Hello and welcome to a new staff collaboration series from those of us here at The Nerd Stash called “Clash at the Stash” (Yes, we know it’s cheesy). This entertainment series pits two writers against each other over hotly debated nerd culture topics that have been going on from days-decades.
My name is Taylor Cole. I’m an editor and writer here at The Nerd Stash. You can think of me as your host, guiding you through all the rules and who our competitors are in a soothing voice like the great James Earl Jones.
Today’s debate is over two of the greatest franchises in gaming history that have carried the Nintendo brand for decades. The Legend of Zelda and everyone’s favorite plumber, Mario.
Both of these franchises are home to classic, Game of the Year worthy, titles and legendary characters. However, only one of these franchises made it to the big screen. I’ll let you decide whether that’s a positive or negative thing.
Before we get into this clash of nerds, we need to discuss the rules and introduce our competitors. Rules are simple. Two of our writers will have 500-1,000 words to state their case in an informative and entertaining manner. After both writers have done this, I will direct you to our three judges (other writers on our staff), who will give out their final verdicts based on what the writers said and how entertaining they were. Now that’s taken care of, let’s meet our competitors:
Typing out of the Mario corner, coming in at 18 consoles played and countless hours in Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door, we have Greyson Ditzler. And in the corner of the elf with the green tunic and the unbearably annoying fairies telling you to listen, we have Johnny Reynolds. Johnny is coming into this bout at 22 consoles played and at least 150 hours through innumerable playthroughs of The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask.
Greyson, why don’t you start us off:
The Mario Franchise
It would be silly of me to completely separate the Mario and Zelda franchises from each other. Both are excellent in their own right, both were spearheaded by gaming mastermind Shigeru Miyamoto, and the first installments of both series were actually developed alongside each other to ensure differing experiences. They share so much DNA they’re practically brothers. However, if we were to debate which of the two franchises has had more of an impact on people, culture, and the world as a whole, I don’t think any franchise holds quite the same prestige as Mario.
The original Super Mario Bros. practically laid the groundwork for the whole of modern platforming from day one, and it was the game that sold the most on the system that rescued gaming from the Crash of ‘83 after the fall of Atari. It’s quite possibly the most culturally important video game that has ever existed, rivaling even Pong and Pac-Man. But for the sake of simplicity, let’s look at what Mario as a character and as a franchise means to many people, including me.
Mario was my hero growing up. He was this quiet, stalwart yet somehow also dopey schlub with a mustache and overalls who could do everything and much more. Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars was the first game that I ever played, and in 5th Grade, I made a giant posterboard about why Mario should be the President of the United States. He was the everyman who wasn’t like anybody else and I loved him for that.
There isn’t a genre out there that Mario hasn’t tackled, and so few others can claim the same rate of success as him. While there are a few duds in the mix such as Hotel Mario and Mario Teaches Typing, even when they’re hitting low points such as those, Mario games are still always so memorable. Whether it be for legitimate reasons such as the tight controls and brilliant inventiveness of Super Mario World, the emotional backstory for Rosaline tugging at your heart-strings in Super Mario Galaxy, or for silly humorous reasons like the meme-worthy cutscenes from Hotel Mario, Mario is just a joyful franchise to be associated with.
I’m not saying that The Legend of Zelda series isn’t good, or hasn’t inspired thousands of people, because it is and it has. Zelda is a fantasy epic of a series with themes of growing up and conquering adversity leaking out of its pores, not to mention its own gaggle of extremely successful and great games to rival Mario. I’ve definitely seen more people with Triforce tattoos than, say, Super Mushroom tattoos, so it’s got that going for it too. But that being said, the two series inspire people in different ways from each other, and personally, I feel that Mario has inspired more people for longer than Zelda has. Link from the Zelda series is more often than not a blank slate of a hero who many project themselves unto in his role in the story. But many other people can’t project themselves onto him for that same reason; he’s an avatar.
Mario doesn’t have much more personality than Link does, to be fair, but he has one major advantage over most incarnations of Link. This being his neverending happiness. It’s difficult to picture the portly plumber without a smile on his face and pep in his step, as he leaps through the air saving the Kingdom for the umpteenth time without missing a beat. The two characters are like different sides of a coin; Link stays largely silent and valiant in the face of danger, and Mario topples tyrants and rescues princesses with a belly full of laughs and a beaming smile full of hope. I just feel like more people can relate to the happier, more expressive hero than the quiet, dignified one at the end of the day. And really, most people just play games to have fun. This is Mario’s secret weapon; he IS fun – not just his games – but he himself is fun. Both franchises are great, and both have their place in history, but it just so happens that Mario’s place in history is at the very top.
The Zelda Franchise
There’s no way I could argue against the importance of Mario. There’s factual evidence proving just how beloved he is to gamers everywhere. He’s essentially Nintendo’s Mickey Mouse and you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who didn’t know who he was. He’s probably the most popular video game character of all time. But just because something is more popular doesn’t necessarily mean it’s better. It just means it’s more easily accessible.
The Legend of Zelda has been my favorite gaming series for a long time. The original game, while not as immediately influential to the action-adventure genre as Super Mario Bros. was for platformers, laid the groundwork for the next thirty years. After all, it featured an open-world before the term was ever coined and even included its own version of New Game+ in a second, more difficult playthrough. It balanced puzzle-solving, world-building, and combat against deadly creatures with an array of weapons. And each entry in the series has only enhanced those elements.
Ocarina of Time showed how to navigate them in a 3D space before anyone else understood it. And the revolutionary targeting system it invented would be included in almost every third-person action game afterward. Without The Legend of Zelda, we wouldn’t have such strong franchises like Assassin’s Creed or God of War. And let’s not forget the stunning music the series is known for.
The series perfectly encapsulates the feeling of going on a grand adventure. And by doing so, it makes the player feel like they have an impact on the world and people around them. Sure, earlier games in the series don’t have such a heavy focus on characters. But later entries would put the player in situations where they began to care about the citizens around them.
The remarkably emotional Majora’s Mask is the finest example of this. Most of the NPCs you come across have their own schedules, desires, faults, and unique characteristics. It’s the first time I can remember playing a game and genuinely caring about the world around me and its inhabitants. I didn’t strive to beat the Skull Kid out of a desire to complete the game. I wanted to vanquish him because of how much pain he had caused the people of Clock Town. The same can be said about the rest of the franchise, albeit to varying degrees of success.
However, the same cannot be said of Mario games. I’ve never once worried about Peach’s well-being as she sits captive in a castle, just like I’ve never cared about the endless supply of Toad citizens in the Mushroom Kingdom. To me, Peach has only ever been a goal to reach because that’s how Nintendo has presented her. Link saves Zelda sometimes too. But in most cases, she is still off fighting or trying to help her people, whether it be as herself, Tetra, or Sheik. Then there’s Bowser, a villain for the sake of having a villain. Different versions of Ganon have at least changed a bit from game to game. And others like the Skull Kid, Ghirahim, and Zant have had much more dynamic personalities than him. The satisfaction of Mario comes from triumphing over a particularly difficult level or mastering a gameplay mechanic. Zelda has this too, given to us through different weapons and the beautiful “Aha!” moments when cracking tough puzzles. But character and world-building are where it has the upper hand.
Don’t get me wrong; I absolutely adore Mario. I couldn’t call myself a Nintendo fan if I didn’t. The brightly colored worlds, the imaginative power-ups, and the satisfying gameplay create a truly wonderful concoction. But each new entry always feels like a tweaked version of what came before it. You’re always running and jumping, with various power-ups making it so you run and jump in a slightly different way. There are obvious exceptions, like Mario’s multiple incursions into the RPG genre. But even those don’t take many risks.
With Zelda, Nintendo takes chances. And each new gameplay mechanic ends up feeling fresh because of it. Majora’s Mask featured the same gameplay that made Ocarina of Time fantastic. But you could transform into three different species, each with their strengths and weaknesses. And they all controlled much differently than Link. As a kid, I spent entirely too much time swimming through Great Bay as a Zora or rolling through Termina Field as a Goron. With Breath of the Wild, we were given more weapon types than ever before. And the inclusion of armor sets with various strategic properties made for a more in-depth gaming experience. Even with art styles, Nintendo chooses to experiment. Wind Waker is one of the most gorgeous games I have ever seen; it’s like playing a Saturday morning cartoon. And it’s a stark contrast to the grimness of Twilight Princess, which was released on the same console. Mario’s main titles have always and probably will always look the same, but they’ll just get prettier as graphics get better.
Mario has the immediate fun factor, which is undoubtedly satisfying. But Zelda’s satisfaction comes from a much more nuanced and transcendental place. Because Link is a blank slate, the player projects themselves into his shoes. We want to help these people, we want to explore the nooks and crannies of each world, and we want to become a hero. Hyrule, Clock Town, Koholint Island; they all feel like living, breathing environments you’re encouraged to explore and improve. Breath of the Wild was a magnificent blend of innovative gameplay mechanics, wonderfully layered and eccentric characters, and an unrivaled sense of discovery around every corner. Super Mario Odyssey has only one of those elements, and it shouldn’t be too hard to guess which one.
There we have it. Greyson went for the prestige and character of Mario while Johnny delved into why he thinks Zelda games are more unique than Mario titles. Let’s see how they fared with the judges:
Brandon Stephenson – Like both debaters just said, it’s hard not to love both of these franchises. They’re in Nintendo’s DNA. My initial thought was siding with Greyson and Mario, but I’m going to have to go with Johnny and the Zelda franchise here. The Mario arguments are solid, but as soon as Johnny highlighted how Nintendo takes risks with Zelda games, it turned the tides for my decision. Every Zelda game has a similar premise. A young hero trying to stop the evil Ganon, but the tools and playgrounds given to the players to accomplish these tasks are different experiences. Each game is divisive; my favorite is Ocarina of Time (yours may be different). That’s the beauty of the series; each game has its defenders because each game is different. Johnny hits the nail right on the head.
Shelby Royal – Gosh, this is a tough one! Like Greyson, Mario holds a special place in my heart, and I loved to hear how much the character means to him. However, Johnny’s argument for The Legend of Zelda franchise won me over on two points. First, I am HUGE God of War fan, so pointing out that Legend of Zelda was a sort of precursor for games like that is a great point. Second, as far as princesses go, Zelda really is the best. She doesn’t sit back and let Link do all the work. She’s an active character in the franchise (much like Midna from my favorite, Twilight Princess). Strong female characters are a huge part of the franchise, and you have to love it for that! Because of that, I’m going to have to don a green tunic and side with Link on this one.
Billy Whitehouse – Greyson said that Zelda and Mario are like brothers, and I feel like I’m being forced to choose a favorite child. Everyone has one, but it never feels good to say it out loud. I’m tempted to choose Mario here because I have personally spent more time with that franchise. I’m old enough that I played Super Mario Bros. on NES and every other game in the franchise to some extent through Mario Galaxy. My son’s nursery is Mario themed! Conversely, the only Zelda game I spent any significant time with was Ocarina of Time.
However, Zelda has so much more going on. It makes you care more about the side characters, and Zelda herself is a stone-cold badass in a way that nobody in the Mario universe really approaches. The analogy to Mario as Mickey Mouse is spot on. If we were just comparing protagonists, Mario beats Link 10/10 times. But as a franchise, Mario is a series of Steamboat Willie shorts and Zelda is Toy Story. Zelda ftw.
Winner: The Zelda Franchise and Johnny Reynolds
And it seems that Johnny Reynolds has won our first-ever edition of Clash at the Stash. I had a chance to catch up with Johnny after this debate to ask him how he’s feeling after this monumental achievement in his life:
“Oh man it feels good to win, Taylor. Honestly, I didn’t know if it was going to happen. How do you go up against the King of Platformers and win? And hats off to my opponent, Greyson, he did a great job detailing why Mario is so loved by all. But just like Link, I knew I had to persevere against insurmountable odds and bring home the victory.”
Which series do you think is better, Mario or Zelda? What do you want to see us tackle next in this series? Let us know in the comments below!