Written by Jonathan Wojcik
MARIO HORRORS - PART FOUR:
I've procrastinated on this one long enough. Having reviewed dozens of more minor enemies during the Halloween season, it's time to close off our Mario coverage (for now) with a run through major villains of the series. It won't really be possible to look at each and every single last one, of course, and the cut-off point between major villain and minor minion will be difficult to draw, but I think we'll get by well enough.
The baseline, of course, should be Mario's #1 nemesis and original main villain unless you count Donkey Kong, and you shouldn't, because Donkey Kong wasn't a villain. Mario was Donkey Kong's villain.
When I was a child, we actually never referred to this guy as "Bowser." We knew him as King Koopa in the Saturday Morning cartoon and other Periphera. "Bowser" actually originates as a name exclusively for pet dogs, like "rover" or "fido," but by now, it's almost solely recognized as the name of this big, asshole turtle. He was actually conceived as a monstrous ox at one point, and I can't imagine him ever catching on quite the same if he was just a big cow; people love Bowser because he's basically a big, burly, bruteish dragon, and the fact that a turtle of all things is our main villain has become so iconic that it hardly feels strange anymore. Rest assured, when Super Mario Brothers debuted, we all thought it was preposterous that we were playing a short, fat plumber and that we were fighting against scary turtles.
Bowser as a character should be harder to sympathize with. I mean, he constantly kidnaps the same woman and even tries to force her into marriage, which isn't something anybody really tolerates in any other fictional character for long, but there's something about Bowser in particular that everybody just seems to feel sorry for. No matter what he does, the world apparently forgives him because he's a big, dumb turtle monster dad and nobody can ever stay mad at that. Not even Princess Peach herself really seems to stay mad at that.
In Super Mario Brothers III, the world was introduced to the "Koopalings" or "Koopa Kids"...sort of. In the Japanese version, they were just meant to be Bowser's most powerful Koopa generals, basically all high-ranking adults of the Koopa Troopa species. They were translated as Bowser's "kids" for the English release because somebody just thought that would be funnier and more marketable, and even Nintendo of Japan went on to agree wholeheartedly. My favorite was always Iggy, the kooky nerd one, even if he's easy to confuse with Larry and Lemmy, the other two with chicken hair.
Each of the kids are also named after famous musicians, and most of them punk rock with the exception of the big-haired Ludwig.
Confusingly, a "Baby Bowser" was introduced by Yoshi's Island as the actual juvenile form of the Bowser we already know, but would reappear in later games as Bowser's son. Most games featuring Bowser simply don't include the Koopalings, and he's officially stated to be an only child, but the true origins of any of them are ambiguous to this day.
On a final note for Bowser, I thought I should include Kamek, the Koopa wizard. He was introduced as a minor enemy in Super Mario World, but went on to be treated as Bowser's chief advisor, and if Yoshi's Island is to be believed, he also pretty much raised Bowser like a foster dad.
As we explained when we talked about Shy Guys a ways back, what came to the English-speaking world as "Super Mario Brothers 2" was really a hasty reskinning of an unrelated game, Doki Doki Panic. The Mariofied version offered basically no story except that the entire game was just Mario's weird dream, but in the original, Wart was the tyrannical ruler of a dream world in a magical storybook, so he was essentially fictional on at least two or three levels. When two childrean tear out the final page of the book, however, the defeat of Wart is essentially undone and he pulls the two into the story realm where he now rules uncontested.
There's still no explanation as to why Wart is a giant toad or anything known of his personality, though he makes a strange cameo in the Game Boy title The Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening, where he can be encountered in a dream, brags about how famous he is, and charges Link 800 rupees to teach him "Frog's Song of Soul" on his ocarina.
It never even crossed my mind until now that Wart ties in perfectly with our own Nightmare Menagerie feature, where we long ago established that frogs and toads, for some reason, really do seem to be the flagship animals of the weirdest nightmares.
In addition to his army of Shy Guys, Snifits and Tweeters, Wart had a set of minions who were treated as major villains themselves, even migrated into the animated TV series as the minions of King Koopa, with Wart never even vaguely referenced.
Mouser was always the most prominent of these, and probably one of the best remembered, a mean old giant rat with bad-boy sunglasses whose specialty is to throw bombs.
Triclyde was another of Wart's liutenants, a simple multi-headed, fireball-spitting snake. As a kid, I actually thought there was a hard them going on with these guys as "creepy crawly" animals people commonly formed phobias around, and therefore major figures in real-world bad dreams. Not many people are afraid of frogs and toads these days, mind you, but if you look at older media you'll find that they were once considered pretty high up there as a "gross" creature.
The nightmare phobia theory kind of stumbles with Clawgrip. Not a lot of people I can think of are particularly terrified by crabs, though you could argue that he's a stand-in for all "bugs." He's pretty rad looking, too; I love those eyes, but you can pretty much never go wrong with a crab monster's eyes anyway. He's the biggest and toughest of the gang, too, and of course, he spews bubbles as his main attack.
Fry Guy is the end of the entire "scary animal" hypothesis, but fire is definitely something people are widely afraid of. I always liked the black mask around his pure white, pupil-less eyes, a detail sadly removed from the cartoon show. At least, unlike poor Clawgrip, he ever appeared there at all.
Finally we come to the last of Wart's underlings, though Birdo hasn't been used as a villain since. The fact that she's said to "really be a boy" in the game's manual has made her something of an icon, and as much as it was undoubtedly intended as a mean joke, Nintendo still hints at it again every so often while continuing to portray Birdo as a cute, lovable character and sometimes even Yoshi's girlfriend, so, that's an awful lot less mean than it could have been.
Perhaps Birdo really doesn't even belong on this page at all, but I feel like her original stint as one of Wart's Nightmare Monsters goes unappreciated, and she's a pretty strange and unique monster at that. I've always loved any kind of creature with a circular, tubular or cannon-like mouth, which Birdo uses to spit her own eggs as a weapon. It's also interesting that she was named "Birdo" before we really firmly established that dinosaurs and birds were the same exact thing.
Most of our villains from this point on are one-shots, and Tatanga might be one of the most forgotten of them all, having appeared only on the game boy's Super Mario Land. It's pretty notable, however, as the game that introduced Princess Daisy, established since then as the princess more interested in Luigi than Mario.
Tatanga is supposed to be an alien invader, but he looks more like some kind of purple goblin. Is he quite possibly a Hopkinsville goblin? They did get to be pretty iconic in Japan as a stock alien design.
This would be the reason why Tatanga was forgotten. A pun on "Mario" and "Waru" (darkness, evil) Wario is now known primarily as a hilarious anti-hero with dozens of playable roles and even his own spin-off games characterizing him as a ruder, more slovenly, more money-driven counterpart to Mario whose laundry list of character flaws are just part of his underdog charm.
...But in his first appearance...?
No matter how they've marketed Wario in the years since, I've never forgotten this beautifully animated commercial for his original introduction as Mario's outright evil doppelganger, even armed with some impressive magical powers. I just assumed as a kid that he was some sort of demonic entity that took a crude facsimile of Mario's form, and I fully expected him to keep coming back as a creepy, menacing, supernatural antagonist.
That sure as heck didn't pan out, as you may know, with licensed comics and other media almost immediately establishing Wario as just a human slob (with unexplained elf ears) who happens to love treasure. There's some charm to Wario as just a "sleazier" Mario, but I feel like I'll always think of him as a Mario-like "monster" from some warped mirror realm. It would certainly better explain why there's a Waluigi, which Nintendo for some reason declared was not blood related to Wario at all. This would make a whole lot more sense if they were just created by some kind of dark magic to be Mario and Luigi's foils, but no, they're just...two pointy-eared dudes with weird names I guess.
THE SMITHY GANG
Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars was a pretty big phenomenon at one time, the first Marioverse JRPG title with heavy focus on storytelling and characterization. It was also one of the first times that Bowser officially partnered up with Mario and Peach as a hero, since his castle was taken over by a new one-shot villain, King Smithy. He doesn't look like much, but he's basically some sort of living anvil-man from another dimension, which as far as know only consists of massive factories that produce anthropomorphic weapons for the purpose of conquering other universes. It's a pretty damn cool concept all around.
Smithy's liutenants are all battled separately to win back various regions of the Mushroom Kingdom, and consist of:
Mack: a knife with eyes, and a humanoid torso for a handle that seems to ride the blade like a pogo-stick. I always thought this was a cool design, though I don't remember much of his personality.
Yaridovich: supposedly based on a spear, but basically a spindly robot who, for some reason, has the power to shape-shift and imitate anyone he wants. It's a cool design, and I recall him being a scheming egomaniac.
Bowyer: a kooky, maniacal bow that can fire an unlimited number of arrows, speaks in broken grammar and has a signature "NYA!" laugh.
And finally, the Ax'em Rangers: an entire tokusatsu hero squad treated as a single villain, us American kids back in the day actually never bothered to notice or care that "Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers" was an edited version of a Japanese series, and we had no idea it was part of such a vast genre, so we pretty much thought these guys were a joke on a then-recent 90's fad. We were dumb.
The boss of Luigi's Mansion initially seems to be Bowser again, but it turns out to be nothing but a form taken by the true villain, the leader of all Boos who has kidnapped Mario and trapped him in a painting. There's not much we can say about King Boo as a character, but I've always enjoyed the fact that he's pretty much recognized now as Luigi's arch nemesis, and that Luigi himself absolutely hates it. Bowser is Mario's bad guy because they're just rivals. They mutually want to pound each other's faces in. King Boo is Luigi's bad guy because Luigi is scared shitless by ghosts. This really doesn't seem fair.
We're jumping pretty far ahead now in time to the villains of the second (and awesome!) Paper Mario title. The origins of the X-nauts are never explained, and we know as little about their true forms as we do the Shy Guys. All we know is that they're technologically advanced and intend to conquer the world by unleashing the power of a being known as the Shadow Queen. They consist only of the dastardly Lord Crump, an army of no-name X-naut goons and their leader, Grodus, a wizardlike figure with a visible, electronic brain. Are all the X-nauts robots? Cyborgs? The first thing the Shadow Queen does when she's actually unleashed is disintegrate Grodus down to only his head and goggles, but apparently he's fine that way. We're even told by the end of the game that he and Crump "have mellowed out a lot," with a brief view of them arguing with each other, Grodus still nothing but a disembodied robot head. I loved these guys, even if there wasn't much too them beyond very cool designs.
THE SHADOW SIRENS
The three Shadow Siren sisters come across as merely agents of the X-nauts at first, but it's soon clear that they're the ones really pulling the strings. They consist of Beldam, Marilyn and Vivian, but Vivian defects to your side fairly early into the game, and remains one of the most beloved one-off characters in the Paper Mario series. She's also heavily implied to be transgender in the Japanese version, again probably for what was going to be a cheap joke, but her writing came out pretty heavily sympathetic. Beldam even finally apologizes to her near the end of the game for years of abuse, and addresses her as "sis" for the first time.
We're never told exactly what a Shadow Siren is, but it's kind of self explanatory anyway. They're magical, shadowy, witch-like spirits who may or may not have been an entire species at one point, as indicated by the fact that they are trying to reawaken their huge and terrifying queen, who requires Princess Peach as a living vessel.
They're great designs, too, all four of them, though maybe a part of me says that because any character design with hair or a hat over its eyes - if these beings have eyes at all - is simultaneously cool and just too damn cute.
Maybe you noticed by now that Mario encounters some more hardcore foes in the RPG titles. Count Bleck is the initial main antagonist of Super Paper Mario, and went mad at some point in the past when he watched the love of his life slowly sicken and die. When he discovers an ancient tome called the Dark Prognosticus, he learns that his tragic life has all been part of a prophecy to end all universes and erase the entirety of creation, which for some reason requires a ritual in which he has to marry Princess Peach to Bowser.
There's more, but I honestly don't want to spoil this one. If you can't play it yourself, at least consider watching a complete play-through, because its storyline is packed to the brim with charm, and Count Bleck is actually as well written as his fashion sense is slick as hell.
Mimi's talents lie in shape-shifting, but even the form we typically see her in isn't her default. Please watch the following clip, and see what happens when Mimi gets pissed enough to show off her true self:
If you somehow can't watch the video, and that's a real shame because you'll have to miss those lovely cracking sounds, here is an official image of the real Mimi. WHAT the hell is she?! Why is her crumpled, upside-down spider head filled with gears?!
Mimi's transformation into this form might be the single creepiest, most ghoulish moment ever featured in a Mario game, and I've been meaning to talk about it here on bogleech.com ever since this game was brand new. Horrific though she may be, however, Mimi is another of our villains shown to have more complexity than plain old "evil."
We actually blew talking about some of Super Paper Mario's other villains in previous reviews, but Francis wasn't enough of a "creepy monster" for those, and it's now or never to introduce you to him. A skeevy creep who obsesses over Princess Peach at first sight, Francis is a pretty harsh, stereotyped dig at everything to do with Otaku culture, but it's not as if douchey fanboys like him don't exist, so I'd say the cliche still has value as a cautionary anti-role-model...and the concept of an entirely geek-based Bowser-like figure is way too entertaining. Francis even has his own castle and his own signature minions, a fleet of robot vacuum cleaners that he dressed like cats for reasons I don't think I want to question any further.
This guy was the Paper Mario team's chance to load an entire segment of the game with some pretty funny gags on anime, manga, and even the rest of the Marioverse as we get to snoop around Francis's room and check out his enormous collection of referential geekery. He's even a devoted fan of the hit science fiction series, Starship X-Naut!
By far the funniest thing to come of the entire Francis encounter is when he attempts to woo the princess with the help of a computer program he designed for the express purpose of talking to girls, and the whole exchange plays out as a parody dating sim.
Sadly, Super Paper Mario was the last time the Paper Mario series had so much emphasis on storytelling and so many wacky, wild original characters. Since then, the series received orders from higher up in Nintendo to tone down their creativity, use only characters or creatures from established Mario games and focus on gameplay over plot. This is because Miyamoto has a well-known dislike of too much story, and told the team behind subsequent Paper Mario titles that he felt the games would be "fine" without one. BOOOOOOOO!!! You're also the guy who doesn't like Waluigi! BOO!!!
Leaving behind the Paper Mario games, our last villains come from the very different Mario and Luigi RPG series on the 3DS, but we're going to review these guys in reverse chronological order, because that's also the order of how much I love them. Not that Antasma isn't cool, of course; he's actually a bat that began feeding on dreams one day, slowly becoming a more and more powerful dream-vampire.
There's not a whole lot else to Antasma besides a Dracula-like speech pattern and the usual power-mad supervillain routine, but damn if that isn't one killer battle sprite for a Mario character.
The second Mario and Luigi game featured both time travel and an alien invasion by a race of killer space fungi, THE SHROOB! I absolutely love the aesthetic of their common grunts, too, with their spooky red eyes and little fangs and pincer-claws. The game is even chock full of "shroobified" monsters, like shroob-ombs, shroob chomps, swigglers and shroopas. They're all led by their own Shroob counterpart to Princess Peach, simply known as Princess Shroob, though I'm not a fan of the design's weird lips, which border on the same issue as Jynx. This is averted in her old sister, Elder Princess Shroob, who enjoys a set of jagged jaws instead...and spine-tipped tentacles!
The idea of an alien fungus race invading our more familiar Mushroom Kingdom is a very cool one that feels like a long time coming, and the Shroob have a lovely overall style to them. They really feel like an ominous, spooky space-alien counterpart to creatures like the Goombas and Toads, and it's too bad we never even find out exactly what becomes of them. All we know is that they came to take over the Mushroom Kingdom because their entire fungal homeworld was dying, and it's entirely possible that they were left to die off themselves.
We're almost to the end, now. The sorceress Cackletta was the main villain of the first Mario and Luigi RPG, and hailed from the Beanbean Kingdom, a land dominated by anthropomorphic edamame beans instead of anthropomorphic mushrooms. I always liked that idea, and I wonder what other kingdoms you could throw into that mix. A nut kingdom? A fruit kingdom? How about candy people? I guess now I'm turning the Marioverse into Adventure Time.
Anyway, Cackletta is kind of your typical conniving, cackling witch archetype and doesn't have a whole lot of distinct personality beyond that, but she's SO freaking cool looking, isn't she? Those hooked claws, that fangly underbite, the menacing purple eyes, she might very well be one of the best looking Mario Universe villains around, and by far one of its best designed female characters, few and far between as they are.
Cackletta's biggest claim to fame, however, is when her body gets destroyed and her disembodied soul takes Bowser as a host, resulting in Bowletta, or the original Bowsette, if you will. She has a pretty grand old time piloting around such a huge, destructive beast, probably a refreshing change from however old and decrepit her previous body was supposed to be.
When finally ejected from bowser, we battle against Cackletta's soul itself, and of course it manages to look even cooler, especially its jagged jaws, veiny eyeballs and exposed heart. This game came out before even Paper Mario 2, and I feel like this was one of the first times since Smithy that a Mario villain felt like seriously threatening.
And now we come to the very last character on our list, possibly one of my top three or four favorites here that I swear I wasn't consciously ripping off for Doctor Phage and a character definitely high on other people's listss. Fawful was introduced as Cackletta's mad scientist henchman, but easily stole the show with his preposterous inventions, high-pitched giggling and bizarre dialog, at least in the English version where he spoke like a bad babelfish.com translation.
Knowing they had a hit on their hands, Fawful returned as the main antagonist of Bowser's Inside Story, now calling himself Lord Fawful with an army of Fawful-ized minions bearing his face. Taking a page from his former boss, he even converts himself into a shadowy, infectious spirit of darkness and takes over Bowser's body, leaving a micro-sized Mario and Luigi to battle his deliciously creepy final form!
It really is a crying shame that Miyamoto just isn't a fan of any Mario characters he didn't come up with, and doesn't allow either Paper Mario or Mario and Luigi characters any prominent roles in more major games. Fawful would otherwise be my #1 choice to break out into Smash and Kart titles, but really, each and every single character we have seen here, every last one, is a precious and perfect angel.
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