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
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
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.