Is Zelda an RPG

Earlier this week I was presented with the following video by Happy Console Gamer. It poses the question is Zelda an RPG? Watch…

Having been a Zelda fan for years now, remembering fondly Link’s Awakening on the original Gameboy, it struck me as weird that I’ve never really considered this question before. Though, looking online I can see that Zelda’s genre is a fervently discussed issue in the gaming community! Time for me to throw in my two cents…

I would never profess to be a particular fan of RPGs, Fable, Fable 2 and Fallout 3 sitting neglected on my shelf for the last year or so. It’s not that I have a disliking for them, far from it. I simply don’t have time to grind away for 70+ hours before I am satisfied that the game has been explored sufficiently. With the sheer number of games that are available currently, I generally favour more linear titles that can be knocked out in 10 hours. Sorry Skyrim. Having said that, one of my favourite games of late is unequivocally The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword. So enamoured with Shigeru Miyamoto’s latest endeavour, I actually sessioned it over the course of a few days, thoroughly exploring all areas, collecting bugs, weapon upgrades and heart containers.

This actually leads me on quite nicely to a discussion of whether Zelda is an RPG or not.

With an initial examination it is very easy to observe various features from the Legend of Zelda series that would indeed suggest that they are RPGs. Elements of quasi-grinding have always been key additions to the games, repeatedly killing low level enemies or slashing grass in order to collect enough Rupees to purchase items from the many in-game shops. This was especially prevalent in Skyward Sword with the addition of bug collection, in turn allowing for the upgrade of weaponry (another typical RPG trait). Similarly, the autonomous accumulation of hearts, a task which the games neither require or guide you in, further promotes Zelda  as an RPG. Furthermore, health and ammunition requirements have always been left open to the player; progression is not restricted by low attainment of both, beyond the player’s own struggle to defeat certain bosses with low ammo, health or healing potions, of course.

It’s this level of freedom which perhaps stands out as the most RPG-like aspect of the Zelda franchise. Though the games have an ingrained thread of linearity with strict narrative progression, individual exploration and discovery form extensive side plots. This can be seen in the quest for heart containers, or the many secondary plots from each title, completion of these unnecessary for ‘clocking’ the games: I often reminisce about Link’s Awakening, delivering [1990’s SPOILER] dog food to the crocodile; it was a completely unrelated side quest but one which was entertaining and very satisfying.

Additional RPG elements of Zelda titles include protagonist characterisation, or lack thereof, and speech mechanics. In each iteration of the franchise you play the role of a protagonist whose character is deliberately vague. There is no audible speech, he has no voice. In fact, characterisation goes very little beyond clarifying that he is a young ‘hero’. This affords the player the opportunity to stamp their own personality onto Link – even down to the name! Moreover, the games’ speech mechanics often allow the player to choose alternating responses when conversing with other characters (notably in Skyward Sword). However, though on the surface this gives the impression of player control, really with all answers generally resulting in the same consequences it is in fact an illusion. When was the last time you chose the ”wrong” answer in a Zelda game?

This, I feel is the key reason why Zelda is not an RPG. As explained above, it is true that there are many elements from the Zelda franchise that do indeed mirror those found in RPG games, yet they don’t quite have the required scope to render them entirely so. Narrative structures are decidedly linear, forcing players to complete tasks and temples in a strict order (areas must be completed in a set pattern for plot progression – generally, the new weapon obtained from one temple will allow access to the next). Apart from increasing your stock of life and ammo which eases the difficulty of combat, your exploration has very little impact on storyline. In fact, it is fair to say that there is no real way to change how the stories progress which is perhaps the most significant feature of RPGs.

Add to this the general lack of character and weapon customisation, and the exclusion of any experience based levelling system (with the obvious exception of Zelda II: The Adventure of Link), and you have a franchise that fails to meet the expectations of the RPG genre on many levels. Yet, in most recent execution this is changing somewhat; clearly Skyward Sword has taken Zelda to new heights, making it more and more like a role playing game. And who knows where this significant precedent could progress to in the future?

To answer the question then, is Zelda an RPG? No, it’s simply an immersive action adventure with familiar role-playing traits.

The real question is though, does this definition have any impact upon the quality of the game? The answer to this is much less contested…

Thanks to Mo, for the suggestion!

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