Mario versus Bowser is a rivalry that has lasted for 30 years, and it joins a pantheon of other great rivalries from mythology and fiction—Theseus versus the Minotaur, Jack versus the Giant, Rocky versus Ivan Drago, Gandalf versus the Balrog. We love stories where the little guy, armed with nothing but his wits and heart, topples a gigantic monster. And in his quest to rescue Princess Peach, save the Mushroom Kingdom, and sometimes save even the whole world, Mario has managed this incredible feat, time and again, against a massive, fire-breathing turtle-dragon that gets bigger with each game.
Today I’m ranking every final Mario versus Bowser battle. I’m not counting Luigi or Yoshi battles, and I’m not counting group battles. These are the battles where Mario stood face to face with the King of the Koopas and still managed to come out on top. Let’s kick off this countdown by starting with the worst.
17. MARIO PINBALL LAND
Game Boy Advance/2004
Mario’s mojo is so great that he can sell anything, and Mario Pinball Land proves that. This is just painful to watch. You’re using two flippers to knock Mario around on a wing and a prayer, and damaging Bowser is an exercise in blind chance. Sonic doesn’t have Mario beat in a lot of areas, but after playing both Mario Pinball Land and Sonic Pinball Party, I can safely say that he makes a better pinball.
16. HOTEL MARIO
Hotel Mario goes into the wastebasket of horrible ideas, right next to Mario’s Missing, Mario’s Time Machine and the Super Mario Brothers Super Show. You take on Koopa Hotels by slamming doors shut (don’t ask) and wrestling with some truly unresponsive controls. When you finally face Bowser, you end up chasing him from one door to the next, in a tedious battle of trial and error that’s more Scooby Doo than Italian plumber.
15. SUPER MARIO SUNSHINE
Super Mario Sunshine has always been the odd child of Mario’s platforming adventures. After a six-year absence, Mario returned to action with a water contraption strapped to his back, and not everyone was on board. The final Bowser was extremely anti-climactic— Bowser’s chilling in a hot tub the whole time, and you have to ground pound five triggers surrounding the jacuzzi to make it collapse. What sort of final boss fight is that? Yes, Super Mario Sunshine is defined by its vacation getaway vibe. But when the King of the Koopas shows up, it’s time to get serious.
14. PAPER MARIO: STICKER STAR
One thing that Paper Mario games are really good at is establishing Bowser as an anti-hero—a big bully who is not so much evil as misunderstood. Paper Mario: Sticker Star throws away that character development, and the final, dialogue-lacking battle relegates him to being a big, scary monster. Not awful, per se. But we’ve come to expect much more.
13. NEW SUPER MARIO BROS. U
Whenever you take on the Bowser’s Koopalings, the trick to beating them has become a standard formula. Stomp their heads. Avoid their shell attack. Repeat three times. The Bowser fight in New Super Mario Bros. U is exactly this, except on a larger scale. Is it a good fight? It’s alright. But again, whenever we take on Bowser, we hope for something a little less standard and a little more urgent.
12. SUPER MARIO GALAXY
You know when you get a new toy or gadget, and you’re so into it that it’s embarrassing and awkward for the people around you? That’s what the Bowser battle in Super Mario Galaxy is like. Trick Bowser into lava, set his butt on fire, and spin punch him, all while navigating a tiny sphere. Galaxy was revolutionary in 2007, but today, it’s a little gimmicky, and this boss battle has not aged well. The team was so in love with it’s space physics and upside down shenanigans that they forgot to create a good fight.
11. NEW SUPER MARIO BROS. 2
Here’s another battle that doesn’t quite deliver on its initial promise. Bowser’’s most scary when he’s stomping after you and trying to squash you. This Bowser is in the background, and he takes the occasional swipe at us in timed increments? He is massive, but he should be throwing his weight around a little bit more, pun intended.
10. NEW SUPER MARIO BROS.
New Super Mario Bros. revived the sidescrolling, classic Mario action for a new generation. Later games in the series had better Bowser battles, but New Super Mario Bros. planted the flag, with a classic bridge confrontation that recalled the original Super Mario Bros. Also, a nice touch: when you beat up Bowser Jr., Bowser Sr. gets angry, and breathes fire in every direction. He may not be the nicest guy, but he does seem to be a loving dad.
9. PAPER MARIO
Now this is how to do a Paper Mario game! The original Paper Mario is an acclaimed role playing game with humor—lots of inside jokes and callbacks—and a deep combat system to boot. The final Bowser battle is a difficult trial of attrition - he can heal himself three times before he finally goes down for the count.
8. SUPER MARIO 64
This is the first time that we saw Bowser in 3D, and he looked… weird. Hey, it was 20 years ago; give the developers a break! The only way to beat him is to grab him by his tail and spin him around like a hammer at the Olympics. Something about that size contrast still holds up today as physical comedy, even if the graphics do not.
7. SUPER MARIO BROS.
Here’s the Bowser bridge battle that started it all. There were eight worlds in the original Super Mario Bros., and you fight Bowser at the end of every one of them. But if you made it to the end of each stage as Fire Mario and beat him with fireballs, you found out that the first seven Bowsers were impostors. The first Bowser was actually a Goomba. The second Bowser was actually a Koopa Troopa. The only real Bowser is the hammer-chucking, final one, and boy, does it feel good to finally take him down.
6. SUPER MARIO 3D LAND
There are Bowser chase scenes than the one in Super Mario 3D Land. But this showdown distinguishes itself with an “Indiana Jones” moment. At the end of the fight, Mario runs towards the camera as Bowser, like a giant boulder, comes rumbling after him. It’s an incredible climax, and it creates that “palms sweaty” moment that is essential to any great Bowser battle.
5. SUPER MARIO WORLD
This Bowser battle makes the Top 5 thanks to the Koopa Clown Copter. That thing is just awesome. Aerodynamically impossible, but awesome nonetheless. Bowser has three phases in this battle, and last one, during which Bowser bounces his vehicle on the ground, is the scariest. Plus, there’s a 90’s era lightning storm that sets the mood perfectly.
4. SUPER MARIO GALAXY 2
After releasing Super Mario Galaxy on the Wii, Nintendo did something unprecedented—they released a Mario sequel on the exact same system. It was something that hadn’t been attempted on consoles since they did it on the Super Nintendo a decade and a half prior. Galaxy 2 was a refinement of formula, taking everything the original Galaxy did and making it more complex and more engaging. The final Bowser battle lives up to that mantra. There’s nothing as frightening as a green, spiked comet hurtling toward you at warp speed through space.
3. NEW SUPER MARIO BROS. WII
There’s so much going on during the final battle of New Super Mario Bros. Wii, and that’s what makes it so exciting.It’s only battle where Bowser’s fire breath is as much of a help as a hindrance; it can kill you, but it also punches a hole through the walls in front of you, so that you can get the hell away from Bowser. This Bowser Battle is filled with daredevil jumps, and although you can clear it without any power-up items, that’s an ‘experts only’ endeavor. A Propeller Suit makes your job easier, especially when dodging the one-hit-kill, lava waves of death.
2. SUPER MARIO 3D WORLD
The final Bowser fight in Super Mario 3D World is the chase scene to end all chase scenes; we have no clue how the developers will top it on their next go-around. Bowser turns himself into a massive cat-dragon, and thus begins an epic sequence, intercut with cinematic cut scenes, where multiple Bowsers claw and pounce on you as you ascend a tower. But as visually impressive and as exciting as this sequence is, it doesn’t compare to the sheer fear and dread that our #1 pick conjures up.
1. SUPER MARIO BROS. 3
It may not be the most graphically impressive, and it’s certainly not the most complex. But the Bowser fight in Super Mario Bros. 3 is the #1 battle on this countdown. You have an angry, fire-breathing lizard trying to squash you in a tiny, claustrophobic room, and there is no place to hide and little opportunity to launch an offensive. This is also the first time that Bowser ‘kills himself.’ Survive long enough, and he’ll stomp on the brick floor until it gives way. It’s such a relief, and the delayed crunching sound, which means that Bowser has finally hit rock bottom after a long fall, is memorable for all the right reasons.
Wing-Man has written about video games and popular culture since 2013, and has been published in multiple online and print publications. Follow him on Twitter @WingManWriter.