Since I’m loosely following a Halloween theme with many of my posts this month, today I’m going to look at the spookier enemies in the Mario series. Perhaps the first qualifying being is the Phanto, a sort of animated theatrical mask that guards keys in Super Mario Bros. 2.
When you come upon a jar with a key in it, there will be several Phantos inside, seemingly just as decoration.
When you grab the key, though, one of them comes to life and begins chasing you, although he’ll leave if you put the key down. Apparently they don’t care much where the keys are as long as YOU don’t have them. Or maybe they fly off to bring in a key retrieval squad. I don’t know. I’ve always thought it fun to wonder what the enemies do when they’re not fighting you, and I’ve seen stuff on the Internet that suggests I’m not the only one. By the way, these keys are about as big as the characters. If the keyhole is that big, couldn’t Mario and his friends just crawl through it? Well, maybe the keyhole is tall and narrow. Anyway, although later games included these giant keys, the guardians were nowhere to be seen, and thank the mushroom gods for THAT. I’m not sure a Phanto is actually supposed to be a ghost, but it IS able to float through any obstacle. Interestingly, the Phantos in SMB2 actually look creepier than their earlier Doki Doki Panic design.
The first true ghosts to appear in the games are the Boo Diddleys in SMB3. While their name was part of the tradition of naming some characters after musicians (see also the Reznor Rhinos and most of the Koopalings), later games referred to them simply as “Boos.”
Their mode of operations is that they’ll chase you if you’re looking away from them, but facing them will stop them…well, dead in their tracks. In this game, they haunt fortresses, but Super Mario World gives them their own haunted houses, which they have in some later games as well. The ghost houses contain many other variations on the basic Boo as well, including ones that circle and turn into blocks, Lakitu-like ghosts with fishing rods, floating dinosaur ghosts, and the enormous Big Boos.
Oddly, however, they leave out the Stretch, another ghostly enemy from SMB3 that pops out of white blocks in a few fortresses.
The Stretch is included on this list of neglected Mario enemies. Luigi’s Mansion is full of Boos of many different kinds, and their leader is King Boo, who appears in later games as an ally of Bowser.
In this title, Luigi fights ghosts using the Poltergust 3000, a vacuum cleaner device based on the equipment the Ghostbusters used, invented by the renowned Professor Elvin Gadd (also in his first appearance, I believe).
The Super Mario Galaxy games include a Boo Mushroom, which basically turns Mario into a Boo, letting him levitate, turn invisible, and pass through walls.
It’s never stated what Boos are the ghosts OF, although Goombario does say a Boo named Igor was probably a merchant in his previous life. I guess that’s pretty typical for video game ghosts, though. One can only imagine what Blinky, Pinky, and Inky did to be relegated to an afterlife consisting of constantly either chasing or being chased by a yellow circle with a piece missing.
Now that we have ghosts out of the way, let’s move on to skeletons. In this case, the main specimen is the Dry Bones, also a veteran of SMB3. Basically an animated Koopa skeleton, you can stomp this zombie so it falls apart, but it will reassemble itself.
They reappear in many other games, and are even playable in some of the sports titles. Other skeletal monsters include Fishbones (which I’ve also seen referenced under the punnier name “Wet Bones”) and the zoology-defying Bony Beetles. Hey, Nintendo, beetles have exoskeletons! Then again, turtles can’t really have wings, so why am I looking for scientific accuracy in a Mario game? Bowser even gets a chance to take on Dry Bones form in New Super Mario Bros., after being burned up in boiling magma and before Bowser Jr. restores him to his former self with a potion.