Here we goooooooo!
Super Mario Bros (series retrospective, 1985-1995)
Finally– the series so modestly amusing it took almost five years! We’re back with an overview of the boss-fighting career of Japan’s role model to Italian-Americans everywhere. That being the eponymous…
- Mario, full name Mario Mario. An erstwhile plumber turned fantasy kingdom rescuer, in addition to being a multi-sport enthusiast, tournament fighter, go-kart racer, dubiously qualified doctor, and easily the world’s greatest overalls model. Diminutive yet powerful & agile, from a gameplay perspective Mario is, as we will soon see, most defined by his mobility; he was, after all, originally named Jumpman. Voiced, eventually, by Charles Martinet, but truly the creation of gaming legend Shigeru Miyamoto.
Let’s note a few things up front:
- This two-part retrospective will cover Mario’s main line, platforming, console games only. That means none of the handheld games, quality though they often are, as well as nothing like Smash Bros or games he’s had cameos in. There’s only so many hours in the day, guys.
- We won’t be including Donkey Kong. It’s before Mario became, well, super— the degree of control offered to players in the first SMB blows away not only Donkey Kong but pretty much every platforming game at the time, too. Also, the climactic encounter with the titular ape stretches the definition of “fight” well beyond it’s breaking point.
- I’m well aware that several of these games allow you to play as characters other than Mario, who sometimes have differing controls. I’m not grading their versions of those fights as well; please see the justification in the first bullet.
- I’m not going to include the Bob Hoskins movie, smartass.
1) Super Mario Bros
Mario Fights: Bowser, King of the Koopas. A vaguely dragon-esque monster with fire-breathing powers.
The Setup: Bowser has kidnapped Princess Peach.
The Fight: Fights, plural, depending on how you look at it. The original SMB has eight worlds, which each have four levels, and the fourth is always a dark & imposing castle with the same boss at the end. But the first seven are impostors, the real Bowser having loaned his power to a low-level minion.
Regardless, they all play out in the same basic structure, which actually begins before the boss is even in sight. As Mario approaches the end of each castle, large fireballs will start coming his way, traveling in a straight line from wherever he’d been positioned at the time the projectile entered the screen. This element is one of the reasons Super Mario Bros is still so lauded and broke such ground at a time when games’ capacity to tell stories was so much more limited: the fireballs are not just a practical hazard for the player to avoid, but a menacing sign that the hero is approaching his dangerous goal. (And in the later castles which feature some navigational tricks, they’re a sign you’re on the right track.) Soon enough you’ll reach the fighting arena, and find Bowser on the other end of a long drawbridge. He continues to breathe fire at you while pacing & jumping in a slow but unpredictable pattern.
Mario himself has limited offensive power, leaving the player to basically two ways to defeat every Bowser. If you’re skilled/lucky enough to have made it all the way through the fortress fully powered up, you can launch a few fireballs of your own until Big Ugly goes down. If not, you have to get on the other side of him (either by running under or going over him) and hit the axe he’s guarding, which cuts the drawbridge and sends the boss falling to his fiery doom. Game journalist Chris Kohler has pointed out that while Bowser’s facial expression never changes, the same wide leer on his face that was intimidating at the beginning of the fight turns comically pathetic when you see him briefly suspended in mid-air like Wile E Coyote before he falls– again, early game designers had to convey a lot using very little. In another nice touch, you won’t get to see the illusion revealed (the specific underling who’s filling in for the king) unless you use your own fireballs to kill him.
It’s not so simple, of course. The first couple tries are basically gimmes, with even a floating platform above Bowser to help you get past him. But as you progress through the game, the fight gets increasingly hazardous: the platform disappears, bricks are above your head to limit jumping, there’s a rotating fire pole on the far end, etc. By the sixth iteration, the Bowsers are throwing whole cascades of hammers at Mario in an arc.
Getting past the guy requires mastery of Mario’s momentum and a keen sense of timing. Or having kept at least one power-up, running right into him, and then using the invincibility frames to walk past him, if you are a coward.
Yep, you fight the same thing eight times in a row, assuming you don’t warp. (Warping is not for cowards. Again: time is precious, people.) But each fight makes excellent, and iterative, use of limited assets. The presentation is excellent, building a fittingly intimidating atmosphere. And getting through it means mastering Mario’s limited move set.
2) Super Mario Bros 2 (Japanese original, aka The Lost Levels)
I’m not going to cover this garbage game.
3) Super Mario Bros 2 (USA version)
The aforementioned garbage game barely had any involvement from Miyamoto and its design principle was basically “what if the original game, except not fun?” By the time Nintendo games were being slowly brought over to the U.S., the company decided to ditch that noise and apply the Mario characters (along with a few other significant tweaks) to a non-Mario game called Dream Factory: Heart-Beating Panic, itself created as a promotional tie-in to a legendary media technology expo & festival that’s quite fascinating in its own right. The resulting game had a whole different aesthetic and mechanic than the real sequel as well as the subsequent ones, but it’s also certainly more successful than bringing over that one would have been, and– most importantly– much more fun. U-S-A! U-S-A!
(It should be noted that at the time, this sort of thing wasn’t unheard of for sequels to big games. Look at the radical departures in play style between the first & second Legend of Zelda or Castlevania games. Formulas weren’t set in stone yet.)
Mario Fights: Wart, a rotund bipedal frog who shares my distaste for vegetables. Originally known as Mamu, as in “your Mamu so fat, she look like the bad guy in a Mario game.”
The Setup: Wart has conquered the kingdom of Subcon, a dreamlike land with a vaguely Arabian theme. Mario & company embark on a campaign to systematically (or, again, not so systematically if you warp) take down all his henchmen throughout seven worlds before finally facing off against the big toad himself. Also it’s all a dream anyway.
The Fight: Wart is situated in an odd but visually striking chamber, with phantom masks lining the walls and the world’s healthiest pipe organ in the center. He waddles back & forth on a raised platform on the far right, occasionally spitting out a stream of toxic bubbles at the hero.
Fortunately, he provides the player with ample weaponry, in the form of vegetables being spouted regularly from the aforementioned pipes. Cram a handful of those disgusting things down his throat, and he’s toast.
It’s not quite so simple, though: the vegetables will be dissolved if they come into contact with the bubbles, and the bubble-spewings & vegetable-launchings will frequently line up in such a way so that happens before you can even grab one. Or they don’t get dissolved, but Mario can’t reach them because the bubbles will block his path. And of course the only time Wart’s mouth is open is when he attacks, so your timing has to be pretty good.
When he finally bites the big one, Wart turns grey and tumbles off the screen, leaving Mario and pals to free the Subcon. Afterwards, as the heroes exult in their victory, the liberated masses crowd-surf an already battered Wart for some offscreen revolutionary violence.
Environmentally, this doesn’t quite work. It makes sense for Bowser to have a drawbridge in all of his castles, even if it doesn’t for him to stand on it so precariously and hope no visitors have seen the climax of Temple of Doom. But Wart situating himself in a chamber that’s regularly churning out the thing he’s weakest to? Kinda silly. But his chamber is impressively weird, and the short musical loop is just nerve-jangling enough to not get annoying (and is even better in the Japanese original, thanks to the Famicom Disk System’s superior audio channels).
It comes down to a test not just of the player’s platforming reflexes, but also in having mastered the game’s new throwing mechanic. It also throws in the extra curveball of the veggies having to be plucked from mid-air, rather than removed from the ground.
A fun and compact little challenge, but a bit underwhelming as a final boss, especially in comparison to Bowser’s overall presentation.
4) Super Mario Bros 3
Mario Fights: Back to Bowser, who returns for pretty much the long haul at this point.
The Setup: Bowser dispatched his minions to ravage seven other sub-kingdoms and magically disfigure their rulers. Then he kidnapped Princess Peach.
The Fight: In a nod to the original, the approach to the showdown features a return to those menacing fireballs, although this time Bowser’s in a separate room you have to access by a door so where the heck are they coming from? I’m beginning to think these games aren’t very realistic.
This time, the big guy’s got more than fireballs up his sleeve. Bowser’s primary offensive capability is now his mobility. After tossing off a few projectiles, he’ll quickly jump to wherever Mario is standing and then even more quickly slam down to the ground. You have to think fast, because if you’re too far to one side the only way to get out of Bowser’s path will be to jump toward him just as he’s jumping at you. Plus, the boss will all too frequently shoot another fireball just as he leaps, making it so you’re avoiding a projectile at the same time.
But Bowser’s newfound speed & strength are also his downfall (literally). There are study support columns on either side of the chamber, but the majority of the arena is made of bricks that Bowser will break when he lands. In addition to progressively complicating the battle by altering your footing at every turn, the player will quickly realize that the goal is to get Bowser to break enough unsupported blocks in the middle until he plows right through the bottom and plummets to his demise with a satisfying thud.
Alternately, if you’re good enough to make it to the arena with a Fire Flower suit or the much rarer Hammer Brother suit (both difficult, since the platforming in the castle cries out for the racoon tail’s steadying hand) you can take out the big guy much more quickly with projectiles of your own.
It’s nice to see a return to form here, with gravity being your default weapon against Bowser. The sprite design & animation on him is top-notch this time out, and the music is a blast. This will be the last time in a while this silly cartoon dragon-thing will actually seem genuinely evil & dangerous– an even more impressive feat considering he’s trying to hit you with his butt.
But certain things are lacking as well. Aside from the way Bowser’s stomps keep changing the terrain, the actual arena is pretty non-descript, and the mechanics of the fight don’t really utilize the innovations of SMB3 in any notable way. This is serviceable and fun, but nothing ground-breaking.
5) Super Mario World
Mario Fights: Bowser
The Setup: Bowser went to a new kingdom called Dinosaur Land and imprisoned a lot of the residents in eggs. Then he kidnapped Princess Peach.
The Fight: After getting through all of the big guy’s multiple-choice castle, Mario will have to thread his way through a dimly lit staging area before he finds himself facing off with Bowser up on the roof. The preliminary fireballs are sadly no more, but that’s not all that’s changed.
Yep, the King of Koopas has decided to go all-in on a weaponized, inverted helicopter that is also a clown. Clowns don’t fit Bowser’s own personal aesthetic or really anything else in the game, but these are the things you just quietly roll with when you’re playing this as a kid. The vehicle is officially known as the Koopa Clown Car, and it seems at first that they missed an opportunity to do that thing where they deliberately misspell the next two words to make them start with K for wacky matching purposes (e.g., “X-treme X-Men”) until you remember how acronyms work.
But what they ditched in coherence (and musical quality) they made up for in complexity, because this boss fight comes in multiple stages. In the first, Bowser swoops down low enough to hurt you only if you’re jumping, and will periodically drop two Mechakoopas down at Mario as an additional hazard. Mario can first neutralize these by jumping on their heads and then, in a move the bad guy really should have foreseen, throw them right back at Bowser for damage. It’s not exactly easy: if the projectile hits the underside of the clown car it’ll bounce right back, so you have to time & angle your throw just right so that it falls on his head as it comes back down. (Or line it up just right so it hits his face without touching the vehicle, if you’re a real sharpshooter.)
After a couple hits, Bowser will rear back and come flying forward right “into” the screen before disappearing, with Nintendo showing off their new system’s fancy Mode 7 tech. He’ll drop a series of flames while he’s gone, and then return for another round. In the second face he stays up high and will regularly stop to turn the KCC upside down and drop an enormous steel ball that’s somehow bigger than the vehicle that had been carrying it. Those are easy enough to dodge, but doing so while also angling your Mechakoopa throws can be a pain.
(In between phases, the captive Princess Peach will briefly break free from somewhere deep in the TARDIS-like clown car and toss a super mushroom to Mario regardless of whether he needs it. So it’s nice she gets to contribute a little bit, even if she was apparently stashed somewhere by Bowser’s stinky feet and an unlimited supply of Indiana Jones’ second-worst nightmare.)
In the third stage, the KCC’s serene paint job will turn angry, and start bouncing up & down at severe but predictable angles, which has gotta be a real pisser on the suspension. Bowser’s not mad enough to stop throwing Mechakoopas though, so if you can keep up with the pace, in just a couple more hits he’ll go down for the count, leaving Mario and his lady friend to go take a stroll through Yoshi’s world in peace.
For the fourth time now, a Mario game has concluded with a boss fight in a single-screen room, and that gets harder to accept as the games themselves get more expansive and mobile. And unusually, any power-ups Mario has retained don’t really play a part in this: the only way to hurt Bowser is via the ammo he provides. The fight’s emphasis on verticality and its use of Mario’s new ability to throw projectiles upward are its only major innovations.
Also, those Mechakoopas look so thin that one dropping on your head would be a mild annoyance, at best.
6) Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island
This prequel is only barely a Mario game, since you actually play as Yoshi for virtually all of it (with baby Mario in tow) and in Japan it wasn’t even labeled as a Super Mario World sequel. But I choose to include it because that’s the level of dedication I have for all my fans, including the Patrons I can currently count on zero fingers. Also because the game low-key rules.
Mario Yoshi Fights: Bowser… in toddler form.
The Setup: Mario’s future rival isn’t actually much of a force for the majority of the game; the main threat is his servant/caretaker Kamek, a Magikoopa who orchestrated the successful kidnapping of Mario’s brother Luigi. So it’s actually a bit of a surprise when, after a tribe of Yoshis has finished round-robining their way through a series of Crayola-ass levels escorting baby Mario to his hapless brother, the final Yoshi enters Kamek’s lair and disturbs the nap of a spoiled little boy Bowser.
The young king dismisses Kamek rather forcefully for trying to rein him in, and initiates a fight because HE wants to be the one to ride Yoshi. This is not only weirdly hilarious, but it’s also another perfect fusion of gameplay & story: it fits Bowser’s character because it’s the actions of a spoiled brat, and it’s also mechanically threatening because baby Mario is exposed to harm when he’s separated from Yoshi’s back (in this game, the player-controlled Yoshi can’t be killed by enemies, but touching a hazard will displace Mario, who will be snatched by enemies if he’s not retrieved quickly enough, thus causing a “death” for the player).
The Fight: And he gets right to it! Bowser sets off the fight by leaping through the air and slamming himself down on Yoshi’s back. He looks pleased as hell until you can throw him off by grabbing baby Mario back, and little Bowser will try again. This is actually his main attack for this stage of the fight, and it’s brilliant not just because of how it retroactively foreshadows his moveset for SMB3, but also positions him as an equal to Yoshi, who can use a similar buttstomp.
That’s actually the way to beat him here, too– Yoshi’s supply of projectile eggs just bounce off lil’ Bowser’s tough face, and jumping on him just makes him pause. But when either hero or villain stomps on this soft floor, it will send ripples in either direction, and timing them just right will cause damage to the villain’s soft tummy. Do this enough times and he goes down, but by then Kamek has recovered and gives his liege a crucial assist: the same enlarging spell he’s been casting over all the “normal” minions at the end of each sub-world to provide the player a boss about as big as a truck. A seemingly more potent spell than usual, too, because this time it grows the little brat to kaiju size and he trashes the castle everyone was standing in.
Big Boy Bowser starts off in the distance, not on the same vertical or horizontal plane this time, and slowly advances forward. His initial attack drops a few boulders which eliminate chunks of the ground, and later on he’ll do it again to leave you with increasingly less room to stand. Every few steps he’ll stop and breathe out some off fireballs (they’re back!), which, due to the combatants’ positioning, come at both Yoshi and the “camera.”
Yoshi hurts Bratzilla by launching some conveniently supplied jumbo eggs at his face, which is more difficult than you might think: you have to get the arc of your shots just right, and his walking can throw off your timing, as can having to dodge projectiles and boulders. Each shot will push him back a bit, but he always rallies and will always rush up very close to the heroes before the fight ends.
Hard to overstate how brilliantly this all comes together. Bowser starting off in the distance and slowly getting bigger, while still being an actual sprite with a hitbox and everything, was at the time a much more technically impressive feat than you might realize. Unlike a lot of early SNES games which used their new capabilities just as a bit of visual flash and nothing else (e.g., the way SMW’s Koopa Clown Car would depart the screen), this uses the graphical tricks in service of the gameplay and overall presentation: the boss’ sheer size is established immediately, and he only gets scarier as he approaches. Launching projectiles at him along the same axis brings a new element to the table.
The bigger enemy, bigger eggs, and faux-3D all make the encounter feel grander and more powerful, even though fundamentally the fight is still just a test of the same skills you’ve been practicing throughout the game. Between the two stages of the battle, there’s no significant mechanic in the game which doesn’t get used. This is exactly how a boss fight should work: building on what you’ve done already while dramatically raising the stakes. And Yoshi’s Island ingeniously deploys its relatively limited tech to pull that off perfectly.
Strangely for a fight in which Mario himself is only a spectator, this is easily the most impressive Super Mario boss fight to date.
That’s a natural enough stopping place for part one. Cumulatively these games represent a big part of many gamers’ formative experiences, and it’s always interesting to look back at those with a critical eye. Thoughts on the franchise overall will come later.
By the way, now that you’re here, don’t be shy about going to my new Patreon. The site is a joy, but it’s a draining one, and any amount you can spare would be a big help.
Coming Attractions: Welcome to the third dimension.