Super Mario: The Strange Origins of Bowser’s Real Name

He's one of the most recognizable villains in video game history, but there's a good chance you don't know the full story of Bowser's real name.

Photo: Nintendo

Along with being the primary antagonist of the Super Mario franchise, Bowser is one of the most recognizable names in gaming history. Honestly, you could easily argue that he’s probably the most globally recognizable villain in video game history.

Bower certainly boasts the resume needed to be worthy of that title. For over 35 years, he has played various roles in some of the most successfully, acclaimed, and beloved Nintendo games ever made. Of course, his status as a video game icon has as much to do with his distinct look and, of course, that wonderful name.

However, you should know that Bower’s real name isn’t actually Bowser. Well…at least not entirely. Actually, the origins of Bowser’s real name may leave you wondering why we ever started calling that character Bowser in the first place.

Kuppa and Koopa

See, in Japan, the character that I (and, depending on where you live, you) know as Bowser is actually named “Koopa.” In some older Super Mario media, the character is referred to as “Great King Koopa,” “Demon King Koopa,” or “Great Demon King Koopa,” but the Koopa name remains. Actually, to be entirely accurate, the character was often officially referred to as “Kuppa” in Japan up until around the release of Super Mario World (though that name has endured throughout the years).

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So where did the Koopa/Kuppa name come from? Well, Shigeru Miyamoto previously stated that the character was actually named after a Korean dish known as “Gukbap” (essentially hot soup with rice). In Japan, that dish is commonly referred to as “Kuppa.” In fact, the team reportedly also considered naming the character after two other Korean dishes: “Yukhoe” and “Bibimbap.” Keep that in mind for later.

Why were they determined to name the character after food in the first place? That’s one of the many mysteries associated with the name. I’ve heard stories that suggest Miyamoto and the team simply came up with the name over lunch, but that seems like an urban legend. The same is likely true of similar stories that suggest Miyamoto realized the character looked like those foods (which is really only true if you look at specific photos and force yourself you see the similarities).

The most likely explanation is that the practice of naming characters after food was simply very popular in Japan at that time (especially in anime and manga). Even Princess Peach is named after food (though the origins of her name is a story for another day). I’ve even heard a rumor that Miyamoto considered naming even more characters after food, but there’s little evidence that supports the idea that was ever the long-term plan for the series.

Regardless, it’s clear that the name of Mario’s main antagonist was originally intended to be Kuppa/Koopa, and all appropriate variations of that name. So why wasn’t the character just called Kuppa/Koopa everywhere else? Well…he kind of was.

Why You May Know Bowser As King Koopa

If you distinctly remember referring to Bowser as King Koopa, you’re not alone. The original Super Mario Bros. instruction manual actually refers to the character as “Bowser, King of the Koopa.” He was also referred to as King Koopa in some of the earlier Super Mario animated programs (The Super Mario Bros. Super Show! and The Adventures of Super Mario Bros. 3), though the character was so physically different in those shows that you can really only gather so much evidence from them when it comes to this particular discussion. The same is true of the 1993 Super Mario Bros. movie in which Dennis Hopper portrays President Koopa.

Regardless, the basic idea seems easy enough to understand. There is a group of turtle-like creatures known as the Koopa (the NES manual for Super Mario Bros. identifies Koopa Troopa and Koopa Paratroopa as two types of Koopa soldiers), and, as their leader, “Bowser” is the “King of the Koopa.” In fact, here’s what Miyamoto has to say about the origins of the character’s physical design:

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“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 move on to the next illustration. I started congratulating myself, saying, ‘Wow, I can really make Bowser look cool now!'”

Anecdotally, I can tell you that I remember referring to Bowser as King Koopa fairly often when I was younger. I suppose the basic idea was that the character’s name was Bowser and his title was King Koopa. It all seemed pretty obvious, and, at that time, I certainly didn’t know Bowser wasn’t the character’s original name.

Before you put too much stock into the idea that Bowser is simply the “Koopa King,” though, remember that Bowser’s original name in Japan was Kuppa/Koopa. So…was he referred to as Kuppa, King of the Koopas, or Koopa, King of the Koopas in Japan? Well, no, actually, but that’s because the Koopa weren’t originally called Koopa in Japan.

The Koopa Are Not What They Seem

Yes, as if the story of Bowser’s name wasn’t complicated enough, we also have to address the fact that that the “Koopa” Bowser is supposedly king of weren’t originally known as Koopa. In fact, their original name was “Nokonoko.” That name is based on the same Japanese word, which can be used to refer to someone or something that walks slowly and without purpose. I suspect “ambling” would probably be the closest English term, but anyone with more experience with both languages may be able to offer a better alternative.

So why didn’t the Super Mario team just keep the name Nokonoko when translating the game for international audiences? Well, there doesn’t seem to be any official information available regarding the thought process at that time, though it’s easy enough to make some educated guesses.

After all, many games that originated from Japan at that time lost many references to specific Japanese words, customs, and folklore during the translation process. So, it was likely determined that an enemy named after a specific Japanese word may be confusing for anyone who doesn’t speak Japanese. As for the name “Koopa,” it honestly just seems like the translators decided to apply Kuppa/Koopa’s name to the enemies he was supposedly the boss of. That also allowed them to roll with the always satisfying name “Koopa Troopa.” That, or there was simply an error during the translation process that yielded the same result.

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While that specific theory is largely speculative, it does make a lot of sense. The team likely wanted to change the name Nonochoko first, were inspired by the name Kuppa/Koopa, and realized that they would need to change Koopa’s name after altering the name of his minions. From there, it was really just a simple matter of coming up with the name Bowser as a replacement.

So where did the name Bowser come from? Well, the funniest thing about this whole story is that nobody seems to know the exact origins of one of the most famous names in video game history.

Why Is Bowser Named Bowser?

While we know that Bowser is named Bowser in many countries outside of Japan, the specific origins of the name Bowser are still a bit of a mystery. Somewhere along the line, somebody decided that should be the character’s name. Who that somebody was and how they landed on that name are both fascinating questions that we seem to lack definitive answers to.

Try as I might, I can’t find any real-life origins of the name Bowser that make sense for that character. The surname Bowser can refer to the informal Norman greetings of “good sir” or “fine sir,” but that doesn’t seem to fit the Bowser we know unless the name was being used ironically. There were a couple of vaguely famous people named Bowser that may have been known to the developers at that time, but nobody so famous that they would have been obvious candidates for the source of the name.

Actually, one of the most fascinating theories I’ve heard regarding the name is that it may have been a reference to the fact that Bowser was a particularly popular pet name at that time and that Koopa’s spiked bracelets and general looks reminded someone of a large pet. There’s also a type of tanker called a bowser, which could help explain how someone came to associate the name with something large.

It’s also possible that one of the original candidates for Kuppa/Koopa’s name (Bibimbap) may offer an explanation for Bowser’s origins. Maybe someone liked that “B” sound and decided to come up with a name that featured it. If Miyamoto was involved with the renaming process at all, it would make sense that he may have shared the story of that alternate handle only to find that it gave someone on the translation team an idea. For all we know, the name Bowser may have been Miyamoto’s idea in the first place. Again, we weirdly don’t know a lot about the story of the renaming process.

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Even if you allow yourself to just accept that somebody came up with the name Bowser, we’re still left with the question that really kicked this whole article off…

What Is Bowser’s Real Name?

For the most part, Mario’s main villain is still referred to as Koopa (and all appropriate variations of that name) in Japan and Bowser in the United States and many other Western countries (though variations of both names appear in different countries). While that would seem to suggest that Nintendo simply considers this a matter of regions and translations, there are a couple of pieces of evidence that indicate that is not necessarily the case.

For instance, Super Mario Sunshine (which uses English voice acting in all regions) only refers to the character as Bowser. Miyamoto has also referred to the character as Bowser in interviews and when having a little fun with Doug Bowser’s (the current president of Nintendo of America) coincidental name. Some of those references could be attributed to the simple need to translate those interviews for audiences familiar with the Bowser name, but Nintendo seems to be pretty much ok with everybody referring to the character as Bowser.

Actually, the closest thing I can find to a generally accepted name for the character is “Bowser Koopa” or “King Bowser Koopa.” That handle actually makes a lot of sense as it references the Koopa name, features the Bowser name, and stays true to the character’s origins and title. While variations of that name will still appear, this doesn’t seem to be a “Princess Peach Toadstool” situation where Nintendo is trying to course-correct the Super Mario mythology in order to give a character a name that acknowledges previous translations. They seem to have genuinely embraced both Bowser and Koopa long ago and have found ways to make both names (mostly) work.