we decided that we needed a special monster to guard The Orb, something that was extremely difficult to defeat and only a character with lots of experience and collected stuff had a chance. Even then, we wanted there to be a fair chance that even the most powerful might fail, because if you got The Orb and got out your character was retired to the Elysian Fields — kind of a hall of fame.

"Everyone who played the game could see the characters that made it to the hall of fame (and essentially ‘won’ the game). It was difficult enough that even Ray and I, knowing how everything worked, would have to work hard and still might fail to win the game. We also added many more levels to the dungeon and a few more monsters and treasures and pretty much released the game."

A player, an org and a dragon on a black and orange screen
The Orb!!! And the Dragon!!! Gary Whisenhunt and Ray Wood

The game began to spread to other campuses, including the University of Illinois, which was hours away from Southern Illinois University where Wood and Whisenhunt had made the game.

Whisenhunt remembers: "After this, it had become quite well known at the University of Illinois, where there were many terminals, and there were many people playing it. I think in the first few months there were over 100K game plays. While in today’s world, that doesn’t seem like a lot, but on a system that probably had a very limited number of terminals, and those terminals being chiefly used for academics, 100K was a lot. We were kind of pleasantly shocked.

"However, we started noticing that there seemed to be more people defeating the dragon, grabbing The Orb and exiting to the Elysian Fields, than we thought possible. We thought there must be some game flaw, something we overlooked.

"So I made a trip up to the University of Illinois in Urbana, IL for a weekend. It was a three and a half hour car trip. I was a poor college student so I camped at a rest stop on the interstate highway there overnight — which is now likely to get you arrested.

"So I went to the PLATO classroom on a Saturday night — dozens of terminals there and just wandered around and casually looked to see if people were playing DND. There were several. What it turned out that they were doing, indeed, was something that we had never thought of. They were stepping into the first part of the dungeon, taking a few steps around until they happened to encounter some monster, easily defeating it, and exiting back out.

"The strength or capabilities of the monsters was based on where you were in the dungeon, and at the very start, they were pretty simple to beat, particularly for a character with lots of experience, strength, etc. So these guys would do this little go in, kill something, then exit. Repeat for hours on end, and perhaps over several days.

"So that was the design error, we had never thought that anyone would spend that amount of time doing something rote and tedious. Boy, were we ever wrong. So we changed the design of how the monsters worked. Attack factors, as Ray called them. We made it so that monsters of greater strength, ie more deadly, were attracted to how much gold you had accumulated. But this was based on a smaller random chance.

"However, it meant that the longer you were in the game, the greater probability that you would get attacked by a monster with strength comparable to yours. If you just went in and out over and over again, you spent more time in the dungeon than if you explored lower levels and had to defeat more powerful creatures and found larger treasures. Since The Orb was the most valuable treasure, if you were carrying it, powerful creatures were very interested in you.

"The first few people to encounter this were surprised and they would post about it on the DND notes file (a notes file on PLATO was the equivalent of an internet forum or Reddit today). One such person wrote a poem about it, about how his long standing character who he had worked through many hours and had grabbed The Orb and was in literal sight of the exit, was killed by a level 900 death monster. Characters still occasionally got in the Elysian Fields after that, but much much fewer.

"At some point during this time I got hired by the University as a student worker in the library and the main part of my job was to manage the PLATO terminal — the keys to the kingdom, so to speak. DND became such a hit that it turned out that dealing with the resulting requests, complaints, etc became a lot of work.

"So we added an administrator mode to the game so that we could name administrators and they could deal with a lot of this. Even then it was taking up too much of our time — we were still students.

"We turned the game over to one of the administrators, Dirk Pellet, from Iowa State University (who we never have met in person, although much later in life I met his brother Flint Pellet). Dirk added more dungeons, monsters, and made significant improvements over the next few years. Many of the people that played the game later played it with Dirk’s improvements. We consider Dirk to be as important to the game as we do. So Dirk added many more challenges and options."

A number of options appear on the screen, listing different attacks and other possible moves, as the yellow character decides how to fight the dragon.
Which move would you choose? Gary Whisenhunt and Ray Wood

Wood picks up the thread now, harking back to the inception of the boss battle idea: "We came up with the idea of a grand battle at the end with a ‘super monster’ guarding The Orb. We decided on a Golden Dragon because the cover of Dungeons & Dragons original rule book had a dragon sitting on a pile of gold."

Whisenhunt also recalls how this came to be: "I think that we decided it would be a dragon because it was the biggest toughest creature that we could think of. At one point, the creature Grendel was a brief thought (Grendel is the creature from Beowulf. John Gardner, an American author, had recently written a book called Grendel retelling the Beowulf legend from the creature Grendel’s perspective and John Gardner was a professor at Southern Illinois University). However, the dragon seemed more appropriate and powerful."

Wood continues: "We decided to make the Golden Dragons stats ridiculously high. It had a ton of hit points and inflicted a ton of damage. It had a plethora of henchmen with it. So, a player had to kill 20 or 30 minor monsters before finally confronting the Golden Dragon. If a player beat the Golden Dragon, they still had to make their way out of the dungeon, encountering even more monsters on the way out.

"We jacked up the stats on the Golden Dragon several times. Gary and I couldn’t beat the game, but, as it turned out, there were lots of people who could.

"Once we implemented the Golden Dragon, the popularity soared. People would play the game, get The Orb, put their name up, and then play it again trying to beat their last high score.

"Gary and I also started taking trips up to the University of Illinois to work on the game. Due to the nature of the very primitive communication network, we could develop the game much faster if we were physically closer to the main computer.

"At U of I, we would watch how people interacted with the game. We wanted to make it more fun. So, we would ‘tune’ certain parts of the game to make it more challenging for players."

Whisenhunt and Wood had decided to implement the Dragon, based on how it was described and designed in the paper rule book of Dungeons & Dragons. Having seen the dragon design in the official book, Wood recollects, "We thought it would be neat to implement.

"Also, Gary and I can’t draw. Someone already had designed a really cool-looking icon for a dragon. So, it made sense to use that icon rather than creating our own."

Whisenhunt remembers that their DND game did exist without the Dragon initially: "The very first alpha versions that were played by fewer people didn’t have the Dragon, but that was a very short period of time. I doubt that many outside the small group of PLATO users at Southern Illinois University had played it then. Most of the history isn’t specific enough to know that."

For adding the Golden Dragon into the game, Whisenhunt recalls some challenges when he and Wood were implementing the boss. "At first it was the most powerful and most difficult to defeat of all the creatures by design and it was always guarding The Orb.

"However, it needed to be beatable. I would suspect we had several discussions about ‘how much so’ and the specific aspects, but I don’t remember the details. After we learned about how players were winning the game more easily, there were other creatures that could become more powerful, but they were rare," Whisenhunt continues.

"We thought that the Dragon needed to have some kind of known effort to defeat it, so you had some idea of what you needed to accomplish before you took it on.

"After the changes to make it more difficult to win, I believe the Dragon stayed the same — he was intended to be specific and not have random aspects. The other creatures could then become more powerful, especially if you were trying to carry The Orb out."

For an enemy that players would be facing, especially for the late 1970s, both Whisenhunt and Wood tried a tactic to decide the Dragon’s function and health, something that’s still prevalent today in games — where there are whole departments that are involved in this.

"We play-tested it. First, Gary and I would create a character and go fight it. Then, we went to the University of Illinois and watched other people fight the Golden Dragon," Wood continues.

"This allowed us to tune the game to make it challenging for the users. The trick is to make it tough enough to be a challenge, but not so tough that no one could beat it. If there were too many people beating it, we would increase the stats to make it harder to beat."

Looking back, Wood would have made one change if the technology made it possible at the time. "About the only thing that we could have implemented was a better levelling-up system. Levelling-up systems used by games such as Fallout 3 could have been done."

Wood contemplates, "But, beyond that, we were limited by the computer power of PLATO. PLATO had almost no computing power compared to today. We got about everything out of the PLATO system that it could do. There was very little more that we could do with it.

"If we had more computer power and more memory, we would have done a whole lot of different things. Gary and I had a lot of great ideas for improving the game, but PLATO simply couldn’t do it. Eg we tried to create a 3D dungeon game similar to DOOM, but PLATO simply didn’t have the horsepower to do it."

Yellow text on a black background. In large capital letters, 'CONGRATULATIONS!' Small text underneath praises the player for escaping with the orb.
Imagine the satisfaction of overcoming the dragon! Gary Whisenhunt and Ray Wood

Finally, when asked about how he and Whisenhunt had essentially created the first ever boss in a video game, he’s amazed. "I usually think, ‘Gosh, I wish I had been a patent attorney then.’ We would have made a fortune."

Whisenhunt feels the same as Wood. "Well, it’s kinda cool, but it does have its drawbacks. We never called it a ‘boss’, that terminology came later. It is surprising how much attention it has garnered over the years in books, articles, webpages, etc.

"Many years ago, when my daughter was dating a guy in a band, some of the guys in the band were asking her about her father (me) and what I did. She said that I designed microprocessors.

"One of them asked what my first name was because Whisenhunt isn’t all that common and perhaps he knew one. She said ‘Gary’ and one of the other guys in the band went, ‘Is he the Gary Whisenhunt that created DND?’ Sigh. Several people think that I created ‘D and D’ (Dungeons & Dragons), partly because Gary Gygax and I share the same first name and both our ‘versions’ came out in 1974.

"I have to correct them that Gygax created the original game on paper and I (with Ray) created a video game loosely based on Gygax’s game. And no, I’ve never met him.

"At one time, a lawyer even contacted us because an author was doing research about early video games and was convinced, and had significant evidence to prove, that Daniel Lawrence’s DND game was a ripoff of ours. That’s a different game, also called DND, that came out in 1977 on the PDP-10 system."

Whisenhunt remembers: "It was Daniel’s lawyer trying to quash such because they were worried we would come after him legally. Neither Ray nor I really cared about whether Daniel copied us or what — it appears that he did, but if so, isn’t that just paying homage? We took ideas from PEDIT5 and have always claimed that we did."

Wood adds: "I’m amazed by how much of an impact DND had on modern games. I’ll give you an example: the Boss is the most recognisable part of DND that is modern games. But, there is actually something that is even more ubiquitous that was taken from DND: transporters.

"We used transporters to move players between levels. Now, almost every freaking game has at least one transporter, and sometimes there are transporters all over the place. Transporters are used so much now that no one ever says, ‘Geez, what the hell are transporters from Star Trek doing in a game based on Middle Earth?’

"Do you know why DND had transports? Because Gary and I couldn’t draw stairs. We were sitting around trying to figure out how to do it, and we said, ‘Muck it. Let’s use transporters. Maybe no one will notice.’ And they didn’t."

Whisenhunt explains how the true history of the term ‘boss’ kept getting lost through rewrites across the years. "The whole ‘boss’ monster thing also went through significant hassles as well — people rewriting the Wikipedia entry claiming that other Japanese video games preceded DND, which is not true by historical timelines.

"I imagine that those developers came up with the same idea on their own, as to us it seemed pretty obvious that it fit well with such types of games. I mean, Ray was posting on some of these comments, when people would say it didn’t happen and Ray would say, 'I was one of the two people that came up with the idea in 1974. I was there. Gary still has the source code.'

"I guess there’s some fame to it. Ray is, or was — as I’m not sure if he officially retired yet — one of the best Intellectual Property lawyers in the United States I’ve ever known. He has dozens of patents. I have dozens of patents.

"There was a time when you were on the internet, there was a pretty good chance that the packets you were getting from the internet went through one or more processors for which I was the architect of the core of that chip.

"Or that I invented the first processor virtualisation extensions architecture for the embedded environment. Video games, however, extend out to the masses so they get all the attention — which is okay. One time in the late 1980s, Ray said to me, 'In 1974, who would’ve thought that video games would be such a huge business. If we would’ve stuck with it, we’d be really, really rich now.'"

50 Years of Boss Fights by Daryl Baxter is out now (White Owl, RRP £22) Available at


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