About 7 years ago, I explained why Zelda was not an RPG on Project Wonderboy, the first site I ever wrote at. It was a fun article that only exists in the old Internet graveyard today, sadly. Even still, it’s a topic I toil and fuss over regularly because, wouldn’t you know, people still think it’s an RPG. These people are what I like to call WRONG. But don’t worry if you’re one of them! I’ll explain why you’re an idiot.
First we have to figure out what exactly is an RPG. If you’re going by tabletop/oldschool PC RPG rules, an RPG is a game founded somewhat around character development, often favoring turn-based combat complete with different characters playing different roles such as a barbarian, priest, mage, thief, or what have you. So effectively, the “role” in role playing is specific to the idea that you play as a specific class or job within the game.
However, over time the idea has been changed again and again offering the idea of a purely custom class, class-less, or ever-changing class system. Ergo, RPGs have typically been defined as a game that may or may not offer a role that you may or may not be able to change at a later time…at least lately. So to make it simpler, an RPG anymore is typically a game that involves character development, usually derived in a way of points that you typically gain from combat.
More points than you can shake a stick +1 at.
There are only two Zeldas that follow a formula even remotely similar to what I just described and those are Zelda 2 for the NES and Zelda – Skyward Sword for the Wii. Zelda 2 gives you points each time you defeat enemies or stumble upon a point bag. After you earn so many points, you’re able to upgrade Link as you see fit. With Skyward Sword, it’s mostly upgrades, however there is a constantly expansive shop system that allows you to buy, re-buy, upgrade, and customize many features of Link that normally would be static or on a set path that would typically only be unlocked by progressing in the game, not by grinding for more rupees.
This is critical: one of the major reasons I say Zelda is not an RPG is because you don’t level up. Of course, that’s not to say that you necessarily level up in many RPGs anymore, which warrants further explanation. Let’s say I’m playing Final Fantasy. Which Final Fantasy? It doesn’t matter, pay attention. I beat up enemies and something is improved. What, exactly? Well, that depends on which FF we’re playing.
If it’s a more traditional one, I just got experience points which, over time, will allow my characters to level up. Leveling up in a traditional FF means progressing said characters closer to their ideal traits within a given role, but it’s usually only possible through grinding. Some FFs offer additional perks or different types of points you may also get that may or may not be available to allocate manually, but are used to further customize and upgrade your characters as you see fit.
So I need to keep using this weapon for a while so I can get enough AP to learn a skill I probably won’t use but might at some point maybe then I’m going to fuse it together with this other weapon that I’ll need to do the same with first so I can make a greater weapon which will probably still be kinda weak so I can do it all over aga-SPLODE
Now some would argue that Zelda is an RPG because, come on, you get heart containers when you beat bosses, get tools that allow you access to more areas for wider exploration (which is somewhat similar to what recent Metroidvanias have been doing), get sword and armor upgrades, and usually get various tool upgrades complete with larger bags for holding shit.
Okay then, so it’s an expansive system that’s based around points, right? Oh, it isn’t? It’s based around exploration? So I’m GUARANTEED that I will “level up” as Zelda sees fit if I explore areas, right? Oh, there’s NO guarantee I will find anything at all? Probably just rupees and hearts and shit in some areas? And there’s the rub. If I fight in one area in FF for a while, I will either level up or at least be closer to leveling up.
In Zelda, I can explore an entire area and not be guaranteed to have any progress, especially if I don’t have the correct tools to explore said area. So let’s break it down to a more interesting example: any Metroid game vs. Castlevania games following the Metroidvania formula. Metroid is not and never has been an RPG. That’s not to say it couldn’t be or wouldn’t work as one, it’s just that it simply has never been.
Also, not a role playing game. Also also, GET YOUR MIND OUTTA THE GUTTER.
How so? I mean, you play Symphony of the Night and it operates very similarly, just with gothic shit instead of space shit, right? But the visceral effects aren’t the only difference. With the Castlevania games, you don’t necessarily HAVE TO level up, but it’s a good idea because the areas can get fairly punishing after a while. Truth be told, though, it’s more about having the right equipment and learning the area than leveling up constantly.
AH HA! That’s exactly how Metroid is! You’re right…except that you still have the OPTION to level up…and it DOES help…just very slowly and with extreme subtlety. With Metroid, it’s founded on exploration. Why does it feel like I’m repeating myself? Because I totally fucking am. While, yes, there are a shit ton of power ups, most of which you’ll probably miss, ultimately you are not GUARANTEED to find them…let alone will you EVER level up by punking out a bunch of space pirates in a given area.
Sure, it could unlock a new area that might have an upgrade, but it’s never a guarantee. Now for those of you that think a Zelda RPG couldn’t work, would lose its audience, or just plain wouldn’t be fun because the difficulty would be unbalanced one way or the other, you needn’t look any further than the Seiken Densetsu (Mana) games. When I first popped in Secret of Mana, I wondered why Zelda couldn’t just be like this.
Zelda RPG. ur doin it rite.
You got tools that let you into new areas, it was fun to explore, it was bright and colorful, there were all kinds of proficiencies and various things to level up, and you could even play drop in drop out co-operative multiplayer! Yeah, the game was WELL ahead of its time. Actually, this is what I challenge you to do. The next time someone claims Zelda is an RPG, even without trying to make a big deal out of it, here’s what I want you to tell them:
“Oh, I know, right? I love RPGs like Zelda. Personally, though, I think my favorite kinds of RPGs are Devil May Cry, God of War, and Dante’s Inferno. Well, maybe also Darksiders and Bayonetta, but yeah, man…Zelda.”
Here’s why: all of those games…yes, all of them…can be counted as action/RPGs. They all have either some sort of shop or hub that you can buy various upgrades to enhance your character expansively over time with Darksiders easily being the best example. If they get pissed, remind them that Zelda doesn’t have many of the features that are in those games AND it ONLY rewards you if you go looking in the right areas at the right time with the right tools.
For everyone that came here thinking that Zelda is an RPG, I would like to hear why. Yeah, I’m sorry for calling you an idiot earlier, but seriously, why do you think Zelda is an RPG? If you’re breaking it down to Zelda being an RPG because “you play the role of Link,” then conceivably EVERYTHING is an RPG, which is pretty fucking stupid, you gotta admit. In any case, feel free to shout it out!