Super Mario vs. Legend of Zelda and Continuity

StoryScan: Versus


StoryScan: Versus compares and contrasts specific aspects of multiple games that share narrative features. In this essay, we’re covering the Super Mario series and The Legend of Zelda series , two of Nintendo’s best-selling titles. This essay touches on plot points from both franchises. Players who are unfamiliar with these games may want to set this article aside until later, as it contains spoilers for their storylines. 

Ask any Nintendo fan what the company’s two biggest franchises are, and they won’t have to think long to answer: Super Mario and The Legend of Zelda.⁠1 Together, these two properties account for almost one billion games sold2, including sequels, prequels, and countless spin-offs. They’ve spawned everything from comics and cartoons to concerts and cereals, and they’re showing no signs of slowing down after almost forty years. While the two franchises have their differences, the two have more in common than just their developers. They’re both games about courageous heroes rescuing princesses from evil wizards, and they both have a strange relationship with continuity. Every game in each franchise builds on the one that came before it, but there are very few direct sequels in either series. The reasons behind the lack of continuity between the franchise titles are very different, however, and so are the elements that travel from one game to the next. The Super Mario and The Legend of Zelda series take their unique approaches to plots, characters, and settings. Those different approaches are part of what gives their respective franchises such phenomenal staying power. 

Continuity Between Titles


Mario plots haven’t evolved far beyond the original conceit of rescuing the princess.

The Super Mario series is traditionally thin on plot, to put it charitably. In most Mario games, all the player needs to know is that someone Mario cares about is in trouble, and Mario has to save them. Usually, the person needing help is Mario’s beloved Princess Peach, and the culprit is the dastardly Bowser more often than not. Sometimes, Bowser will have a reason for kidnapping Peach—to give his son a mother, for example—but it’s all too common for him to go in without a motive. Peach is there to be stolen, and so he steals her. That’s all the story the game needs to get Mario hopping from platform to platform. Ultimately, that’s the point of all game narratives: to provide context for the gameplay. As long as the story provides a goal and a reason to pursue it, it’s good enough. Bearing that in mind, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the Mario series doesn’t bother with a complex timeline. It doesn’t matter if Super Mario Sunshine takes place before or after Super Mario 64 or Super Mario Odyssey, or if they’re somehow taking place simultaneously in a quantum super-mario-position. All that matters is that Mario has someone to save, and he’s prepared to do a lot of jumping to save them.

While The Legend of Zelda series doesn’t exactly rack up the narrative design awards, its storylines are more complex than those in the Super Mario series. Like Mario, Link is usually a courageous hero trying to rescue his princess (Zelda) from a wizard (Ganon), but the stories always grow from the premise established during the opening. This is because the Zelda series is driven by exploration, and one of the ways it rewards players for exploring is by revealing more about the world and its inhabitants. Link may begin his journeys in a tiny corner of the world, but by the time he’s ready for the final battle, he’s met people in every region. He’s also learned their history: something that forces the series to reckon with inter-game continuity. 

Unlike the Mario games, where the passage of time is incidental, the Zelda games have a chronological relationship. This relationship has existed since the second entry in the series, Zelda II: The Adventure of Link (Nintendo, 1987), which canonically features the same Link as the original. Princess Zelda is not the same, however; she’s a Zelda from generations before, frozen by a powerful spell. According to Zelda II, all the princesses in Hyrule share the name Zelda as a tribute to this sleeping princess: a concept that implies generation after generation of princesses, which is a conceit the series explores to the fullest. It’s a level of complexity that would be out of place in light, breezy platformers like the Super Mario games, but in the exploration-heavy Legend of Zelda series, it’s just right. 


Mario may not have changed much since the 80s, but Link has grown up a lot.

Super Mario and The Legend of Zelda may have started with similar character archetypes, but those characters have gone in different directions in the decades since their creation. In the Super Mario series, the eponymous Mario has changed very little from his 1981 debut. He’s a short, stocky, mustachioed plumber wearing overalls and a hat (color subject to change based on power-ups), and he likes jumping almost as much as he likes pasta. Beyond that, there isn’t much to him. His age is unclear, as is his history, and all we know about his family is that he has an equally-mysterious brother, Luigi. Princess Peach shares similarly vague origins, as does Bowser, although Bowser does have anywhere from one to eight children (depending upon who you ask). No matter how the flavor of the specific game changes, the characters are always fundamentally the same. They’re not deep characters, but that’s because they don’t have to be. If anything, their lack of depth is what gives them their appeal. They can be whatever they need to be whenever they need to be, no matter how absurd. Sometimes, Mario teaches typing; other times, he fights wedding-planning rabbits on the dark side of the moon. Neither scenario disrupts the series’ continuity because the series doesn’t need that kind of continuity. As long as Mario is being Mario, he can jump into any scenario and succeed. 

The Legend of Zelda’s silent protagonist shares many surface attributes with Mario, but a key factor differentiates them: the many permutations of Link. Unlike Mario, who is the same character from game to game, The Legend of Zelda series features over a dozen different Links separated by untold generations. The Links all share similarities in appearance and personality, but they’re decidedly different people from game to game. Some Links are young and reckless; others are grown and cautious. A few communicate through bombastic animations and sounds, while the rest maintain a more stoic silence. Most recently, Breath of the Wild’s Link broke with series tradition by discarding his hat and donning all new colors: a vibrant blue, one that sharply contrasts his signature green. These subtle changes help to reinforce the idea that each Link is his own person with wants, needs, and preferences.

 The many generations of Links are divided by more than just chronology and costumes; they also have different backstories. While some Links have nebulous histories like Mario, others have jobs, friends, and families. The Wind Waker’s Link has a sister and a grandmother; Skyward Sword’s Link has a gaggle of classmates; A Link to the Past’s Link has an uncle. These differing backstories contribute to Link’s motivations, which aren’t always as clear-cut as Mario’s. Sometimes, Link’s top priority is rescuing Zelda—a character who’s gone through changes of her own—but other times, he’s more worried about siblings, friends, or the greater population. Since each game has its own Link, each Link can be the kind of person the story needs him to be. He can be childish and fun in bright, colorful games, but he can also be stoic and serious in games with a darker tone. While his ever-changing personality limits his ability to achieve the icon status of a static character like Mario, it grants Zelda’s developers the flexibility to design a Link that’s right for every game. 


The Mushroom Kingdom changes from game to game, but Peach’s Castle is a relative constant.

Although Mario and Link both hail from flourishing kingdoms with (relatively) stable monarchies, their realms take different approaches to continuity. In the Super Mario series, many games take place within Princess Peach’s Mushroom Kingdom: a sprawling, colorful country with countless unique continents and biomes. It’s got windy deserts, blinding snow fields, thick forests, and calm seas, and Mario has explored every one of them. He’s also hopped through factories, jumped inside paintings, leaped across volcanos, and flown to the farthest reaches of space. Each game’s version of the Mushroom Kingdom has what it needs to keep things entertaining, and if the Mushroom Kingdom isn’t enough, the developers will happily send Mario elsewhere. Like Mario himself, the Mushroom Kingdom is only defined in the vaguest sense, which means it can be whatever it needs to be to fit the moment. 

Link’s Kingdom of Hyrule shares many classic gaming biomes with Mario’s Mushroom Kingdom, but Hyrule maintains a much higher degree of consistency between games. Unlike Link and Zelda, who change from game to game, the Hyrule they call home is always the same. There is always a Hyrule Castle, a Lake Hylia, and a Death Mountain, and the races that inhabit each area can linger for multiple generations. There may be differences in the landscape, but those variations can be hand-waved away by the notion that each Legend of Zelda game is just that—a legend. The experiences each player has are not meant to reflect the events that happened in the story with one-hundred percent accuracy. Instead, they’re approximations passed down from generation to generation, like fables or fairy stories for children. When viewed through that lens, the relatively amorphous nature of Hyrule makes sense. One storyteller might remember Lake Hylia being to the east; another might recall it being to the west. What matters is that there was a Lake Hylia, Link went there, and in the future, another Link may go there again.

It’s been almost four decades since Nintendo brought Super Mario and The Legend of Zelda into the world, and both franchises are as strong as they’ve ever been. Part of their strength comes from their flexible relationship with continuity. While each series takes a different approach to the consistency of its stories, characters, and settings, both have the freedom to perpetually reinvent themselves while remaining true to their origins and their audiences. 


It’s been almost four decades since Nintendo brought Super Mario and The Legend of Zelda into the world, and both franchises are as strong as they’ve ever been. Part of their strength comes from their flexible relationship with continuity. While each series takes a different approach to the consistency of its stories, characters, and settings, both have the freedom to perpetually reinvent themselves while remaining true to their origins and their audiences. 

Further Reading

Narrative Analysis:

Audiences want internal consistency in their stories, but writers can still play with continuity under the right circumstances.

StoryScan: Super Mario RPG and Tone

Super Mario RPG makes the most out of its lighthearted, comedic tone by integrating it in both story and scene.

Full Game Study: Breath of the Wild

Frequently used in theater, Five-Act structure marks the midpoint as the height of tension, rather than the closing. 


1-2 “List of Best-Selling Video Game Franchises.” Wikipedia, 2022. (Note: The Pokémon franchise appears to be Nintendo’s second largest franchise by units sold, but the property is actually owned by the Pokémon Company: a joint venture between Nintendo, Game Freak, and Creatures.)