Iwata Asks: The Birth of Bowser

Bowser, King of the Koopa, is a villainous character who is well-known amongst gamers; of this, I believe there is little question. After all, is he is the rival and nemesis of none other than Mario, one of the world’s best known characters– period.

And personally, I’ve always favored his design, as he has appeared in games and Nintendo’s promotional art… well, most of it, anyway. While we know him well for his spiky turtle shell, flaming mane of red hair (and similar bushy eyebrows), and a pair of rather devilish horns atop his head, some may remember that in the box art for the original Super Mario Bros. on the Famicom (pictured above), Bowser looked quite… different.

During a recent Iwata Asks session for Flipnote Studio, EAD General Manager Shigeru Miyamoto revealed why the discrepancy, and the very different direction Bowser’s design nearly took. He is joined in the session by Yoichi Kotabe, one of Japan’s foremost animators who wound up working for Nintendo over the course of 21 years.

With only the original pixel art and the image above to work from, Kotabe was responsible for creating much of the original Mario art seen emblazoned across merchandise throughout the 80’s.

Miyamoto reveals that “Ever since we made Donkey Kong, I had made many rough sketches of Mario in pencil and then given them to an external illustrator to polish up. When we came out with Super Mario Bros., I was thinking about asking a professional manga artist or a well-known illustrator to do the art, but time was running out, so I drew the original art for the package myself.

Upon learning that Miyamoto was the artist for the original box art, Kotabe asked him all sorts of questions, to make sure he got the characters right. Miyamoto notes that “Peach completely changed. I told him everything I wanted, like how I wanted the eyes to be a little cat-like.”

“And how she should look stubborn,” Kotabe adds.

“Stubborn, but a little cute,” Miyamoto adds, laughing.

“Bowser changed a lot, too,” he continues. “I’d been drawing Mario for quite a while, so I knew what I wanted him to look like, but I hadn’t drawn Bowser that much, so I couldn’t get the lines to come together right. I like Toei Animation’s work from around the time of Alakazam the Great, and the ox that appears in that…”

Miyamoto told Kotabe how he liked that ox, who was the ox king. “Miyamoto-san liked that ox,” Kotabe explains, “and that was how he imagined Bowser. When you see the package art he drew, Bowser does look a bit like an ox.”

But then, designer Takashi Tezuka broke the news to Kotabe: Bowser was supposed to be a turtle. “I thought, Oh, it’s a turtle?’ Kotabe recalls.

“I’d been drawing something completely incomprehensible—a turtle’s body with an ox’s head!” Miyamoto confesses with more laughter. “Through our discussions, his appearance eventually came together, though. Since Bowser was in the turtle family together with the Koopa Troopas, we began to see similar lines between the two, so we copied those as faithfully as possible and moved onto the next illustration. I started congratulating myself, saying, ‘Wow, I can really make Bowser look cool now!'”

Iwata notes that Miyamoto was then able to learn from the drawings Kotabe had made, introducing them into the game “and it would suddenly look a lot better.” They go on to discuss how Kotabe’s skills would become even more important with the transition to 3D.

But for now, it’s interesting to look at how what we saw above evolved into this:

Can you imagine if Bowser had taken the path to being some sort of an ox? For that matter, what might his kids have looked like?

In any case, I’ve enjoyed Kotabe’s art for years, and would love to see an artbook compilation of his work for Nintendo released here, especially his Mario works and how they’ve evolved. I’d buy it the first day, in fact.

In the meantime, however, “Collection of Yoichi Kotabe’s Animation Arts” may be a worthwhile import investment.