Settling the internet’s longest running Zelda debate once and for all.
There are three things you shouldn’t talk about on the internet: politics, religion, and whether or not The Legend of Zelda is an RPG.
I wrote that opening as a joke, but honestly, it’s not that far detached from the truth. Debating whether or not The Legend of Zelda series counts as RPGs is a surprisingly divisive topic. While most agree that games like Zelda 2: Adventure of Link at least sort of count, it’s games like Ocarina of Time or Link to the Past that get the most scrutiny. Even if these games are far cries from the likes of Final Fantasy or Dragon Quest, can they still be considered RPGs regardless?
As controversial as the topic may be, it’s one that absolutely can be solved if we really break down how video games are categorized into genres. Let’s dive into this subject… and also consider how this debate could have been avoided to begin with.
First of all, what is an RPG?
Here’s the biggest issue with the Legend of Zelda RPG debate: the definition of “RPG” is extremely loose. Wikipedia defines an RPG as “a game in which players assume the roles of characters in a fictional setting.” Since you take the role of “Link” and Hyrule is a fictional place, The Legend of Zelda must therefore be an RPG, right?
The problem with this definition is that every video game is a “role playing game” in this case. In Super Mario Bros., you take control of Mario in the fictional Mushroom Kingdom. In Madden, you take control of a football player in a fictional football game. In other words, if every game is a role playing game, then no game is a role playing game.
Heck, if you really want to make your head spin, look at what Apple classifies as an “RPG” in its app store these days.
Instead, we have to consider the origin of the term “role playing game” as it relates to gaming. If we look at early RPGs such as Wizardry, Ultima, or even Dragon Quest, it’s easy to see why the term “role playing game” caught on. These games didn’t have a lot of “role playing” in the traditional sense, but the mechanics of these games were based heavily around table top role playing games like Dungeons and Dragons. This includes characters defined by various stat values (such as Attack and Defense), leveling up by defeating monsters, exploring dangerous locations, and turn based combat full of simulated dice rolls… and that’s only scratching the surface.
Wizardry even unabashedly takes its races from Dungeons and Dragons, though those were already inspired by Tolkien and… you know what, we’re getting off track here.
The point is, the gaming genre “RPG” refers to games that simulate the mechanics of pen and paper role playing games. That said, this issue does get a bit trickier when we consider the ways modern RPGs have drastically changed since the 80s and 90s.
But what about RPGs nowadays?
Even when we bolt down RPGs to roughly mean “number driven games,” we still can’t definitively say The Legend of Zelda doesn’t fit the criteria. Link does have numerical “stats” in the average Zelda game, such as hit points (represented by hearts), attack power (represented by the equipped weapon), and so on. And even if Link doesn’t level up, you still can grind random enemies for money and items. So is there an argument to say that The Legend of Zelda is an action RPG?
In these cases, we have to look at how the RPG genre has evolved as it pertains to video games. If you pick up any random Japanese role playing game these days, chances are it’s not specifically trying to emulate Dungeons and Dragons. Instead, it’ll probably be emulating ideas from mainstay RPG franchises like Final Fantasy or Pokémon. Just as how modern table top RPGs have developed new rules and mechanics since the 80s, so too have video game RPGs forged their own rules and traditions.
You can see this right in the Final Fantasy series. The battle system in early Final Fantasy games followed a strict turn-based format, with every round of attacks repeating in roughly the same order depending on each character’s stats. But once Final Fantasy IV rolled around, the “Active Time Battle system” was introduced and redefined what could be called “turn based combat.” Yet even if the ATB system was actually inspired by professional sports, we can still recognize this battle system to be in the tradition of classic turn based battle systems.
Though Final Fantasy got really experimental with its combat by XIII, any menu-driven battle system is generally considered “turn based.” It may not fit the definition perfectly, but that’s how it’s best described.
The issue here isn’t whether or not The Legend of Zelda has any mechanics lifted from RPGs. It’s whether or not calling The Legend of Zelda an RPG is the best way to describe its gameplay. And if we look at the other terms we use to categorize video games, there’s at least one genre that fits the series better in most cases.
What The Legend of Zelda is.
It’s the most common counterpoint to the “The Legend of Zelda is an RPG” argument, and I’m here to repeat it: The Legend of Zelda is an action-adventure game.
Since we already spent a lot of words describing what an RPG even is, I’ll keep the description of “adventure game” short. Basically, an adventure game is any title in the tradition of games like The Secret of Monkey Island or Mist. These games are generally very text heavy and revolve around exploring fixed locations, accumulating a vast inventory of items, and using those items to solve puzzles.
While The Legend of Zelda isn’t as story driven as classic adventure games, its gameplay holds truer to the tradition of adventure games. If you think about Ocarina of Time specifically, the vast majority of challenge in the game is based around solving puzzles and knowing when and where to use your items. Even climactic boss battles tend to boil down to exploiting weaknesses using your inventory. Compare this to how early RPG bosses can be boiled down to battles of attrition to see who has the better stats, and The Legend of Zelda‘s differences from the genre become apparent.
This isn’t to say that The Legend of Zelda doesn’t have RPG elements. If you really like to be specific with your video game genres, then yes, you could say The Legend of Zelda games are “Action-adventure games with RPG elements.” And of course, if you look at Breath of the Wild, it gets even harder to distinguish how much of the game is “adventure” and how much is “RPG.” So even if I’m confident in generally describing the Zelda series as “action adventure” games, there’s an easy way this whole debate could have been avoided.
The genre The Legend of Zelda should belong to.
If people categorized video games in the 80s the way we do now, The Legend of Zelda would have had its own genre: “Zeldalike.”
As time has gone on, the gaming community has found its established genre names to be inadequate to describe most games. You’ve got broad categories like “Fighting,” “Action,” “Platformer,” “RPG,” but… nowadays, these genre names could tell you virtually nothing about how a game actually plays. Super Smash Bros. and Street Fighter are both Fighting games, yet there are almost no similarities between the two.
As a result, the community has resorted to creating new genres named after the games that created them. Metroid and Castlevania invented RPG-Platformer hybrid games that take place in a single cohesive world, so we call games like this “Metroidvanias.” Games with randomized levels and “permadeath” are similar to the 1980 PC game Rogue, so games like this are called “Roguelike.” Heck, Dark Souls and Bloodborne fit comfortably in the “Action RPG” genre, but we still coined the term “Soulslike” to describe games that use their systems.
Even if we can establish what genre fits The Legend of Zelda the most, it’s clear that the series is too unique to be adequately described with our preexisting labels. As it is, the original Legend of Zelda was a breakthrough video game that practically changed the gaming industry as we know it. Adding the term “Zeldalike” to the gaming lexicon would not only differentiate The Legend of Zelda as its own experience, it would also make it easier to describe other games that copy the series’ unique fusion of puzzle solving and action mixed with exploration and some RPG elements.
So in the end, the issue was never what The Legend of Zelda is. It is an issue of what The Legend of Zelda should be. While I’m under no pretense that the term “Zeldalike” will catch on as an established genre name, some outlets are using it to describe games comparable to The Legend of Zelda. If the term “Zeldalike” can at least occasionally be used to appease both sides of the Zelda genre debate, then I’ll take what I can get.
Is The Legend of Zelda an RPG? Not really, no. Much like David S. Pumpkins, The Legend of Zelda is its own thing… and the RPG elements are part of it.