Who’s The Boss? Super Mario 64’s Bowser

Bowser is perhaps the most iconic villain in all of gaming. This large turtle(?) and single father has been terrorizing the lovely Mushroom Kingdom since 1983. Originally created by Nintendo’s Shigeru Miyamoto, Bowser has appeared in dozens of video games ranging from core entries in the Super Mario franchise to absolutely crushing it in Dance Dance Revolution: Mario Mix.

Yet, one of his most well-known appearances was in the revolutionary Super Mario 64 for the, wait for it, Nintendo 64. Is Bowser’s tail-swinging inclusion only memorable because this was our first time seeing him in 3D or was this truly a well-designed boss battle fitting someone of royal lineage?

It’s time to see if this battle…

…is fit for a king.

Okay, okay, okay we need to back up. I know you’re sitting there asking yourself, “Hey Collin, who let you out of the guide cave and what the fuck is this about?” Well first off, I escaped, baby! Secondly, this is Who’s the Boss (No, not that one), a new column where I examine the ins and outs of gaming’s best, worst, and most iconic bosses. We will not only be looking at the mechanics and themes of these battles but their impact on the medium itself. I’ll be asking the pointless difficult questions that no one else wants to tackle.

The Set-Up

Back to his majesty.

Released for the first time on June 23, 1996, Super Mario 64 revolutionized gaming in many ways: a few factors include its 3D graphics, tight gameplay, and focus on exploration across fifteen stages. Players controlled Mario and were tasked with rescuing Cake Wars semi-finalist Princess Peach from Bowser. This was done by collecting Stars via completing challenges that ranged from getting shot out of a cannon to harassing a family of penguins. After the player acquired enough Stars they could battle against the King Koopa a total of three times.

A huge critical and financial success, Super Mario 64 was one of the most influential games in the history of the medium. Selling almost 12 million copies upon release, this game’s impact can be felt far and wide throughout the industry. Following its launch, the game was re-released with enhanced graphics for the Nintendo DS and a second time in 2020 via the Super Mario 3D All-Stars collection. Fans also attempted to remake the game in 2015 using the popular Unity engine, but Nintendo can’t stand letting us have nice things and issued a copyright notice to the creators.

The King

But we’re here to talk about the baddest bad guy to ever break bad. Bowser’s boss fight(s) are fairly simple. To defeat him, players must run behind Bowser, grab him by the tail, and throw this boss into one of the conveniently placed bombs around the arena’s perimeter. His initial strategy will consist of shooting fireballs or trying to run into you, giving you ample opportunity to slip behind him.

However, both the second and third battle with Bowser introduces new mechanics that force players to adapt to the King Koopa’s bag of tricks. These include raining down fireballs, teleporting across the map, causing the stage to wobble, and even removing entire chunks of the arena. It’s a perfect encapsulation of how to slowly escalate a fight to challenge a player’s mastery of the game.

See, when you first face Bowser it’s relatively early in Super Mario 64. Most people are still getting used to the controls, the visuals, and even understanding Mario’s movement on the brand-new (at the time) N64 joypad. This is probably why the first battle is so simple. It serves as a tutorial on how to actually defeat this boss without bogging the player down with additional mechanics or hazards. Bowser even hints at how to defeat him in his dialogue right before the fight, stating: “You’ll never be able to swing ME around! A wimp like you won’t throw me out of here!” Not only does this echo the often cryptic nature of Super Mario 64’s Stars, — seriously who the fuck actually found that owl their first try — but gives users just enough information that they won’t feel helpless when fighting him.

Boss fights can be confusing at first, as players will often spend their opening moments prodding at their foe’s defenses to see what does and doesn’t work. Bowser is clearly designed this way, as all of Mario’s attacks, except grabbing his tail, have no effect on him. It’s a learning process, one that encourages players to experiment while rewarding or punishing their methods in clear visual ways. This is what makes his subsequent battles so terrific — because the player already knows how to defeat Bowser and now it’s his turn to try to counter the user’s method.

The second time you face Bowser, he will teleport around the stage and even tilt it towards the lava, making running around behind him more challenging. Our method of grabbing his tail is still the same, which gives the player a sense of familiarity despite the added mechanics. Instead of trying to figure out how to hurt Bowser, the new task is understanding when to go for the tail grab. The boss battle is testing your patience and timing, which becomes a critical part of the third and final confrontation.

In your final fight, Bowser will not only require the player to throw him three times into three different bombs but will liberally use his fire attacks. These leave lingering flames that can damage Mario, making it difficult to run around the arena. But thanks to the second fight, we know that blindly rushing in won’t do anything, so you’ll need to wait until Bowser provides an opening for a tail grab.

This gradual escalation is what the game’s director, Shigeru Miyamoto, calls “The Rule of Threes.” Essentially, it’s a design philosophy that revolves around introducing a player to a mechanic and then expanding upon it two more times throughout a game. Often used for essential gameplay mechanics, Bowser’s boss fight is a large-scale version of this idea.

Super Mario 64 Fall Onto a Caged Island

The Aftermath

Curiously, following Super Mario 64’s launch, Bowser rarely makes a reoccurring appearance throughout the core installments. Instead, his moment in the spotlight is almost always reserved for the game’s final act. We often see this in the 2D installments, where Bowser has multiple forms but they’re all tied to the final portion of the game. One exception to this is 2017’s Super Mario Odyssey which follows The Rule of Threes design.

Yet, Bowser is perhaps even more fondly remembered for not being a terrific boss, but a sort of beloved meme. See, when the game released in 1996 there were only a few voice lines added into the game. Most of the dialogue was restricted to text cards that appeared whenever the player spoke to someone. However, Mario would occasionally blurt out something when tossing Bowser into a mine. One of these lines was “So long King Bowser,” but due to voice actor Charles Martinet giving Mario a heavy Italian accent it actually sounded like “So long gay Bowser!” The joke originated with YTMND (You’re the man now, dog!), which was a meme-focused website that made a gif showcasing this line.

Gay Bowser picked up in popularity thanks to Youtuber SergeiEisenstein who released a video in 2010 looping this voice line. It has garnered over 3.5 million views, spawning a plethora of memes and people flooding video game forums trying to uncover what Mario is actually trying to say. Unfortunately, Nintendo, the fun police of gaming, removed the line in 1997 with the Shindou Edition of the game. This version made some minor gameplay adjustments, gave rumble pack support, and replaced “So long King Bowser,” with the very underwhelming “Bye-bye.” Since then, Nintendo has used the Shindou version for all subsequent re-releases of Super Mario 64.

At its core, Super Mario 64’s Bowser is a perfect distillation of how to introduce and implement new ideas to a boss fight throughout a game. While the battles aren’t exactly challenging, the constant gameplay escalation, wonderful visual design, and superb soundtrack makes it one of the best examples of 3D platformer boss design.