The Legend of Zelda and Super Mario series are some of the oldest, most critically acclaimed, and best-selling series of video games ever released. Both properties have been a constant in the childhoods of many young adults today, and Mario in particular is allegedly more well-known than Mickey Mouse himself. These games are Nintendo properties and both series were initially developed in the 1980s by the legendary Shigeru Miyamoto. From there the games have grown and evolved, and new versions are in development as we speak. Both franchises, but Zelda especially, create huge amounts of excitement among video game fans, as the hype for Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom shows.
In contrast, we don’t even know what the next 3D Mario will be despite the Super Mario Movie releasing in a few months. For once Nintendo will get a chance to make a movie tie-in game and I’m sure we’ll get an announcement of a potential game before the movie releases in April. In this article, I’ll compare the histories of the Legend of Zelda and Mario series and assess where both series stand currently.
As many of you will know, Mario started off as ‘jump man’ in the original Donkey Kong arcade release. Created and developed by Shigeru Miyamoto, it could be argued that the original Donkey Kong saved Nintendo as a business. It did amazingly well at least. Also, it spawned not only the Donkey Kong series but the Super Mario series as well. A few years after Donkey Kong’s release, Nintendo released the NES and with it Super Mario bros., a side-scrolling platformer with some simple story elements.
Super Mario bros. sold over 40 million copies, and Mario became a cultural icon over time. The legend of Zelda on NES was released in 1986, one year after the red plumber. It had a simple open-world design, and emphasis was put on exploration rather than achieving a target or trying to beat a high score. Miyamoto originally had inspiration for the game by exploring the Kyoto countryside as a child and finding caves. This was a similar source of inspiration to that of Satoshi Tajiri who was inspired to create Pokemon partly by collecting bugs as a child. It can be seen from Link’s design that the story of Peter Pan was also an inspiration for the series, and there are many other old stories and mythological tales which are subtly referenced throughout the series.
The Super Nintendo was released in 1990 in Japan, 1991 in North America, and 1992 in Europe and finally, Nintendo entered the glorious 16-bit era of home console gaming. Super Mario World was a pack-in game with the console and boasted great controls, many secrets hidden in its world, and generally built upon the innovation of Super Mario Bros. 3 on the NES. The game was well-received and went on to sell 20 million copies on the SNES. While it built on the qualities of previous games it didn’t massively innovate, unlike the next entry.
Legend of Zelda was in a bit of an identity crisis when The SNES was released. The second game in the series Zelda 2: The Adventure of Link (released on NES) was an RPG/side-scroller hybrid that abandoned many elements of the first game and was generally very different. It did introduce towns that became a staple in the series, but generally, its’ obscure nature and high difficulty mean it isn’t that well remembered.
A similar thing can be said for Super Mario Bros. 2 (released on NES) which was a re-skin of a totally different game released for western markets because Nintendo thought the west wouldn’t be able to handle the difficulty of the second Super Mario Bros game that they released in Japan (this was later released as Super Mario Bros. The Lost Levels in the West).
Both obscure sequels (Zelda 2 and Super Mario Bros. 2) sold well enough in the West, Miyamoto decided that with Zelda, for the third game, Nintendo had to go back to its roots and release a game based on exploration, from an overhead view, that had fewer RPG elements. This culminated in the great Zelda: A link to the Past which introduced the master sword, side quests, and quirky characters. However, both series were about to be tested by the biggest change the video game industry had ever faced, the jump to 3D.
Aesthetically, pixel art had risen to high standards during the 16-bit era. Technology had become advanced enough to create simple, angular, 3D polygonal graphics by around 1995. Many developers had tried to tackle this new style of game and moderately succeeded, but none would achieve the same critical acclaim as Nintendo’s first few forays into this style. Super Mario 64 was a launch game for the N64 in 1996 and, again, was a pack-in game with the console in many regions. Its camera control was great, controls were precise, and I don’t think any game of that time allowed for mastery of the 3D space the character was in as much as Super Mario 64. It could almost be described as a free-running game, that is how precise the controls were.
Super Mario 64 and Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time were developed at roughly the same time as the development of the N64. Both borrowed ideas from one another and some puzzles from one game’s development even got switched to be used in the other game. Legend of Zelda Ocarina of Time was so, so hyped in early 1998. I was slightly too young to remember, but the game looked and sounded amazing during the tv commercials. What I do remember is playing the game with my family around Christmas 1998 and even my father (who never really played video games) being awe-struck by the graphics and epicness of the Gohma boss battle.
I don’t think it is possible to underestimate what an impact that game had on video game design and general nerd culture in the late 1990s (in fact to this day). It is the highest-rated videogame on Metacritic for a reason. Everything about it was incredibly polished, and it flowed and linked together so well. Also, something that Zelda: Wink Waker (and most subsequent Zelda games) lacked was it was so cool (or maybe I think this just because of how it impacted my own life). The game had subtle, interactive time paradoxes, time travel, story twists, and great combat. It really had/has everything you could want from an explorative, active, adventure game (although the dungeons could get tedious).
The Super Mario series has had a variety of spin-off games almost since its inception. Mario Kart on the SNES began a series that has sold even better than the main series and Mario Party is another great game to play with friends. Mario has even appeared in his own RPGs, including Super Mario RPG on SNES and Paper Mario on N64. In fact, all of Mario’s RPGs have been quite well-received by critics. In terms of Zelda, despite it seeming more suited to having an RPG adaption, it has never been turned into a turn-based RPG. Although you could argue all Zelda games are RPGs since you are playing a ‘role-playing game’, they lack leveling up, turn-based battles, and random battles (not that that last one defines an RPG).
Zelda has only had a few spin-offs and most of them are recent. Among the first was Hyrule Warriors, a real-time, tactical hack-and-slash game (It’s not canon). Its sequel, Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity is canon, and acts as a prequel to Zelda: Breath of the Wild (released on Wii U and Switch). Cadence of Hyrule is another spin-off, developed by an indie studio, which seemed like quite a brave decision for Nintendo to make, licensing their property to such a small developer. It’s a great game though and falls into the rhythm action game sub-genre.
Abandoning old Formulas
Nintendo released Super Mario Galaxy in 2007 and Zelda: Twilight Princess in 2006, both of which were released on Wii and had better graphics, and some new innovations compared to the earlier 3D releases of each respective series. There’s been a few further new installments of each series and all are great and well critically received. However, I feel that now both series are in very different places. Zelda had Breath of the Wild released in 2017 which basically reinvented the wheel in how Zelda was structured and in the gameplay. It was a great step for the series, and now we await its’ sequel, releasing in May 2023.
Mario, on the other hand, had Super Mario: 3D World release on Wii U, which didn’t sell very well, and then had Super Mario Odyssey released in 2018 on Switch, which was both critically well received and sold well. I feel Super Mario Odyssey is overrated. It uses moons instead stars or shines (the equivalent in Mario 64 and Mario Sunshine respectively), and because there are so many of them, I feel like it dilutes the experience. The main game is also really short. It can be completed in about eight hours, and most of the content is in the post-game. For me, it was a bit of a letdown, and because of this, I feel Super Mario needs a reboot similar to Zelda.
With Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom releasing in May, and no new 3D Mario games announced that we know of, the futures of both series could go in many directions. However, with the quality of the development teams, and the experience of the producers, there’s no doubt that there are good times to come.