In discussing Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars, we've gone into detail about the ways in which this adventure opened Mario's horizons. However, his wasn't the only character whose worldview expanded. As much as this was a story about Mario branching out as a hero, it was just as much a story about Mario and his antagonistic relationship with Bowser. For the past decade, Mario, Bowser, and Peach were one-dimensional avatars filling roles for platformers. Super Mario RPG turned these three into fleshed-out characters, crafting their dynamic in new and unexpected ways. And in 1996, no plot twist was more unexpected than Mario and Bowser putting their contentious rivalry aside and banding together to face a common enemy.
The original Super Mario Bros. game was a tale of a heroic plumber journeying across the Mushroom Kingdom to save the abducted princess from a fearsome villain. On its own, it's a strong, reliable narrative and it's a narrative that quickly morphed into formula. Mario and Bowser's dynamic was unique. In the vacuum of each individual game, their conflict was presented as Hercules vs. the Hydra, David vs. Goliath, Lancelot vs. the dragon, and so forth. But in the grander picture, the conflict was a formula more reminiscent of Tom & Jerry, Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd, or Chip & Dale and Donald Duck. There was antagonism, but it was a lot more of a cartoonish routine, one that's fully played up in Super Mario RPG's opening minutes.
The tension ramps up the moment Smithy crashes through the skies. For Mario, this is a powerful new foe unlike any he's ever faced before. For Bowser, this is an invader trying to muscle in on his turf. It's an invader he's woefully unprepared for, as we later see Bowser's army whittle away to nothing. With both characters facing something they've never faced before, it leads to their sudden interaction at Booster's Tower all the more gripping and all the more historic.
After an awkward exchange, Bowser joins Mario's party in the guise of "allowing" them to join Bowser's Koopa Troop. It's a comedic moment, but one that proves to push Bowser's character in a big way. He's a villain who's clearly beaten, but not in the way that Mario typically beats him. Smithy didn't just beat Bowser, he threw him out of his own castle. This is more than a defeat for the King of the Koopas. It's an abject humiliation. Later in the game, Bowser can't even bring himself to admit his defeat to Princess Toadstool or the Mushroom Kingdom denizens, knowing that he has a reputation to uphold. He's supposed to be the baddest of the bad. However, he also knows that he can't hold that crown as long as Smithy is terrorizing the lands, which means having to band together with his most hated enemy.
Mario and Bowser's first ever team-up does not disappoint. The two play off of each other frequently through various dialogue instances, most of which involve Bowser feeling that he isn't being given the respect that a villain of his stature deserves. The remainder of the adventure puts Bowser in an unfamiliar position, that of a sidekick, and it grates on him. That makes the existence of the Hurly Gloves that much more hilarious. This is the item that Bowser equips in order to use Mario as a literal projectile against enemies.
It's a journey that ultimately weighs heavily on Bowser. Near the end, he resigns himself and recites a haiku to calm himself down. While Mario never has a word of dialogue in Super Mario RPG, he pats Bowser on the back. The two are bitter enemies and remain so to this day, but for this one moment, the danger that's up ahead is bigger than their rivalry. All they have to do is unite one time, beat this evil bad guy, and they can go right back to their cartoon friction.
For the most part, once Super Mario RPG was over, the two did go right back to being bitter enemies. Later that year, Bowser became bigger and badder than ever for Super Mario 64, Mario's 3D platforming debut. Their battles would span the literal cosmos through games like Super Mario Galaxy, Super Mario Sunshine, and Super Mario Odyssey. But for this one time, the Koopa King needed help. He'll never admit it, but he never could have climbed back up to his villainous perch without Mario.
Amusingly enough, though, the idea of Mario and Bowser as uneasy allies proved to be a hit. Defunct developer AlphaDream revisited the idea several times over the course of the Mario & Luigi series, the spiritual successors to Super Mario RPG. There was arguably no odder team-up between the two than in 2009's Mario & Luigi: Bowser's Inside Story, where Mario and Luigi had to help protagonist Bowser from deep within the giant villain's body. Most recently, Intelligent Systems' Paper Mario: The Origami King saw Mario and Bowser unite to take on the villainous King Olly, marking the one and only instance where Bowser loaned out his mighty airship fleet to Mario.
While a Mario and Bowser team-up doesn't sound unusual today, in 1996, this idea was unthinkable. It took an engaging story from Squaresoft to get these two together and make them into the best friends nobody ever knew they wanted. However, they're not the game's only stars and while they would walk away from Super Mario RPG as more fleshed-out characters, there's one breakout character who would go down as one of the Mario series' most memorable one-and-dones. Come back tomorrow when we talk about Geno. In the meantime, if you missed Part 1 and Part 2 of our Super Mario RPG retrospective, be sure to check those out right now.
Ozzie Mejia posted a new article, Best Frenemies: Super Mario RPG Turns 25 (Part 3)