Zelda RPG article cover

A strange topic of discussion has arisen over the past couple of decades within gaming forums: The dispute of whether or not, The Legend of Zelda (series) should be classified as an Action-RPG (which would make it a Japanese RPG), or an Action Adventure, or perhaps, both.

The argument has driven many to question whether newer games like Dark Souls should even be considered Japanese Role-Playing games, despite the obvious fact that these games are made in Japan, by Japanese developers, and are Role-Playing Games (but that is a topic for another article).

When the The Legend of Zelda, and Alundra are mentioned, I immediately think  of “JRPG” and “RPG”. It is how I grew up labeling these titles in the 1990s. It is how most game magazines and editors in the era classified these games.

What is a Role-Playing Game?

Electric Brain Miyamoto Zelda a RPG interview
In a 1992 interview (Electric Brain), Shigeru Miyamoto (The Legend of Zelda’s creator) classified the game as a “Role-Playing Game”.

According to Brittanica.com the definition for a ‘Role-Playing Game’ with in video games is:

Role-playing video game, 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. The genre is almost entirely rooted in TSR, Inc.’s Dungeons & Dragons (D&D; 1974), a role-playing game (RPG) for small groups in which each player takes some role, such as a healer, warrior, or wizard, to help the player’s party battle evil as directed by the group’s Dungeon Master, or assigned storyteller. While fantasy settings remain popular, video RPGs have also explored the realms of science fiction and the cloak-and-dagger world of espionage.

This is the actual the definition of what should classify as a Role-Playing Game (RPG). By this definition, all of the main The Legend of Zelda games fit within the role-playing game category – nearly – flawlessly. That’s not surprising, The Legend of Zelda set the standards that other Action-RPGs such as Alundra, Soul Blazer, The LandStalker, and even Brave Fencer Musashi would follow.

Argue with the ‘average’ JRPG fan about ‘JRPGs’, and mention Brave Fencer Musashi, and Alundra. Most of these fans are likely to wholeheartedly agree that the former two titles are ‘JRPGs’, no questions asked.

I have always found this take by fans to be oddly perplexing. Not the fact that these fans classify the aforementioned two games as Japanese Role-Playing games, but instead, the fact that these very same individuals will easily turn around and say “Oh Zelda is not a JRPG, Zelda is an action-adventure!” Really? Its 16-32 bit era clones are JRPGs, but The Legend of Zelda is not? How?

Is it Aundra‘s and Brave Fencer Musashi‘s anime artwork that pushes them into the category? That can’t be a good reason. Starting with Ocarina of Time, Zelda games have predominantly featured ‘Japanese Anime’ inspired artwork themselves. So, it can’t be the art style that differentiates them.

The Writing? While Musashi is humorous, and does have some of that B level Anime quirkiness to its dialog, its tale isn’t any less linear than that of Zelda games. ‘Linearity’, by the way, shouldn’t be a trait of ‘Role-Playing Games’ as freedom of choice should be important (when you role-play a character), but linearity is well accepted within the definition of what a ‘Japanese’ Role-Playing game should be.

When was the last time that Final Fantasy allowed you to make a groundbreaking choice that affected the outcome of one of its main (non-online) numbered entries’ storyline?…. Right.

Zelda as a series isn’t any less linear, but at times, it has offered the ability to completely dismiss some quest lines while still allowing gamers to reach its final boss and the game’s end credits.

Experience and Character Progression

Zelda an RPG?
Many of the largest magazines (Electronic Gaming Monthly pictured above) in the 1990s considered The Legend of Zelda an Action-RPG.

This is the one category that the “Zelda is not an Action-RPG” club  tend to cling to the most (it is mostly the only one that they can cling to) when making their argument about Zelda not being an “RPG”. In truth, Only Zelda II: The Adventure of Link used statistical progression for its incarnation of Link. However, the former statement does not mean that future Links would not achieve a measure of growth with playtime and ‘experience’ gained.

Now, gamers are used to ‘Experience’ being measured by visible points. Basically, fight ‘x’ amount of monsters and you will gain certain numerical values of experience which will aid you in gaining levels. Other games, like the Witcher 3, offer more substantial experience point gains by accomplishing side quests, than by mere combat itself.

Zelda, for the most part, ditches visible statistical progression. I stress the word “visible” because the damage increases exist within the game’s algorithms depending on what weapon you are using. For example, the master sword does less damage (though it is quicker) than the Big Goron Sword (in Ocarina of Time) which is a weapon that you can only obtain by partaking in a substantial optional quest.

Zelda doesn’t label, or focus on statistical progression. Progress in Zelda has traditionally been achieved by finding and utilizing certain items. ‘Experience’ in Zelda games is measured differently, but Link grows more powerful by the dungeon, as his ‘Health Points’ increase with each heart container attained. By the same token, Link’s magic bar (Magic Points) can also be expanded to a certain limit (cap).

I understand and accept that some gamers will never get past The Legend of Zelda‘s (with the exception of Zelda II) lack of numerical progression for its protagonist and categorize the franchise an Action-Adventure series, instead of an Action-RPG one. But character growth, and ‘experience’ can be attained in different ways, and Nintendo cleverly found a different way to do things with this series, and it has worked to perfection.

God of War is not an RPG… or is it?

Zelda an RPG? God of War
The ‘Zelda is not an RPG because Link can’t gain levels’ advocates should fully embrace God of War as one, on principle alone.

However, if statistical progression is going to be the trump card when arguing against Zelda being an RPG…then God of War (2018) is undisputedly an Action-RPG/Action-Adventure game. God of War borrows a lot from Dark Souls, and The Legend of Zelda in its design.

Yet, many of the same individuals that refuse to consider God of War an Action-RPG, also refuse to consider The Legend of Zelda an RPG. God of War is a tremendous action-adventure, but it is also an action-RPG (in my opinion of course).

I guess here, anti-RPG advocates could cling to the fact that the game has no towns with NPCs populating them, and that the game’s story is ‘too linear’. But Final Fantasy XIII had the exact same issues, and no one complains about that one. Most Japanese RPGs have been ultra-linear in terms of storytelling. Linearity should no longer keep a game from being classified as a Role-Playing Game.

I feel the same way about visible statistical progression.

The Newest The Legend of Zelda is an Action-RPG

Breath of the Wild Screenshot 2
In terms of character customization, and freedom of choice, Breath of the Wild offers a wealth of options previously unseen within the Zelda series.

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is an Action-RPG. Experience is gained (non-statistically), progressively stronger armor, and weapons can be found throughout, and no other game has allowed you to ‘role-play’ Link with a larger degree of freedom.

In Final Fantasy, or any other Traditional RPG, if I run into a strong boss that I can’t beat, I usually go to a nearby area and grind for an unspecified amount of time until I gain enough levels to be able to beat it. I experienced the same issue in Breath of the Wild.

Because the game is wide-open (you can go anywhere, and tackle any boss – even the final one – at your leisure), I chose to go to the Gerudo Area first. It was a mistake, Thunderblight Ganon handed my rear-end with ease. I didn’t have lighting resistant equipment, powerful weapons or enough hearts to topple him. Instead of continuing to fight him in a futile manner, I decided to go in a different direction (how very Dark Souls like) and after a few hours of quests, and fights, I gained new equipment, hearts, cooking recipes, and weapons. I easily beat Thunderblight Ganon on my next try.

This entire process was very ‘RPG like’. Different armor, a higher life level, and more powerful weapons, and healing items made a big difference. Is that not what Role-Playing Games have been all about when it comes it grinding for EXP, or Money (in order to attain items)? I could care less if my progress wasn’t measured by visible numbers.

With experience (hours of play) my Link was better than he had been a few hours before, and myself, as a player, had grown in skill level (thanks to actual in game experience) as a bonus. Does that not make Breath of the Wild one of the best ‘Role-Playing Game’ experiences around?

What About the Game that Set the Template that many 3-D  Open-World Action Adventures, and Action-RPGs Would Follow Until This Day?

Is Ocarina of Time an Action-RPG?

Zelda an RPG
Nintendo itself calls Ocarina of Time Action, Adventure and an RPG on the Switch eShop (as they are actually all separate categories, technically, especially when looking at games from a historical perspective from the 70s to the present. It makes sense as all RPGs are very much adventure games, albeit with less puzzles than a slightly more traditional ones like Secret of Monkey Island or Myst (though I’m sure some will scream and say only old school text adventures are real adventure games because of the text parser). Plenty of hardcore RPG fans will claim even older Final Fantasy titles are not actually RPGs because of the lack of a combat grid and linearity.

According to Nintendo, it is (see image above). The game has action combat, and it is an epic adventure. One in which you role play a silent character in ‘Link’ (or whatever name you choose for the elfin avatar). So yes! There is no reason why The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time shouldn’t be classified as both as an Action-Adventure, and an Action-RPG.

That (an Action-RPG/Adventure) is how I have always seen this series, and how it has been conventionally classified since its inception. Also, Zelda happens to be made in Japan, which would make it a member of the (increasingly exclusive) JRPG community.

Apart from Ocarina of Time‘s differences in character progression, the game features a world with different Kingdoms, towns, cultures and races inhabited by lively NPCs that send our Link into a myriad of optional and story ‘essential’ quests. Ocarina of Time had a linear main storyline that saw our avatar grow from a curious brave boy into a fearsome adult warrior as he toppled an irresistible evil force.

Ocarina of Time was no different from Final Fantasy, save for the fact that it was not party based, its world was livelier (more realistic, and explorable), its combat action based, and its NPCs more charming (thanks to technology, and Zelda having less of them, thus increasing their importance to the game’s progression).

Is The Legend of Zelda an Action-RPG?

Most gamers have no issues classifying Alundra as an Action-RPG and a JRPG even though the game is the ultimate The Legend of Zelda clone (and I mean that in a good way).

Yes, and an Action-Adventure, at least in my opinion. I realize that 99.9% percent of gamers on the “Zelda is not an RPG” camp will not be swayed by this piece. Humans set in their ways tend to not change, even when faced with scientific evidence as to why they should change their particular way of thinking.

Given that a game’s genre classification is largely a subjective matter, as Zelda might be an action-RPG to me, but a simple action-adventure to my next door neighbor, I don’t see this debate (Zelda an RPG or not) ending anytime soon. The Legend of Zelda blended gameplay elements not seen in Dragon Quest, and Final Fantasy since its first iteration, and that has muddled the game’s “classification” waters.

Even Nintendo failed to list Breath of the Wild as an ‘Action-RPG’ (even though they classify Ocarina within the ‘Role-Playing” genre) which is odd, but maybe their marketing team felt that Action-Adventures tend to sell better these days than Role-Playing games do.

Still, if you consider a game, such as Alundra, an ‘Action-RPG’, and a ‘JRPG’ there is no reason why Zelda should not fit into the same categories. They are the same type of game (Unless you have a bias against games not featured on the PlayStation eco system).

That said, I look forward to the backlash, and debates that this piece might stir up. At the end of the day, everyone has the right to form their own opinion and conclusion on this matter.

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By Samuel Rivera

An avid video game player and book reader, Samuel has been playing video games for the last 31 years. He has played nearly every PS1 JRPG known to man, and loves Ocarina of Time more than any other game.