It seems that the topic of what constitutes an RPG is the current rage in our little online community, so I thought I might toss my hat into the ring as well.
One of the key issues in this discussion is defining what justifies a hybrid genre designation and what does not. And a prerequisite of such a definition is deciding a pure genre designation demands. So here I go with my definitions.
Action/Arcade: Games whose mechanics rely on instantaneous response of the character being controlled to perform action oriented activities, most notably beating something else up. Examples include Double Dragon, Sonic/Mario, etc.
Adventure: Games whose primary goal is EXPLORATION of the game's world. Typically puzzle solving and quest completion is used to open pathways to new areas to explore. This genre is in no way a subset of the Action/Arcade genre, as any old school Sierra On-Line fan, reminiscing of classic moments like their first game of Astro-Chicken or quips such as "Arcade Game Players: do not eat the urinal cakes", would agree. Besides, the adventure genre dates back as far as the text based games, output to dot matrix printer, that inspired Ken and Roberta Williams on the path to creating King's Quest.
Strategy: Games that require strategic deployment and placement of units to exploit advantages in abilities, environment, or sheer numbers to win.
Role-Playing: Games whose primary objective is to role-play characters. This in itself is a matter of heated debate, as there tend to be two camps. Those favoring pencil and paper or PC RPGs prefer role-playing a character created by themselves, whereas console RPG players have grown up on games where you are supposed to empathize with a character someone else has created (which is a somewhat forced variant of role-playing that can potentially produce just as enjoyable a game, if not more so).
Yes, this definition of Role-Playing is rather vague, but it is the truest definition I can construct without unfairly eliminating games from this category. But even with this definition some games are readily eliminated. No one says to themselves, "Oh, man, Mario lost the princess AGAIN! Boy, I sure know how that feels..." or, "I, Ryu, shall achieve fighting nirvana."
Basically, the big issue here is the way the game can let you empathize with a character. One method which is two steps short of required in RPGs is character growth. An evolving character is important not only because people in real life change, but more importantly because a growing character is central to a good story. Although I don't speak of this specifically, most electronic RPG players would require that growth be exhibited in a physical nature (i.e., statistics), gained by fighting battles. But taking the example of the "original" RPG, Dungeons and Dragons, battles can play a very minor role through stretches of a good campaign. There are stories of players actually pumping in character points for one of their DISADVANTAGES, alcoholism, which allowed him to win drinking contests against dwarves (quite a feat). And the experience earned from killing monsters is an order of magnitude smaller than that earned from finding treasure or solving quests. However, the electronic media, better at pushing numbers than creating circumstances, have made the emphasis on fighting a de facto standard in RPGs. So I am willing to concede that, for now, RPGs need some form of statistics, at least some of which grow with time. Besides, such a system is practically trivial nowadays that eliminating it would probably cause more confusion in the market than good.
But the mechanism for battle is not so well defined. Restricting RPGs to only menu driven systems is horribly limiting. Not even D&D is "menu" based, per se. In fact, D&D systems may even be better likened to a strategy game's battle interface, where distance and positioning matter. Furthermore, absolutely requiring number crunching for battles also eliminates the likes of Vampire and its rock-paper-scissors system chosen to maintain a fast pace of gameplay. And this undefined nature of battle systems is what allows for the possibility of "hybrid" RPG genres. The important part about fighting in an RPG isn't how you fight, but the fact that your character grows from it. So if the player must go through action sequences, strategy sequences, or menu-driven battles, it's all to the same end.
So RPGs can exhibit action or strategy sequences rather than traditional (I refuse to call them "true") menu systems. What makes them RPGs? I propose that it is the other side of growth. Battles provide a physical manifestation of progress, physical growth. CHARACTER INTERACTION provides character development, or mental growth. Hence for me a game requires sufficient character interaction to justify an RPG tag anywhere in its designation. This helps eliminate early Sierra On-Line efforts, which were mainly about exploration of areas and puzzle solving, while retaining classics such as Ys.
And so to Zelda, as this is the game which created all the ruckus. First off, let it be known that Zelda 1 and 2 were NEVER RPGs. They never claimed to be. Any such claim is made, by someone other than Nintendo, ex post facto. Not having played 3 or OoC I cannot speak of them with any certainty, but if they follow the same vein as 1 and/or 2, which lacked the character development and interaction required, they are not RPGs either. That does not make them any less quality, just not RPGs.
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