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There are a lot of iconic villains out there, but I highly doubt many of them can claim to have the popularity of Bowser. Ever since the first Super Mario Bros., Bowser has been there to challenge players, and he was likely the first real video game boss I faced. In honor of that, let’s look at his first appearance.
The plot of the game is actually a little more complicated than ‘The princess is kidnapped, go rescue her!’. In fact, the story is that Bowser is trying to take over the Mushroom Kingdom via turning all of its inhabitants into blocks with black magic, which only the princess can reverse. Hence why all the blocks, and why he kidnapped her. As for why Mario gets power ups from them, they seem to be gifts from the inhabitants to aid him, and even if he does shatter them, they apparently can be restored, no harm done.
Every world in the game is four levels long, and the fourth level is always a castle, generally full of lava, fireballs, and similar obstacles, cumulating in a battle with Bowser, who actually attacks you before you can even see him- fireballs start coming from the right, forcing you to dodge them as you get closer and closer. Smart of him.
Once you actually reach Bowser, he paces back and forth, hops, and shoots fireballs at Mario. Unless you have the Fire Flower, letting Mario shoot at him too, there is no way to harm the Koopa. Instead, you have to get pass him and press the switch behind him, which looks like an axe. Doing so will destroy the bridge Bowser is on and send him down into lava.
Thus, it becomes a game of timing and risk. If you have the Super Mushroom or Fire Flower, Mario can take an extra hit and theoretically could run straight past him to the switch. However, the best chance may be during one of his jumps, so you can dash past him unharmed.
Just blasting him with the Fire Flower is preferable, of course, because you don’t have to risk running under him or something similar. However, he will take quite a few hits, six I believe, and you have to avoid getting hit at all- basically a perfect run though at least part of the level and the battle itself, all of which is more dangerous because unlike in later games, where you revert to Super Mario when you have the Fire Flower, here it’s only two hits either way. Even worse, you have to become Super Mario again before you become Fire Mario, so regaining the power up is even harder. Naturally, beating Bowser this way is worth a lot more points.
Finishing Bowser this way will also seem to transform him into a random enemy as he is beaten. This seems strange, but in reality the opposite is happening- the enemies in question were transformed into Bowser to better fight Mario, gaining his abilities. I wonder if that was a strange moment for that lucky Goomba in world 1-4, suddenly having arms and the power to jump, breathe fire, and move backwards.
Starting in World 6, these battles will have an added feature- hammers. Aside from shooting fire and jumping, they will throw hammer volleys as well, adding a new challenge. While the fire just moves horizontally at varying heights, these are thrown in an arc, which can stop attempts to jump over the boss and hit you when you would otherwise be safe. Luckily, this doesn’t stop you from hitting him with fireballs since they do not go very far, and that strategy becomes more and more preferable to running into Bowser’s gauntlet of attacks.
Sometimes there are other objects in the bridge area as well. In World 1 for instance, there is a moving platform that, if you can get on, would let you jump straight over Bowser- unless he is jumping, in which case you run right into him. In World 2 there is a similar platform… but now there are blocks on the left half of the bridge, stopping you from jumping on easily. In 3 this is substituted for two columns of blocks, stopping you from easily getting on top of them. Bowser is closer as well, so there is more risk.
World 4 forgoes blocks and platforms entirely for a Lava Bubble that jumps out of the lava periodically, a Fire Bar just before that, and Bowser is behind both, forcing you either to stay behind the obstacles even though they impede your fireballs, or to forge ahead and try to dodge them both, and Bowser. World 5 is the same as 2 with an added Lava Bubble.
World 6 has no blocks, just the Lava Bubble and the platform, but Bowser also throws hammers form here on, as I mentioned. 7 is just the Lava Bubble. As for World 8, it is a notorious level, having a puzzle to traverse and an underwater section with inexplicable Fire Bars, despite being, well, underwater, but the final bout with Bowser has no gimmicks at all. He just faces you with his attacks rather than relying on external aid. His pattern is a little different- he will jump towards you, giving a genuine chance the hammers will hit you even if you stay back as far as possible.
So that is Bowser in his debut- but he never really appeared in that sort of battle afterward, every game having a different sort of battle. For instance, in Super Mario Bros 3 you have to trick him into falling in a hole. The common theme I’m noticing though, is that you cannot overpower Bowser, but instead must make use the environment and the arena itself to defeat him. Brains over Brawn. Or you can just pelt him with fireballs, that works too.
However, we do see a return of this sort of battle in New Super Mario Bros. Specifically, in World 1 Mario faces Bowser again, who fights very similarly to how he did in the earlier levels of the original game. There is a platform here, but it goes up and down rather than side to side. Bowser also does not shoot at you before you reach him- instead, when you get to the bridge, you see his son Bowser Jr., who laughs at you and flees before the way onward is blocked off, and Bowser himself drops in to fight.
When beaten, he falls into lava, whether you hit him with fireballs or destroy the bridge via the switch. When he does, he roars is visibly struggles to get out, before being completely submerged, then struggling more after being stripped down to the bone. Yikes… after that we do see Princess Peach, who is being held captive by Jr. The boy growls and Mario and runs off with her to World 2, keeping the tradition intact. I should also point out you can just use a Mega Mushroom on Bowser, which literally lets you jump on him like Goomba. If you bump into him you both just get knocked back, and he cannot hurt you. Easily the best way to deal with any foe.
From there on, you face completely different enemies- until World 8. It has two separate Castle levels, and you face Dry Bowser at the end of the first. It’s basically a skeletal version of Bowser, much as the Dry Bones is to a Koopa. And like Dry Bones, he is completely immune to fireballs, so your only chance is to hit the switch behind him. He also throws his own bones at you, a slightly more morbid version of the hammers from the original game. As before, the Mega Mushrooms work as well.
And you have one last battle with Bowser to finish the game, this time assisted by his son. You actually face Jr. as a midboss in every world, getting steadily smarter every time, but his weakness never changes- three jumps and he’s beaten. Fireballs work too. What does change, however, is his attack patterns.
Normally he attempts to ram or jump on you, and will hide in his shell when struck to keep you from hitting him again for a short time before attacking again. If his bandanna is covering his face, however, he will hide every time you come close, so you cannot jump on him at all. Instead, he will throw shells at you, which you have to stop with a jump and knock back into him. This will stun him for a bit and let you stomp him.
He uses the latter pattern for the final battle. After he revives his father by throwing his bones into a magic cauldron, the two fight together. Bowser is actually much bigger this time, and there are no platforms, so jumping over him to reach the switch is out of the question. Further, Bowser fires out blue flames which home in on you, though they do move slower and vanish after a short time, so it is possible to dodge them just by being too far away.
If Jr. is beaten first, Bowser gets especially angry and shoots out a barrage of five normal flames, forcing you to jump between them, and from then on fire out three blue flames at a time to make things worse. Still, the battle is much easier than when Jr. is helping, so it is beat to beat the younger Koopa beforehand. They can also both be beaten by getting around them both and hitting the switch, using enough fireballs, or just, again, using the Mega Mushroom.
The fact that New Super Mario Bros emulates the original so thoroughly truly shows how enduring the game is, to the point that they copied the battle with Bowser and threw in some new things too, to keep it fresh. It shows that the game, and of course its villain, have truly withstood the test of time. It is called a classic for a reason, after all.