Donkey Kong and Pac-Man have the edge if we are talking about the 35+ never-ever played video games crowd.
Or the under 35 never-ever played a video game (except maybe mobileshit) crowd. And these crowds are gigantic. Mario is one of the few recognizable to them. That just shows you how absolutely far beyond Link and most other characters Mario is.
Really user, Nathan Drake is that high up in your mind?
Meh, people were talking about Drake earlier and I guess he was on my mind. But yeah, he's lower. But so are all those other characters. People have forgotten Lara Croft. Kids know Drake but may not know Croft anymore since the last few games were forgettable as fuck and didn't sell the kinds of numbers Uncharted puts out. (Not that Uncharted isn't forgettable either, but these fags like it for some reason).
You've got a point that SJWs might give Croft an extra few points though.
You mention Luigi, Peach, Bowser. Yeah, people know them. Bowser perhaps less so. But people know Mario, Luigi, and "The Princess." It largely has to do with what games they were in. Bowser, maybe called Koopa, or "that dinosaur guy" is probably recognized a fair amount, but I doubt as much as the protagonist characters. And even out of the protagonists, Toad is less so. Despite all four being in SMB2, Peach gets the boost in being memorable due to being able to float, and therefore being casuals' favorite character in an extremely popular game that had immense cultural penetration.
Halo and Uncharted are like Call of Duty and Battlefield, the games name sells.
I wouldn't disagree. Halo is a pretty cool guy. He shoots aliens and doesn't afraid of anything. And I already called Nathan Drake Drake Fortune. So yeah, I'll concede this point. I was getting series and characters' mixed up here, but I'll give you that these characters, though more recognizable than most, could be swapped out and still have their series sell.
What I'm saying with them is that they have recognition. Be it name or image. And yes, it absolutely pales in comparison to guys like Mario. That just shows how far ahead Mario is of everyone else. Very few video game characters have any real cultural recognition. That's my entire point here. These other guys are the closest it gets outside of the few biggest names, and they're still quite unrecognizable.
I think an issue is that you're ignoring the vast, vast segments of the population that don't even qualify as casual. Those people will still know Mario and Pac-Man because they're cultural icons. That just shows how far beyond everyone else they are.
I still think you vastly overestimate Zelda and underestimate Sonic. Sonic has had five tv shows, including a current one, and was the only character to ever truly rival Mario, even if that was over a decade ago. Sonic sold Sega, and Sega managed to rival Nintendo. Even after people turned on the franchise and Sega stopped making consoles, Sonic still had two well rated tv shows.
Zelda might be popular among people who play video games, but others won't know it. Its reputation is vastly inflated on the internet, partially because of people who just want to pretend they like video games latching onto the meme that Ocarina of Time is the best game ever, or Majora's Mask is "dark." But still, it's failed to leap into the wider cultural consciousness in the way Mario, Pac-Man, and I argue Sonic, have done.
Once again, just show random passersby a picture of Link, and a picture of Sonic. I'm willing to bet many will recognize Sonic, but few will recognize Link, even if you count the people who call him Zelda.