Despite the seemingly harmless demeanor of the subject, the definition of an RPG has proved to be quite controversial in my experience. I've gotten into many a scuffle online (with good friends, no less) defending my views on the matter, and I find that with the recent submission about "The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time - Worst RPG of All Time?" that I simply must make it clear to those delusional gamers as to what an RPG really is.
First off, to wholly define an RPG I find it crucial to define the other categories of games that are often confused with RPGs. I will not include Sports, Shooter, Fighting, or Puzzle, since generally no one in their right mind thinks that Madden 98, Gradius, or Street Fighter II are in any way related to an RPG (unless of course they've suffered severe head injuries in the past), and although many RPGs have complex puzzles to solve, it is difficult to confuse a "Puzzle" game with an RPG that has puzzles in it. The categories I will discuss include Adventure, Strategy, and Action. I'm sure most hard-core RPGers are familiar with the categorical combination that some game magazines use, such as Adventure/RPG, Strategy/RPG and Action/RPG. There is no fuzzy logic to this. It's because many people find it hard to distinguish between the two, so to make it easier people have "fused" together certain categories with RPG. This, however, just makes my argument more difficult to defend. In response to this category fusion, gamers eventually developed the unnofficial category, True RPG, to further imply what an RPG truly is. Again, most hard-core RPGers will be familiar with this term. I find it silly. If one game is a True RPG and another game is just an RPG, then wouldn't the RPG, in essence, be a False RPG? Then, wouldn't a False RPG technically not be an RPG at all? To undo all this categorical confusion, I first have to describe each category.
What is an Action game? An Action game is any game where the primary method of attack/defense/other movement of a character is through an action, directly transferred through a game controller in real-time. What does this confusing definition mean? Well, it means that when you press a button on the controller, an action is immediately carried out, without delay. That's pretty general, and you may think that describes 90% of all video games, but this is not so. Most other categories are merely extensions of the Action category. For instance, a Fighting game adds the element of two simultaneous opponents performing exactly what the definition of an Action game implies. Sometimes the term "Action" is fused with "Platform," which merely represents the free, real-time movement of an action game. Some hard-core examples of Action games include Super Mario Bros., Ninja Gaiden, and Strider.
What is an Adventure game? An Adventure game is any Action game that has multiple weapons/items that are found in various places of the game, and that allows you to return to any area of the game at any time. Again, this is an extension of an Action game. Hard-core examples include Landstalker, Popful Mail, and YES, Zelda.
What is a Strategy game? A Strategy game is a game through which commands are given to multiple characters in multiple locations on a grid-based (visible or not visible) map through which certain scenarios/campaigns are carried out. Grid-based is really a very basic term, since many strategy games don't have grids at all (Ogre Battle, Herzog Zwei). Also, most battles are 100% (or very near that) automated. This category, awkwardly, is not really an extension of an Action game, due to the menu-driven commands, which is one of the reasons it is confused with RPGs. Hard-core examples include Herzog Zwei, Langrisser, and Dragon Force.
There. Now that you have an idea of the categories surrounding Role Playing Games, it's time to define an RPG.
What is a Role Playing Game? Personally, I like to define a Role Playing Game as a game that MUST, ABSOLUTELY have three elements. One is a statistical setup for characters that describe certain skills/aspects of that character. Two, it must have some method of increasing and strengthening those statistics (usually but not necessarily by way of the experience/level system). Three, it must have a menu-driven combat system that utilizes the skills/aspects of the characters. Given there are other elements of RPGs that I'll leave out because of their obvious nature, these are the elements that are required for a game to be labeled RPG.
Now, many people will disagree with that definition, so here I defend my opinion. Let's take RPGs way back in the day when Dungeons and Dragons ultimately created the Role Playing Game genre. Point a) there was statistical information for each character in the game describing skills/aspects of the character. Point b) each of those statistics could grow, expand, and strengthen. Point c) one would choose a skill, use and roll a die or dice to determine the success of the skill, and would then carry out the skill. You don't often see D&D players physically stabbing each other in the chin with their new "Broadsword," which would make it an "Action" game. Now, let's compare the original definition with the modern-day video RPG experience. To do this, let's take a common, well-known RPG and use it as a benchmark. Shoot me for using Final Fantasy VII. Now, in Final Fantasy VII each character has their own statistical information describing skills/aspects of the character. Hmmmmmm, sounds very similar to point a. In Final Fantasy VII one could strengthen their characters' abilities. Wow, that sounds familiar. In Final Fantasy VII, one chooses a skill in combat, a random number generator (we'll call it "advanced dice") determines the success of the skill, and finally the skill is carried out. Therefore, Final Fantasy VII is an RPG. Furthermore, my definition stands.
Again, Final Fantasy VII has little to no controversy about whether or not it's an RPG. Now we get into the more difficult distinguishments. First of all, before I go on, never look on the box of a categorically controversial game to determine its true category. Most game companies (including Working Designs) don't have a clue as to how to label their games, or label it falsely due to marketing reasons. Believe me, Alundra is NOT an Action/RPG.
Now, on to dangerous ground. To the delusional Brendan McGrath who submitted the "The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time - Worst RPG of All Time?" editorial, Zelda 64 is NOT an RPG, no way no how. The Zelda series almost completely defines what an *Adventure* game is today. There are only trivial RPG elements in any of the Zelda games, and certainly not enough to confuse it with an RPG, which is why I am so surprised and distraught to hear that so many people think it is an RPG. It is NOT. The extent of the RPG elements in the series goes to the amount of heart containers you have in the beginning of the game, to the amount of heart containers you have at the end of the game, which fits into the first and second elements of an RPG. Well, that's one statistic. Most "True" RPGs have up to 20 or 30 per character. On another note, Zelda doesn't have a menu-driven combat system. That rules it out completely.
While we're on the topic of Adventure games, I may as well go ahead and tell you why one of the most categorically controversial games in existence is indeed an Adventure game, and NOT an RPG. It's made by Squaresoft, for Super Nintendo, and features three playable characters. No, not Chrono Trigger. Still don't know what I'm talking about? That's right, I'm talking about Secret of Mana. Let's break it apart and take a look at it. Yes, it has character statistics and skills, and yes you can strengthen these skills, but does it have a menu driven combat system? Nope. It's an Adventure game. Probably the reason so many people confuse this with an RPG is because it's damn close to one, and probably the closest any adventure game will ever come to an RPG, which is why it's such a special game. People see HP and MP and assume it's an RPG. Well, then wouldn't Ninja Gaiden technically be an RPG? It has HP; it's just not displayed in numbers. The same holds true for Xardion, for Super NES, and that even allows for growth of HP and skills. Is that an RPG as well? I think not. Also, people see magic and assume that the game is an RPG. Well, then wouldn't Shinobi be an RPG? There's magic in that. The one thing that holds SoM so close to being an RPG is the fact that you can select magic and select which enemy to target, which is, I dare say, menu-driven. However, remember how weapons are used in the game: one button, one action, real-time, no delay. That's crucial to combat in the game, and that's not menu-driven. Secret of Mana is NOT an RPG.
Similarly, Popful Mail, Alundra, Zelda, Magic Knight Rayearth, Lagoon, and even Metroid are ALL Adventure games and NOT RPGs. Remember, though, that there are fusion categories. It's pretty safe to say that Secret of Mana is an Adventure/RPG, because it has many RPG elements. I would not place games like Alundra or Zelda in this category though. Games like Popful Mail and Lagoon can even be placed in the Action/RPG category because it contains elements from both Action games and RPGs (although this is basically the same thing as an Adventure game), but this is pushing it and is one of the reasons I don't like the fusion categories. Also, remember that a complex storyline is NOT a requirement of an RPG. While it may be a requirement of a GOOD RPG, it's not a requirement of an RPG. We take Dragon Warrior as an example. We take Alundra as a counter-example. Simply because it has such a complex storyline, doesn't make it an RPG.
I've pretty much covered the Action and Adventure controversies. Now on to Strategy. For this we take the game Ogre Battle to begin with. It has statistics and statistic growth, but how far can we go to say that it has menu driven combat? Sure, you select a character here and there and tell it where to go, but what happens when battle ensues? The game switches to another scene where the entire battle is automated. You don't choose "fight/magic/defend" for each individual character as is done in menu-driven combat systems. Instead you choose an overall strategy for the group in battle, hence the name "Strategy." Again the illusion of having HP and MP gives the player a false pretense that this game is an RPG. It is not. We could go as far as calling it a Strategy/RPG, but the game would never cross the line. Again, I highly dislike the fusion categories as they just complicate things. We could call Mutant League Hockey a Sports/Action game, but we don't! Why do it for games with RPG elements when it STILL does not meet the full standards of a True RPG?
There are always exceptions to the rule. The following games are games that are considered to be what they are due to elements from one category surpassing elements from another category.
Final Fantasy Tactics. Here's another extremely close call, and yip yip ho wow it's made by Square again. Stats and Stat growth? Yes. Menu-driven combat? Well.....yeah. You choose to attack, cast spells, use items, and just about every other requirement of a menu-driven combat system. Why is it STILL not an RPG? It's an exception to the rule. Because the game takes place on a grid, where placement and tactics are all vital to success in the battle system, it favors the Strategy category instead of the RPG category. Any game where placement is absolutely vital to the gameplay I immediately label a Strategy game. Now, why isn't the Lunar series Strategy then? Yes, there is character placement in the battle scenes, but three things lean the game heavily towards an RPG (hell, I wouldn't even think twice about labeling it otherwise). One, the battles are in separate scenes. Two, you can't directly position characters. Three, position really isn't all that vital to the overall gameplay. Now, what about the Shining Force series? Same as with FFT. Placement is directly accessed and is vital to successful battles.
Tales of Destiny. Now I've never actually played this game so I'm basing my opinion solely on the battle scenes from Tales of Phantasia, its prequel. Character stats and growth? Yes. Menu-driven combat? Nope. Why, then, is this most definitely an RPG? Well, it's an exception to the rule. Due to the fact that the battle scenes appear separately from the movement scenes, and that there is limited control of the character due to limited skills (such as in most RPGs), the RPG elements severely outweigh the Action elements.
I'm sure there are many other games of controversy out there, but I've covered some of the more important ones. I hope I've given some of you a second thought about your opinions as to what a True RPG really is. Once you're clear as to what that is, then anything else would be a False RPG, and hence not an RPG at all. RPG elements can be found most everywhere these days, but that doesn't make anything a solid RPG, and just because you "Role Play" a character also doesn't make it an RPG. In order for an RPG to exist, it must contain ALL of the major 3 elements, and at least some of the lesser elements (story, characterization, magic, free-roaming worlds, etc. etc. etc.). None of this is inscribed in the Great Book of RPGs, or the Gamer's Guru, or anything like that. It's important that you realize that this is my opinion of how RPGs have been defined based on their history to date. This is my viewpoint based on my experiences with the genre. I've played a hell of a lot of games, RPGs and not, and I believe my opinion is a strong one, and I'll defend it till the end.
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