Should We Consider The Legend of Zelda an RPG?
What a time to be alive for fans of the Legend of Zelda! The most recent release for the legendary (no pun intended) series – Breath of the Wild – is STILL the best selling Switch game in some countries, and deservedly so. It’s the largest, most ambitious, most critically acclaimed release for the Switch to date. It has even gotten some recognition as GOAT (Greatest of All Time) status from some gaming review sites. Most of us here at SwitchRPG have definitely put in our time with Link in BotW – I’ve put in over 100 hours, and some of us have gone over 400 hours of gameplay! Gamers will likely be talking about, and remembering Breath of the Wild for decades to come.
On that topic, The Legend of Zelda series reached its 33rd anniversary just a few weeks ago! We’ve spent over three decades enjoying the multiple entries of Shigeru Miyamoto’s creations, inspired by his boyhood adventures exploring in the woods. To correlate with the anniversary, the Big N announced a HD remake of the series very first handheld entry: Link’s Awakening. The trailer was absolutely gorgeous and the announcement was a complete surprise. We somewhat expected Nintendo to include Zelda in its recent run of HD remakes of its classic hits. We even alluded to one in an article you can read HERE. We certainly didn’t expect Link’s Awakening, however that doesn’t mean the announcement wasn’t a pleasant surprise.
All of the recent Zelda buzz managed to start a rip-roaring debate amongst our staff here at SwitchRPG. It all boils down to one simple question: Is The Legend of Zelda an RPG? The debate began innocently enough, but as time transpired and manhood was questioned, mothers were insulted and threats of fisticuffs were offered up…and we still failed to reach a conclusion we could all agree upon. Having said all of that, we have decided to offer you, the reader, a summary of all of our respective opinions on the matter, and we hope you can offer an opinion of your own in the comments. LET CHAOS REIGN!
To answer it simply…YES. I believe some entries in The Legend of Zelda series can be considered RPGs. Although the majority of them are item based adventure quests, it’s my opinion that a few of them absolutely require character progression to reach the ending and save Hyrule. Breath of the Wild will be the most cited game in relation to character progression and rightfully so. Link literally starts out nearly naked and very weak. A good amount of work and progression typically needs to be put in so that he may become strong enough to venture out into this dangerous version of Hyrule and face the Blight. The argument is that the option to charge straight into the decisive battle is there from the beginning, so progression isn’t really necessary. Well, I personally think that was done by design as a tool for the player to gauge his or her progression. It wasn’t designed that way for the speed runners or daredevils, in my opinion.
Next I have to point toward the one game that many players (including myself) consider to be the best game to ever grace a console; Ocarina of Time. There are many instances in which it isn’t possible to go any farther until Link has obtained the ability to travel through time via the Song Of Time. The one example that comes to mind is the second journey into Gerudo Desert and the Spirit Temple. As an adult, Link is more than capable of making the journey, but the Spirit Temple has only one secret entrance that he can’t fit through as an adult.
The series contains many similar instances. Twilight Princess has sections that require Link to transform into a wolf to progress. A Link to the Past offers many obstacles that Link can overcome when he finally obtains the Magic Mirror and is able to enter the dark world. A Link Between Worlds sometimes requires Link to move forward by going into 2D mode. I hear the argument that all of these examples are pertinent ONLY on when Link obtains a specific item. However, I offer up the rebuttal that the player has to progress Link to a certain point in order to obtain the items. I rest my case! Take it away, gentlemen…
With how catch-all the RPG genre has become over the past decade or so, I can see why the Zelda franchise could be viewed under that umbrella. I think many Zelda games feature RPG elements, but only one or two really feel applicable to the all-out RPG brand. Now, everyone has their own opinion on what actually defines an RPG. For some, an engrossing story with well developed characters, branching dialogue, and decision making is a must. This is probably the most iconic trait of the RPG due to its roots dating back to pen and paper games, where you literally role played as a certain character and your choices had consequences.
While that is accurate, I tend to define RPGs based on character progression, because that is the aspect I’m drawn to the most. For me, it is progression first, story second – in most cases. If a game has a level up system and/or meaningful equipment progression, I can get behind it being marketed as an RPG. So yes, I consider Breath of the Wild to teeter on that RPG line with its robust equipment and gear upgrading system despite it not featuring other telltale signs of the typical RPG. Zelda II is arguably the most eligible for the full-on RPG label, however.
But an across the board RPG stamp for the Zelda franchise? Nah. As much as I enjoyed A Link to the Past and Link’s Awakening, those are definitely more action/adventure than RPG. I don’t think there is a wrong answer though, it’s really all about how YOU define RPGs.
In a word? No. In several words? I’m not sure I can properly say.
In a buttload of words? Sure, here goes:
Whether or not you see Zelda as a Role-playing series largely depends on how you define a Role-playing game. The genre’s title is a bit overly homogeneous – we play the role of a plumber who can jump really high in Mario titles, but we don’t lump platformers into the same category for obvious reasons. I’ve always seen Role-playing games as titles primarily focused on player-influenced character progression, with meaningful choices occurring from the way we, as players, wish to influence said playable character. This is why I feel that Zelda is much more firmly rooted in action adventure or exploration, rather than Role-playing.
In early Zelda titles, the upgrades that Link could obtain were either beneficial to exploration or combat, but character progression was extremely linear. Zelda II allows players to accrue experience, and it’s likely the closest to Role-playing title that a Zelda game has ever been, but there is no allocation of abilities. Your magic, health, or attack power increase in set intervals, with the only choice being whether the player wishes to max out this cycle or not. As we move away from Zelda II, the comparisons to Role-playing titles become more and more abstract.
Sure, Link obtains items in these games and therefore progresses through the challenges, but these upgrades are mainly used in order to circumvent puzzles, both environmental and logic-based. Saying the player progresses into Link’s Wolf form implies that there is some level of player choice in the narrative that leads to this development, which is far from the case. The same could be said for many of Zelda’s plot contrivances – they are devices used to complicate the nature of the adventure, not options for the player to explore.
When taking A Link Between Worlds or Breath of the Wild into account, the argument may seem a bit muddled, as the player is given a great deal of choice and freedom, but this is to enhance the spirit of adventure and increase the replay-value of these titles. A Link Between Worlds is still very much a compartmentalized and tightly-woven set of item-based challenges, with some neat ways to get Rupees in the meantime.
Breath of the Wild, arguably the most free-form and complex title in the series, pales in comparison with other Role-playing games when considering meaningful progression systems and side-content. Its armor upgrades assist in surviving various climates, but since each set of armor caps out at relatively similar defense numbers, choosing equipment often boils down to environment because climates are simply obstacles. Side-content is meant to encourage exploration, and not necessarily character development. Sure, there is world building and character-based dialogue and missions in many Zelda games, but this isn’t the primary draw of the series. Adventure is the name of the game.
I tend to always come back to Mark Brown’s statement from his “An Open-World Adventure” video (which does contain spoilers!), which is that ultimately, Breath of the Wild is a game about gaining courage. When you get to the end and face off against Ganon, you may find yourself hilariously overpowered. I know I did, which then begged the question, “do I really need to spend all this time grinding for gear when the final boss isn’t as hard as some of the overworld enemies?” That made me rethink the design of the game, and of all Zelda titles in general. These are titles made to test your cleverness in a variety of areas through meaningful level design.
These are games where fights will occur, but outside of the basics and the challenges that new enemy types present, there is little added depth. To be clear, I don’t believe it’s insulting to call Zelda an RPG nor is it to say that RPGs could learn a thing or two from Breath of the Wild. I think it’s fine for Zelda to remain a solid adventure and puzzle-solving title, rather than over-extend itself and attempt to bring more of the complexities of Role-playing games into what is, at its core, a series about overcoming adversity through resilience and resourcefulness, not stat distribution or enemy drops.
When I was growing up, no one among my family or friends ever doubted that the Legend of Zelda was an RPG series. For us, RPGs were loosely defined along a simple spectrum, which include story-focused games with some sense of character progression and/or customization, along with a helping of dungeons to explore and puzzles to solve. In my mind, Zelda was absolutely an RPG, though it occupied a place on the opposite end of the spectrum from games like Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest. Where traditional JRPGs were focused on turn-based combat and long, sweeping, serious stories, the Zelda series focused on action and exploration, with stories that were lighter and more understated. Simply put, when someone asked me what kind of games I liked, I told them I loved RPGs. And when asked which RPGs were my favorite, I always said Final Fantasy and the Legend of Zelda.
Looking at the franchise with a more critical eye, my opinion hasn’t strongly changed. While the Legend of Zelda certainly occupies a grey area when compared to other RPGs, that haze is mostly the cause of other genres adopting more and more RPG elements as gaming has evolved. While individual games in the Legend of Zelda series have experimented this way with different mechanics and story structures, the series has been surprisingly unchanging over the years, due largely to the immense impact of A Link to the Past and Ocarina of Time. All the elements we use to define an RPG are still there:
1) Character Progression: Link certainly grows stronger and gains new abilities as time goes on. He simply does so with the acquisition of new items and equipment, rather than through raw experience. Exploration is the key currency in growth, rather than raw combat. Entrees like Breath of the Wild even bring in additional customization options, as you can change Link’s equipment load out and balance between health and stamina to further define you combat preference.
2) Story: While the stories in Zelda games pale in comparison to the complexity of many modern JRPGs, these are still largely story-focused games. One glimpse at a game like Skyward Sword, which arguably has the best storytelling in the series, codifies this fact. And one has only to look at the progression from A Link to the Past to Ocarina of Time, and then all through the ever-evolving 3D Zelda’s to see how Nintendo has stepped up their storytelling with each title, just on a lower curve than other RPG series.
3) Exploration, Dungeons, and Puzzles: This is one of the staple features of classic RPGs and likely the one most embraced by the Legend of Zelda. While some modern JRPGs, like Bravely Default and Octopath Traveler have stepped away from the intricate dungeon and puzzle designs of their ancestors, the Legend of Zelda dove into them headfirst. Zelda is one of THE leaders in good dungeon and puzzle design, and while Skyward Sword stepped away from the exploration elements slightly, they came back in full force for Breath of the Wild.
Is the Legend of Zelda an action/adventure series? Absolutely. But can we also consider an action/adventure RPG series? I think so.
The Legend of Zelda series is one that is very dear and close to me, with A Link to the Past(LttP) being one of my favorite games of all time. With that said I don’t consider it an RPG. I played countless hours of it on the SNES along with my two favorite RPGs of all time – Final Fantasy 6(FF6) and Chrono Trigger (CT).
Growing up, FF6 & CT were my RPGs and LttP was my action/adventure game. The Zelda series has always been about exploration and adventure, whereas FF6 & CT are my go to RPGs. Zelda can have some character progression if you consider collecting items or gear to complete a dungeon or task just that, but it has never had the loot grind and character progression traditional RPGs have.
Not an RPG.