Bowser has been around long enough that many gamers have found themselves wondering: is Mario's longtime nemesis really all that bad? Maybe he's just... misunderstood? Perhaps his intentions are pure, but as a flawed despot struggling to maintain order in his kingdom, he doesn't always make the best decisions.
Case in point: Super Mario 3D World, last year's excellent Wii U platformer that altered the traditional Mario story template a subtle, but meaningful way. Rather than kidnapping Princess Peach as he usually does, Bowser captures a group of "Sprixies" in 3D World. These magical fairy-like creatures are thus the object that Mario and his compatriots set out to rescue from Bowser's castles. It's tempting to see Nintendo's decision to feature the Sprixies as the 3D World's token characters-in-need-of-rescuing as an easy way to justify making Peach a playable character in the game (and the best one, if you ask me). But Super Mario fan and blogger Ryan Gartman has a more interesting take on Bowser and the Sprixies, which he recently spelled out on his blog What They Call Games.
It all starts at the very first moments of Super Mario 3D World, when we first see Bowser capturing the Sprixies (emphasis mine throughout):
OK, so if you're not familiar with the beginning of Super Mario 3D World, it goes like this: Peach, Toad, and the Mario Bros. are walking around checking out fireworks when Toad spots a mysterious crystal pipe. Mario and Luigi do their jobs for once and fix the plumbing, just in time for a bunch of unregulated foreign powerups, which will surely destroy the Mushroom Kingdom's ecosystem and economy, to spill out, followed by one of the aforementioned fairies. The fairy hurriedly explains that Bowser is capturing fairies in bottles, when, lo and behold, Bowser himself pops out of crystal pipe, sticks the fairy in a bottle, and escapes back into the Sprixie Kingdom. Now, an interesting thing to note at this point is that Mario and Luigi show no sign of going to save the fairy until Peach falls into the pipe. That doesn't relate to the story in any way as far as I can tell, but it does shed a bit of light on the Mario Bros. character.
Gartman wonders, as many Super Mario fans likely did, why Bowser suddenly seems totally uninterested in capturing Peach — long thought to be the primary object of his villainous desires:
Upon exiting the crystal pipe, the adventure has begun and the rest of the game is simply running and jumping through levels and rescuing each fairy princess from the castle at the end of each world. But why, after all this time of persistently wreaking havoc in the Mushroom Kingdom, did Bowser seemingly give up on Peach to capture the sprixies of the Sprixie Kingdom? It could be simply that he likes taking over places and that capturing sprixies is the natural progression of his princess capturing obsession, but I like to think that Bowser isn't as simple minded as that.
Remember, Gartman astutely observes, Bowser is hardly a consistent villain. In some Mario games, he's even a force of good. And that's not even considering the guy's appearance in, say, Mario Kart, which is still technically a game that centres on Super Mario-specific lore rather than more general Nintendo fan fiction like Super Smash Bros., the company's other big party game, does. This additional context means that we should consider, at the very least, whether it's worth giving Bowser the benefit of the doubt when it comes to judging his motives:
One must keep in mind that all of these games are told from the Mario Bros. perspective and thus portray them as the infallible protagonists and Bowser as the mindless villain. However, even with this intentional bias and deception in favour of the Mario Bros., it is possible to glimpse some of the truth behind Bowser's motives. Just because Bowser is a bad guy, that doesn't necessarily make him a bad guy after all. It doesn't make him necessarily not a bad guy either, but let's give him the benefit of the doubt. In fact, Bowser was directly involved in saving the Mushroom Kingdom and Star Road during the events of Super Mario RPG, as well as defeating Fawful during Mario & Luigi: Bowser's Inside Story. There are other examples as well of Bowser being a force of good. He usually tries to mask these good actions with selfish motives, but that's really just his awkward way of trying to be humble. Even capturing Peach was likely done with good intentions; in Super Mario Sunshine, he does so because he wants his son to have a mother. I suspect that his motives in 3D World were similarly altruistic.
Ok, but back to the game at hand. We all know what Peach does in Mario games — she's the princess. But what about the Sprixies? What purpose do they serve in the Mushroom Kingdom, and why is it important enough to warrant Bowser and Mario fighting over? "Whenever Mario rescues one, they are shown to be able to build crystal pipes out of thin air in mere seconds," Gartman writes. "It's unclear whether they're only able to build pipes, but one would think that they can also magically build other things."
Maybe Mario and Luigi are trying to rescue the Sprixies just to let them run free, or maybe they're actually trying to harness the Sprixies' superhuman powers of construction for their own purposes. Since "all of these games are told from the Mario Bros. perspective," we can't really be sure if their motives are so pure. But again, at the very least, the contest over the Sprixies troubles our conception of Bowser as a bad guy through and through. Gartman continues:
I theorize that Bowser captured the sprixies in order to harness their magical building powers. Sure, he probably could have just asked them for help, but Bowser isn't exactly known for his social skills. But what would Bowser want to build? Castles. Bowser clearly has a thing for castles and somehow has at least one new castle in every game and often several for his minions. Castles aren't cheap, and even if he builds them with slave labour, they take a while to build. Keeping sprixies on staff would make castle building a cinch.
OK, "slave labour" doesn't sound too good if we're trying to make a case for Bowser's redeeming qualities. One way to qualify this would be to suggest that Nintendo games (and many other video games, for that matter) create asymmetrical relationships between different characters that might resemble something like real-world slavery but conveniently leave out the moral depravity of such an ecosystem. Pikmin, for example, is a game about a group of astronauts colonising an alien world and compelling part of its indigenous population (the titular pikmin) to live, work, and die by their command.
But I guess Pikmin's characters are also doing so because they're living in constant fear of starvation and imminent death. Does Bowser have an excuse like that? None that we see in Super Mario 3D World. Or maybe we do:
Now, you're probably wondering how this is altruistic. The answer is that Bowser no longer has to capture Peach and steal her castle or any other occupied castles since he can build his own, in a totally separate kingdom no less. Furthermore, going by percentage, very few of Bowser's castles are actually built for himself. Instead, he can now reward his loyal followers with their very own castles. But that's not all! Near the end of 3D World , we see that Bowser has also built a large amusement park. Seriously. It's an amusement park. What could be more fun, happy, and non-evil than that? Once again, Bowser just wants to reward his friends and family with a fun place to hang out. And Mario has to come and ruin everything again. That jerk.
So while his methods may be impure as ever, Bowser was just trying to make an amusement park and a few extra castles for his friends and "loyal followers?" Really, it was just Mariowho was trying to ruin everyone's fun all along? Could that be why there are so many koopahs and goombas who literally stop at nothing to try to defeat him? Were all these stock "bad guys" really just looking forward to some awesome carnival ride, and feeling scared that Mario and Luigi were coming to destroy it?
I don't know what to believe anymore. But now I also sort of want to play a Super Mario-style platformer told entirely from Bowser's perspective — even casting him as the playable protagonist. Then we'd finally get to hear his side of the story.
Read Gartman's whole piece here.