New consoles may come and go, but Mario has been a constant in gaming for more than 30 years. And while he may be one of the greatest heroes in gaming history, much like Batman, the squat plumber is truly defined by his villains. And after so many Mario stages have been punctuated by incredible boss fight, we figured it was past time to pull together our favorites.
In Mario’s well-chronicled history, he’s fought enemies great and small, cold-blooded and fiery, otherworldly and robotic. Oh, and also Bowser approximately seven thousand times. What were the most interesting, knockdown, drag out battles Mario has been a part of? Take a look…
Super Mario 64 successfully transitioned so many of the Mario franchise’s positives into three dimensions, and that includes an epic, Bowser-slathered finale. The King Koopa towered over Mario more than ever before in Super Mario 64, and the fight called upon the red-hatted hero to display an unheard of level of strength. To beat Bowser, Mario has to grab his tail and then spin the massive creature until Bowser can be tossed at a conveniently placed bomb. It was a clever way to incorporate the third dimension into the stage. Interestingly, Mario had beaten Bowser with a similar technique in a Japan-only animated film. Coincidence?
Wario has gone on to be his own franchise leader, but when he first went after Mario he was simply is fatter, uglier doppelganger out to steal Mario’s life and possessions. When you finally face him at the end of Super Mario Land 2, he has the novel idea of using Mario’s moves and power-ups against him, throwing fireballs and hovering with SML2’s distinct rabbit ears. But what we really loved about Wario was how he menaced Mario before we even played the game, like in this brilliant attack ad.
The underground has annoyed Mario for some time, whether it’s the pipe-filled sewers or enemies like Monty Mole. Master digger Major Burrows is the ultimate in underground enemies, an imposing mammal that you first find chasing after an unlucky Star Bunny. His Spiney Shell helmet and huge claws are pretty intimidating, especially when the Shell turns red with rage after a couple hits, but a couple ground pounds will send him on his way. Fun fact: Burrows is voiced by the game’s director.
The Bowser finale in World is fun, but we’d rather highlight the mid-bosses we faced throughout the game. Fitting with World’s dinosaur theme and named after the front man of Nine Inch Nails, these guys top Super Mario Bros 3’s Boomer as our favorite mid-boss in the series. Sure, they’re easy to beat once you figure out that pattern, but how could anyone not cherish fire-spitting triceratops on a rickety Farris Wheel?
Paper Mario: Sticker Star, the most recent flat adventure for the mustachioed one, had the intriguing (and occasionally frustrating) approach to boss battles that made them all a puzzle that could be solved with a single, super effective sticker. The technique worked splendidly against Tower Power Pokey, a huge cactus perched atop a massive pyramid. You could slowly chip away at his health using normal attacks, but observant players will notice the background of his stage resembles a baseball stadium. Hopefully you have the baseball bat in your sticker collection, because there are few greater joys in Sticker Star than knocking every piece of Tower Power Pokey right out of the park--er, pyramid.
After beating Bowser so many times with the same trick in Super Mario Bros, SMB2 was shockingly varied by comparison. Birdo, Mouser and Wart are all exceptional, but Phanto is the SMB2 rogue seared into our memories. The creepy, ever-present mask is continually on your heels as long as you’re carrying the key you took from his treasury. The haunting death stare of this evil façade scarred many children in the late 80s.
You may notice a lack of Bowser Jr.’s annoying face on this list, mainly because most of his battles seem intentionally unfun. He’s supposed to piss you off, and he does it well in Super Mario Galaxy 2, though Junior’s Megaleg contraption is the most enjoyable to actually play against. The drill (one of Mario’s many items in Galaxy 2) is used best against Megaleg in a stage where players have to run to the opposite side of a planetoid to then drill up into the robot’s weak point. It was a 2D-style puzzle in a 3D game that further showcased the incredible variety Galaxy had to offer.
Super Mario RPG was made to introduce role-playing games to new audiences all over the world via the inviting Mushroom Kingdom. Of course, because it was made by Final Fantasy developer Squaresoft, there were a ton of new enemies in the mix, including the Ax ‘Em Rangers. Clearly inspired by the same Japanese action shows as the Power Rangers, the Ax ‘Em gang appeared just as that show was at peak popularity in the US. This team of colorful bad guys were some of the toughest in the game, and finally beating the crap out of them was satisfying, particularly if you were sick of the overexposed Mighty Morphin’ gang.
Mario spends the opening of Super Mario Sunshine chasing after an evil impostor that’s framed the plumber for multiple crimes. When Mario finally corners the bandit in an amusement park, the little jerk calls upon a massive robot, bigger than just about anything Mario’s ever seen to that point. The spectacle of Mecha Bowser is enough to get it on this list, but the real strength is the roller coaster/shooter gimmick of the fight. Mario rides the coaster in a single car, shooting water at the huge beast while the camera spins around the twisty track, making for one of the most visually impressive Mario battles ever.
Yoshi’s first solo adventure has so many outstanding bosses that it’s hard to limit ourselves, though our favorite was never in doubt. In a stage that foreshadows the core concept of Super Mario Galaxy, Yoshi challenges Raphael on a small, circular moon. To win you must quickly get to the other side and ground pound the giant bird on the other side. We love Raph because he’s as cute as he is imposing, and the 16-bit horizon in the stage’s background remains one of the most beautiful panoramas the SNES ever featured.
Many of Mario’s best battles have been David vs Goliath type size mismatches that stack the odds against the diminutive plumber. Take the final battle in the stellar 1994 reimagining of the arcade classic Donkey Kong. Somehow DK got a hold of some Super Mushrooms and now is trying to flatten Mario with his fists. Unlike most Mario titles, ‘94’s Donkey Kong featured one hit kills, so make one mistake and you’re dumped right back to the beginning of the multitier brawl, making for an especially intense finale.
We aren’t going to feature too many baddies from Mario’s RPGs, but this one can’t be ignored. Fawful is a small package of ludicrousness that is as entertaining as he is evil. While masterminding his vengeance on the Mushroom Kingdom, he shouts such unforgettable quotes, like “You inhaled like a hungry syrup pig at the free pancake buffet,” “Bowser keeps appearing like an ugly rabbitkeeps appearing like an ugly rabbit from the hat of a magician who stinks," and his continual exclamations of “I have FURY!” Most of these entries are honored due to the gameplay, but we love Fawful for the preamble.
So many Mario games have concluded with an appearance by Bowser that to make a King Koopa war notable these days you have to do something truly ambitious, which is exactly what 3D Land pulled off. In the most bombastic, multilayered Bowser fight of all time, the giant reptile is seemingly inescapable no matter where Mario runs to. Bowser shoots fireballs, whips his tail, and even throws massive barrels in an ingenious reference to Donkey Kong. This Bowser fight was so elaborate and intricately laid out that it’s hard to imagine it could ever be topped, though we know the hardworking Mario developers will try.
After Super Mario Bros 2, Mario was ready to take on Bowser again, but first he had to get through his seven children. Each of the Koopalings was unique in their own way, but Lemmy’s collection of bouncing balls offered the most interesting challenge. Lemmy effortlessly stands on top of one ball while filling up the room with three matching spheres, challenging you to find a path between all of them to jump on his head three times. Perhaps Bowser isn’t supposed to pick a favorite kid, but we know ours.
The source of the electric goop plaguing Sirena Beach, the Phantamanta is just what his name sounds like: a phantom manta ray. As with most problems in Super Mario Sunshine, the only solution is a steady blast of water from Mario’s F.L.U.D.D. cannon. However, once you’ve got this electric apparition good and drenched, he starts to multiply. With dozens of little rays winding about, you’ll have to watch your step and avoid landing in a shocking puddle of goo. The Phantamanta is a unique challenge for a Mario boss; this isn’t a series known for putting the player in crowd-control situations. Using Mario’s spinning spray attack and wide blasts of water are what will win the day.
The New Super Mario entry for the Wii was a cute adventure, but it very rarely impressed us, at least not until the very end. After another ho-hum sortie of dropping Bowser in the lava, the Koopa King explodes out of the pit bigger than ever before and starts pursuing us. The massive creature is smashing platforms left and right with little sign of stopping, giving Mario and his friends an exhilarating chase all the way to the end of the stage. We just wish the rest of the game had been as inspired.
King Kaliente is one spicy calamari! He runs the show on Bowser Jr.’s Lava Reactor, and tying up his tentacles requires all manner of multi-tasking. First off, you’re standing on grated platforms; keeping still too long means ending up with the world’s worst hot foot. So keep running, and keep your eye on the King’s projectile output. He’ll launch clusters of fireballs which you need to avoid, but when he launches a lone cooled object, go ahead and hit it back. Keep an eye out though, just one smack isn’t good enough for this prince among squids, he’ll deflect your initial attack right back. Hit it one more time and you’ll see it wind around and smack him right in the dome. So satisfying!
Mario has faced his share of imposing enemies, but few have displayed the kind of confidence that pro wrestler Rawk Hawk possesses. He looks like a golden god, and the champion also has the demeanor of a self-important deity that’s still strangely likable. Mario has to beat Rawk Hawk to get the Crystal Star-adorned championship belt, and like a typical wrestling bad guy, Hawk tries every way possible to cheat to win. After Mario inevitably triumphs, Rawk Hawk is humbled in defeat, but is still the hard rocking superstar that we wish would make a return in a future Paper Mario game.
When Yoshi’s Island first came out many of its ads centered on the built-in Super FX 2 chip, a technological advance that would make YI a modern marvel of a platformer. One of SFX2’s major advancements was new ways to stretch and manipulate on-screen sprites, Sluggy being a prime example. Unlike faster, deadlier enemies, Sluggy’s a slow, gelatinous blob that slowly but surely pushes you off the stage unless you can reach its heart with enough well-aimed egg throws. It showed that even a see-through slug can be deadly with the right design expertise.
Technically this is really Luigi’s boss fight, not Mario’s, but it’s such an underrated gem it deserves a mention. At the end of Luigi’s Mansion the green one is preparing to face the final boss to free Mario from his prison, and is thrown violently into a battle with Bowser. It was quite a shock to see the fiery lizard after catching ghosts the entire game, and following the first hit Bowser had another shock up his sleeve. His head flies off revealing King Boo inside, with “Bowser’s” floating head spitting fire at you while you try to suck up the King. It’s one of the most macabre boss battles a Mario game has ever seen.
The Galaxy games had such a grand sense of scale, placing one tiny man on huge planetoids among the stars. Of all the beasts we fought in those games, Gobblegut gave us the greatest sense of cosmic balance. A monstrous dragon styled after Chinese mythology, Gobblegut traces the sky before he moves in for the kill, drilling straight through the planet you’re standing on. He’s so impressively massive, and moves with such surprising grace, we sometimes forgot to fight back.
A villain with true pathos is a rare thing in video game drama, but the Whomp King is ready to get heavy on you. “We build your houses, your castles. We pave your roads, and still you walk all over us.” This king is tired of seeing the people of the Mushroom Kingdom walk all over his subjects, and he’s ready to strike a blow for his blocky brethren. Unfortunately, the king has always been better at rhetoric than military strategy, and he forgot to remove that bandage on his back that reveals his weak spot rather readily. Oh well, the king is still no push over. You’ll have to stay fast on your feet and fake him out so he lands flat on his face, not on your head. Then just give him the old ground pound until he’s gravel.
What did we miss?
With a history as storied as Mario's, we're bound to have missed some great boss fights, so let us know in the comments what other baddies deserve recognition.
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