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.
Now, it's fair to say that, like any genre label, the term "RPG" is open to a large amount of interpretation. We are all assigned "roles" in any video game we play, right? However, the humble RPG (which can chart its lineage back to pen-and-paper RPGs like Dungeons & Dragons) is a game type that adheres to genre tropes more passionately than most, and while there are a lot of RPG-style elements to your typical Zelda game, the series ultimately has more in common with the action-adventure genre.
The game that clouds all of this is the aforementioned Breath of the Wild, which features customisable gear (some of which actually degrades and breaks over time), status-altering potions that give temporary buffs and even an inventory that can be expanded by collecting Korok Seeds. Breath of the Wild, without a doubt, wins the award for being "the most RPG-like Zelda", but, for all of its efforts to confound series conventions, it's still a Zelda game at heart.
The final word on this matter should perhaps go to Nintendo itself, which famously refers to Zelda as an "Action Adventure" rather than an RPG. Are you going to argue with Nintendo?
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