Mario and Link ushered in video games as a pop culture mainstay. One defined platform gaming and established the foundation for every platform game since. The other proliferated the concept of role-playing games to new audiences, however these two have only been matched against each other in the setting of the Super Smash Bros. series-titles that had to sacrifice any realistic portrayal of the combat abilities of the characters for homogenized and balanced game play mechanics. Many video games have to do this, despite the absurd conclusions that can occur (much like how Phoenix Wright can challenge Dr. Doom and win in Marvel vs. Capcom 3) , but what might occur if we examine those two characters in their primary elements, the games that made them famous? Who might reign supreme?
Both of these video game protagonists share many of the same qualities. Both place themselves in harm's way for the sake of a princess and their respective kingdoms. Both retain the aspect of the Average Joe figure tossed into situations that turn them into a hero, one being a rather ordinary Italian plumber and the other just a citizen of Hyrule. To fully understand how a fight with these Nintendo icons might play out, it's the differences that will determine a victor.
Melee is the best place to begin. Both Mario and Link tackle most of their enemies in close range combat, but each has obtained different methods to accomplish the same goal.
Mario uses rather barbaric means to dispatch enemies. While perhaps effective versus the average Goomba, jumping on the head of your foe seems highly impractical and ineffective against any relatively smart opponent. If jumping on heads was a proper tactic in fighting, the UFC might have basketball players lining up to be contenders. Mario is also devoid of a means to defend himself from attacks up close, which opens the opportunity for counter attacks if his primary technique fails.
Link relies heavily on the tools he acquires to guide him through battle, and melee combat is no exception. A perfect balance of attack and defense, the Master Sword can inflict some major damage while his Hylian Shield can deflect a good portion of attacks. The Hylian Shield also retains a flame-resistant quality, making it highly useful against any opponent who likes to play with fire.
Mario's prehistoric method of head stomping will never hold up against any fighter with intelligence and a decent set of weapons. Mario's jump is predictable and Link has too many options to deal with it. A simple sidestep is one of them. Unless the laws of physics suddenly change, Mario won't be drastically changing his trajectory mid-jump. Another counter for Link is to simply raise the Master Sword and let Mario plummet onto the business end of the strongest weapon in all of Hryule.
Every tactician in history knows this simple fact: Taking down your enemies from afar is much safer than getting close. Both fighters have an impressive repertoire of long range capabilities, which play an integral role in their respective fighting styles.
Anyone who's ever picked up a Super Mario Bros game knows about Mario's signature fireball. It's hot, it bounces like a tennis ball and it will make short work of any Koopa. Of course, the limiting factors of Mario's fireball are that he requires a Fire Flower to use it and in most games, it's represented as being a rather slow attack. In this specific scenario, another flaw with the fireball lies in the fact that Link has a reliable defense against it. As mentioned above, the Hylian Shield can block fire, making Mario's primary ranged ability rather moot.
Moblins, ChuChus and even Ganondorf have all fallen prey to Link's signature bow and arrow. Throughout the scope of Zelda series, he has even been able to combine his arrows with various types of magic, like fire, ice and light. In most games, it's the only thing that can defeat Ganondorf. The main problem with Link's bow is that he has to keep a stack of arrows around at all times, which can be a cumbersome chore. Once he's out of arrows, the bow becomes a useless toy.
Again, Link takes the advantage here. Against Mario's usual targets, Koopa Troopas and Goombas, the fireball may be a suitable method of attack, but when compared to Link's bow, it just cannot measure up. The bow has a faster projectile, is more accurate and can even be turned into a fire based weapon when combined with magic. The only real advantages that the fireball has over the bow, are that it never runs out of ammunition and has a ricochet effect.
Mobility always plays a key factor in fights. Muhammad Ali, perhaps the greatest boxer to live, coined the phrase, "Float like a butterfly. Sting like a bee." Being light on your feet allows the ability to evade an opponent's strike, all while acquiring the position to make your own attacks more effectively.
Mario shines in terms of mobility. Not a lot of what happens in the Mushroom Kingdom makes much sense. For some reason a leaf grants Mario with a raccoon tail and a set of ears, and that, in turn, gives him the ability to fly. In Super Mario World, it was replaced by a cape, but Mario's flight ability was still intact. All Mario needs to become airborne is a bit of room to sprint. Once he's in the sky, anyone trying to hit him with a sword, or even an arrow has quite a predicament.
"The hookshot. It extends! It retracts! It latches onto things! What a cool invention!" The hookshot might be fun, but it's more of a novelty than a true advantage in battle. The hookshot is Link's only practical tool for maneuvering-things like the Deku Leaf, the raft, the spinner and grappling hook can't really be considered adequate tools for movement during combat. The big problem is the hookshot latches onto certain things and not others. It does double as a weapon that stuns weaker enemies, but Mario would more accurately fall into the boss category of foes, where the hookshot proves ineffective.
When comparing these two methods of movement, flight proves to be the obvious winner. Scouring the terrain for a suitable place to latch onto and then taking the time to aim the hookshot monopolizes too much time and focus to make it effective while pitted against a strong opponent. Flight for Mario, on the other hand, only requires a little bit of open ground and puts Mario in a position that defangs the power and accuracy of Link's most effective abilities.