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Talking Point: Is Zelda An RPG, Or Not?

Zelda© Nintendo

There’s one question that has plagued mankind for what feels like an eternity. No, it’s not the meaning of life. It’s not even the question of why a buttered slice of bread always falls face down when you drop it. We are talking, of course, about that age-old quandary: Is The Legend of Zelda an RPG?

Wikipedia, everyone’s favourite (kinda) reliable source of wisdom, describes an RPG thusly:

A role-playing video game is a video game genre where the player controls the actions of a character (and/or several party members) immersed in some well-defined world, usually involving some form of character development by way of recording statistics.

While the rather more esteemed Encyclopædia Britannica says the RPG is:

[An] electronic game genre in which players advance through a story quest, and often many side quests, for which their character or party of characters gain experience that improves various attributes and abilities.

Let’s face it, Zelda sure looks and feels like an RPG. The series is set in a fantasy realm, features items to acquire, is riddled with side-quests and boasts some degree of character customisation. Hyrule sure is an “immersive world” and, during each of the Zelda games, there’s character development by way of Link gaining more health or collecting items that unlock access to new parts of the world. It’s also fair to say that a certain amount of “character progression” is required to get Link to the end of his quest, be that via obtaining special items or boosting Link’s stock of heart containers so he can take more damage. Heck, in Ocarina of Time he turns from boy to man in the blink of an eye, and in Twilight Princess his ability to transform into a wolf is integral to his success.

However, RPGs are heavily into stats and number-crunching, and that’s where Zelda is different. While you do gain more heart containers as you progress and can therefore take more hits in battle, Link doesn’t gain experience points (a staple of the RPG) nor does he “level-up” in a traditional sense. Furthermore, all of the dull number-crunching is hidden from the player. Link’s attack power is governed by the weapon he’s using, and other RPG stats – intelligence, dexterity, agility – simply don’t exist in Zelda (although it’s worth noting that in Breath of the Wild, it’s possible to boost Link’s stamina as well as his health). Back in the early days of RPGs, the fact that Zelda’s action occurred in real-time and wasn’t subject to random, turn-based encounters distanced it further from the “traditional” idea of a video game role-playing adventure. We now have a lot of RPGs that follow the same template as Zelda so that point is perhaps less valid, but it’s still worth mentioning, nonetheless. Similarily, RNG is a big part of your typical, traditional RPG, and that’s something that’s absent in Zelda’s world, too.

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