For far too long have these three names been thought nearly synonymous within the pantheon of historical villainy; for far too long has the name “Bowser” been equated with evil, malevolence, and selfishness.
Today, we celebrate all those things good and righteous in the personality of King Bowser Koopa, ruler of the Mushroom Kingdom and caretaker of its denizens. In what may be considered a year-late companion piece to Six Sinister Things About Super Mario, it’s time to examine what makes Bowser not only a morally laudable character, but also a wholly sympathetic one.
Hit the jump, and prepare yourself to feel sympathy -- for the Bowser.
HE'S THE RIGHTFUL POLITICAL LEADER OF THE MUSHROOM KINGDOM
The vast majority of the Mario games, told from the perspective of Princess Peach and her political affiliates, would have the average gamer believe that Bowser is some sort of insurgent who wishes to wrongfully dethrone Peach and turn the entire Mushroom Kingdom into a fascist state. If you actually look at the evidence, however, the exact opposite seems to be true.
First, let’s look at political titles: Bowser is a king, where Peach is but a princess. Assuming they both earned their titles legally and within the same representational government (which they almost certainly did), there is literally no way Bowser could achieve the title of “king” without either having been elected to that post, or having earned it through birthright. Peach’s essentially useless “Princess” title seems to come from virtually nowhere: princess to whom? If she were the rightful princess, we’d have met (or at least heard mention of) her father, the Mushroom King. Since we’ve never heard so much as an utterance about this character outside of the Super Mario Bros movie (which isn’t canon, obviously), it is therefore reasonable to assume that Peach awarded herself the faux-royal title. This, in itself, also suggests that it is Peach, and not King Koopa, who represents the confederate insurgency within the Mushroom Kingdom.
If you need proof that Koopa achieved power by legal means, just consider the numbers game: for every one Toad character Mario found in the original Super Mario Bros., the player sees roughly five dozen Koopa Troopas, Goombas, and Hammer Bros -- all of whom would obviously vote for Bowser in a free and fair election. Peach, evidently irritated at the fact that her voter base seemed to consist of no more than twenty or so identical citizens, likely seceded from Bowser’s kingdom and, through a combination of propaganda and sexual manipulation, named herself “Princess” and declared herself the rightful ruler of the Mushroom Kingdom. Peach knew she couldn’t beat Bowser through sheer numbers, so she opted to spin the politics of her story and make it seem that Bowser was actually the dissenter.
And yet, despite Peach’s treachery, Bowser’s main motivation for all his “illegal” actions still comes down to one simple, relatable, and absolutely heartbreaking reason: love.
Bowser loves Princess Peach. None of the games have made any attempt to dance around this issue. He kidnaps her in nearly every damn Mario game, and he attempted to marry her in Super Paper Mario. Far from being the heartless despot Peach and her ilk would paint him to be, Bowser feels very strong, profound romantic emotions toward Peach – a woman who, for all intents and purposes, he should absolutely despise.
Sure, Koopa doesn’t necessarily express his feelings in the best of ways, but can you blame him? Betrayed by the woman he loves, politically undermined, and left totally alone in his castle save for his soldiers and illegitimate children, is it any surprise that Bowser is socially inadequate when it comes to showing affection? He kidnaps Peach and curses her name, yes, but inside -- deep down inside -- he’s really just trying to tell her that he loves her, while expressing an overwhelming desire that she reciprocate his feelings.
If anything, the man is certainly determined. He’s kidnapped Peach damn near a dozen times, always being eventually thwarted by Mario and/or Luigi, but he still tries; his desire for Peach is so strong that even having his castle destroyed and his children flung into lava pits is not enough to dissuade him from trying to court the object of his affection.
PRINCESS PEACH IS A COCKTEASING BITCH
If Bowser can be blamed for anything, it’s not his maliciousness (of which there is practically none) so much as his naïveté when it comes to dealing with the opposite sex -- Peach, specficially.
I used to think Peach was just stupid. In an older article, I said I’d never have sex with her because even after years and years of getting kidnapped by Bowser, she seemed to never have the intelligence to install any sort of security features within her castle, or even make any attempt whatsoever to prevent Bowser from frequently abducting her.
Peach isn’t stupid: she’s a brilliant, two-faced, evil, manipulative, blue-balls-giving bitch. She knows the only way to keep the proletariat on her side in the civil war is by constantly playing the part of the victim; as mentioned earlier, Bowser’s army obviously outnumbers Peach’s numerically, and so it is to her advantage to keep public sympathy on her side. She does this in two main ways. Firstly, she gets Bowser to frequently kidnap her; secondly, she gets Mario to save her.
Peach, like so many femme fatales, knows full well how enamored Bowser is with her, and the lengths to which he would go to win her love. She also knows how to properly exploit that adoration. She leaves the gates to her castle wide open, she keeps her palace guards totally unarmed, and generally uses innuendo and reverse psychology to trick Bowser into kidnapping her, time and time again. And why? So she can sic Mario on him, who, similarly cockteased through decades of false or underwhelming promises (“Rescue me and I’ll bake you a cake?” A CAKE? Bitch, I didn’t fight my way through twenty worlds full of armed guards and spikes and fire just for goddamned baked goods), rushes off to save her like a conditioned automaton. In saving Peach, Mario serves as an iconic hero for Peach’s troops, thus strengthening her army’s morale and keeping her in the political fight.
HE TAKES CARE OF HIS MEN
It takes a hell of a lot of dedication to run headlong into battle, knowing you’ll meet almost certain death at the hands (or rather feet) of an obese minority, but Bowser manages to instill this degree of loyalty in all his troops. Quite a considerable feat, if I may say so.
Bowser has single-handedly managed to convince his troops not only to ignore all of Princess Peach’s brainwashing propaganda, but to believe in him and his goals with a strength and conviction which has not, in the thirty years of the Mario series existence, ever been broken.
I think, anyway. There could be some obscure third-party Mario game or an episode of the animated show involving a double-agent Koopa that I’m not thinking of, but what happens if I take that little piece of evidence and I simply brush it away with a wave of my hand? What do you have then? Nothing, that’s what.
Meanwhile, the “evil” goombas, to paraphrase the player’s manual for the original Super Mario Bros, are described as Mushroom Toadstools who switched sides to join Bowser’s army. Bowser’s soldiers aren’t slaved, or brainwashed, or even draftees; Bowser’s men fight for the Koopa cause because they believe in it, while Peach’s minions are but mere pawns in her grand game of cocktease chess.*
Out of all the villains in the Super Mario universe, no “baddie” has ever joined Mario’s cause, or helped Mario out, so frequently. In both Super Mario RPG and Super Paper Mario, Bowser chooses to join Mario’s gang of hoodlums and nogoodniks for the purposes of saving the goddamned world.
Call Bowser petty or short-sighted if you want, but don’t forget that when the chips are down, Mario just plain can’t save the world on his own; he needs the help of his enemy, who (begrudgingly, I’ll admit) shows a great deal more heroism than any of the “good” characters ever give him credit for. Bowser is willing to put his life on the line not just for himself, and not just for his own army, but for the entire planet, Peach’s ungrateful dissenters included. Would Peach do the same if she didn’t absolutely have to? I doubt it.
DUDE GOT KIDS
He doesn't seem to talk to them that much and I can't imagine who the hell the mother was (illegitimate children of Peach, perhaps?), but it can be easy to forget that Bowser is, in fact, a father. It's fun to idolize Mario because of his bachelor lifestyle and carefree nature, but Bowser is a real dad with real responsibilities, who respected and/or loved his kids enough to give them each a separate castle, all to themselves.
ARGUABLY THE SINGLE WORST CHARACTER IN SUPER SMASH BROS. MELEE
When I said “sympathy,” I meant it – sympathy at all costs. How can you not feel a twinge (if not several twinges) of sympathy for Bowser in SSBM? Despite being one fo the largest and most ferocious-looking characters in the game, his moves are hilariously slow and ineffective, leaving him open to counters from damn near every other available character. Watching Bowser try to win a match is like watching a two-legged dog try to sprint: adorable, but ultimately depressing.
BORN UNDER A BAD SIGN
Nature versus nurture: are evil men born that way, or do they have evil thrust upon them? Up until the mid-1990’s, Nintendo fans could only guess at what turned Bowser to a life of kidnapping and misanthropy However, with Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island (a sequel to the other Mario games in name, but a prequel in actual narrative fact) we see an indescribably important moment in Bowser’s upbringing: his adoption by the dark Magikoopa, Kamek.
Before Bowser has even met Mario, Luigi, or Princess Peach, we see him as a baby under the protection of Kamek, who, oddly, looks exactly the same age as he does in the later games. Is he some sort of immortal demon? Or just a very, very gifted magician?
Anyway, Kamek looks into the future and sees that Mario and Luigi, a pair of twins, will one day cause a great deal of trouble for Bowser before flying off and intercepting the stork that carries them. From that point, Yoshi finds the babies and the adventure continues, eventually leading up to a large face-off between Yoshi, Baby Mario, and Baby Bowser.
This aspect of Bowser's development is extremely interesting, and brings to mind a scene from Shakespeare's Macbeth. At the beginning of the play, three witches tell Macbeth that he will soon rise to power, and his mere knowledge of this fact causes him to turn into a power-hungry murderer who fulfills his own prophecy. Similarly, Kamek sees that Mario and Luigi will grow to hate Bowser, but, in trying to act against this maybe-but-not-quite-inevitability, he inadvertently creates the first spark of hatred between Bowser and the Marios as he confuses Bowser into attacking Yoshi and Mario.
So, the question is, would Bowser have still become the enemy of the Marios had it not been for Kamek's parenting and soothsaying? Possibly not.
HE'S NEVER DONE ANYTHING PARTICULARLY EVIL
Okay, kidnapping, yeah, but Peach wanted it. Other than indulging Peach’s manipulative fantasies and occasionally detaining a Toadstool or two, what has Bowser really done wrong? His troops never aggressively attack Mario; they merely wait for Mario to initiate violence, and act solely in self-defense. Bowser has never killed, or even attempted to kill, anyone in cold blood. Hell, he’s never even invaded Peach’s portion of the Mushroom Kingdom, even though he has the manpower and moral superiority to make such an invasion both swiftly dealt and totally justified.
One may easily accuse him of mild idiocy, or slight cowardice, but never of evil or even anything approaching it: Bowser, as we see him in the Mario games, is merely a misunderstood, wrongly-demonized figure in an ever-escalating political struggle with the fascist (and notably, Aryan) Princess Peach.
So, the next time you grab his tail and throw him face-first into a bomb, or grab an axe and cut the rope bridge he’s standing on, remember this: Bowser never did a goddamn thing to you out of malice or hatred. After repeatedly and happily sending the sad, rightfully-elected protector of the people to his doom, maybe you’ll eventually see what I see. Maybe -- just maybe -- you’ll one day have some sympathy for the Bowser.
*I’m copyrighting the phrase “Cocktease Chess,” and I’ll make millions when I turn it into a full fledged board game.