The Legend of Zelda has been a cornerstone of the Nintendo lexicon since its introduction on the Nitendo Family Computer in Japan way back in 1986. Since then, there have been 18 or 19 titles in the main series (18 if you count Ages and Seasons as the same thing and this number completely disregards the CD-i games). The exact timeline has always been a point of contention between fans and even developers of the series to the point that even with resources like the Hyrule Historia, what we have to work with is the narrative equivalent of a drawer filled with unused and vaguely forgotten charging cables. A much easier aspect of the Legend of Zelda series is pointing out exactly what kind of game The Legend of Zelda is which, obviously, is a JRPG. That is, this conclusion is obvious to come to but very few people are correct enough to fully embrace this title.
(Oh hey, it's that thing I dun said)
Let’s start by defining the term, ‘JRPG’. A Japanese Role Playing Game is any video game or series developed in Japan wherein you take on the role of the lead protagonist of a narrative. A JRPG can take place in a modern setting (like with Earthbound), a sci-fi or sci-fantasy setting (See Final Fantasy VII for Sci-Fi, Final Fantasy XIII for Sci-Fantasy), or fantasy (see Final Fantasy IX or the Legend of Zelda series). JRPGs are seperated by the visual novel genre (which can be similar) by balancing story beats with gameplay; gameplay in this instance being exploration of the environment and/or combat. JRPGs, while being linear in nature due to their being narrative experiences at their core, present themselves as being open either by setting themselves in a large city, country, island or, country. The open world is generally broken up with multiple labyrinths, temples, or dungeons which, depending on the game, can be something as mundane as a mall or something as fantastic as a lunar castle.
In general, The Legend of Zelda takes place in the Kingdom of Hyrule; Most of the time, Hyrule is a large landmass, sometimes in a valley surrounded by mountains, sometimes landlocked and surrounded by big pits or seas. In once instance, Hyrule IS a massive sea littered with moderate-to-small islands. All across most iterations of Hyrule, the main protagonist ‘Link’ (unless you give him a different name) must wander through palaces, dungeons and/or temples on a quest to gather relics, items and the like to increase and consolidate his power for the sole purpose of defeating a divine usurper of the Throne of Hyrule (sometimes the World, sometimes without divine power). This falls in line with many other JRPG narratives wherein the main/playable character (who usually has a canon name but who can usually be renamed) must travel the land, consolidating their power either by collecting items, relics or, team mates, in order to defeat a usurper of great power who usually is being augmented by divine power themselves unless it’s just an outright God or Gods. If The Legend of Zelda deviates from this template at all, it’s that there usually aren’t many instances of ‘using the power of Friendship to kill God’. Ocarina of Time is the closest to adhering to this formula, since a number of sages who lend Link their power are friends of his and Ganondorf gained his power by entering the divine realm, thus gaining (a small amount of) Godlike power.
Most people will say that the Legend of Zelda series can’t be a role playing game because of one or many of the following reasons: it has a weak plot, it doesn’t have turn-based combat, you only ever play as Link, there’s no sense of character development, there’s no sense of character progression, Hyrule never feels like a living world, and I’m sure there are other dumb reasons as well. It’s true that most Zelda plots can be easily boiled down but the same can be said of many other famous JRPGs: Final Fantasy VII is a game about an amnesiac who thinks he’s a dead mercenary, trying to stop a genetically-engineered super-zombie from destroying the planet. Earthbound is a game about a child and his friends trying to find the right music to repel an alien invasion and save the Earth. Dragon Quest is about Gohan from Dragon Ball Z saving a Princess and killing a Dragon. Plot complexity is not a necessity to make a compelling JRPG and even though a game like Mystic Quest would never be considered an unstoppable juggernaut in the narrative world, nobody can say it isn’t a JRPG. The same can be said of every single Legend of Zelda title: their not literary works to rival those of Poe, Shakespeare or, Pratchett but they don’t NEED to be to be compelling.
When it comes to turn-based combat, that one is very easy to hand-wave away. At some point during the 6th generation of consoles, possibly during the 5th, some moron decided that every JRPG needs to rip off World of Warcraft by using auto-attacks and a toolbar of special attacks with cool down times. Before then, turn based combat was becoming less static, throwing in active time elements to present more of a sense of urgency in each encounter. Then Kingdom Hearts launched in 2002, a JRPG wherein you have full control over combat and movement without warping you to a polite, turn-based battle space. You can run all around an enemy and thwack it with your big honkin’ key and use fire magic to your heart’s content. The thing is, Legend of Zelda has always been like this. As soon as you have an item and assuming you have the ammunition or magic to utilize it, you’re good to go without waiting around like a gentlemen for the enemy’s turn.
This brings me to character progression; in most other JRPGs, combat or quest completion grants the player character experience points which, upon reaching certain tiers, allow for those characters to be able to level up, thus allowing them to get stronger (ie: higher stat numbers), use better equipment and use better magic. The Legend of Zelda does not utilize EXP but it does feature character progression.in a very similar way: By completing dungeons and beating bosses, Link is given a Heart which increases his overall heart points (or HP). Items in the game such as tunics or armors can grant link further advantages like damage resistance (effectively doubling or quadrupling your HP), and weapons which give Link a tangible increase in attack power. It’s not as robust as what you might find in Final Fantasy but it’s always a more tangible difference going from the Master Sword to the Big Goron sword in Zelda as opposed to going from say, the Iron Sword to the Mythril Sword in a Final Fantasy. In most of the Zelda titles, Link is who he is from beginning to end but in Ocarina of Time and Twilight Princess, he’s able to transform. These transformations as necessary for dungeon completion but they also mark changes in the overall narratives of the games they’re used in. In Twilight Princess, turning into a wolf and back happens much sooner and more frequently, it’s not necessarily a power-up but it doesn’t feel as special whereas in Ocarina of Time, there’s a definite sense of gravitas and ceremony when Link becomes an adult, The first time Link becomes an adult, it’s used as a very effective ending to the first act and beginning to the second act of that narrative. I would liken this transformation to that in Final Fantasy IV, wherein Cecil becomes a Paladin; it’s a turning point in the narrative and an iconic scene in the series as a whole wherein Link changes, the world as we know it changes and the stakes are raised.
(It's a secret to everyone)
Breath of the Wild and Zelda 2: The Adventure of Link are the most different from the other 2 core types of Zelda games (top-down action based JRPG and 3D action based JRPG) but it’s still very easy enough to keep both titles firmly in the category of ‘JRPG’. Without a doubt, Adventure of Link is a side-scrolling, non-linear adventure game but it still maintains the core features needed for a game to qualify as a JRPG. Adventure of Link is story based, Link powers up over the course of the adventure by collecting items as usual but he also gains experience points by finding ‘P’ bags and by killing enemies. Collecting enough experience points allows Link to level up and on each level you can either increase Link’s HP, MP or, attack power. Link doesn’t gain any party members over the course of the adventure and there isn’t a centralized villain but dying in-game directly leads to Ganon being resurrected but there is a boss fight in Adventure of Link that I’m positive inspired a similar scene that would be used again in Final Fantasy IV.
In Breath of the Wild, almost everything that you do from the very beginning of the game powers up Link in some way. Cooking can temporarily increase attack power, HP, and stamina but there are ways to permanently increase two of those three attributes. Attack power can be (practically) increased in a permanent way by finding more powerful weapons...and armor of course to make you harder to kill. Weapons deteriorate and break over time but once you know where to go to find those weapons, it becomes easier and easier to find more and armor never breaks or deteriorates at all some as you find better and better armor, your resilience is basically always getting stronger and stronger. There are very few major dungeons in the game but there is enough dungeon content in Breath of the Wild to where all of them could be mashed into several quite large labyrinths. Instead part of the challenge is actually finding them in the world but as you do find the major ones, the plot unfolds. Finding different places in the world also unlocks more of the game’s overall plot. Breath of the Wild is really nonlinear when it comes to its story telling to the point that it’s very possible to skip the plot all together, even the prologue can be skipped if you know exactly where to go and are lucky or skilled enough get out of the training area. I don’t think this can be used against Breath of the Wild though since there are a lot of JRPGs where it’s easy to either skip cut-scenes or, when it comes to the prolific JRPG series Dark Souls, go through the gameplay part of the game and become a stronger character and fight the final boss while missing the core of the narrative that surrounds you and needs to be unlocked by taking on every other dungeon.
(I am chosing to PLAY the ROLE of Guts from Berserk in this GAME)
The Legend of Zelda is a prolific series; it’s been around for decades and as long as there is a Nintendo, there will always be a Legend of Zelda series. Whether you’re looking down on Link from above, or controlling him in a 3D world, it’s crystal clear that the Zelda series is a JRPG series. Even before games like Kingdom Hearts or Final Fantasy XV came out, Legend of Zelda has been flying the flag of Action JRPG since before that was considered a genre. From this point on there’s no reason to call The Legend of Zelda anything but a JRPG series. There are a lot of debates to be had when it comes to Zelda and hopefully this is one that can be put to bed once and for all.
Happy April Fools everybody...but seriously, Legend of Zelda is a JRPG series.