Remember that time when Zelda was an RPG?
Quick little preamble here: since my dev diary posts are really scarce and most of my energy is being devoted to even more projects and organizing my portfolio, I decided to act on a whim and talk about games, a bit from the player perspective and a bit from the dev/designer perspective, too. Cool? Cool! Let’s go!
Perhaps the most common genre misconception in media is Zelda, following closely Star Wars — in time: SW is not a sci-fi story; it’s space opera, closer to fantasy than science fiction. Anyway, The Legend of Zelda, on its own hand, is not an RPG. It doesn’t even contain RPG elements, like many games boast, Zelda is pure action adventure. Think about it: there are no stats, besides maybe life(measures in hearts), there’s barely any choice to be made and no customization at all. Zelda is an action adventure game, closer to the hack-and-slash of God of War than the RPG management of Final Fantasy, despite the fantastic setting. Ironically, the one time when Zelda was and RPG turned into one of the most forgotten games in the series.
After The Legend of Zelda, the classic exploration adventure, Zelda II: The Adventure of Link was a sequel that decided to experiment with things. Including putting the name of its hero in the title, for a change. But Zelda II is not very much regarded in the series, being easily forgotten in the shadow of A Link To The Past, another Zelda game more close to the original in spirit, and also containing the name of the hero in the title(though I’m never sure if the pun is an accident or not). I guess an important part of it is that it decided to change its gameplay. A lot.
Zelda II started with Link walking in a 2D side view environment, already off by itself. But as soon as the player leaves the initial temple screen, they’re transported to an overworld map, where Link is a tiny tile-sized sprite, and sometimes monsters appear when you walk outside of the road. When Link enters a city, we’re transported back to the side-view gameplay, and also when we touch a monster in the overworld.
Fighting monsters was still skill-based gameplay, but it would also grant experience points that would accumulate and turn into levels. After a certain amount of points were collected, they could be used to enhance the player’s life, magic or attack. The player also collected spells that cost magic, and this may be the only time bosses had explicit life bars. It was a weird game.
It was also the closest Zelda ever came to being an actual JRPG, and it dawns on me that no other game ever played like it ever since.
Which is odd, because nowadays it seems RPGs decided to shift into full ARPG(Action RPG) mode, but maybe that was not necessary. JRPGs are reviled for being boring and turn based battles a necessary evil, but that shouldn’t be so. It seems even careless that JRPG designers would jump straight into almost complete genre shift before trying a middleground alternative right in front of them: JRPG exploration and management, and ARPG battle.
In closing, that odd genre shift was not the only of Zelda II’s shortcomings, sure. For one, it had limited continues. Many puzzles were absolutely inscrutable(that goddamn mirror… Error… and don’t get started with Death Mountain). And the music was anything but memorable. Still, it could be revamped, its genre maybe redesigned and turned into something good. In an era where Hyrule’s warriors are fighting in huge army battles and multiple Heroes of Time dabble in cosplay, a JRPG/side scroller hybrid Zelda would hardly bat an eyelash.
But, then again, the best Mario RPG ever made has also been completely abandoned in the franchise, so… all we have is our memory, I guess. And the 3DS Virtual Console. 😉