Chomps, Thwomps, & Stomps – The Horrifying Enemies of Super Mario
Super Mario 3D All Stars is out and reintroducing new generations to the delights of grabbing stars and shines, as well as the charming depths of the hundreds of yawning pitfalls looking to swallow Mario whole. And the various mechanisms and machines that aim to crush him to paste. And the dozens of nasty turtles, biting mushrooms, and bloodthirsty flowers that mean to do him in.
The world of Mario is kind of…dangerous, right? For something so bright and cheery, there sure are a lot of things that can bring Mario’s life to a quick end. I keep telling myself “This is a kids’ game!” as I tumble off a cliff for the hundredth time in Super Mario 64. Chipper and happy these worlds may seem, but they’re as full of traps as a Saw movie.
Not that Super Mario 3D All Stars or any of the games in the series lean into horror very hard (beyond the occasional ghost house), but in a world where so many things want to kill you, there’s bound to be some element of fear involved. So, here are a handful of enemies from the series that seemed a little too much on the terrifying side despite existing in games of wonder, joy, and head-stomping jumps. Not that they exactly made me nervous once night fell, but they did show a bit more of the sinister side of these worlds.
Chain Chomp – Watching this thing tug on its chain was unusually frightening way back in Super Mario Bros 3. Most enemies in the Mario series, especially this early on, moved at this slow, relaxed pace. It felt like there was plenty of time to react to your foes since most of them (Bowser included) didn’t move all that quickly.
Chain Chomps had an unusual ferocity compared to the rest of the Mario foes of the time. They surge forward, only stopped by a length of chain as they snap at you. It was like most other enemies only passively hoped to get you, but you feel that Chain Chomp would follow you to the ends of the Earth if it ever broke off the chain. It won’t, though, as it just makes one desperate rush at you before running off-screen once it breaks free after fifty tugs on the chain. Why are you sticking around so long watching this thing snap at you, anyway?
Chain Chomps come in a handful of varieties that up the intensity as well, with Fire Chomps showing up later in Super Mario Bros. 3, following you relentlessly while spewing flames. In the Super Mario 3D All Stars collection, you can experience the Chain Chomplets of Super Mario Sunshine, which are like manic puppy versions of Chain Chomps that need to be calmed by being doused with water to keep them from gnawing your bones. There’s also the big Chain Chomp of Super Mario 64, which has given me a fright many times when I didn’t properly gauge how long its chain was.
For making my child self feel unsafe, and for all the times it’s snapped forward and caught me in its jaws, making me leap out of my skin, I owe the Chain Chomp a spot on this list.
Torpedo Ted – The scourge of Soda Lake gets under my skin. Maybe it’s the too-wide grin on its face as it hurtles toward you, giving me a sense of giggling hatred not unlike The Joker. Regular Bullet Bills don’t seem to enjoy killing you quite as much as Torpedo Ted does. For Bullet Bill, this is just a job, but Torpedo Ted is happy to kill you for fun.
More likely, it’s the sheer number of the things that you find rushing your way as you play through the stage. You’ll slowly find yourself being dogged by a bunch of them as you struggle to swim in between them (ol’ Ted is a water stage enemy, after all), only having a narrow window to swim through (as if swimming in Mario games wasn’t hard or awkward enough). There’s a pressure that builds as you weave between these smirking missiles, and any mistake will mean death. I’m honestly getting a little edgy just thinking of the things right now.
Thwomp – I mentioned that Chain Chomps had an unusual ferocity to it compared to other Mario foes, but Thwomp has a similar energy. Like an enraged cinder block covered in nails, this thing lurks on the ceiling waiting for you to pass anywhere beneath it. The second you put one pixel in its path, it comes crashing down on your head, pulverizing bone and shredding flesh beneath it. Far worse than being bitten by a mushroom or turtle, right?
That these things attack so quickly, and represent a terrible, gruesome end for Mario made me a little uncomfortable around them. However, it’s that murderous grimace that gets to me. Boot up Super Mario Galaxy in the Super Mario 3D All Stars collection and you’ll see what I mean. These things HATE Mario. I think they’re given life purely by the hatred within them, and they take any chance they can to smear you against the ground. The suddenness with which they’ll crush you to death, an oddly-grizzly death in a game of colorful cuteness (if you use your imagination a little bit too much like I do), gives them a more horrifying energy than I’m used to with these games.
Then again, Thwomps would soon be joined by all manner of massive presses, spinning spike columns, and colossal saws in later games, all of which hint that Bowser was very quickly growing more angry and bloodthirsty as the games moved on.
Stretch – As someone who loves the Fatal Frame series, I have a weak spot for ghosts coming out of walls and floors and such. There’s something deeply upsetting about the ground you walk on turning hostile, with some undead thing reaching up to grab you from somewhere beneath your feet. There’s this sense of betrayal, as we often take for granted that enemies will come at us from the same pathways we can navigate. It feels unfair when something can shift through walls, hiding in places we can’t reach and that we’ve dismissed as safe.
Stretch is a ghost floor that likes to rear its head when you step on it. I’ve had the floor do a lot of things while playing Mario games, but becoming sentient and trying to kill me was new. It’s downright unsettling to imagine, too. You take a step on the floor, and then this grinning ghoul rears up, rushing toward you. It’s creepy and weird, and adds some further danger to the game’s platforming. Also, why are those ghosts trapped as a floor? What awful end struck them to keep them there?
Reznor – You’re fighting four fire-breathing triceratopses riding a Ferris wheel over a lava pit. It’s very Sharknado, if you ask me.
This fight sends my heart rate soaring. You have to quickly start hitting these enemies from beneath (landing on their spiky heads hurts you) as the floor collapses into the lava below, all while these things take aim at your face with fire breath. You have a few seconds to deal with these enemies before you have to hop on the Ferris wheel yourself, leaping around the open platforms to get yourself into a position to clobber the four creatures without falling into the lava below.
This experience is terrifying, requiring careful maneuvering or a blind rush into danger to get it done before the floor has collapsed. I hate these things, and find my pulse quickening when I encounter them just as much as it does when I hear Nemesis creeping around in Resident Evil 3.
The Eel – Water levels in Mario games already make me uneasy. It’s hard to get around with any precision, and you rarely have any form of offense, so you’re forced to just constantly, carefully flee from everything. So, now that you’re feeling helpless, why not throw a massive, vacant-eyed creature into the blue with you?
The Eel isn’t exactly a clever opponent, nor is it particularly energetic in trying to get you. Still, the way it tends to sneak up you as you’re scrambling to grab a few coins, or how it just stares at you from its cubbyholes, made me terribly nervous as I worked through Jolly Roger Bay in Super Mario 3D All Stars. I just don’t like the look of this thing, all right? You can FEEL that it’s peering at you, hunger on its mind, and you’re one distracted moment away from being drawn into those jaws.
Big Bertha – You might get a sense that The Eel will gulp you up, but you can actually take a few thumps from this thing and survive. Big Bertha is another story. Big Bertha rushes around the stages it occupies, its massive mouth ready to swallow you whole. You screw up even once anywhere near this thing and your trip through the stage will come to an end.
In Super Mario Bros 3, you’ll run into this hungry fish in a stage that keeps floating up and down, giving you few safe spots before demanding you run (or God help you, swim) through lower parts to reach the next safe spot. Bertha is constantly patrolling, and if you get anywhere near it, you’re dead. This makes every step outside of the safe high ground loaded with tension and terror, especially because this thing moves FAST. You have a few seconds to find safety every time, making for a terrifying few moments every time you have to go anywhere near the water.
Phanto – Being chased by Phanto in Super Mario Bros 2 was my earliest memories of being terrified playing a video game (with a poor decision to rent A Nightmare on Elm St being my second). This floating mask is relentless in its pursuit, weaving around you as you struggle to use the key you stole from its lair before it can slam into you. And again, like Torpedo Ted, it’s that grin on its face that unsettles as it dogs you just as hard as the determined killers of the Clock Tower games.
While its persistence is frightening, what separates it from other Mario enemies with similar behaviors (like the water level equivalent, Rip Van Fish) is that you have to pick up the key in its hideout to start the chase. You can feel that something is wrong when you enter this room filled with masks, a key lying among them. It just feels like a trap, and when you pick up the key and watch that mask shudder to life, you naturally hurry out of the room, hoping you’re safe as you see it spring to life.
Then, it follows you onto the next screen, always just a short distance behind you. It made for a terrifying chase every time I encountered those things, and even now, I dread the moment I touch that key and watch those dead mask eyes spring into action.
Angry Sun – One look at the furious face of this murderous star told you everything you needed to know about it, didn’t it? When I went through this stage for the first time, I kept glancing up at the thing, wondering what its deal was. Its hateful gaze made me incredibly nervous as I played the stage, creating this unsettling atmosphere that felt really out of place in Super Mario Bros 3. Something about the way it would just glare at you was frightening. And all you could do was stare at it, waiting, tense, for it to finally strike.
Once you hopped over that tornado mid-stage and the sun began to move, it became a harrowing race to the finish line. I mean, you could try to take it out with a turtle shell, but watching the SUN ITSELF come down after me sent me into a blind panic, making me rush through the stage without ever stopping. Except for when I died, which happened often with this thing. It wasn’t especially strong and its patterns were predictable, but it had this frightening presence, and when combined with the tense atmosphere created by the leadup to its attack, it made for a genuinely scary experience for me when I first encountered it. And honestly, I still hate when it shows up.
Mad Piano – When I picked up Super Mario 3D All Stars, my first thought was of this stupid, awful piano. I don’t even know why. It got the jump on me BIG TIME when I first played Super Mario 64, as I just wasn’t expecting an entire piano to spring to horrible life, keys clanging as it tried to bite me. I definitely screamed just the tiniest bit, which isn’t something I ever expected would happen while playing a Mario game.
The Mad Piano works as well as it does because it’s unexpected, though. A one-off enemy that makes a piano come to murderous life? Not something I ever saw coming from this series, and even now, the thing is just so bulky and aggressive and overwhelming that I don’t even want to be in the same room with it. Something about it, beyond that unexpectedness, also gets under my skin. It’s just messed up seeing a piano with jagged teeth, ok? It ain’t right.
I have hated this thing ever since, and even now, decades later, I still avoid the room it’s in as often as possible. I tell myself that it is just an instrument with teeth – a goofy creature for a haunted house, honestly – but another part of me can’t shake that one time Nintendo really got me with a jump scare I won’t ever forget.