Zelda is NOT an RPG

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Zelda is NOT an RPG

Old article of mine from a game design community. Not exactly OSR, but RPG related.

Ever since Final Fantasy VII made RPGs popular in the mainstream, everyone has been wanting to slap the title of RPG on everything, even if their game is not an RPG. Nintendo to my knowledge, has not ever called Zelda an RPG, but it doesn’t keep a legion of fans calling it an "action RPG". To my knowledge, there is no example of a true "action RPG". [ 1 ]

First, let’s look at what an RPG is. An RPG is a role-playing-game. The mechanics of an RPG are designed to mimic those of tabletop RPGs such as Dungeons and Dragons. In the common RPG model, your characters get experience points to level up, which causes a change in their stats. These stats are then used to determine the results of the character’s actions. For example, your skill with a sword along with the quality of a monster’s armor determines if you hit something.

Secondly, let’s look at what Zelda really is : an action-adventure game.

Classic adventure games didn’t feature much action. They relied on a key-based model. You found a "key" and you used that to get to the next area in the game. The key could be anything, a scrap of meat to get past the rabid poodles or the Eye of Magjibin which unlocks the secret pyramid door. These keys were usually involved in some kind of puzzle to make it more challenging and entertaining than just picking up a key and unlocking a door.

Action games are based on the idea of using force to advance in the game. You have a gun, a sword, or a zombie arm to pound the enemies into submission and advance to the next level. Advancing in the game requires hand-eye-coordination rather than a random number generator weighted by stats. For example, it would be silly to hit a enemy with a bullet in Contra and see "miss" floating above it’s head.

The hybrid game, the action-adventure game is primarily a action game with adventure elements. The best two examples are Zelda and Metriod. Both Zelda and Metroid are primarily action games. You could get through both games without getting more hearts or energy tanks if you were really good. The adventure element takes the form of what I call ''ability keys''.

Ability keys are keys that give the player some ability which allows them to advance in the game. You get a double jump, which allows you to get up on a new platform that leads to a new area. You get a hookshot, which allows you to get from one platform to the next. Or you get bombs or missiles which open a certain kind of door.

Never does Link go up a level, never does he “miss” even though you hit an enemy with a sword.

And there you have it. Zelda is NOT an RPG.

No, actually, believe it or not, that's not the end of the issue. This article has become a trilogy. Sadly, it's needed. The next article in the series, not surprisingly is : Zelda is NOT an RPG II

[ 1 ] There may be one example in the Castlevania series beginning with Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. I haven't played this game in years and will have to play it again to be sure. However, I'm pretty sure that if you were good enough you could progress without leveling up.

[ sidenote ] Since first publishing this article about The Legend of Zelda, I've found that there is a group people who swear to their holy grandmothers left toenail that Zelda is, without a doubt, an RPG. Then, there is a second group who believes that the first group must be kidding.

What's interesting here is how these groups are typically divided. If a person was too young to remember when The Legend of Zelda was first released or don't know what EGA/CGA graphics are, chances are they fall into the first group. People old enough to have remembered the original gold cartridge as well as the Gold Box Series, tend to fall into the second grou