Nintendo's long had a large catalogue of successful and beloved franchises. Starting from the 2D era with the original Nintendo and up till now in the 3D era featured on the Wii. They've all gone through an evolution of their looks both in style and due to increasing technology. Comparing the original concept art for some of the characters compared to the concept art of them now can be rather different but they still retain the same feel of the character. Obvious I am not going to go over every single character but I will go over some of the notable ones and show how they changed over time.
Everyone knows Mario, gamer or not. Everyone recognizes the Hat, Mustache and overalls. That's always been the recurring feature in every single iteration of Mario. I took a look online and found a few images showing how he changed. Though the colors of his outfit may change, the overalls color, hair color, etc, the hat is always red. Once the Super Nintendo era hit, his appearance in Super Mario World has pretty much been how he looks in every other game now. The transition from 2D to 3D didn't change that, his overalls, mustache, hair and hat, shoes were all the same color in the appearances following it (Granted they didn't use older sprites). Even his face pretty much stays the same too.
The original Super Mario Bros. artwork
One of Mario's different looks, in paper form in "Paper Mario"
Of course they've never wanted to make him look different from his trademark appearance, he has made different apperances in different outfits over the years in various Mario Spin Off titles (such as Mario Party) but usually retained the overalls as his main outfit anyways. The main thing that's been added over the years is increased detail into the character. As you can see in the Wii titles he has proper textures that make his overalls feel more real but he still retains the same comical feel that he always has had. He has had some different looks in other games though, such as his apperance in paper mario where he was... well paper. Otherwise he hasn't had too much diversity in terms of outfits or changes.
Mario's staple apperance
Another staple character in Nintendo's best selling Zelda franchise. Link's had a much more diverse set of looks than Mario has over the years. I even took a look at his different looks in my first graphics blog. In his first 2D sprite, his look was rather limited of course but he has always retained the green tunic and green hat. You can also see his elf-like ears on the very first sprite as well and some knee high boots. These three aspects have always been a staple for the character and is present in every iteration of him.
Link's first appearance in the Legend of Zelda
The details in his outfit have ranged though as well as his age. Over the years he has grown older and older. Where as Mario has always seemed like the same age, Link used to be a young child, probably around 10 years old. His first step to adulthood came in Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, though he started out as a child then became an adult through time.
Link's appearance in Ocarina of Time
He went back to his kid form, but this time in Cell Shaded form (of course still with tunic and hat) in WindWaker. His hairstyle also varied a bit as this cell shaded link. Also, the Ocarina of Time and Cell shaded link were the first to have leggings, the rest didn't wear any form of leg wear.
Link's appearance in Windwaker
Twilight Princess was once again an even older link or around the same age as Ocarina of Time's Adult Link and this time he actually wore pants, not tights, real pants. His tunic of course looked more detailed and he even had a set of chain mail underneath the tunic as well. This particular title boasted the most realistic looking and gritty Link.
Link's appearance in Twilight Princess
The Skyward Sword look followed just late last year, back to a similar style as the cell shaded link, featuring a less realistic Link. He is also an adult incarnation of Link and features some differences to his outfit such as belts being different, but the main difference is the new, non realistic look he has.
Link's apperance in Skyward Sword
The debut of the Wii U announced at E3 also marked the first time we might see Link in HD, with more detail than we have ever seen in him before. This particular Link bolsters the same realistic look, which may hint at Nintendo planning for another realistic style Zelda game.
The Zelda HD Wii U tech demo
Link's been more interesting than Mario, because he has been changing not only outfits and ages, but also completely different art styles while still maintaining to look like Link. Even despite the differences you always know that's Link because of those staple features of his Hat, Tunic, boots and his Legendary Weapons the Master Sword and Hyrulian Shield.
One of the staple heroines of Nintendo, Samus has always been a character shrouded with some mystery. Coming from the Metroid Franchise, Samus has always been bolstered in high tech, space armor called the Varia Suit. Over the years she has had a variety of different suits as well as even gone out of the suit at times. The first time she went out of the suit was at the end of the first Metroid game, where you could only see it if you collected 100% of all items in the game. You didn't even know she was a woman till you beat the game in fact. I myself didn't know she was a woman until Super Smash Brothers came out since I had never beat the games when I was that young.
Samus' appearance in Super Smash Brothers Brawl
Her design has changed over time, the first Metroid she featured a much less detailed, simpler look in her suit. By the time Metroid 2 came out, her design was revamped and looks much more closely to how she has looked in many of the major games after. Of course her sprite wouldn't be able to show it since it was only on the NES but the vision for the staple look for Samus then on was set. When Super Metroid came out we were able to see how they really wanted the sprite to look finally and the design was pretty much set in stone from there, having a few tweaks (though not major) from the Metroid II design.
Samus' "Zero Suit" in Super Smash Brothers Brawl
Several GBA games came out featuring new designs for Samus. Metroid Fusion featured a plot that forced her suit to change, making a more “tight” looking suit that looked quite a bit different, though retained a similar shape in visor and the same red helmet despite the different colors on the body. This was also the first game to show Samus in her new “Zero Suit” look. In prior games she was essentially in a bikini when she took her armor off but this game gave her the “Zero Suit”, which was a light blue, skin tight jump suit. She has retained this appearance for out of armor experiences in pretty much every game I can remember after that. Metroid Zero Mision changed the armor design again, looking more akin to the original Metroid armor, though with a now revamped GBA sprite. It was pretty much a more detailed and final look that the original Metroid armor wanted to achieve.
Her apperance in Metroid Prime 3 : Corruption
Once 2002 hit, the Metroid Prime games came out and retained the Varia suit's look that was set in Super Metroid, but in 3D! Metroid Prime 3 changed that with a revamped look for her armor. It got a lot more blues in the overall color palette as well as a few design changes that remind me slightly of Master Chief from the Halo series. The reason for the changed Varia suit in Metroid Prime 3 is story related however, so it was “essential” indeed to give this change in look for story reasons anyways. In the most recent game Metroid Other M, a collaboration of Team Ninja (Ninja Gaiden series) and Nintendo, Samus was reatured with a less bulky, thinner Varia Suit. Her shoulder pads were noticeably smaller to boot.
Samus in Civilian clothes in Metroid Other M and the Varia Suit
The particular color palette for Samus has always been the red helmet with that particular, triangle and/or curved visor (which is either green or blue), and the orange and yellow armor. She's gone for that fiery palette most of the time and if not, then featuring a light blue for her zero suits. Aside from her staple Varia suit, she has a variety of other suits that change from game to game, but her staple look has always and will always be the Varia suit.
Who Changed the most?
Well all the characters have retained their staple looks the whole time but who changed the most? Well that's a very debatable question and depends on some factors. I think hands down Mario changed the least in every possible way so he is out of the count for me. Link's certainly had the most variety in terms of art styles, which have led into different outfits and features. Samus has always gone for a realistic style but her armor has evolved into different shapes over time as well and her zero suit, metroid fusion look and normal Varia suit all look significantly different. However Link has been different ages and looks as well and compared to his original concept art still looks quite a bit different, more so in my opinion than Samus does when compared to her original concept art. So I guess I will have to go with Link. What are you thoughts, who do you think changed the most?