Pop culture has shown us that while people love a relatable hero, a story is only as successful as its main antagonist. If that is the case, then the success of the Super Mario franchise might rest on the shoulders of a gigantic demon turtle. Bowser, also known as King Koopa, has been Mario’s number one nemesis since the release of the original Super Mario Bros. on NES in 1985. Since then, he has alternately been the biggest thorn in the plumber’s side, but also an unlikely ally. Showing more and more personality with each passing game, Bowser can be a cruel tyrant in one adventure and a comically inept antihero in the next, but through it all, he has maintained a mean streak that arguably makes him the most well-known villain in video games history.
Over the past thirty years of his existence, we have learned a lot about Bowser: he wants to marry a princess, he wishes to rule the Mushroom Kingdom and he’s pretty good at driving a kart. But what about his secrets? What about the parts of his past that Nintendo never mentions? We dug deep and found twenty-five things most people wouldn’t know about the king of awesome, Lord Bowser himself. Think of this as “Bowser: Behind The Music.”
Bowser may look like a demon turtle these days, but it wasn’t always the case. Shigeru Miyamoto, designer of Mario and the gang, wanted to base the appearance of his new game’s main villain on an ox. More specifically, the Ox King from the movie Alakazam the Great was the main inspiration for the original concept. His final design made it to the official box art of Super Mario Bros. in Japan. It is Takashi Tezuka, a designer at Nintendo, who pointed out that Miyamoto’s “ox” had the body of a turtle.
It is Yoichi Kotabe who we have to thank for Bowser’s distinctive features. An artist at Nintendo, he was asked to create new illustrations for the Mario series. Remembering Tezuka’s comments, he and Miyamoto worked together to come up with a new design for Bowser, one which is not only based on a turtle, but which makes a lot more sense story-wise. After all, he was already the king of the turtle-like Koopas, so why not make him look like the rest of the family?
Even though Mr. Miyamoto has never confirmed it himself, some sources such as the Prima Super Mario Galaxy strategy guide have theorized that Bowser’s current appearance could be based on that of a kappa, a Japanese demon. In the mythology, the kappa are turtle-like creatures that lure people into lakes and rivers and pulls them. Throughout Japan, these legends used to be told to children to warn them of the dangers of lurking near the water. When looking at illustrations of a kappa, such as the one above, it’s easy to see the similarities between “koopa” and “kappa.”
The Japanese legend resurfaces again in Super Mario World as Kappa Mountain, as the home of the Yellow Switch Palace. The mountain has a small lake in the middle, similar to how a kappa has a small water-filled depression on top of its head. Official sources at Nintendo deny that Bowser is based on a kappa, but the similarities are still very interesting.
Bowser’s full name in Japan can be translated as “The Great Demon King Koopa,” which is admittedly a lot scarier than “Bowser.” What is less scary however is that the “Koopa” part, or “Kuppa” in Japanese, is based on the name of a Korean dish. “Kuppa” is the Japanese name for “gukbap,” a soup-like dish with rice, which sounds delicious but lacks the intimidation factor. Miyamoto himself has said that he considered two other names for the character: “Yukke” and “Bibinba.” The first one is based on “yukhoe,” a raw beef dish similar to steak tartare, while the second one is based on “bibimbap,” a dish of rice and sautéed vegetables.
As for “Bowser,” it was only introduced in the anglicized version of Super Mario Bros. Nobody seems to know just who is responsible for the translation, just that the first mention comes from the game’s instruction booklet.
The instruction booklet for Super Mario Bros. teaches us a lot more about Bowser than just his name. While Bowser’s usual schemes these days consists of kidnapping Peach and a very vague desire to “take over the world,” his first apparition was much darker story-wise. The game tries to portray Bowser as a powerful user of black magic, but the implications make him look like a genocidal maniac.
Here’s the exact quote from the manual: “The quiet, peace-loving Mushroom People were turned into mere stones, bricks and even field horse-hair plants…”.
That’s right, the Toads are all turned into bricks, the very same bricks that you, as Mario, spend the whole game breaking for extra points. Was Mario aware of this detail the whole time? Or did Bowser knowingly omit this part of his ploy, letting Mario accidently slaughter thousands of Toad over the course of his rescue mission? Bowser goes right past “cunning” and straight into “evil” territory with this one.
After his attempted genocide of the entire population of the Mushroom Kingdom, Bowser turned down the crazy quite a bit with his next few plans. In Super Mario World, he settled for kidnapping dinosaurs on a remote island. In Yoshi’s Story, he steals a tree that makes the same dinosaurs happy. However, it is in a series of Mario spin-offs released in the 90s that Bowser was at his most comically bonkers. In Hotel Mario (an unpopular CD-I game), he transformed the Mushroom Kingdom into a hotel chain. In Mario’s Time Machine, he attempts to travel through time to steal artifacts and open his own museum.
His Bugs Bunny-like logic reaches its apex in Mario Is Missing!, a game were he attempts to melt Antarctica using hairdryers. Still, hairdryers are expensive, so he must steal treasures to finance his scheme. His reasoning his sound, but that’s a far-cry from tricking Mario into slaughtering Toads. With the 90s far away behind him, Bowser has recently reverted to his Peach-kidnapping ways. It's not as whimsical, but it fits his style a lot more.
Bowser’s goal to kidnap Peach has at time been explained as him trying to find a mother for his kids. As an idea, it is terribly misguided, so the poor guy has to be getting desperate. After all, just how many kids does Bowser have anyway? Is it eight? Or is it just one?
In Super Mario Bros. 3, the seven Koopalings were introduced as Bowser’s children, with Morton making references to his dad in the instruction manual. The introduction of Bowser Jr. in Super Mario Sunshine complicated matters, making it uncertain if he was Bowser’s 8th offspring or if the Koopalings had vanished forever. Their reappearance in New Super Mario Bros.Wii forced Nintendo to make a statement: Bowser Jr. is now his only son, and the Koopalings have simply been downgraded to “minions.”
Despite losing their family ties, the Koopalings have never been busier: following an appearance in New Super Mario Bros. U, they became playable characters in Mario Kart 8 and made their fighting debuts in the latest Super Smash Bros.
Bowser Jr. is not the only one whose mother is unknown. Bowser himself, per the Yoshi’s Island series, has never met his mom, nor has he met his dad.
In Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island, it is stated that Kamek the Magikoopa has been raising Bowser from infancy. In fact, Kamek spends most of the Yoshi’s Island games as well as Mario & Luigi: Partners in Time taking care of Bowser. This relationship carries over to other games, notably Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars. If Bowser is in your party when Mallow’s Psychopath ability is used against a brainwashed Kamek, he thinks "That’s… my child?” when looking at his protégé.
Despite the similarities, Kamek should not be confused with Kammy Koopa, another Magikoopa which is often portrayed as Bowser’s advisor. Their relationship is often strained at best and sometimes antagonistic, making one wonder why Bowser keeps her around at all.
As previously established, Bowser is a skilled black magician. This power can be used to explain anything, from the way he makes his castle fly in Paper Mario to his apparent immortality. Though he can be defeated in game, have you noticed how he always appears unscathed in Mario’s next adventure? The amount of punishment he has gone through would kill any lesser being.
Further evidences of Bowser's immortality show up in Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door, where he has infinite lives in his platforming section. Still, it is the most convincing demonstration of Bowser’s inability to die which is also the most gruesome. In many games, Bowser falls into lava only to emerge moments later as a living skeleton, his skin completely melted off yet fully aware and ready to keep fighting at the end of world eight. Think of the implication: Bowser should die of horrific injuries and yet he is cursed to keep shambling through life as the undead King of Koopas, battling Mario for eternity. The fact that he shows up in the next game with his skin intact means that either he's one hell of a magician or I am seriously overthinking this.
That’s right. An exhaustive and very scientific count shows that Bowser has at the very least kidnapped Peach nineteen times. This includes games in which he held onto Peach until the very end, but also games in which he either fails or his plan if foiled early on such as Super Mario RPG or Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga. An imaginative man, Bowser has tried many different methods, from the simple (throwing her in a box and getting the hell out) to the overly complicated (burrowing his own castle underneath Peach’s castle, and then levitating both into the sky). If there was an award for perseverance, Bowser would be in serious contention.
The reasons for the kidnapping are often sketchy at best. Over time, Bowser has expressed his wish to dominate the Mushroom Kingdom, with the thought process being that marrying the ruler of the place (though forcefully) would make him the king. His plans have obviously failed each and every time, that is until a certain Count Bleck strolled into the picture...
Although it is not Nintendo’s official position, all signs point to Bowser and Peach being lawfully married as of Super Paper Mario. The game presents a plot in which Count Bleck, the main villain, marries them in a ceremony to bring forth the Chaos Heart, thus putting the world in jeopardy as usual. The ceremony is brought to its conclusion and Bowser indeed spends the rest of the game referring to Peach as his wife.
If you play Super Paper Mario to the end, you will notice that while Peach isn’t super into the idea of being married to Bowser, they never get divorced. Nintendo does not even mention the story in any interview or in later games. For all intents and purposes, these two are still lawfully wed, with Bowser’s ultimate goal being finally achieved without any intervention on his part.
Bowser and Peach’s wedding in Super Paper Mario reminded us of something we have known since the early 90’s: Bowser looks dapper as hell in a white tuxedo. This was first demonstrated in Super Mario Adventures, a comic which appeared every month of 1992 in Nintendo Power. The final two issues showed Bowser once again trying to marry Peach and wearing the greatest white tuxedo in video games history. This time around, however, Mario and a pack of wild Yoshi arrived in time to crash the party and save the day.
The comic, very loosely based on Super Mario World, is the only comic to depict Bowser as his current self. In his other appearances, notably in Nintendo Comics System, are closer to the way he looked in the Super Mario Bros. Super Show: green skin, green shell, and a crown permanently attached to his head. The only notable thing about the comic is Bowser's apparent mastery of disguise, with most story featuring King Koopa masquerading as a Hawaiian mob boss or a hot-dog vendor in his efforts to dupe Mario. The series only lasted from 1990 to 1991, but left an indelible mark in the mind of many children, this one included.
Over the course of a stellar career as a foe, an antihero and sometimes a friend, Bowser has so far appeared in over 100 games. This sounds like a lot, but it is only a very conservative estimate. Some lists, which also count short cameos and unnamed appearances, such as his blink-and-you'll-miss-it turn in the credits of the NES version of Tetris, claim that he can be seen in over 150 games.
One hundred games is a lot, but it is still only about half of the number of games in which Mario has appeared. The plumber has the benefit of being the star of his own series, while Bowser has never been the main character of a game before. Luigi, Peach, and even Toad have been the star of their own game, but Nintendo still has not granted Bowser his own adventure. I for one could easily see Bowser as the star of a Final Fight-style 2D brawler.
In the original version of SimCity for PC, a disaster event could be triggered on command by those bored by the perfect utopia of their creation. One of those disasters would send a monster to attack your city. A Godzilla-like creature would then wreak havoc on your town and leave behind piles of rubble and empty lots. In the SNES version, the monster has been replaced by the King of Koopa himself, meaning that you can summon the almighty Bowser to destroy your creation.
Bowser’s powers extend slightly beyond that of the original monster available on PC. While the Godzilla lookalike only leaves behind destruction, Bowser leaves a trail of fire wherever he goes. For those looking to give Bowser a chance at revenge against a certain plumber, SimCity offers a unique opportunity: once a city reaches 500,000 residents, it is rewarded with a Mario statue. Once it is placed in the middle of your town, why not summon Bowser to destroy it and finally give the king a victory over his nemesis?
In Ocarina of Time, if one looks through the windows of Hyrule Castle after meeting with Zelda for the first time, it is possible to observe pictures of many characters from the Mario universe, including Bowser. Sure, Mario, Luigi, Peach and Yoshi are also there, but Bowser is the only one whose face is also hidden in a second spot in the game.
If you look at Malon and Talon, the father/daughter duo running Lon Lon Ranch, you will notice that they have a golden brooch hanging around their neck. Look closer, and you will notice that the brooch is the face of Bowser. That detail is easy to see now that we have this fancy internet thing, with high-resolution pictures and 4k monitors. But back in the days, one had to squint pretty hard to be able to see the identify the mess of pixels as the handsome face of Bowser.
Now why would such peaceful people adorn themselves with the image of the coolest tyrant in Mushroom Kingdom? The appeal of Lord Bowser is such that it travels through space, time, and franchises.
In the Wii U version of Bayonetta, as well as in Bayonetta 2, it is possible for the titular character to don a Peach or a Daisy costume which changes some of her powers. Indeed, if she is dressed as the princess of Mushroom Kingdom (or the princess of Sarasaland), her Wicked Weaves will summon Bowser, or at least his limbs. While Bowser’s face is never actually shown, his distinctive scaly orange skin and spiked bracelets are on display, as is his powerful roar.
Bowser is not the only Nintendo character to appear in Bayonetta. Link and Samus appear as costumes, and Mario and Luigi are visible as dolls on the Peach and Daisy outfits respectively. As for the King of Koopa, he is the only one to actively help the witch, proving once again that no one can waste fools as effectively as a gigantic fire-breathing turtle.
The first Super Smash Bros. was Nintendo’s first time mixing up its different franchises in the same game. While the Mario series was well-represented with Mario, Luigi and Yoshi all making their debut, their archenemy was conspicuous by his absence. Bowser did end up in the sequel, Super Smash Bros. Melee, but multiple interviews with the game’s director, Masahiro Sakurai, have revealed that Bowser was originally planned to be in the Nintendo 64 version.
Bowser was a playable character during the development of the game, but was taken out shortly before release. With time lacking late in the development cycle, Sakurai and his team decided to sacrifice Bowser since they feared that there might be too many Mario characters when compared with other series. King Dedede and Mewtwo were also worked on for a while, but cut in the end, leaving us with the only heroes-only version of SSB.
Bowser is a busy man, constantly plotting against the Mushroom Kingdom and scheming against Mario. But what does he do with his free time? In 1991, Bowser took up singing for a short while, even appearing on the album White Knuckle Scorin’ released by Nintendo. The song explains Bowser’s plan to take over Dinosaur Land, over a jazzy soundtrack that oddly clashes with the lyrics’ content.
The song, titled Ignorance is Bliss, was performed in real life by the band Jellyfish. It is the only Nintendo-related song on an album which includes Roy Orbison and Dire Straits, and the project was not successful enough to warrant a sequel. The world was thus robbed of an entire Bowser-themed album, but you can listen to the original here.
The entire cast of Super Mario Bros. made their Hollywood debut in the movie of the same name, released in 1993. The project was an unmitigated disaster, panned by critics worldwide, but beloved by 10-year-old me. Mario and friends stuck to video games from then on, except for a few anime films in Japan.
It wasn’t until Wreck-It Ralph, Disney’s video games-themed animated movie, that a member of the Super Mario family made it to North American silver screens again. Bowser appears in a scene with bad guys from various franchises, but Nintendo made sure to put some conditions this time. For one, Bowser had to be made bigger than Zangief before they agreed to let him appear in the movie, but they also put conditions on just how to animate Bowser drinking his coffee, just so that Disney’s vision would not contradict their own.
Speaking of the live-action version of Super Mario Bros., the role of Bowser was changed to that of President Koopa and was played with the campiness turned to 11 by Dennis Hopper. The actor’s performance is one of the few bright spots in a movie that bears little resemblance to its source material. Appearing on Late Night with Conan O’Brien in 2008, Hopper confided that he had a bad time on the set, and that taking the job was one of his few regrets.
Questioned by his then six-year-old son as to why he played in the movie, Hopper answered “Well Henry, I did that so you could have shoes.” His son, answered “Dad, I don’t need shoes that badly”, obviously siding with the critics on this one.
Since then, the movie has become somewhat of a cult classic, even seeing a Blu-ray release in the United Kingdom. The movie may have its critics, but nobody can deny the genius of the accompanying soundtrack, especially this ear-worm of a song.
While Dennis Hopper ended up taking the role of Bowser for the money, he was not the production’s original choice. The role was offered in succession to two very different actors. The first one was Michael Keaton, who was freshly done with his role as Batman. The second one was Arnold Schwarzenegger, who had just finished the second Terminator. While Schwarzenegger could be considered a less dramatic actor than Hopper, he certainly would have brought a hulking physicality to the role which would have been closer to Bowser’s original design.
As for Mario, while he was played by Bob Hoskins, his role was also offered to Danny DeVito and Tom Hanks. Both are intriguing choices, but I think that Arnold bringing his accent and tendency to overact to his version of King Bowser remains the most interesting what-if.
The Super Mario Bros. movie was Bowser’s only live action apparition in movie theaters, but there were a few more projects which saw the character played by an actor. The creepiest of those is King Koopa’s Kool Kartoons, a little-known show broadcasted exclusively in Southern California in the late 80s/early 90s. The show, filmed in front of an audience, featured an actor wearing green make-up and prosthetics to become the eeriest version of Bowser ever witnessed (There is no surviving footage of this show that is of a good enough quality to put as a screenshot up there without making everyone sick from the blurriness, which is why I elected to feature a nice still from the Super Mario Bros. Super Show instead).
King Koopa would spend segments interacting with the kids in the audience before introducing cartoon shorts, most of which were public domain and none of which had anything to do with Mario. The show only lasted for one season, but was fairly popular in its area. It was even nominated as the best youth program for Los Angeles’ local Emmy Awards.
Bowser’s other live action appearance was for a one-off figure skating show broadcast on ABC in 1989. Creatively titled Mario Ice Capades, the show featured Bowser trying to infect computers with viruses through the use of an NES. The technical aspect of how that could be accomplished is never explained, but the plot is only secondary to the novelty of seeing Koopa Troopas and Goombas on skates. Because the world was about to enter the 90s, Bowser also has a rapping part which has to be seen to be believed.
Interpreted by British actor Christopher Hewett, Bowser’s make-up is slightly lazier this time around, but much less creepy. Unlike his Kool Kartoons counterpart, however, King Koopa shares the stage with Jason Bateman and Alyssa Milano, both very young at the time and prior to the projects which would make them household names. They are on screen for about two minutes each, but try their best to act surprised when "Koopa" appears in their television and takes control. Some brave soul was kind enough to upload a short excerpt of his visibly-tired VHS tape to YouTube and I highly recommend you spend the six minutes needed to watch it.
For the longest time, Bowser was limited to various roars to express his meanness. It is only with Super Mario Sunshine that he was finally allowed to speak for the first time, including a surprisingly tender scene shared with his son. While assumed that most of these grunts and roars could be easily be made by any programmer as Nintendo, it turns out that four different voice actors were needed over the years to interpret Bowser’s growls.
Scott Burns was the voice of Bowser starting with the aforementioned Super Mario Sunshine, but has since been replaced by Kenny James. Eric Newsome briefly performed the voice in Super Paper Mario, but that was his only time in the role. As for the fourth actor? It was Marc Graue, whose only turn as Bowser was in the infamous Hotel Mario.
Having spent the past thirty years terrorizing the Mushroom Kingdom, Bowser has developed a following and a reputation as the ultimate villain in video games history. This kind of claim can be highly subjective, but, for Bowser, he is backed by some very influential publications. For example, in 2013, he was placed #1 in a list of the top 50 villains in gaming by the Guinness Book of World Records.
The Gamer’s Edition of the famed publication placed Bowser ahead of other notorious villains such as GLaDOS, Ganon, Sephiroth and M. Bison. While this is a list that also includes the very forgettable Tabuu from Super Smash Bros. Brawl and “The Police” from Grand Theft Auto, Bowser remains one of the few video games villains whose brilliance is acknowledged by such a mainstream institution.
In the original Super Mario Bros. for NES, Bowser is the ever-present final boss which you must confront at the end of every castle throughout the game… or is he? In worlds 1 though 7, the real identity of “Bowser” can be revealed if he is defeated with fireballs. When falling into the lava, the sprite will change to show that the bad guy you just beat was only his minion in disguise. The real Bowser is finally defeated in world 8-4, where he brings into battle every trick previously shown in the game, such as fireballs and hammers. If he is defeated with fireballs once more, the sprite falling off the bridge stays the same, confirming that you have finally shut up Bowser once and for all.
Fake Bowsers also appear in Super Mario 3D Land for Nintendo 3DS. Defeating one of the raccoon-tailed Bowsers in worlds 1 and 5 will reveal a Goomba and a Magikoopa, both transformed into their boss by the magic of a Super Leaf. Finally, Fake Bowsers also make a comeback in Super Mario Run, showing that no matter how tough he is, the king is never above leaving the dirty work to his subordinates.