My man’s back, and he’s got polygons for days.
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.
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).
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).
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.
Regardless, it’s an outstanding & revolutionary achievement in an outstanding & revolutionary game.
2) Super Mario Bros Sunshine
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.
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.
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.
3) Super Mario Galaxy
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.
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.
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.
4) New Super Mario Bros Wii
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
5) Super Mario Galaxy 2
Mario Fights: Bowser
The Setup: Bowser has kidnapped Princess Peach. In space, again.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
6) New Super Mario Bros U
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.
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.
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.
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.
7) Super Mario 3D World
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
8) Super Mario Odyssey
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.
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.
(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.
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.
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.
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.
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.