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You're just outside the lair of the Big Bad who has tormented you throughout the game. He's destroyed your home town, sent wave after wave of enemies to try and destroy you, and may even have called you a couple nasty names. This is the battle you've been waiting for. You enter the room and... he summons a giant three-headed dragon and runs away. Okay, no problem, you'll take it down, then deal with the Big Bad. You slay the dragon and... what? Why are the credits rolling? Why didn't you get an epic battle with your archnemesis? Unfortunately, that villain just isn't going to be fought.
The exact cause of why a major antagonist is not fought varies. He could, like above, just run away when you confront him. Perhaps he was the victim of a Bait-and-Switch Boss. In video game examples, he may have been fought in a cutscene, but killed without being fought in gameplay. Whatever the reason may be, this type of situation is a common source of frustration to the audience, especially if the victim was the Big Bad. In the cases where The Unfought is The Chessmaster or Mad Scientist, this can be somewhat justified, as they might not be capable of physical battle, preferring to work behind the scenes. But, if the character had already been established as a capable — even exceptional — fighter, this trope occurring can feel like a bit of a rip-off. And even if he is a weakling, you still want to kill him for all the Grinding he forced you through to get to him.
Mostly a video game trope. Though this can happen in other media, it is much harder to tell what counts as a "battle" in books or movies, while video games have a clear distinction between gameplay and FMVs. Contrast with Climax Boss, which these examples are hyped up to be. Not to be confused with Anti-Climax Boss or Breather Boss, where the villain in question is fought, but ends up being a wuss (deliberately or not, respectively).
Naturally, the following examples all contain MAJOR SPOILERS.
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Video Game Examples:
The Final Fantasy series does this a lot. Emperor Gestahl in Final Fantasy VI and Queen Brahne in Final Fantasy IX are both the primary antagonists throughout half of their respective games, and get killed by the real villain without ever fighting the player. Queen Brahne is in such obviously bad health she'd probably be worse at fighting than you were at be beginning of the game. Gestahl, on the other hand, was a stupendously powerful wizard, as shown in his fight with the one who kills him, and knows spells you don't have at that point in the game, so he, at least, would have been a Worthy Opponent.
In Final Fantasy VII, the Sapphire Weapon is killed by the Junon Cannon before the party can get to it.
Also, Tseng, leader of the Turks, never actually battles the party, it's always some combination of Rude, Reno, and Elena (who can also become The Unfought if you decide not to fight the last Turk encounter).
Diamond Weapon in the original Japanese version, but a fight against him was added when it was released internationally (and retroactively added to the Japanese re-releases).
Happened again in Final Fantasy XIII with Jihl, who was even featured in the trailer, but ended up appearing in a stupefying total of 4 scenes (if even that many), during the last of which she was blasted in the back by the REAL boss as she confronted the heroes. They are now fightable in DLC for XIII-2, however.
In Final Fantasy Tactics, during chapter one, a couple people are set up as disc one final bosses, but are never directly fought. Among these are Gustav (Who set up the Marquis's kidnapping, which Wiegraf detested) and Gragoroth, the Corpse Brigade member who kidnapped Tetanote he commits suicide by explosion after being shot by Argath at Ft. Zeakden.
Final Fantasy IX also subverts this trope with the Four Fiends. At first, when the characters split into four groups to take them on, only one (Lich) is actually fought by the player, the other battles taking place offscreen. However, in the final dungeon they're revived and all four are indeed faced in battle.
In the Chains of Promathia expansion for Final Fantasy XI, Nag'molada is an enemy working at cross-purposes to the player for most of the storyline, working indirectly by means such as spreading lies about the player, stealing credit for your accomplishments and sending powerful boss monsters against you. At the very end, however, he commits suicide by allowing himself to be absorbed by Promathia the Twilight God. Not only does this cheat us out of a boss fight, but it also unleashes an apocalyptic evil god upon the world. Not cool at all, Naggy. Even in a follow-up quest where his spirit is attempting to cross over into our world along with that of some other malefactors, an NPC ally fights him instead off-camera while we rematch with a couple of old bosses.
Kamek never directly fights the player in the first two Yoshis Island games (SNES and DS), only showing up occasionally as an Invincible Minor Minion. You do get to fight him in later games, including the third game (Yoshi's New Island).
In Sonic Heroes, the player pursues Dr. Eggman to the flagship of his airborne fleet, only to find out it was actually Metal Sonic impersonating him after having gone rogue and launched an operation against the protagonists himself.
In the first Mega Man Star Force, this happens to Geo after he doesn't bother to fight back against a Jammer. When he knocks him down, Harp Note promptly comes in, saves him from the Jammer and his "EM Humans", but lets Geo kick the Jammer's ass himself.
Later on, it happens to Cepheus, the FM-King. Despite the fact that his power is great enough to merge the Wave and normal worlds together, you instead fight his superweapon Andromeda, after which he surrenders himself to Geo and Mega's mercy, only to proceed to become friends with them.
In Uncharted: Drake's Fortune, you never fight Roman or Raja. Especially noticeable since they're two out of three named villains in the game, and the third one is the only boss fight in the entire game.
Happens again in Uncharted 2; Flynn is already dying when you confront him the last time, which is more noticeable since Uncharted 2 actually does have multiple boss battles.
Once again happens in Uncharted 3. This time, the Big Bad, Katherine Marlowe becomes this. Justified due to being a Non-Action Big Bad. From the same game, Rameses also becomes this.
Both subverted and played straight in No More Heroes 2: Desperate Struggle. Travis never actually fights any of the 22nd through 11th ranked assassins... since they're killed by Dr. Letz Shake, settling a proper battle against him. Then later on, Henry kills the 6th and 5th ranked assassins for Travis as payback for Travis saving his life. He even lampshades this trope in an answering-machine message, telling Travis (and the player) not to complain about missing out on those boss fights, and offering polaroids "so you can imagine what it might have been like".
In Magician Lord, the villain Az Atorse (or is it Gal Ageise, the game is never clear on the difference between the wizard and the evil god) is never actually fought. The seventh boss is said to be his avatar, but after the creature is defeated and disappears, he shows up apparently unharmed by its destruction. In fact you never even see him die, though he does say "I'm Destined just to die".
Arpeggio from Sly 2: Band Of Thieves falls victim to the "killed by real villain" category, surprisingly late in the game.
In Breath of Fire IV, Yuna, the dark mage/geneticist in charge of the Carronade (a hex cannon fueled by torture victims) and responsible for the creation of monstrous synthetic gods, flees at the only opportunity your characters have to fight him, protesting that he is "a scholar and a pacifist." He survives through the end of the game. He was intended to have been fought by the player or at least given some form of comeuppance for what he did. Capcom was forced to rush the game at the end due to the fact that they were actually risking bankruptcy at the time. However, he still gets away in the manga.
There's also Cumore, whom Yuri unceremoniously killed.
In Tales of the Abyss, Dist is the only God General who isn't fought personally. He sics his robots on the party multiple times, but that's it. He's also the only God General who survives the events of the game.
Ganondorf is presented as a major villain in The Subspace Emissary, but the closest you ever come to fighting him is a cutscene where the heroes attack the Halberd with their various spaceships, after which Ganondorf is double-crossed by Tabuu. A little weird, as this is a game where Ganondorf is a fully playable character.
Despite being a straight boss in Classic Mode, Master Hand was presented as the Big Bad of The Subspace Emissary until it's revealed that he's the literal puppet of Tabuu, who disposes of Master Hand before the players get there.
There's also the Ancient Minister, who was hyped as the subgame's main villain in previews and promotional material. He heel-faced just before the heroes busted into what would've been his boss chamber.
An infamous example is Ephidel from Fire Emblem 7. Set up to be a Climax Boss, he instead suffers death by exploding dragon. Breaking open the game's code reveals that he only has genric "citizen" stats and an inventory filled with items he can't use (while several other non-combat NPCs have proper stats and inventories).
Baten Kaitos: Geldoblame has yet to be fought in human form, unlike pretty much every other human villain in the series. And Melodia isn't fought at all.
Zexion was never battled in the GBA version of Chain of Memories; that, and the fact his weapon was never revealed, led many people to believe that he would live on as a major antagonist in the next game. However, his fight was retconned into the PS2 version.
The hyped-up duel between Roxas and Sora never happened in the original Kingdom Hearts II, but was added in the Final Mix.
A third example is Maleficent in Kingdom Hearts II. Her only encounters with Sora end with Enemy Mine situations, even though every other Disney villain from the first game is given a proper battle.
You don't get to fight the Wicked Queen in Birth By Sleep either. She's on her way to poison Snow White as Ventus is leaving, and by the time Aqua arrives in the world, she had already been chased off by the Dwarves as in the movie. Aqua instead randomly fights the Magic Mirror, who even admits it has no business working for the Queen anymore. It's understandable, though, since the Queen has no fighting skills to speak of. Same can be said of Lady Tremaine, though you do fight Lucifer (and no, he doesn't have any special powers, he's just a regular cat with you being mouse-sized).
Frollo dies either before or after a Dream Eater boss, depending on whether you're playing as Sora or Riku. Either way, he remains unfought.
The Prophet of Truth and the Gravemind from Halo. Somewhat justified in that it wouldn't fit with the tone of the game (the Prophet of Regret boss battle was universally loathed, and the Gravemind is a (possibly city-sized) Eldritch Abomination).
343 Guilty Spark in the first game (though you do fight him in Halo 3) and the Prophet of Mercy in the second game.
You never get to fight the purple Gigas, Plergoth.
Edna from Wild ARMs XF dies before you get a chance to kill her for all the terrible things she's done.
In The World Ends with You, it seems like the Composer is going to be the final boss. However, the player has no input when he challenges Neku to one final game after Kitaniji is finally defeated.
Also, Sho Minamimoto returns with a badass newfound power and the game builds it up as if he's gonna be the next boss, but then you find him crushed by his own trash heap.
You never get the chance to fight Varil in the final round of the tournament in Summon Night: Swordcraft Story.
In Fallout 3, President John Henry Eden is never actually fought in the game ...which has partially to do with the fact that he turns out to be a giant supercomputer. You can speech-challenge him, though, and lead him to self-destruct if your speech skills are good enough.
Alone In The Dark 2008 builds up to a climactic showdown between Edward Carnby and Lucifer... and just when it looks like the two are about to throw down, the game ends with a Gainax Ending.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 2013 Karai shows up in the penultimate level and sends mooks out to fight the Turtles. Just when it seems like you're going to fight her at the end of the level...she leaves, and is never seen in the game again.
In Tron 2.0, you never actually get a chance to fight apparent Big Bad Supervirus and self-proclaimed Master User Thorne. Instead he gets killed out of left field by the ICP Kernel about 3/4ths of the way through the game.
Out of the many antagonists in the Xenosaga series, only two are never given boss battles. Sellers' case, at least, could be justified by the fact that he's just a scientist in a hoverchair who is incapable of combat. The other example? Wilhelm, the Big Bad who played some role in almost every malevolent action in the series. After being built up as The Antichrist, and therefore fully capable of taking on the heroes, he was instead taken out by his right-hand man. However, Sellers is the only antagonist whose fate was left unknown; if a sequel is ever made, it's possible that he may return for a proper battle.
Also, the White Testament is the only Testament who isn't fought. Though really, he wasn't looking for a fight, and the developers may have figured that a fourth battle with Albedo would have been redundant.
In addition, out of all of the enemy E.S. that appeared throughout the series, the only E.S. the player never gets to fight (the modified version of Simeon notwithstanding) is Judah, the red E.S. belonging to the Red Testament. However, considering that official sources list one of its abilities as being able to strike its targets through hyperspace, this may have inadvertently ended up being a blessing in disguise.
In Conkers Bad Fur Day, the Panther King has a barely lawyer-friendly Xenomorph burst out of his chest shortly after he meets Conker for the first time, killing him and leaving the Xenomorph as the final boss. Though, in the multiplayer map, Doon, the Panther King DID serve as the map final objective, you have to shoot his heart. This mode is only available in Live and Reloaded, though.
Subverted in Jade Empire: Death's Hand is killed by Sagacious Zu in a cutscene. However, you're not as close to the end of the game as it seems, and he gets better.
Most of the top-level antagonists in Xenogears escape the direct wrath of your giant robot violence. The Gazel Ministry is wiped out by Krelian, and Krelian himself gets off scot-free, having achieved pretty much exactly what he wanted.
Dynamite Headdy has an unfought boss, but you don't even know anything about her or what she looks like beforehand... a world just ends without a boss (and a justification, which was the only storyline text that got carried over to the US version).
Your team leader, Albert Wesker, is revealed to be the villain behind the game's events, but he's killed by the Tyrant he releases without you fighting him. Then in Resident Evil: Code: Veronica, he returns, with superpowers no less, and you again don't get to fight him, instead watching him beat up the playable characters in cutscenes. This tradition of Wesker being built up as a behind-the-scenes, cutscene-only Big Bad responsible for almost all of the trials faced by Resident Evil's heroes continues throughout the following games, such as 0, 4, and The Umbrella Chronicles, before finally being averted in Resident Evil 5, when you finally face off with Wesker and kill him.
His colleague, William Birkin, also has this when never being confronted in human form in 0 and 2. Instead, he is confronted after becoming a monster due to injecting the G-Virus into himself.
Their boss, Ozwell E. Spencer, the Bigger Bad, is not confronted by the protagonists. In fact, they never even encounter him. Alive, anyways.
After a fantastic boss fight with the Demon King, Fortinbras, in the original Onimusha, there's a short movie sequence featuring the Big Bad, Lord Nobunaga, walking ominously down some steps towards your character, Samanosuke. Then the screen fades to black and there's an epilogue. There's still a few Onimusha players scratching their heads and wondering how Samanosuke got out of that one.
The main antagonists of Silent Hill are rarely fought at all.
In The Dark Spire, you fight what appears to be the main boss and kill him. Then you learn there's much more to it, but the real boss is only fought in a cutscene. And you have to do a lot of stuff to unlock this ending, which makes it a real let-down.
Another Metal Gear example: Decoy Octopus is the only member of the FOXHOUND terrorist squad who doesn't have a boss encounter in Metal Gear Solid. Instead, you meet him in the first 30 minutes of gameplay, disguised as the DARPA Chief Donald Anderson... and even though you don't actually fight him, you still kill him by passing the FOXDIE virus to him.
Hot Coldman is all but confirmed early on in Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker to be the main villain, but you don't get to fight him. Or Zadornov, who's killed in a cutscene.
The original MSX version of Metal Gear sees you destroy the titular Metal Gear by avoiding two laser cameras moving behind it and planting C4 on its feet. The NES version has this boss edited out: instead, you destroy a super computer, and never even see Metal Gear in the game at all.
In Crash Bandicoot 3: Warped, Uka Uka is introduced as the man behind the man, an extremely powerful mask that was sealed away for thousands of years. You never really fight him; all he does is act as an obstacle during the final boss battle. This isn't so bad (a mask is kind of hard to make into a full boss), but it gets really annoying in Crash Bandicoot: The Wrath of Cortex where there was a perfect opportunity to fight him. In that game, every boss is Crunch absorbing the powers of an elemental mask. There are four elemental masks, five bosses, you'd expect the final boss to be the recurring boss using Uka Uka's power, right? Nope. Instead, he just uses the other four masks at once, and Uka Uka does absolutely nothing during the fight except pull Cortex back to safety after you attack him. It took until Crash Twinsanity for a proper battle with Uka Uka, but by that time, he's no longer the main villain.
In Pokemon Mystery Dungeon Explorers of Time/Darkness, the leader of Team Skull, Skuntank, is never fought, while his flunkies Zubat and Koffing are fought at the end of the first dungeon. After trying to backstab Wigglytuff and suffering the off-screen beatdown that followed, Team Skull is just forgotten, aside from one dungeon.
There are a few in the main series too. Giovanni, despite being hyped up as returning throughout all of Pokémon Gold and Silver, never even appears (though they fixed that in the remakes), and Charon is never fought in Platinum despite temporarily taking over as Big Bad once Cyrus is beaten, to name a couple of examples.
Many fans were disappointed when they found out that during the post-game storyline of Pokémon Black and White, when you're given the task of hunting down the six sages of Team Plasma, you don't get the opportunity to engage them in battle. This is especially notable because, near the end of the normal storyline, they all try to gang up on you, 6 on 1, before the Gym Leaders come in to take them off your hands, but they never decide to get revenge on you. Instead, they all (but one) turn themselves in willingly. This also applies to the Shadow Triad — those teleporting ninjas who guide you throughout the game.
In the sequel, Pokémon Black 2 and White 2, some of this is remedied, as two of the Sages, Rood and Zinzolin, are fightable, as are the Shadow Triad.
The final boss of Might and Magic V: Darkside of Xeen is never fought. As soon as you enter the final room where he waits for you, the ending plays. You get a climactic cutscene of a Sealed Good in a Can fighting him for you and defeating him with a Heroic Sacrifice. The battle itself was climactic, but the challenge was not. You never even get to see an in-game character model of the Big Bad. And if you didn't unseal the Sealed Good, then the Big Bad simply waves his handand your party dies.
In the original Rayman, you never actually get to fight Mr. Dark. First he tortures you with some fire magic, then you fight his three mutantsnote whether he summons the mutants or transforms into the mutants is still up in the air, then... the game just ends. You do get to fight him in the incredibly obscure GBC Rayman game, though.
The Magician from Rayman Origins doesn't even get something even resembling a boss fight.
Gunstar Heroes. You never get to fight the evil emperor, because he gets nuked by the crystals he was trying to collect, which then open the Sealed Evil in a Can for the real boss fight.
In Beyond Good & Evil, General Kheck, the leader of the Alpha Sections, is never actually fought. While you do brush shoulders with him once or twice, your only actual combat encounter with him is actually with his ship. You fight his Tripod Terror from your ship, and it crashes and lands... but when you go inside, he's already dying, and all you get is an Almost Dead Guy speech.
Dr. Loboto in Psychonauts. While he's presented as the primary antagonist for most of the game, you neither get to enter his mind nor confront him directly as a boss. Instead, he gets a lowly Disney Villain Death. Presumably for the same reason other heroes do: Raz beating up on mental baddies is OK, but real people? No. Also, The Milkman, who after being awakened simply ignores Raz and eventually burns down the asylum, completing his programming, then leaves Boyd's mind forever.
In Shadow Complex, Lucius spends the entire climax standing in his observation tower while the player fights the final boss. He gets shot in the head in a cutscene.
In Devil May Cry 4, you never get to fight Credo in human form, despite his Informed Ability of being a master swordsman. He activates Devil Trigger before throwing down with Nero. Another example is Trish in the original game: When she's revealed to be working for Mundus, only Nightmare is fought, not her.
In Iron Tager's Story path of BlazBlue, he runs into Ragna after beating Hakumen, but they trade only words instead of blows.
This scenario plays out at the end of the Resistance campaign in Operation Flashpoint. Having been defeated, the enemy Big Bad, Soviet Colonel Guba, gets off scot-free and flees in a helicopter, but not before cornering and blowing up the protagonist. And that's the "good" ending! (If the player fails to destroy the bombers, every population center gets bombed into oblivion instead.)
In Call of DutyModern Warfare 2, Vladimir Makarov is originally set up as the Big Bad. Then Magnificent Bastard General Shepherd steals the limelight. The closest you get is firing on him in No Russian, which fails the mission. It is implied, however, that with his enemies closing in on him, he won't last long. In fact, he only shows up in a grand total of two missions in the game. And only one of those in person. The other you just hear his voice.
In Mass Effect 2, you fight Harbinger on multiple occasions as he possesses Collectors. However, you never fight his actual body, which resembles a cross between a Collector and a Husk Praetorian. This is because the Collector General is not his true body either. He's actually a Reaper, and the Collector General is just another shell he discards when it's no longer convenient.
The same holds true for Mass Effect 3. You spend the entire game building up a fleet to battle the Reaper forces led by Harbinger at Earth and you don't even fight him. He doesn't even have any lines! He only appears at the Conduit-like beam that leads to the Citadel and blasts Hammer as they bolt for the beam.
In the first and second House of the Dead games, the final bosses are artificial monsters created by the Mad Scientist of the episode. The maestri themselves are not up to a fight, either having been slain by their "masterpiece" immediately after its commission or doing themselves in after it's destroyed. Although, in Curien's case, you will get to fight him at the end of the third game, after being resurrected and transformed into the artificial life-form "Wheel of Fate".
Ratchet & Clank: Captain Qwark's involvement in the plot is inverse to the way he is fought.
In the first, he's The Dragon, yet only fought ship to ship.
In the second of the games he is the main villain, but not fought at all.
You finally fight him head to head in the third, yet he's barely a comic relief villain.
The eponymous Hisoutensoku of the expansion to the second Touhou Project fighter Scarlet Weather Rhapsody is never encountered or fought by the three interested in its shadow. Instead, Cirno fights Alice and a giant Shanghai doll, Sanae fights Suwako who was responsible for the event, and Meiling hallucinates about a big freaking catfish.
God of War 3 has several: Hera is killed easily in a cinema, Helios is weakened to the point where all you need is a mini-game to kill him, Hephaestus and Gaia are technically killed completely by Kratos, but in mini-games instead of full battles.
Terranigma features a Mad Scientist called Beruga who is set up as the Big Bad for quite a while. But when you track him down and are about to fight him, he just ends up killing himself by accident.
Thanks to its rushed development cycle, Turel is the only one of Kain's vampire lieutenants that Raziel does not fight in Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver — in fact, the entire third act of the game was unceremoniouslyDummied Out to set up a sequel. Fortunately, future games in the series got a chance to rectify this: Raziel fights and defeats Turel's human form in Soul Reaver 2, as well as his vampire form in Defiance, where Turel has travelled back in time and is worshipped as a pagan god in the underground catacombs of Avernus Cathedral.
Fable II'sReaver will shoot Lucien if you allow him to talk too long.
Officer Tenpenny in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas is the meanest, most manipulative son of a bitch in the game, but you never get to actually fight him. After a city-wide car chase, he ends up losing control of his truck and driving right off a bridge through a concrete barrier, just in front of CJ's home. CJ is convinced by Sweet not to drive a bullet in the man's head "just to make sure", and lets Tenpenny die of his own internal injuries.
Ray Bulgarin seems to be the perfect Big Bad for Niko in Grand Theft Auto IV, being a bigger threat and having a greater personal connection to him than Dimitri Rascalov, but he simply disappears after letting loose a group of goons on Niko and Packie in an attempt to retrieve his stolen diamonds. His fate is revealed in The Ballad Of Gay Tony, where he does serve as the Big Bad and Final Boss.
Meibisi in Rise of the Kasai is never fought in his human form; despite being invincible because he removed his heart and put it in a crystal, and having been a part of the same organization as the heroes, which would have involved being a highly trained warrior in his own right, he goes straight into One-Winged Angel mode during his boss fight, becoming the mindless avatar of his god, Kri.
MB, aka Melissa Bergman in Metroid: Other M. Justified in that a straight fight between her and Samus would've been over in seconds, given how easily a bunch of random GF Troopers were able to kill her.
Earthworm Jim 2's first boss fight ends almost as soon as it begins, when Jim eats the boss.
In the arcade game Hard Head 2, you never fight the cyclops monster that steals your girlfriend. After killing the final boss, the monster just returns the girl to you and leaves.
The arcade version of The Combatribes, a beat-'em-up by Technos, has the three main characters chasing after a generic looking man-in-suit crime boss throughout the final two stages. When the player finally confronts the boss at the end, he gets murdered by his own female bodyguard, who confronts the player as the final boss instead.
In The Punisher (Capcom), Bruno Costa (the Mafia gang boss responsible for the death of Frank Castle's family) sends out various cronies to take care of Frank Castle and Nick Fury as he makes his getaway. When the player finally confronts him in the end of the second stage, Costa gets killed by an android sent out by the Kingpin to eliminate him.
Hiruko, the fortune teller in the NES version of Double Dragon III, is never fought after she betrays the heroes. This is not the case in the arcade version, where she has a brief battle with the player before fighting the final boss.
Papa Muerte in Total Overdose is a legendary and feared underworld figure who all of Tommy's investigations have pointed to, and eventually Muerte is connected to killing Ram and Tommy's father. He's behind every mobster Ram fights, works for, or works for and then fights. A Big Bad appears out of nowhere in the last two chapters, but all that's seen of Papa Muerte is the back of his head in some distant narrative shot.
In Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey, Mastema becomes this if you're on the Neutral ending. Normally, alignment-specific characters in this franchise are fought if you oppose them; not so with this guy, even though he's angry with you for not choosing to side with the forces of Law. On the Chaos Path, Mem Aleph, the Big Bad, is your ally and thus not the Final Boss as per usual.
In Borderlands, Commandant Steele and the Crimson Lance are the main antagonists for most of the game; however, upon reaching the Vault, you don't get to fight Steele because she is impaled by an Eldritch Abomination named The Destroyer, that is, quite in fact, a Giant Space Flea from Nowhere. However, she returns in Claptrap's Robot Revolution, having been rebuilt as "Steele-Trap" and as an actual boss.
In Borderlands 2, when you go to rescue Roland from the Bloodshots, who are planning to ransom him off to the Hyperion Corporation, you're probably expecting to fight their leader Flanksteak. The game seems to really try to sell you on this guy being a big deal, so you're probably even looking forward to facing him. Instead, Hyperion decides to storm the Bloodshots' base with an army of Mecha-Mooks and capture Roland themselves, and Flanksteak, comically oblivious that the mayhem going on in his own base is not just the fault of the Vault Hunters, gets killed when he tries to offer an attacking Hyperion Loader twenty bucks for Roland.
In the first DLC expansion, Captain Scarlett and her Pirate's Booty, you get a downplayed example. While you do technically fight the titular Captain Scarlett, she's actually only marginally involved in the fight; the real enemy is her pet rakk hive. After the battle, she runs away and is never seen or heard from again, managing to use some sort of teleportation device to escape.
In the second DLC expansion, Mr. Torgue's Campaign of Carnage, Flyboy is set up as one of the competitors before Piston kills him so he can fight you.
In the third DLC, Sir Hammerlock's Big Game Hunt, Professor Nakayama dies when he trips and falls down some stairs.
In Transformers: War for Cybertron, Optimus Prime is never fought during the Decepticon Campaign (the major boss fight is against Omega Supreme) and Megatron is never fought directly during the Autobot Campaign (the end boss fight being against Trypticon). Averted in the sequel, where you can choose to play as Megatron or Optimus for the final battle and get to defeat the other in a duel.
Most of the people responsible for what happens in New York in Prototype. Peter Randall and Colonel Ian Taggart, the general of Blackwatch and leader of the Military, is killed in a cutscene by Alex, and McMullen, head of Gentex and company that developed the virus, kills himself when Alex confronts him. Justified since any normal human other than Captain Cross would have been a Zero-Effort Boss to Alex Mercer.
Homefront has Colonel Jeong, the only enemy that isn't an anonymous masked clone. He arrests you in the opening sequence and is narrowly avoided later on in the game, but after his second appearance, he is never mentioned again.
Many villains in the Batman Arkham Series never get a proper boss fight, either being taken out in a cutscene (Harley, Scarecrow, Hugo Strange), are defeated with a single stealth attack or thrown Batarang (Zsasz, Riddler, Deadshot), or both (Croc). This is particularly egregious with Hugo Strange, since he's a main antagonist and the in-game description of him includes the bulletpoint "Trained to physical perfection." That sounds like a fight! Nope.
Runescape has a few, which include, but are not limited to:
Lucien, percieved for several years to be the game's Big Bad until a new quest was released in which he is killed easily by an even more powerful enemy.
There's also Bilrach, who is revealed to have died sometime before his great work was even added to the game, with the entire game community being informed of this by a one-time-only event on every server. However, the meaning of this was unknown until a relatively recent update.
You don't really fight Iban as such, rather, players must simply run into his room and throw a Voodoo Doll of him into the Well of Voyage, killing him. He is trying to blast you with magic during this procedure, but the room is very small and it's quite possible to succeed without him hitting you once.
You don't get to fight Mother Mallum, as you are being controlled. Instead, a team of player controlled NPC's drops a pillar on her. This one caused much uproar in the community.
In Bastion, there is Zulf. Made somewhat humorous by the fact that immediately after you figure out there won't be such a fight, Rucks starts talking about how The Kid must be having a final showdown right about now.
Dragon Age II has Sister Petrice, who is killed by a Qunari archer in front of you — though she admits early on to being a non-action person, so this is perhaps unsurprising.
Viridi from Kid Icarus: Uprising. She sends her forces at Pit like the other gods, insults and tries to put him down like the other gods, and is a clear antagonist, but though a combination of an army of Giant Space Fleas from Nowhere and losing the war against another god, she and Pit eventually become allies. Even in the chapter that puts Pit up against hypothetical enemies, like Magnus, she doesn't get a boss fight. Quite strange for a character with such huge importance in the story. The most likely explanation is that she looks like a little kid, but that doesn't prevent Pit from at least threatening to attack her.
Lan-Di, the antagonist of the Shenmue series, is never fought by the player even once. The fact that Sega abandoned the series after sales failed to meet their expectations meant that Ryo Hazuki will never get to avenge his father's death anytime.
Danek Emperor Jeal in Vay. Though you do eventually come face-to-face with him once most of the Orbs are collected, his second-in-command, Prince Sadoul, kills him right in front of the party's eyes.
The varsity squad in the Mario Tennis Game Boy Color game. You get to play against Mark when he's in a Doubles match, and Emily in a Singles. But never Kevin.
You never get to fight Elise in Shining the Holy Ark, despite the fact she bathes in the blood of children to retain her beauty. You only get to fight her sister and the half-vandal Panzer. Perhaps it because was she was a powerful Vandal and to retain the fear of vandals for the sequel Shining Force III. You never get to fight Galm, either.
In Shining Force III, you never get to fight a great number of bosses, at least outside Japan. Due to the fact the game was split into three different games and only the first one was globally released, there are great scores of bad guys, monsters, and machines that are introduced and never seen by the main characters, let alone fought.
Heirophant Balbatos, the silent antagonist for the first part of the game, is never fought by the player. In the Chaotic route, he is captured by the Walister Resistance and more liberal Galgastani and executed off-screen. (However, you can view it with the Warren Report.) In the lawful route, he simply commits suicide before he gets to you.
Of the dark knights, Volaq and Balxephon are never fought in the original versions of the game. In fact, battle data for Volaq and Balxephon didn't even exist in the original versions! This was changed in the PSP version where Balxephon is one part of a Dual Boss in Chapter three, and where Volaq is an optional boss fight in chapter four.
The third Max Payne has Serrano. You get close to him, but never have a proper gunfight. The last you see of him is in a building about to collapse.
This also applies to Neves, the leader of the Crachá Preto mercenaries, who is shot by another character just before he can kill the protagonist. His second-in-command is taken out with a handful of quick time actions.
In Contra: Hard Corps, one of the four main story paths ends with an outbreak of alien organic matter, providing a distraction for the main antagonist, Colonel Bahamut, to escape to fight another day.
Chief Salamander in Contra Rebirth. Justified for plot twisting reasons.
And in Shattered Soldier, the Triumvirate.
Far Cry 2 and Far Cry 3 with the most badass mercs Jackal and Vaas. You get taken down by Cutscene Incompetence whenever you meet Jackal for one. Same thing for Vaas (apparently the Far Cry devs really love this trope), and when you finally take him down, it happens in a trippy drug/dream sequence that you aren't even sure is really happening.
Colonel Capricciola, Bubbles, and Gingerelle from Brave Fencer Musashi, despite all three being warriors. Bubbles and Gingerelle vanish about halfway through with no explanation, and Capricciola is actually Jon and is secretly helping you. It's possible that Cappricciola was to be fought at one time, as his action figure has attacks and voice-overs that aren't used elsewhere in the game. Either that, or that was done to hide the big twist later.
In Fire Emblem Awakening, there's a good chance you won't get to fight Ruger, the boss of Paralogue 9: Wings of Justice, who tricks a group of mercenaries into believing that he is Chrom, the hero of Ylisse. As soon as he recruits all of the available neutral units (or you get close enough to his position to stop his charade), he will immediately turn tail and run to the closest edge of the map, never to be seen again unless you're fast enough to catch him.
In BioShock 1, you never really fight Andrew Ryan. He basically commits suicide using your mental conditioning to bash his brain in a cutscene.
In BioShock 2, the player doesn't get to fight Sofia Lamb, but her fate can be determined by the choices they made. She will either drown or be left to live as Cruel Mercy.
Many of the named antagonists are not directly fought by the player in BioShock Infinite. Daisy Fitzroy kills Jeremiah Fink, Elizabeth kills Fitzroy, Booker DeWitt does kill the main antagonist but in a non-controllable scene, and Songbird ends up assisting the player in the final battle before being sent to die at the bottom of the ocean. Cornelius Slate is played up as a boss battle, but once you have killed his men and confront him, he's too exhausted to fight and he turns into a Cutscene Boss instead. Lady Comstock is the only named character that is actually confronted in a player-controlled battle and, as if to make up for the long list of unfought, has to be defeated three times in three equally difficult fights.
In Red Dead Redemption, John Marston spends almost the entire game hunting down Dutch Van der Linde, the leader of his old gang. But when the two men finally come face to face, Dutch commits suicide in a cutscene.
Vespanius is not fought because Augustus killed him.
Emperor Annex Zaboom is not fought because he was betrayed by Hazard, who commanded Vajra to suicide bomb themselves at his and Sharom's battleships.
Shot is not fought because he attempted take to Alto with a suicide bombing.
Secret of Mana: Emperor Vandole is the main antagonist, but he never engages the party in battle, always leaving that to his lieutenants and minions. Then he's killed off by Thanatos and it's revealed that two of the other lieutenants, Fanha and Sheex, were in on Thanatos' plan the whole time.
Triad Stone spends much of its story building up King Barroll as the villain who stole the three magic stones for himself to tyrannize the island by releasing evil monsters and disasters, and Gian repeatedly urges Ashe to go stop him. Yet in the end, Barroll is never fought or even seen during the game. The ending narration says the stones were taken back from Barroll's followers, but not how the king himself was dealt with. Instead the final battle is against Barroll's Sealed Evil in a Can predecessor, Faless the Dark King.
In Die Hard: Vendetta, Hans Gruber's son Piet is introduced at the very beginning. He is established as the main villain almost immediately, and is constantly taunting John throughout the game. Piet is killed in the next-to-last level's ending cutscene by John's daughter Lucy, leaving action star turned terrorist Jack Frontier as the final boss.
Shere Khan plays this straight in both the NES and Genesis versions of the Talespin video game. He appears in both games, but only through cutscenes. He can be fought in the less well-known Turbo-Grafx 16 game.
Ash and Giovanni finally meet and battle in the Meloetta arc of Best Wishes. However, the title of The Unfought soon passed to Virgil, who stands as the only Major Tournament Rival Ash has never faced.
At the climax of the storming of Zahard's castle by Phantaminum, Phantaminum faces off Zahard… and just leaves. Fan speculation has it that it had something to do with the fact that Zahard stopped climbing the Tower at some point.
The Chessmaster Yu Han-Sung from Season 1 is never fought. The characters just keep on climbing while he just stays on the second floor, he even bids them farewell, though there must be something with those rings he gave them.
In the Fortune Cup arc of Yu-Gi-Oh! 5Ds, Godwin hires a duelist assassin named Shira to duel Yusei; Shira has a reputation as being so intimidating that some pro duelists are known to give up the game out of fear after facing him. However, Jack Atlas' rival Mukuro Enjo crashes the event hoping to win it in order to get a rematch with Jack, mugs Shira, steals his costume, and takes his place when the duel with Yusei is about to start. Neither Yusei nor Godwin have a problem with Enjo taking Shira's place, so the fight card is quickly changed.
In The Movie version of Fist of the North Star, Kenshiro never gets to settle his old rivalry with Shin like he does in the manga and TV series. When he eventually arrives at the city of Southern Cross to fight Shin, he finds the place in ruins, and while he does briefly face Shin, Shin ends up dying instead from previously inflicted wounds he suffered from a prior off-screen battle he had with Raoh.
Dante from the 2003 version of Fullmetal Alchemist. Despite being a highly powerful alchemist in her own right, she flees from a direct confrontation with the Elric brothers at the end and ends up devoured offscreen by Gluttony after she had erased his mind.
In Clash of the Elements: The inner guardians of the Terra Cave, Frozen Palace, and Ignitor Cave count for this trope. Though their powers are given to the people who merge the Elemental Stones with themselves. This also counts as an example of The Unseen.
In the Dark World timeline of the Pony POV Series, Discord is ultimately never fought by the Elements of Harmony — when they finally confront him, Rancor literally stabs him In the Back, mortally wounding him. When the Elements find him again after that, he's on his deathbed and not a threat anymore; he dies minutes later.
In The Fifth Element, the hero and Zorg never fight or even communicate directly in any way (even though at one point they are mere meters apart). He does encounter the Action Girl, but at this point she's outgunned and has to retreat.
The main character in Jarhead is a sniper who never gets an order to fire a single shot. At the movie's climax he is finally ordered to target an enemy officer, and has him in his sights... when Command decides to just bomb the place instead.
In The Final Countdown, a strike group of U.S. Navy fighters from the carrier Nimitz are within sight of stopping the Japanese task force from attacking Pearl Harbor, but are ordered to abort the mission at the last moment.
Happens in Street Fighter. Blanka is barely fought, Cammy only takes down a mook or two and Dhalsim never does anything violent. Subverted with Ryu/Vega: It definitely builds up to it, and just as it's about to happen, Guile knocks down the wall with a tank and arrests everybody. Then, near the end of the film, Ryu+Ken/Sagat+Vega, complete with a hadouken reference.
In Iain M. Banks's The Algebraist the hero and the big bad are never even in the same star system for entirety of the book.
In The Dresden Files book Changes, the Eebs (Esmerelda and Esteban) are two ancient vampire hitmen built up through about 3/4 of the book. Finally, when it comes down to a Combat by Champion between Harry and Susan vs. the vampires' side, they fight...the Eebs' pet monster, and a random mook who gets pounded into dust in the first few seconds of the fight. And when those lose, the Eebs are killed by goblins. Given that they knew this would happen, they might have taken it a bit more seriously.
In the main action of Lord of the Rings (both the books and the Peter Jacksonmovie trilogy), Sauron himself never appears on any literal battlefield, although his Dragon the Witch-King of Angmar does. Justified by Denethor, who tells Pippin (who fears the imminent arrival of Sauron) that all great lords use others as their weapons, if they are wise. Sauron was also subject to multiple humiliating defeats whenever he fought personally, which is probably how he learned this wisdom. Ultimately, he is destroyed by action from a distance although never directly confronted. Indeed, the character who comes closest to directly encountering Sauron is Pippin, who suffers a brief Mind Rape through Sauron's Palantír. In the movie trilogy, he was planned to appear in the Battle of the Black Gate, but dropped for not fitting with the tone of the films or Tolkien's vision. He was replaced with the armoured troll Aragorn fights instead.
In the climax of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, one of the challenges to get to the Philosopher's Stone was supposed to be defeating a troll. However, the troll has already been knocked out before the heroes get there, so they just walk past it. They had already fought a troll earlier in the book, though.
In Mistborn, Lord Tevidian is High Priest of the Corrupt Church, one of the chief lieutenants of the Lord Ruler, and the father of heroine Vin. He is, in other words, exactly the kind of character you'd expect a dramatic confrontation against, but when he does show up it's only for his political rivals to frame him for treason, at which point the Lord Ruler gives them permission to kill him off messily. He never even speaks to his daughter, much less has any sort of confrontation with her.
In His Dark Materials, the Authority is set up as the ultimate source of the problems of society and the plot. But late in the series, it becomes apparent that Metatron is really calling the shots, while the Authority is the victim of a carriage crash, a stiff breeze, and his own old age.
The Council of Thirteen are the ultimate heads of the Yeerk Empire in Animorphs, but they're a mostly off-page Bigger Bad, with Visser Three (and to a lesser extent, Visser One) being the actual main enemies the Animorphs have to contend with. The Thirteen themselves only appear in one book, where they're more concerned with investigating potential treason on the Vissers' parts than actually confronting the protagonists.
In First Test, Page, and Squire, the first three books of the Protector of the Small quartet, the closest Kel has to an enduring enemy is Joren. Kel gets into fights with Joren while they are both still pages, but when he becomes a squire he stops and finds other ways to hassle her. He never challenges her to combat. According toWord of God:
If he challenges her, he admits she is entitled to equal treatment as a warrior and as a noble. He tells the world "I accept her on her terms." That he would never, ever do – and that rigidity is why he dies in the Chamber of the Ordeal. He’s so rigid in his beliefs that he can’t bend, and the Chamber breaks him.
In The Wheel of Time, Shaidar Haran is a recurring villain in the later half of the series of unknown but tremendous powers. Many fans anticipated a showdown between him and Rand at some point. But when Rand arrives at Shayol Ghul in the last book, he finds Haran already dead. It turns out that Haran was less a person in his own right and more a vessel for the Dark One's will, and at this point the Dark One's prison had been weakened enough that such a tool was no longer necessary, and Haran was discarded. Furthermore, Word of God indicates that Shaidar Haran's ability to harm those not sworn to the Dark One was always extremely limited, to the point that he might not even be able to physically touch those not so sworn, and therefore a physical confrontation with him was never really in the cards anyway.
In The Dark Tower, Roland and his ka-tet never get the final confrontation with The Dragon and King's Big Bad Flagg (Roland meets him at the end of the first book, and they have a brief encounter with him in the beginning of the fourth book). He's killed off by Roland/Crimson King's son Morded in the seventh book. Additionally, Roland doesn't really physicall interact with the Crimson King at the end either, he's erased out of existence by Patrick.
The Age of Fire series has King Gan, the leader of the snake colony in the cavern where the Copper first meets his bat companions. While he appears as though he's being set up as the Big Bad of the hatchling portion of the Copper's story, they only have two brief encounters (neither of which really counts as a fight), followed by the Copper fleeing further into the Lower World, after which Gan never shows up again.
Live Action TV
In Breaking Bad, the Salamanca twins are introduced in Season 3, coming after protagonist Walter White in revenge for the death of their cousin Tuco. Thanks to some manipulation by Walter's boss Gustavo, they end up being diverted to Walter's brother in law Hank, who actually pulled the trigger on Tuco. He kills one twin and cripples the other. Walter only encounters either of them when he sees the legless surviving twin in his hospital bed. This remaining twin is soon dispatched by Gustavo as well.
This happens on 24 on its first season. After the first hitman hired to kill Palmer fails, a lot of build-up is given to this new hitman hired to do the job, Alexei Drazen, he's both given a climatic entrance at the end of an episode, and is given a lot of build-up as to how well trained he is on special forces. He's taken out by his girlfriend via a stab wound in the stomach, and spends the rest of the show either unconscious or in a hospital bed. Eventually he dies without having fought anyone really.
The Anointed One was killed by Spike due to the actor aging out of the character (The Annoying Anointed One was a kid vampire). Buffy never fought him and he never had any real plot importance.
Drusilla, unless you count her really brief skirmish with Kendra.
Narutaki, technically speaking the main enemy of Kamen Rider Decadenote as the one responsible for most of Decade's troubles, never directly fights Decade or any of the KR allies he has made. Even in the Final Chapter movie, where Narutaki basically reforms The Remnant of Decade's old Dai-Shocker army into Super Shocker, with the help of a brainwashed Dr. Shinigami. Basically, as its top officer, Narutaki turns into what is presumably his true persona, Colonel Zol. Even in that guise, Narutaki remains in the sidelines, only ordering his troops around instead of fighting Decade.
And then apparently getting killed when the Neo-Organism Doras is released. Which he still manages to blame on Decade.
Finally subverted in Super Hero Taisen, where Narutaki takes the form of Destron commander Doktor G, revealing that this and his previous Colonel Zol form are mere disguises rather than true identities. While Narutaki did not assume the Werewolf form of the original Colonel Zol in The Last Story, he does here assume Doktor G's Kani Lazer form, which is actually a whole new costume and much more powerful than the original. In this form, he is seen being easily able to hold off around a dozen Kamen Riders via, you guessed it, lasers. He is only defeated when the Tensou Sentai Goseiger lend their new reflect cards to Decade with Blade and Ryuki, allowing them to deflect Doktor G's lasers allowing them to finish him off with their respective finishers.
Super Sentai has three ultimate Big Bads who did not receive a proper final battle: Great Doctor Lee Keflen of Flashman (the heroes caused a chain reaction that destroyed his base, killing him), Great Professor Bias of Liveman (Non Action Big Bad who never really got a chance to fight), and Captain Ryuya of Timeranger (The Chessmaster who did nothing directly; one of his pawns, Gien, became the Final Boss)
This happens many times on Merlin, most notably between Arthur and Cenred, the antagonistic king of a neighbouring kingdom. After being set up as a Worthy Opponent throughout the course of series three, Cenred is killed off by one of his own allies in a case of You Have Outlived Your Usefulness. They do have a brief scuffle in a Deleted Scene, but it still feels a bit of a waste.
Arthur never gets to confront his uncle Agravaine after he realizes that he was in cahoots with Morgana. Instead, Merlin dispatches him in a tunnel, and it's unclear whether Arthur is even told whether he's alive or dead.
In the sixth season of True Blood, Big Bad Sarah Newlin gets away after nearly killing the vampire cast, and is not shown after the six-month time skip. Time will tell if she reappears in the seventh and final season, but the average viewer wanted her dead more than Warlow.
The Captain Teneille imposter in Vaguely Recalling JoJo because he died when his ship was rammed by the plane sunk by Grey Fly.