Super Mario Boss Fights (retrospective, 1996 – Present)

My man’s back, and he’s got polygons for days.

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Super Mario Bros (series retrospective, 1996 – Present)

While the N64-era was where Nintendo’s console dominance finally cracked, it would have gone far worse for them without the legendary success of Super Mario 64, which came to define 3D platforming just as its predecessors had defined the 2D version. The franchise was also re-defining itself, finding innovative new answers to what “beating” a stage looks like when said stage is a much more open, interactive environment. And it would continue to do so in the years that followed.

This half of the material may not be quite as satisfying, as I’ve played far fewer of these and am just going by what I can find online. We work with what we have.

1) Super Mario 64

Mario Fights: Bowser, now rendered in all his blocky glory

The Setup: Bowser has kidnapped Princess Peach, right when Mario was about to eat her cake.

Actually this time, Bowser has occupied the castle of the Mushroom Kingdom itself, and has fortified himself with the magic of the Power Stars located within it. (It’s unclear what advantage this magic gives him, since he more or less does what he always does.)

Getting to each fight is arguably more fun than the fights themselves, because each Bowser stage is a delightful platforming challenge played out on some wonderfully nonsensical geometric obstacle course. They also have better music.

The Fight(s): Yep, plural fights once again, though thankfully this time it’s three and not eight. After completing each Bowser level, you’ll confront him in a large, circular arena, where he’ll lumber toward you and actually exchange some dialogue for the first time (first time as an adult anyway. Baby Bowser was all about vocalizing his needs), which manifests in cartoon villainy so cocky he literally tells you exactly how to beat him.

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Weird flex but okay

Bowser can breathe both his old fireballs and a much more drawn-out fire breath that can be hard to avoid if you’re in front of him. Of course the idea, as he so subtly hints at in his dialogue, is to get around behind him and seize him by the tail. It’s not a complete gimme, because the big guy can rotate fairly easily as well, but in the first fight it’s a cinch to get on his six even if you don’t wait for him to pause and use that dragon breath on you.

After grabbing that ugly appendage, the player needs to spin him around by rotating the new console’s analogue stick, then fling him into one of the explosive-filled, spiky balls surrounding the arena. It takes some getting used to: the distance & direction Bowser goes is dependent on how much momentum you’ve built up (my goodness, the way this series trailblazed the art of gaming physics) and the angle he’s at when you release him. Go too short and he’ll just get back up none the worse for wear; throw him off the platform entirely and he’ll bounce right back up. He’s at least finally conquered the gravity problem that plagued him earlier.

All it takes is one good shot to send him scurrying, but the next two tries get more complicated. Bowser gets increasingly responsive to your moves so it’s harder to get around him. He even comes up with a few moves of his own, like the return of his jump-buttstomp combo that will either tilt the entire arena almost on its side (in the second fight) or send deadly shockwaves everywhere (in the third).

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The arenas themselves get bigger, and the last part of the final showdown sees much of the ground fall away and leave you with less room to maneuver and more of a challenge to aim your tosses (otherwise, a lazy player can lure Bowser close enough to one of the explosives that aiming isn’t an issue).

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In that third match, he’ll require three hits before he finally wises up and takes the L… for a couple more years, at least.

From a mechanical standpoint, these fights are firing on all cylinders. While it’s true that there’s virtually nothing in Bowser’s moveset that we haven’t seen before, the deployment of it and reaction to it in 3D just explores the space like a hyped-up Gene Frenkle. Mario is truly fighting in all 360 degrees here: you have to outwit Bowser’s own increasingly sharp turns, and then launch him with a precision borne out of mastering that new controller. The tilting arena makes you run faster to keep from sliding away, and dodging the impact waves requires exact timing with those jumps.

Since the fights get tougher & more complex, each battle trains you for the next. (And you actually get a bit of training for the first one from a somewhat similar fight with King Bob-Omb in the first painting you enter). Game journalist Tim Rogers once said that most Mario boss battles could use an “OK, I get it” button, because they’re just about waiting out certain patterns over & over for your opportunity, but that’s not the case here: if you’re good enough, all these fights can be over about as quickly as you want.

The only place it suffers a bit is in the presentation.  Most of the arenas are kind of ugly, and the music is just bleh. There was a fun novelty in seeing Bowser in the third dimension, and even now his blocky polygons have a cheesy charm, albeit one that hasn’t aged even as well as the rest of the game. Once again, he isn’t “scary” here, even by the standards of the medium, and he won’t be again for a while.

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Then you might want to find a different hobby, buddy

Regardless, it’s an outstanding & revolutionary achievement in an outstanding & revolutionary game.

Grade: A-

2) Super Mario Bros Sunshine

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Mario Fights: Bowser, who’s bigger than ever (this is the “look” he’ll maintain through the rest of the series), as well as his bratty spawn

The Setup: Bowser has… not kidnapped Princess Peach. This time, it was his heretofore unseen child, Bowser Jr, who first disrupted by Mario & Peach’s tropical vacation by impersonating him while going on a vandalism spree, and then later kidnapping Peach himself under the mistaken impression that Peach is his mother.

Since Bowser doesn’t show up until the very end of the game, it can be inferred that he did not sanction this mission but he sure seems to condone it. You can tell when you come across the three of them in a giant floating bathtub above a volcano, as one does.

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“‘Stop a-being a plumber,’ they a-said. ‘You won’t have to see weird-a shit in people’s bathrooms,’ they a-said”

The Fight: Bowser remains comfy in his tub the whole time (relatable) and relies almost entirely on his trusty fire breath to take out Mario. Bowser Jr is also there to fire off large homing Bullet Bills at irregular intervals.

There’s exactly one way to beat the pair, and it’s by taking out the tub they’re both sitting in. Mario accomplishes this by going to one of the corners of the five load-bearing ends of the tub, using the rocket functionality of his water pack (the game’s major innovation) to gain enough altitude, and then slamming forcefully back down on a conveniently labeled target.

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OK, I get it

Doing so will slowly crumble that portion away as well as splash around a bunch of hot water, so that’s one more hazard to avoid (Bowser will sometimes deliberately rock the tub on his own in an attempt to splash you). As you navigate around the circular tub, Bowser will occasionally breathe some sustained fire your way, which you have to avoid with another smartly timed rocket boost. Slam every designated space, and you win.

There’s really not much to this fight. You have to watch your footing a good bit, but the skill required is moderate and the ingenuity is almost nil. It uses verticality in a grander way that SM64 did, but nothing groundbreaking. It’s even somewhat disappointing that the FLUDD Pack’s Rocket function is the one required, because it’s the least fun and dynamic of them all.

Environmentally, there’s some tie-in because of the game’s big focus on water. But a bathtub specifically doesn’t really scream “tropical vacation,” does it?

This game is underrated, but as far as this fight goes, it’s rated about right.

Grade: C

3) Super Mario Galaxy

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Mario Fights: Bowser

The Setup: Bowser has kidnapped Princess Peach. Also, there’s some stuff about space or whatever. I never had a Wii and didn’t play this one.

The presence of Bowser Jr (noticeably larger but not older, and certainly no less annoying) firing some cannons at your approach gives the impression that he’ll join in the battle, but he doesn’t. He just makes for a suitably bombastic approach as Mario draws near for the face-off.

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The Fight: After some bluster, the rivals blast off to a nearby planetoid for battle. He returns to an old standby of stomping to create shockwaves, then promptly tucks up into a ball and begins rolling his fat spiky ass over the big rock.

The way to beat him is via Mario’s primary attack for this new game, the spin. Time it just right and your spin will knock Bowser off his course. Let the attack cycle go on long enough and he’ll stomp again, with an occasional wide dispersals of fireballs.

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After a few hits, the pair will get blasted off to a separate planetoid, and then yet another one a few more hits after that (there’s almost certainly a very boring grad school paper somewhere about the deeper theological meanings of video game designers’ obsession with things happening in three instances. “Echoes of the Trinity in Post-Colonial Japanese Design” or some such). Each new location is roughly the same size but with different hazards & appearance.

Not much else to it. It’s simple and largely repetitive, yet quick & lively. The setting is perfectly in tune with the rest of the game, and it makes use of the game’s new gravity-based mechanic that let you run around the surfaces of these tiny planets. Also, the music is surprisingly epic.

Speaking of which, you cap off the fight by chucking Bowser into [checks notes] the sun.

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He shows up fine literally five minutes later.

Grade: B-

4) New Super Mario Bros Wii

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Mario Fights: Bowser

The Setup: Bowser has kidnapped Princess Peach.

Except this time it’s in 2D again. NSMB Wii was a continuation of a handheld predecessor’s then-novel idea to take the franchise back to its roots, with a shiny coat of paint and a lot of new innovations.

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Such innovations include a LOT of fireballs in the lead-up, rather than one at a time.

The Fight: The fight looks even more retro than you’d expect, since you’re facing off with a scaled-down Bowser atop a drawbridge at the end of a castle. And rather than being in the next room, Peach is bundled up in a cage at the top of the screen.

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A switch block instead of an axe? Get your shit together, 2009.

Bowser lumbers back & forth and lobs fireballs. He’ll take an occasional jump, which is your cue to rush under him and release the drawbridge so he can plummet into the lava below.

If you find this suspiciously easy, well, you’re right, because after Bowser takes his trademark plunge, “Peach” is revealed to be Kamek in disguise. He casts his trademark spell to revive & enlarge Bowser. (As an aside, the Venn Diagram of “players who were genuinely surprised that this stage of the fight was just a prelude” and “players who are old enough to recognize the prelude is a throwback to SMB1” doesn’t exist.)

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With Bowser embiggened to his Yoshi’s Island scale, the player can’t do much to hurt him, and instead is forced to run from his steady approach. His fireballs’ ability to destroy the scenery ends up as both a danger and a necessary blessing, because they’ll break down the walls you need to get through to escape from him. The big hops he makes to keep up with Mario will also make big splashes in the lava, making another thing to avoid.

The villain becomes less of an adversary and more of a hazard– Mario spends the rest of the “fight” running away from him & dodging his attacks on a new series of platforms. The remainder of the stage is almost too generous with power-ups (two fire flowers & a propeller suit, in addition to a 1-Up), but still tricky.

At the end you’ll find the real Peach, suspended over an all-too-big switch block that will drain the lava swamp and put Bowser down.

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“I should really stop installing those.”

It’s disappointing that there’s less of a give-and-take here with Bowser than ever; you just hit a switch at the end of a level. Of course, at the end of the day all video game challenges are about hitting the right combination of buttons, so fundamentally this isn’t different than throwing eggs at him or dodging him until he breaks his own floor. It’s all about layers of abstraction.

But Mario being chased throughout half a level’s worth of screens increases the scope of the battle in a way that the series hadn’t really tried yet. It brings the game’s platforming core forward in an even more major way, and also makes Bowser a legitimate threat again. Overall it’s a good way to revisit the original Bowser showdown, while increasing the scale and flipping the script.

Grade: B

5) Super Mario Galaxy 2

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Mario Fights: Bowser

The Setup: Bowser has kidnapped Princess Peach. In space, again.

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The not-so-final frontier.

The Fight: Due to some space-related powers he acquired earlier, Bowser is large and in charge right from the beginning– no Magikoopa assist necessary. This changes the dynamic of the last Mario Galaxy showdown significantly: hero & villain square off on a planetoid once again, but no longer are they on it together. This time, Mario is on the big sphere alone and Bowser, too large to set foot on it, floats out in “space” and tries to smite him from above like an angry god.

It’s cool as hell.

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Fire & Fury

The big guy punches and blasts the very ground Mario walks on, creating even more shockwaves to be avoided. Additionally, large meteors will rain down with only a few seconds’ worth of warning. As you’ve probably guessed from the pattern of these games, these projectiles can be turned in your favor: Bowser’s strikes will briefly dislodge any recent meteorites, allowing Mario a brief window in which to jump on them at the right angle and butt-stomp quickly, rocketing them his way.

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A few rounds of this leads to Bowser’s seeming defeat, but he rallies and takes the fight out into open space. Chasing Mario through the vacuum, Bowser is once again vulnerable to weaponized asteroid chunks that the hero passes by. Expert timing is required to aim them just right, even as hazards seem to have decreased (Bowser will occasionally take a swing if he gets close enough).

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If anything, this makes the battle seem more abstract and elemental. Little more than the two eternal foes and gravity (or the lack thereof).

It doesn’t take many more hits before Bowser is done for reals, and goes whimpering off to his own sad corner of the galaxy.

This fight does a lot of interesting things. It unmistakably recalls the showdown from the last SMG game, but alters & escalates the nature of the fight so much that it feels truly special, rather than just a harder retread. The first part of the confrontation is exciting on both a presentation and gameplay level, making for a lot of frenzied-but-fair movement to survive.

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I’ve never bought in to the whole “sympathetic villain” trope but that last line hit me hard.

The second phase of the fight pulls back on the difficulty while still not seeming underwhelming; if anything, it seems like a smooth and perfect dessert to the wild button-mashing of the main course. Neither half of the battle overstays its welcome, either.

Grade: A-

6) New Super Mario Bros U

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Mario Fights: Bowser, and Bowser Jr once again

The Setup: Bowser has kidnapped Princess Peach

The Fight: This will, at least at first, look very familiar if you played the last New Super Mario Bros console game. Mario traverses Bowser’s final castle (this time avoiding the recurring hazard of Bowser Jr in his dad’s clown car most of the way), and meets up with him upon a stylized reproduction of the classic drawbridge. At least there’s an actual axe this time.

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Multiple layers of deja vu going on here.

You have your “fight” against Bowser, which, again, is really just as simple as running under his very first jump and releasing the bridge. Then in a completely unforeseeable plot twist, Kamek (flown in this time by Bowser Jr) shows up and does his magical mojo to Godzilla-ize his boss again.

But there’s no running away like the last 2D encounter– Bowser’s blocking your path, with Peach trapped just a little ways off in the background. Going to be a straight-fight this time. Little BJ’s in the mix as well, flying around and tossing Bob-ombs.

Fortunately, the annoying one provides your primary weapon against his dad (Mario’s own projectile attacks will only briefly pause him). Wait for the brat to get close enough, and you can jump on him and steal his clown car for your own.

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Fly above Bowser’s head and thrusting downwards will give him a big hurt. You’ll have to be careful though, because Bowser’s enormous mass is a real hazard– he’s slow-moving but huge enough it doesn’t matter, and if you don’t time it right his leaps can be a real problem. In-between attacks he’ll retreat into his shell and spin back & forth around the arena (much bigger than a single screen), which is a new one.

And of course the fire-breathing is back. This time he can send out long drags of flame, discrete projectiles (which can be mitigated with the Ice Flower power-up), or most annoying of all, a scatter shot he sends straight into the air that then drift lazily down to the floor, impeding Mario’s movement.

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Towards the end he even gets wise to Mario’s plan, and will sometimes launch a protective spread of fireballs as you approach him in the clown car. While you’re avoiding those you need to keep an eye on Bowser Jr, who can reclaim his vehicle with a well-placed jump.

A handful of clown car haymakers puts Bowser out of commission again, though, and sends BJ scurrying.

Much like the Galaxy series, the latest NSMB explicitly plays with and escalates what its predecessor did, though it alters the dynamic in a major way. They actually found an ingenious idea to bring back Bowser’s scale and menace from NSMB Wii but also make the encounter a genuine fight, a platforming boss encounter with a real sense of give & take. And arguably the most narratively defensible excuse for Mario’s endless supply of ammunition.

Grade: A-

7) Super Mario 3D World

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Mario Fights: Bowser

The Setup: Bowser has NOT kidnapped Princess Peach; she actually remains free and fully playable throughout this adventure. Instead he kidnapped a bunch of small, fairy-like creatures called the Sprixie Princesses.

This was another interesting game I never played. It’s a follow-up to the 3DS game Super Mario 3D Land (which I did play). Both steer the franchise further away from the Super Mario 64/Sunshine era’s open level design, and back towards much smaller levels in a 3D space, often with a fixed perspective. Both also feature expansive Bowser fights where the boss utilizes the game’s signature power-up.

The Fight: This is another game where you fight Bowser multiple times throughout the course of it. The first two are similar, with the second adding a bunch of hazards. They consist entirely of you chasing Bowser behind his big flashy muscle car in auto-scrolling stages.

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It’s a look.

The villain tosses out bombs shaped like soccer balls (for some reason), which the player has to hit back until the fight ends. In-between rounds of that he’ll breathe fire at you. Fun idea, lackluster execution.

The third is radically different. Bowser opens the encounter by partaking of the game’s new power-up, the Cat Suit. Nintendo could only make us hate Bowser again by turning him into a furry.

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This is also a look.

He follows this up by, in true cat fashion, running away. The remainder of the fight takes place in a vertically auto-scrolling fashion, with Mario and his crew scaling up Bowser’s tower and avoiding his unexpected attacks along the way. He’ll pop in & out of doors and so forth. A lot of it seems to require memorization rather than quick reflexes.

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Eventually you’ll get to a plateau, where Bowser will obligingly step atop a POW block for you to get under and bash, hurting him. The battle then escalates with even more complicated platforming and faster scrolling, along with a lot rides in transparent tubing. Bowser even uses another of the game’s new power-ups to create clones of himself.

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If you ever went to an older bank’s drive-through with the pneumatic tubes and thought “I wish this were a video game” then boy are you in luck

Eventually you’ll get to the top of the tower where Bowser is, once again, standing atop a POW block. Bash it a few times and he’d done for.

Honestly a pretty disappointing effort. This strongly recalls the non-fighting “fight” that concluded New Super Mario Bros Wii, but without any of the novelty, logic, or sense of danger. There’s some nice visuals and a lot of promise in the idea of verticality playing into a boss fight, but it’s not implemented in a genuinely cool way. Bit of a dud.

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Some pretty fireworks, though.

Grade: C

8) Super Mario Odyssey

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Mario Fights: Bowser

The Setup: Bowser has kidnapped Princess Peach AND a sentient tiara, necessitating said tiara’s brother, Cappy, to team up with Mario on a world-spanning rescue mission which triumphantly returns to the open world sandbox of generations past.

The introduction of Cappy (a multi-purpose, shape-shifting projectile which allows Mario to control the bodies of most enemies and several other characters) is arguably the biggest mechanical change in the franchise since it first moved to 3D, yet it never feels like something unnatural to the series. Odyssey is an innovative delight.

The Fight: Not content to merely kidnap Peach and just wait around at home with her this time, Bowser actually has a full-scale wedding in mind, and Mario interrupts it in dramatic fashion.

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“Yes, I have-a the objection!”

True to form this isn’t actually your first bout with Bowser in the game, and it initially plays out much the same as the initial one. The villain uses his own magical hat for direct offense, largely by having it sprout boxing glove-equipped arms and throwing it at as a smart projectile. In classic Bowser style, though, this backfires: a well-timed Cappy throw from Mario will daze Bowser’s hat and leave it free for the taking, allowing you to turn the tables on its owner.

It’s weirdly satisfying: after finding countless different roundabout or oddball ways to hurt Bowser, you’re finally just straight-up punching him in the face.

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“I should’ve a-done this 32 years ago!”

(In a fun new touch, the red mane at the top of Bowser’s head falls lazily to one side whenever he loses his headgear, making him look like just another guy with messy hat hair.)

He immediately recognizes the danger when you seize his weapon though, and will start frantically hopping around, dispensing flame rings and throwing projectiles to try to get you to keep your distance. Even when you do reach Bowser, he puts up a very boxer-ish defensive stance that you have to loosen up with rapid fire blows, often more than one volley. In-between barrages he’ll start generating more rings of flame, until you can finally get his guard down enough to send him flying.

The king will always regain his hat afterward, and makes things harder by generating multiple copies of his hat for subsequent throws; obviously, only the correct one can be used by Mario (although the copies do provide extra hearts when dispatched, which is nice).

You know the drill: about three rounds of this will knock Bowser out and free Peach. But of course that’s not the end of it: Bowser’s defeat causes the underground moon cavern (!) they were fighting in to start collapsing, with no apparent way out for hero & damsel. Except for using the delightfully obvious solution of using Cappy to possess the unconscious Bowser and use his bulk to bash your way out.

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“It’s… a-me?”

It’s almost hilariously empowering, while still utterly natural: of course you would end up using the game’s new signature mechanic to, after three decades of being overmatched against it, take Bowser’s hideous strength as your own.

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In King Koopa’s skin you can easily break down walls with claw swipes or charging tackles, as well as shoot fireballs of your own. You spend a short while tearing down barriers with Peach in tow, before changing things up. For one, you end up having to pass through one of the “retro pipes” which have popped up periodically throughout the game to temporarily return Mario to a facsimile of his 8-bit persona.

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Of course their sprites look like this when you enter. Of course. My goodness, this game rules.

At many points during this escape, parts of the ground will start disappearing, thus urging on your forward momentum. Once you emerge higher, you’ll have to knock down a few load-bearing pillars so you can free up a transportation node to get you to the surface. As you’re doing this, an honest-to-goodness song starts playing on the soundtrack, one which will continue through to the following cut scene that ends the game. It’s called “Break Free (Lead The Way)” and is sung by Kate Higgins, who voiced Mario’s friendly ex Pauline and also sung the game’s other song, the signature jazz riff “Jump Up, Super Star.” Like much about Odyssey, it shouldn’t work but does, with flying colors. It’s joyous and liberating and fresh, perfectly fitting the mood of the sequence.

The portion of the actual battle against Bowser is perfectly solid– tough but fair challenge, uses the game’s signature moveset in an interesting way, etc– but possessing him with Cappy and everything that follows takes the climax to a whole other level. If there’s one regret it’s that you don’t really get to use the Koopa King’s strength to thrash some real enemies, but even without that there’s plenty of destruction to go around. In this and all other ways, Odyssey absolutely soars.

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Grade: A

Final Thoughts: Despite his bulk, Bowser seems weirdly insecure about his native power set (among which there is a lot of recurrence), perpetually relying on some external assistance– be it a smart hat, some sort of nebulous magical power, or just growing really big.

Making a boss for a platforming game can be challenging, since platformers are less about combat per se than they are about exploration, puzzles, timing, and the totality of the experience. Even the common enemies in them are more hazards to be dealt with than they are foes to be “fought” with, as they would be in, say, a brawler or a first-person shooter. Therefore a platforming game’s final boss is often less a culmination of the game’s challenge than a coda or capper to the overall experience… and certainly most of the Bowser showdowns fit that description. But many of them try, and even succeed, at transcending that boundary, and use the medium’s toolset to create a real sense of battle. My hat’s off to this remarkable series.

Coming Attractions: Hail to the King, baby.

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Skree-onk

 

Super Mario Boss Fights (series retrospective, 1985-1995)

Here we goooooooo!

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Rock those primary colors, son.

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

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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.

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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.

Grade: B+

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)

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I can’t believe it’s 2019 and Mario Madness still hasn’t been added to the DSM

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.”

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“He’s right behind me, isn’t he?”

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.

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Sic semper tyrannis.

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.

Grade: B

4) Super Mario Bros 3

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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.

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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.

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Also, the princess has brought some “jokes” this time

Grade: C+

5) Super Mario World

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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.

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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.

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(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.

Grade: B-

6) Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island

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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).

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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.

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“Let them fight.”

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.

Grade: A

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.

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“Go ahead, pull-a my face”

Super Metroid

A video game fight?!

“What manner of poppycock is this?!”

Bear with me. This is educational. The game is a masterpiece of the medium and very instructional as to how it can tell interactive, immersive stories.

Samus Aran vs Mother Brain

The Fighters:

  • Samus Aran, the player’s avatar in this digital dungeon. Intergalactic bounty hunter and scourge of the Metroid series’ villainous Space Pirates. Though this is the third entry in the franchise, in the original NES game the fact that she was a woman was a shocking twist ending. You kids today don’t know how good you have it, with your Lara Crofts and your Buffys and your Jennifer Garners. Samus is hardcore. Played by nothing but bits and bytes.
    • Armed with: What isn’t she armed with? Samus is athletic, tactically brilliant, and infused with alien DNA, but her true weapon is her Power Suit. A piece of amazing technological armor that would make even the Destroyer run & hide, the upgradeable suit is kitted out with varying different types of blasters (including a freeze beam), missiles, bombs, an electric grappling hook, an X-ray scope, boots that can boost her run into a blur or send her jumping fifty feet in the air, the ability to roll her entire body into a compact sphere, and finally a deadly “screw attack” which transforms her spinning leaps into a whirling dervish of destructive energy. A few of these Samus starts out with but the rest she (aka you, the player) must obtain and upgrade during her quest through  the alien planet Zebes. I question the bad guys’ not-so-bright idea to build their lair around a bunch of power-ups that will make their most hated adversary even MORE deadly, but that’s video game villains for you.
  • The Mother Brain, a sentient, biomechanical A.I. who leads the Space Pirates. She was the villain of the original Metroid game from the 80s, and hasn’t been seen since Samus vanquished her then. At that time she was literally just a big stationary brain in a jar, but now she is… considerably more. Played by 16 bits of of ugly colors and screeching sounds.
    • Armed with: A giant cyborg body not unlike like that of a T-Rex. Fires a number of different bombs and energy blasts, the most powerful of which is an undodgeable beam from her eye.

The Setup: As I said, Super Metroid for the SNES (generally agreed to be the peak of the Metroid series), is a marvel of simple, efficient, non-verbal storytelling. The game features a brief voiceover followed by a textual prologue providing the exposition (i.e., the events of the previous two games) but other than that is free of any pesky words until the final credits roll. This is helped enormously by the fact that Samus, behind her impassive armor, is largely a cypher, better allowing the player to immersively place themselves in her boots.

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This serves the gameplay very well. Unlike modern games, which tend to spell out your objectives and instructions in the most explicit way possible, Super Metroid plops Samus onto an enormous world with virtually no assistance, and makes the player figure things out organically.

This is best executed in the game’s climactic fight, and the lead-up to it. Ask ten serious video game veterans to list their favorite game ending sequences, and nine of them will include Super Metroid. The impetus for the game is Samus returning to her old stomping grounds on the baddie-infested Planet Zebes to track down the last remaining Metroid– the titular space predator she’d spent the last two games eradicating, as the series’ recurring Space Pirate antagonists had been using them as weapons (Metroids are a kind of creepy, hard-to-kill, flying jellyfish that can latch onto a victim and rapidly drain its life force away). The end of the second game saw Samus finding the last baby Metroid but sparing its life, because when it hatched the innocent creature “imprinted” on her as its mother. Samus turned it over to some scientists to study its unique life-giving properties (most Metroids only destroy) but it was shortly stolen by the pirates and taken back to Zebes.

As Samus slowly conquers the pirates’ army she works her way into the bowels of Zebes, and, eventually facing a gauntlet of powerful Metroids as she approaches the leader’s lair, you realize the pirates have successfully cloned stock from that stolen hatchling. Going deeper, Samus/the player goes through an eerily quiet hallway full of what seem to be creepy statues of many of the game’s common bad guys. The statues crumble into dust at a touch, and the farther you go the bigger they get. In the next room you are approached by a particularly large & live enemy, but before it can touch you, a HUGE Metroid appears, latches onto it, and quickly drains the holy hell out of it, leaving it a dried-out husk identical to the dozen “statues” outside.

This is the nasty beast responsible for the strange decorations, and when it turns its attention on Samus there’s little she can do (this is not a passive cinematic cut scene; the player has autonomy, but will inevitably be overwhelmed) before it latches onto her and starts draining her life force as well. But just before it can finish her off, the creature pauses and lets her go. Its predatory screeches turn into a plaintive wail, and between that and its erratic body language (it hovers about, obviously confused and unsure), the player can only conclude that this mega Metroid must be the original hatchling who loved her, raised in captivity by the Space Pirates to be the ultimate weapon but now having second thoughts upon encountering its benevolent “mother.” It flies away in confusion, leaving Samus to replenish herself and head deeper.

Soon after, Samus faces down her old nemesis, the Mother Brain.

The Fight: At first the fight plays out like a repeat of Samus’ original 8-bit adventure: Samus travels through the last gauntlet of barriers & enemies and finds the Brain sitting in a glass jar, leaving her to pump missiles into the motionless gray matter while dodging small arms fire from the defense systems. But just when it seems that fight’s won, the “defeated” Brain rises from its proverbial ashes and shows off its new upgrades:

Now I note here that Metroid games are quasi-RPGish. At the end of each game, Samus is vastly more powerful and possesses a more diverse skill set than when she started it out; this is largely accomplished in small increments as you either come across or discover (some are quite hard to reach or well-hidden) power-ups that increase your health meter or missile count gradually.

But no matter HOW well you’ve stocked up & beefed out before entering Mother Brain’s chamber, you won’t beat her, you can’t beat her. She takes damage from your weapons– you can empty your entire arsenal into her pulsing face– but it’s never enough. Eventually in the fight the villain unleashes that undodgeable beam attack that pins Samus against the wall, depletes almost all of her health and leaves her essentially paralyzed. As Mother Brain charges up a second beam to finish Samus off, the Metroid hatchling dramatically swoops in and clamps onto the villain’s head, rebelling against its new master by stopping the attack cold and draining HER of energy.

Leaving Mamma Brain a seeming husk, the Metroid then envelops Samus and slowly fills the player’s life bar. As this happens, the villain’s body begins to gradually rejuvenate, her color floods back and she rises, weakened but seriously pissed off. But since Samus is still wobbly, the Metroid can only use its own body as a shield for her, visibly weakening as it absorbs multiple attacks from the Brain. Finally the Metroid floats up and tries to tackle Mother Brain once again, but is dramatically cut down in mid-flight. It cries out in pain, the music halts, and the hatchling falls crumbling onto Samus… and in the process, Samus’ bio-suit absorbs the Metroid’s dying body and becomes infused with its energy.

The music changes to a triumphant swell (it’s actually re-purposed background music from near the beginning of the game; the epic percussion meant to drive home the magnificent size of the opening areas now instead celebrates Samus’ own increased power) and the heroine stands up, ready for round two. Her primary weapon has now been replaced with a devastating beam (if you pause to look at your stats you’ll see it’s called the “Hyper”) that causes her body to glow with every discharge. The tormentor has now become the prey: the villain is helpless against your newfound strength, her head reeling back with every shot– if you time it right, you can even stun juggle Mother Brain to keep her from even getting off a single shot, and the whole thing’s over in about a minute or so. This is no longer a battle, it’s punishment. The Brain is quickly dispatched and Samus has to make her escape from the pirates’ imploding fortress.

Without a word of dialogue the game’s final minutes tell a simple yet highly effective & immersive story of family, redemption, sacrifice and revenge. It is one of a kind.

I am tempted to give it lower marks for the back & forth power imbalance (as far as pure combat goes, the fight against sub-boss Ridley is much more frantic & exciting), but somehow the same element that made Thor’s penultimate battle so disappointing does the opposite here. Maybe it’s the storytelling, maybe it’s the element of experiencing it through the protagonist’s shoes. I don’t know, but it works for me on every level.

Grade: A+

Recommended Links: The whole battle.

An excellent commentary on this game’s fantastic world in the form of a speed run/Let’s Play hosted by Super Metroid savant Brick Road

Coming Attractions: The Duke rolls his eyes at my silly nerd obsessions.

“Yer tellin’ me that idiot wrote 1700 words about a video game?! He oughta be glad I’m dead ’cause otherwise I’d kick his ass on principle, pilgrim.”