Having read the last few editorials on Zelda, and general "RPGness," I feel compelled to add my two cents worth. (however, being Canadian, I guess I have to offer about four cents worth, don't I?)
Archmage, in his editorial, states his three requirements for being an RPG. However, I have difficulty accepting one of the requirements, and the conclusions he draws from that requirement.
I fail to see why a game cannot be considered an RPG if it has a real-time combat system (not necessarily "action" oriented) There are many RPGs with real-time combat that very few people would consider "action games" - Ultima VII, Ultima Underworld I & II, Darklands, Might & Magic VI, Dungeon Master I & II, Eye of the Beholder I-III, Ravenloft, Menzoberranzan, Arena, Daggerfall, Lands of Lore: Throne of Chaos, Baldur's Gate... and probably many more titles that I have forgotten about. There are many other RPGs without real-time combat that do not have menu-based systems: Ultima I-VI, Fallout, D&D Warriors of the Eternal Sun, Dark Sun I & II. If menu-based combat is so integral, then what are these games?
Secret of Mana is not an RPG just because it has real-time, non menu-based fighting? I just cannot agree with that statement. There is a big difference between real-time fighting, and an action game. The difference is in the emphasis. Yes, Secret of Mana has real-time fighting, where you hit a button once and you swing your sword once. But I doubt that many people would have a lot of trouble with the fighting. It is real-time, and somewhat action-oriented, but it isn't like Golden Axe or Virtual Fighter. I am not terribly good at a lot of games requiring a lot of hand-eye co-ordination - shooters, fighting games, platform games. But I don't have any difficulty with the real-time action in Secret of Mana, Ultima Underworld, or even in Zelda. I don't think it is the presence of real-time action that is important, but on how much the action is emphasized. For example, look at two games on the SNES: Super Metroid and Super Star Wars. (I loved the former, and hated the latter, despite being a huge SW fan) Metroid had a fair bit of jumping and shooting, but the emphasis was on exploring and gathering items. SSW was just about jumping and shooting. Metroid would be considered an Adventure game, while SSW would never fall into that category.
I agree that a complex storyline is *not* required for a game to be an RPG (for a *good* RPG, yes it would be required). However, if you take Archmage's three RPG requirements - stats, stat improvement, and menu-based combat, but without a complex storyline and with a bit more emphasis on fighting, then the distinction between an RPG and a strategy-RPG (like Shining Force, FFT, etc) becomes pretty blurred. There are a lot of "technically real RPGs" that I have played which are not much more than a strategy-RPG - like SSI's "AD&D Gold Box" games (Pool of Radiance, etc). Personally, I can't stand playing strategy-RPGs, such as Shining Force, Final Fantasy Tactics, Vandal Hearts, Ogre Battle, etc. Pretty much the entire game is played out through long, turn-based battles, and that bores me to tears. (/end Personal Opinion)
I disagree with the statement that Adventure games are an extension of Action games. There are lots of Adventure games without action elements - Sierra's Quest games (King's Quest, etc), the LucasArts graphic adventure games, Discworld, etc. These sort of Adventure games emphasize exploration, item-gathering, and puzzle-solving over action. I would include games like The Legend of Zelda in this category. Yes, there is a fair bit of action in the fighting, but the emphasis of the game is not on the fighting. Very few people would classify Zelda as an action game, like Tomb Raider or Turok.
To me, an Action game relies mostly on quick reflexes and hand-eye co-ordination. These are the sort of games that I am not so good at... Well-timed jumps are necessary to pass even the beginning stages of the game (i.e. platformers) or you are beseiged with an endess wave of bad guys, all intent on killing you unless you kill them fast enough (i.e. shooters). I don't think there is too much debate about what makes an Action game, however.
One comment on the Zelda games: in Zelda II: The Adventure of Link - you do still pick up heart/magic containers, but you gain XP, and levels in Life, Magic, and Attack. While I agree with Archmage that the other Zelda games have basically no RPG elements, Zelda II is quite a bit more RPG-like than the other games in the series.
I would argue against the point that "statistics" are needed for RPGs, at least in terms of numerical scores. What is integral to the RPG is the concept of character development or advancement - the character should learn new abilities and improve in existing abilities. This should not be done merely by acquiring items (such as heart containers). Statistics in RPGs are a legacy of their roots in tabletop wargaming (and to some extent, strategy-RPGs are a throwback to these roots). There are other ways of representing a character's abilities, such as descriptions. Some diceless RPGs use descriptive words rather than numbers to represent abilities. However, numbers are easy to work with, especially for computers, so there is a good reason why almost every RPG uses numerical stats. I'm just saying that it doesn't necessarily have to be that way.
A video game or computer RPG is not a simulation of a real RPG. The stats and rules of an RPG like D&D are simply tools to allow players to role-play their characters. I've played in many AD&D games where it was pretty much just a turn-based strategy game. : ) (Also keep in mind that RPGs developed out of tabletop wargaming, and that live-action RPGs do exist now as well).
Now, after saying all of that, I am going to venture forth and say "does it really matter if it is an RPG or not?" One statement that irks me to no end is when I read someone's comment about a game, and they say "oh, well, it's an okay game, but it's not a TRUE RPG." The implication there is that this person is just so much more sophisticated and intelligent for knowing what a REAL RPG is, and preferring it to these other "impure" games. Elitist attitudes like that really bother me, and sometimes I'd like to give these people a good smack. :^) The fact of the matter is that people do not all agree on what makes a game qualify as an RPG, and that no video game or computer game RPG really provides an adequate simulation of a real, group-of-friends-gathered-around-the-table-with-a-DM-at-the-head-of-the-tabl e-rolling-dice RPG experience.
Does it matter if Zelda 64 is an RPG, or an Adventure , or an Action/Adventure, or an Action/RPG, or whatever? No! What matters is that it is a fantastic game that is a lot of fun to play. Some people will say "but I only like RPGs!" Well, that's a pretty narrow-minded outlook, in my opinion. If you won't even try a game simply because it's not a "true RPG" then you are cheating yourself out of a lot of good games. Open your mind, and don't get so hung up on the trivial details. ;-)
I feel that forcing categories upon a game is not only pointless, but counter-productive. More and more games now are blurring the definitions between genres. Insisting that a game stay "true" to one genre (if anyone can actually agree on what constitutes being true to a genre is anyway) is only going to stifle creativity and originality. The distinctions are arbitrary and artificial, to some extent. Just once, I'd like to be able to visit a message board that I frequent, and post a message saying "have you guys tried game X? It's a great game!" and not get the reply "it looks okay, but it's not a *real* RPG." Those people are missing the point. I don't know about them, but I play games to have fun.
And before anyone jumps in, accusing me of not being a "true RPGer" or such nonsense, I would like to state that I too have been a gamer for a long time, including 15 years playing "pencil and paper" games, and having owned nearly every console system available in the last 10 years (NES, SMS, Genesis, SNES, SegaCD, 32x, Saturn, PSX, N64), not to mention being an avid PC gamer as well.
In closing, I would like to say that The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time is not an RPG, but it is one of the best games I have ever played, right up there with Ultima VI, Ultima VII, and Lunar: Eternal Blue. If Brendan would rather play Beyond the Beyond than Zelda, he can have it. : ) (But maybe he should play the game first, before criticizing it so harshly) And I agree with him that Alundra is a great game with a better story than Zelda; however, I still think Zelda has much better gameplay than Alundra, which was quite frustrating and infuriating at times. However, all of this is simply my opinion, which is no more and no less valid than anyone else's. I hope I have not offended anyone (especially the previous editorial writers), but I just like to get people thinking. *grin*
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