The final boss battle of Super Mario World is suitably epic. The HUD disappears, leaving just Mario and Bowser on screen. Bowser flies up in a clown-faced helicopter – which seems non-threatening for the big bad villain of a videogame, but it somehow works.
In the game’s boss battles against the Koopa Kids, the player must jump on the boss until the boss fell into lava. Or the Koopa Kid present decoys, and the player must stomp on the “real” Koopa Kid.
The final Bowser battle is a little different. Bowser throws out Mecha-Koopa enemies toward the player. The player must stomp on the Mecha-Koopa to disable it, then throw the Mecha-Koopa into the air so it falls and lands on Bowser. The final boss battle in this Mario game is all about throwing items.
For the most part, a player can get through Super Mario World without ever really mastering the “throwing items in the air” mechanic. There were a few times I would have to throw blocks in the air to access a secret exit. But the critical path of the game does not teach the mechanic well for it to be the centerpiece of the game’s final battle. And not really in a way where the player can learn the timing for throwing an item in the air and having an enemy fly underneath the item as it falls back to earth.
And yet, if that skill isn’t well-learned (as it was in my case), the final Bowser battle is pretty much impossible. I always thought this particular boss battle was a poor design decision, because it did not match the rest of the game. It’s unlike anything the player has seen before, but it’s also…unlike anything the player has seen before.
The origin of this post came from criticism of the boss battles in Deus Ex: Human Revolution. The Deus Ex series prides itself on allowing players to develop multiple ways to solve the same problem. Players can kill every enemy in sight (like a normal game) or play the game non-lethally and navigate through the game stealthily. Deus Ex is a little deeper than that binary description, but that’s the general idea. Except when it came to boss battles. Bosses had to be killed. There was no other way for the player to solve the problem. The game touts its openness, and then forces players into a linear playstyle. For the Deus Ex: Human Revolution – Director’s Cut released two years later, the boss battles were overhauled to allow players to play the bosses like they’d played the rest of the game.
Similarly, Mario’s boss battles are generally antithetical to the idea of Mario. Aside from Super Mario 64 and Super Mario Sunshine, which are about exploration and collection, the Mario series is about navigating through an obstacle course and getting to the end of the level. It’s not about sitting in an enclosed space and jumping on Boom-Boom three times. Or about jumping on the right Koopa kid instead of the decoys. And it’s certainly not about throwing dead Mecha-Koopas into the air.
All of this probably explains why my favorite two Mario boss battles are the final Bowser battles from Super Mario 3D Land and Super Mario 3D World. Bowser pursues Mario through the level. He hurls projectiles; he attempts melee attacks, he destroys platforms. All the while, Mario runs and jumps to get away from Bowser. In Super Mario 3D World, Mario hits POW blocks to deal damage to Bowser. Because that’s what Mario does: he runs and he jumps and he hits blocks. It’s refreshing to have a boss battle that really is about platforming, and not hitting something three times.
Admittedly, Bowser is window dressing. The same exact gameplay could be achieved through an auto-scroll and disappearing platforms.
The first Super Mario Bros. is a little different, because the fights against Bowser aren’t really fights (although he can be defeated with fireballs). Bowser is a giant final obstacle standing in front of “the end” AKA axe. The player must play chicken with him and figure out a way to jump over or under him.
I love the Super Mario series, and I think the series’ platforming is amazing. But I also believe that the boss battles are the weakest part of the series, simply because they do not match the core gameplay conceit of the Mario games. The final Bowser battles in Super Mario 3D Land and Super Mario 3D World feel like the true culmination of everything in their games, only more challenging: the jumps are harder, the speed is faster, and there are most projectiles and enemy attacks than ever before.