It’s hard to deny that the Nintendo Switch has been a monumental success since its launch back in March of this year, and that’s not only due to the console’s innovative design and functionality, but also thanks to some of the tremendous software we’ve received on the system. Two notable entries, however, are its launch title The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, and of course the recently released Super Mario Odyssey. The two flagship Nintendo franchises have certainly lived up to their standards – if not exceeded them – with these inspiring entries, and it's likely that they'll battle each other for numerous "Game of the Year" awards in the coming weeks. This got this scribe thinking about the different eras of main series home console 3D Mario and Zelda games, and which franchise “won” each period of time, if any.
Of course, it could be said that the two shouldn't be compared, due to one being of the platform genre and the other of adventure, but it's interesting to see which Nintendo frontrunner is hailed as offering the best single player experience of each era. With that in mind, we’d like to ask you the same using our series of polls below. Keep in mind, we’re only counting each franchise’s main series 3D adventures on home consoles – not surrounding/spinoff games such as Mario Kart 8 Deluxe and Hyrule Warriors, handheld titles such as Super Mario 3D Land and A Link Between Worlds, or entries that can be played on a different console to the game's original release (such as on the Virtual Console) – exceptions are made for later 'HD' iterations.
So, let's go back to when the true main series home console 3D battle began.
The Polygonal Period (1996 - 2001)
The Nintendo 64’s release proved to be both evolutionary and revolutionary for Nintendo’s two franchise giants; Super Mario 64 and The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time marked the first time each series graced our screens in the three-dimensional space. But it wasn’t just the transition to 3D that turned heads, for both titles have been – and still are – regarded as two of the greatest games of all-time due to them simply being stellar titles all round. It came as no surprise that both games were eventually ported onto Nintendo’s handheld systems for the newer generation of gamer to experience for themselves.
It’s no secret that Super Mario 64 was the stepping stone for which Mario has been conveyed in a 3D space ever since – just look at the basic controls of Super Mario Odyssey, a game released more than two decades later from Mario’s first 3D outing. In addition, it’s a known fact that Ocarina of Time used the base engine of Super Mario 64 throughout its development, further demonstrating the Nintendo 64 launch title’s brilliance as a 3D game both from player and developer perspectives. However, many of us who lived through this fantastic era of gaming were lucky enough to experience two Zelda 3D adventures, the second being The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask – another game that was ported onto a handheld Nintendo system. Majora’s Mask used the same engine as its predecessor (it can therefore be argued that Super Mario 64 technically also played a pivotal role in shaping Majora’s Mask), and despite its relatively short development time proved to be one of the most unorthodox and therefore memorable titles in Zelda history.
So, the Nintendo 64 received two sensational main series Zelda entries, but they arguably wouldn’t have been where they were if it weren’t for the console's single stellar main series Mario entry, Super Mario 64 – which has paved the way for Mario games ever since. With that said, which franchise do you think won this era?
The Legacy of the Lunchbox (2001 - 2006)
The Nintendo GameCube was a fantastic system and is arguably one of the most underrated Nintendo consoles to date, offering some of Nintendo’s greatest games. Unfortunately though, the much anticipated new Zelda release back then wasn’t met with smiles all round, due to The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker presenting Link and his world in the form of cartoon. In hindsight, The Wind Waker is arguably one of the best 3D Zelda experiences to date, so much so in fact that it was remade on the Wii U in delightful HD. Speaking of which, the GameCube saw the release of yet another Zelda game towards the end of its run, and that was Ocarina of Time 2 – just kidding, it was The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess (we love this game, so don’t get too annoyed at that joke). Twilight Princess was a welcome addition to the system's library (and like Breath of the Wild, also served as a launch title for newer hardware, with the Wii), for back then the release of The Wind Waker – and the GameCube’s cutesy design for that matter – drove some gamers away due to it all seeming childish and aimed at children. Twilight Princess helped change this perception, for it presented the series in a much “darker” and “more realistic” tone, which delighted many. And just like the aforementioned, Twilight Princess also received the HD remake it deserved on the Wii U due to its popularity.
The GameCube also received The Legend of Zelda: Master Quest, a reworked version of Ocarina of Time containing remixed puzzles and dungeons with a steep difficulty curve that was intended for the N64. It came bundled with The Wind Waker in some regions – though sold separately in others – and was part of a two-game disc in which the original Ocarina of Time was also contained. Not sure if that counts, but hey it was technically still a – albeit slightly – new Zelda offering and experience to play on Nintendo's latest system. It should also be noted that the GameCube also saw the release of The Legend of Zelda: Four Swords Adventures, though it's debatable whether the game is more of a spinoff Zelda title as opposed to a main series one due to its reliance on the Game Boy Advance and completely different take on core Zelda entries.
As for our favourite – or only – plumber in red, the Super Mario series continued with Super Mario Sunshine. Ultimately it’s gone down as a great 3D Mario adventure, but in general seems to be lost in the shuffle when the best home console Mario games are compared. However, many have been vocal about a “Super Mario Sunshine HD” remake, so maybe it’ll get the same treatment that The Wind Waker and Twilight Princess did – except on the Nintendo Switch. Of course, though it was the system's launch title, we’re not counting Luigi’s Mansion here due to it simply not fitting within the category of main series Mario games.
So again, we got two incredible main series Zelda games (and an additional reworked version of an existing 3D Zelda game if you want to count that) and one main series Mario game on the Nintendo GameCube. Was it Mario or Zelda who took this period in gaming history for you?
An E-motion-al Era (2006 - 2012)
The Nintendo Wii seemed to be a console that aimed to cater to a wide demographic, but this didn’t stop the big N from releasing some bar-setting titles within its two flagship franchises. The system was also the mark of Nintendo revolutionising once again, for its motion control approach played a part in its Mario and Zelda outings – for better or worse.
For starters, Twilight Princess was a launch title on the console, a similar approach to what we’ve seen with The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild on both Wii U and Switch platforms. Twilight Princess was originally planned for a 2005 GameCube release, but was delayed by a year so that it could be refined with additional content and also ported onto the upcoming Wii, leading to its dual-release. The game was virtually the same as its GameCube counterpart, though it’s been argued that it’s the inferior version due to the whole world being flipped to compensate for its implementation of motion controls. The combination of many believing that the GameCube version “plays better” and that it was dual-released with the Wii version is a large reason as to why the GameCube version is so rare and sought after. Nevertheless, Twilight Princess was a welcome addition on the Wii in general due to allowing the many who would seemingly miss the adventure on the console's underperforming predecessor to experience Link in almighty wolf form on a shiny new commercial system.
Where the Wii really stood out, however, was in its two 3D Super Mario adventures, that being Super Mario Galaxy and Super Mario Galaxy 2. This was the first time Nintendo launched two main series Mario games on one system, a formula that The Legend of Zelda franchise was accustomed to since the aforementioned N64 era. Galaxy 1 & 2 were groundbreaking titles, both from gameplay and game design standpoints. Sure, you had your motion controls squeezed in here and there to remind players of the Wii’s flashy new capabilities, but the general consensus was that they were very well implemented and didn’t greatly impact on the player’s experience, unlike Twilight Princess and the other Zelda that came to be, The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword. Skyward Sword received mixed reactions due to its overall direction on the series, but more importantly due to its motion controls (YouTube Miyamoto’s unfortunate demonstration of it at E3 2010 if you haven’t already). Nevertheless, it was still enjoyed by plenty and took the Zelda franchise to soaring new heights – literally and figuratively.
Isn’t there a title we've missed, you ask? Well of course! In the midst of Super Mario Galaxy 1 & 2 came New Super Mario Bros. Wii, an adventure that allowed players to relive the classic 2D side-scrolling platformer Mario games that rose the Nintendo mascot to stardom in the first place. Despite what many argue, it’s hard not to count NSMBW as a main series home console 3D Mario game since the game is far from a spinoff title, and although presented in 2D, is of course technically a game developed in 3D. It's arguable that it was actually as "main series" as Mario could get, for Nintendo took the franchise back to its core roots. It was a change of pace from the 3D Marios we were used to within the era of modern gaming, yet the concept still achieved high praise all round due to its innovative take on the classic formula – capturing the attentions of both oldie and newbie Mario players.
Now in this case, we had three titles from Mario and two from Zelda grace the Wii. Was it red or green that stole your heart?
Feeling Blue with U (2012 - 2017)
The Wii U is something this writer likes to call the “GameCube 2.0”. It’s another underrated system of Nintendo’s – with a divisive design, confusing marketing, and a lacklustre scheduled release of games in its opening years that ultimately led to its abysmal sales performance. One title that did the console wonders from the get-go, however, was New Super Mario Bros. U. Much like the aforementioned NSMBW, NSMBU took the NSMBW formula and added a welcomed lick of shiny new HD paint – a first for Nintendo’s flagship series. Nintendo also released New Super Luigi U, a game that was both released as bundled DLC with NSMBU and a standalone retail version, containing redesigned levels specifically for Luigi's abilities and play style. Both were brilliant games in general, but collectively wasn't the 3D Mario experience everyone was licking their chops for (as they were 2D platformers in gameplay), and after the buzz around NSMBU and NSLU faded away, the Wii U’s library wasn’t looking too exciting.
Thankfully, sooner or later, along came Super Mario 3D World, a game that’s been hailed as one of the best well-rounded Mario experiences to date due to its hybrid take on both classic and modern Mario game mechanics. Near enough the same time, the aforementioned The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker HD came into existence too. It was another first for Nintendo’s other big franchise, for this was the first time any Zelda game could be played in glorious HD. The formula worked so well that Nintendo decided to do exactly the same thing with its other 3D main series Zelda title on the GameCube, resulting in The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess HD. Despite both games being ports to a new system, they more than helped keep the Wii U somewhat afloat during its drowning existence, and were received well. Again however, the Wii U’s poor scheduling of new releases led to many complaints, and Nintendo were in dire need to develop and publish some new heavy-hitters.
Cue a trailer that gave the Wii U a sudden glimmer of hope. It was the announcement of the upcoming new Zelda game (then unofficially known as “Zelda U”). It made those growing frustrated with the system hang in there for that much longer, even though the Wii successor offered some incredible titles in Mario Kart 8, Super Smash Bros. for Wii U, Splatoon, and Super Mario Maker, to name a few. Unfortunately though, as you all know by now, “Zelda U” was delayed year after year, and as mentioned earlier eventually launched alongside its Nintendo Switch counterpart on March 23rd 2017. Yes, “Zelda U” became The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild – an absolutely stunning and fresh take on the much-loved Zelda series – but it took far too long for those clinging onto their Wii U consoles for its inevitable release.
Right, so we received two 2D and one “2.5D”-styled main series Mario games, two HD ports of existing main series Zelda entries, and one new and epic 3D Zelda adventure title. Who walked away with it this time round?
The Hybrid Happening (2017 - present date)
So here we are now, the era of Nintendo’s latest hybrid console: the Nintendo Switch. Let’s cut to the chase – The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild and Super Mario Odyssey are already being compared for “Game of the Year”. It’s this notion that motivated the creation of this article, for both games take the Mario and Zelda franchises to never-before-seen horizons – and are even more impressive considering that they can be played on both the big screen as well as on the go in stunning HD. As mentioned, Breath of the Wild was the Nintendo Switch's launch title, and has kept many sticking around for hours due to its vast lands to explore and copious amounts of current and upcoming DLC. The game shook up the traditional Zelda formula a lot, which both delighted and disappointed many. Regardless, it can't be argued that the game wasn't a revolutionary entry in the franchise's history, though it's often likened to the original The Legend of Zelda on the NES due to its open world setting – albeit a helluva lot more beautiful to marvel at.
Despite the world only having a month or so with Odyssey, it's clear to see that the game is almost a must-have for any Mario fan. Sure, it's been criticised for a somewhat short campaign, but that's largely dependent on how the player wishes to play the game – and there's lots to do post-game too. The game plays tremendously – Mario has never felt better to control – and its worlds are some of the prettiest sights we've ever seen in any Super Mario title. It almost feels like a celebration of the entire Mario series, for it – without getting into spoiler territory – contains nostalgic moments and gameplay elements that should put smiles (and perhaps happy tears) on the faces of many who grew up with the moustached hero in his previous adventures.
So, as of the date of this publication, which Nintendo giant deserves to sit on the throne? Yes, it's been less than a year for both titles, and we're not sure what the big N will cook up next for each franchise's main series games – so this one's extra tough!
And now for the ultimate poll. Taking everything mentioned above, we ask you to determine which franchise you feel has "won" the main series home console "battle" overall.
Do you agree with some of these results? What's your favourite main series home console 3D Mario and Zelda game, and era in general? Let us know your thoughts on all of this in the usual spot below.