5 Reasons Bowser Is The Most Successful Video Game Character
The Mario cast changes less than the law of gravity. They're the most popular video game characters of all time and remain the reason 99 percent of all defeated video game enemies have footprints instead of haircuts. In Mario, Nintendo has the sort of brand identity Steve Jobs could only dream of, because you sure as hell wouldn't buy iGolf.
Or Dr. Jobs.
As a consequence, Bowser and Mario have been going at it for 25 years, longer than most real wars last. Figuring it was probably time somebody honored their eternal antagonism by checking the scoreboard, we dug in for the long, pedantic process of picking a winner in a fictional conflict. What we got instead was the story of the most depressingly one-sided rivalry in the history of not just video games, but possibly the world.
The plot of Super Mario Bros. is essentially the tale of one long real estate struggle, as Bowser attempts to take over the Mushroom Kingdom and Mario shows up way too late to prevent him from doing so. Despite forming the kingdom's entire defense force, Mario rarely hears about an invasion until after Bowser has had enough time to build a series of castles. Archaeologists have responded to invasions faster. At a certain point, Mario has to feel less like a hero than a Rascal Scooter -- prolonging the lives of thousands of terminally mushy creatures who would have been no match for evolution if left to their own devices.
"At least Bowser makes the trains run on time."
While Mario is always in crisis mode, Bowser's motives seem to oscillate between good old-fashioned land lust and not having anything better to do on a Sunday. One of the few times Mario arrives early enough to see Bowser make off with the Princess (Super Mario Galaxy 2) was when it was such an incredibly minor part of the plan, Bowser was clearly doing it just to piss Mario off. And when you can mount a planetary assault just to shout "Screw You!," you're winning so hard the scoreboard turns into a diamond.
The instant Bowser wants the kingdom, he has it -- his life is what the God of the Old Testament would wish for if he was given a magic lantern from the spirit of Alexander the Great. He just sits back on his throne of fire and watches Mario scamper through the obstacle course that he designed. Hell, some of the time, he probably stages an invasion just because there's nothing good on TV.
"It's this or No Ordinary Family."
Mario's the most recognizable family-friendly hero this side of Mickey Mouse, yet he's fighting to defend his home against a villain who is better at that as well. Bowser has a bigger family than Catholic sumo wrestlers, while the most famous hero in gaming is a 40-something bachelor, presumably still living knee-deep in mushroom pizza boxes, since we know he doesn't own more than one set of clothes. There are college students more mature than him -- at least they don't have to gather coins on their way to meet their girlfriends.
And all those gold stars take up an obnoxious amount of shelf space.
We know Bowser's home life has to be good, because even in the most annoying embodiments of the "rebellious teenager phase" possible, Bowser Jr. and the Koopalings still hang out with their father, learning the family trade. We never see his wife, probably for the same reason that Tony never brought Carmela along when he was staging a gangland takeover. Bowser keeps the woman he loves safe from harm and out of the games.
"My husband is a garbage-man!"
The closest thing that Mario has to a stable relationship is the perpetually kidnapped Peach. While the game presents her prolonged disappearances as something between a shell game and a hostage situation, she's never as thankful as you'd hope when you rescue her.
Meanwhile, she's perfectly happy to race Go-Karts against Bowser. Their continual kidnapping/getting rescued game of cat-and-mouse seems more flirtatious than anything. In the real world, after the third time a woman disappears with the same man, either common sense or the police usually tell you to stop filing missing-person reports, let alone smash up his place trying to get her back.
So Bowser's got Mario's girl and a Mrs. Bowser somewhere tending a beautiful three-bedroom castle. Mario has the worst job in the world, and in his downtime, he's a lonely plumber.
Learning From Mistakes
You can't blame Mario for having less natural talent than Bowser. He's just a tiny plumber in a magical world where both flora and fauna are deadly to the touch. Bowser, on the other hand, is made of spikes and flame in a world where those are the most unavoidable causes of death. He's also apparently the master of industrial-level technology, while Mario relies on druid-level flowers and mushrooms for weaponry.
When your enemies have giant airships, you may want slightly more power than a fox tail provides.
When you've got that much going against you, the only way to even the odds is to adapt on the fly and innovate new strategies in the face of defeat. The good guys in the Mario Bros. universe are more like a man called "Lefty" having another try at unblocking that garbage disposal. They're so bad at learning important lessons from their mistakes that they make the bad guys from G.I. Joe look like the good guys from G.I. Joe. Defending the Mushroom Kingdom should not be hard: It's a magical kingdom of unlimited fantasy where stars are cute, flowers grant magical abilities and everything with a shell is trying to kill you.
All they would have to do is station guards at every entrance and give them very simple instructions: If someone trying to enter the mushroom kingdom has a shell, he's not allowed in. Just stop him, turn him around and get ready to do it again in 30 seconds when he bounces off something else and comes back. That's not racial profiling; that's common sense. This is a land so easy to defend that even TSA agents could manage it.
For the 40,058th time, TURN AROUND, SIR!
Bowser, meanwhile, has learned every lesson the games have to give him -- and those lessons are all "Have a party, buddy!"
Bowser gets to do whatever he wants, whenever he wants, in the full knowledge that everyone will put up with it. He ruins Mario's life almost yearly, and Mario doesn't seem to care. Repeated home invasions and sexual assaults normally lead to restraining orders, not golf invitations.
When you've abducted our girlfriend 10 times, then no, you may not come Go-Karting with us. They even invite him to the things that wouldn't make sense even if he wasn't a repeat sex offender -- call us crazy, but when someone BREATHES FIRE, you don't invite him to the Winter Olympics. It's not like Mario even gets to hit him -- Bowser is constantly being bathed in fire and dropped down bottomless chasms. Drops don't kill things in Mario-land, gravity being somewhat less powerful than homeopathy in that universe, and as for the lava, we've already mentioned how he breathes fire. That's less a fiery end than a gentle magma spa (and the one time it did anything, in New SMB, it turned him into a Dry Bones Bowser, and those things are even more unkillable).
A Fate Worse Than Death
If a sports analyst wants to use math to say Team A is much better than Team B, he'll often say, "If they played 10 times on a neutral field, Team A would win nine times out of 10." If Team A is the Miami Heat and everyone on Team B is in a wheelchair, he might say they'd win 999 out of 1,000. Well, we don't have to use hypothetical scenarios for the matchup between Bowser and Mario. They've played on a neutral field billions of times and, whether you choose to believe that there's a Prestige-style Mario cloning machine just off screen at the beginning of each game or use quantum physics' notion of multiple universes, the fact is that Mario has set out on a quest to defeat Bowser billions of times, and his winning percentage has to be somewhere well below .001 percent.
Mario has died millions, maybe billions of pointless, futile deaths. His incredibly mortal coil is repeatedly flung into everything from medieval spiked pits to relativistic black holes -- everything human technology has ever achieved has been used to kill Mario.
A very mortal coil.
Now granted, most video game characters are slightly more expendable than shotgun ammunition in Texas, but Mario has it worse, because he's the family-friendly one. He's the My First Character for everyone introduced to video games to try controlling. And since he was the character that launched the NES and popularized home gaming in the first place, most of the people who have ever controlled him had no idea what they were doing at first. He's died more often at the hands of children than ants, and was steered clumsily off more cliffs in the 80s alone than the entire history of cars in Ireland.
Add the fact that most casual Marionizers never beat the game, and you've got an endless expanse of parallel worlds where Bowser is not just winning, but winning with ease. In any coherent universe in which Bowser exists, the odds are extremely likely that Mario is either a minor blip on his security radar that went away within 15 seconds, or an army of clones he entertains himself by killing over and over again.
In the end, Mario vs Bowser might be the most unhealthy rivalry the world of fiction has seen since Captain Ahab decided he could take Moby Dick in a fist fight. And even Ahab had a better attack ratio: At least he got to see his nemesis twice, and managed to only die once.
Check out more from Luke with 9 Video Game Easter Eggs That Took Years to Find and Umbrella: The Most Wasteful Movie Corporation Ever.