If you ask me, there’s nothing wrong with Zelda being classified as a RPG, as if that’s some kind of dirty word or something. Sure, it’s known for its adventure game elements, such as expanding your inventory and using it to solve logical puzzles, but it’s always been inextricably linked to the role-playing genre. You might say that The Legend of Zelda was the gateway through which the role-playing video game was able to exist today. Despite the games shifting further away from heavy RPG and action elements in favor of puzzle-solving in recent years, Skyward Sword made a few concerted steps back towards those RPG roots… steps I’d like to see continued in future Zelda games.
Aside from motion controls, I honestly think that Skyward Sword‘s steps towards a more RPG-like experience were its greatest achievement. They felt like they really fit into the existing Zelda framework, and didn’t feel too forced. I think that has a lot to do with them being a modernization of elements that go back all the way to the series’ inception - those things that made the original Legend of Zelda so influential for the RPG genre. In a way, I’d compare these gestures to the way Retro Studios brought Metroid from its side-scrolling shooter roots into more modern genre conventions like a first-person perspective.
Let’s take a look at Skyward Sword‘s RPG innovations, shall we?
In the original Legend of Zelda, a big part of making it through the game was tracking down all the more powerful swords and armor and upgrading to the big shield. Without a sharper blade it could take awhile to cut through more elite enemies like Lynels or Gibdos, and weaker armor meant it was easier for large groups of enemies to make short work of you.
The developers of Skyward Sword seem to have understood the value of this approach, and tried to incorporate a kind of “lite” RPG-style inventory. You can graduate from your basic bow to stronger ones; you can pick and choose between shields with various attributes based on the enemy attacks you’re up against and reforge them to make them more robust; you can even improve your puzzle-centric items’ utility in terms of both combat and making it past those logical obstacles. To earn these upgrades, players have to amass some amount of wealth in the form of both Rupees and special collectible loot found from trouncing enemies and hunting treasure. Sound familiar? For most RPG enthusiasts this sounds like old hat, but this is a more ambitious use of this kind of inventory development than we’ve seen before in a Zelda game.
Personally, I think it’s executed pretty darn well, especially for a feature that based on our sources seems to have been implemented at the last minute. There isn’t an overwhelming variety of items, and it’s never too hard to track down the ones you need, since they’re mostly either really common or discovered in a kind of patterned way - Ancient Flowers in the restored desert sections, Dusk Shards in the Silent Realm, that kind of thing. The parallel potions and bugs system complements the item upgrades well and combined with the higher damage ratios made potions seem so much more useful and important. And the coolest part: they make the game’s already awesome combat system feel all the more important.
If there’s anything I’d change, it’d be to amp things up a bit. Potions seem a little too affordable, to the point that the low cost is somewhat unbalanced given their supreme usefulness. Item upgrades could also do to be a bit more expensive, and in some cases (the bow especially) seem to make Link’s weapons too powerful. But I also mean that they should be amped up in the sense that there should be more variety in terms of items in general. We’ve already got multiple shield classes - why not multiple sword classes as well? Different swords could have different attack attributes, like faster combos, stronger hits, or certain special sword maneuvers. How about tunics/armor? The costume changes in Ocarina of Time and Twilight Princess were pretty popular and it’d be cool to see them played out in a full armor-equip system.
I think fleshing out this system would work wonders for the series. It’d be capitalizing on something that the series is already doing, for one, which means that it wouldn’t be too extreme a shift for existing fans. But it’d also catch the eye of fans of comparatively ambitious games that also already focus on heavy equipment customization - those people who play more mainline RPGs. In short, it’d be a way to further modernize Zelda‘s inventory to bring it up to modern RPG standards. And if there’s anything that holds the series back (along with the Japanese games industry as a whole, really), it’s all the flak it gets for not really embracing those modern standards, right?
I’ll just cut to the chase: I love me some Adventure Pouch. I think it’s one of the best things to ever happen to Link’s inventory management. Now what you bring with you is just as important as what you have - a major shift from previous Zelda games where Link could carry as much stuff as there was to find (except for shields, you can only have one of those). Worried about losing too much health? Pack an extra Empty Bottle with some Red Potion and you’re good. You’d rather use your shield? You can carry as many of them as you can fit. Want a more balanced inventory? Sure, you can do that, too! It was pretty free-form - and very RPG-like.
One of my favorite additions came alongside the Adventure Pouch: the medals. They’re cool in concept - whatever tokens you pack into your pouch produce certain effects in the game world - but I felt that their implementation was a bit unambitious in the end. There just aren’t enough different kinds of medallions, and most of the ones that do exist simply increase the rate at which you find certain classes of items. I suppose this is to be expected, since there aren’t too many variables to play with in Skyward Sword - there’s no Magic Meter, for example, so you can’t have a medal that reduces MP consumption.
But imagine if medals were as useful, as varied, and as numerous as the rings in the Oracles games… Man, that’d be something. A medal that reduces stamina consumption? That increases the reach of Link’s sword beam or spin attack? That reduces fire damage? The possibilities are practically endless.
Earlier I proposed a few suggestions for giving players more options in terms of items like swords, armor, and even traditional equip items like bows or bombs. If you take these ideas to their logical conclusion, incorporating alternate weapon varieties into the Adventure Pouch in the same way that shields are already, the idea sounds even more enticing - and even more suitable to the RPG fan.
Of course, I think there’s a lot more that could be done to bring RPG conventions into Zelda in a way that works well with the series’ existing framework. The long-lost Magic Meter, for one - except this time, include a full palette of magic spells (or at least the kinds of stuff we had in Ocarina of Time). Healing spells? Enchantments that slow down time? Fire-powered sword beams? It all relates in some way to stuff we’ve seen before.
And speaking of elemental magic - the elements have always played a key role in Zelda mythology. Why not bring them to the fore, with elementally-based abilities at the disposal of both player and foes? I’m talking a system of strengths and weaknesses based on the types of attacks you rain down on your foes and the types of armor you wear to resist their blows. We’ve seen this to a limited extent with Skyward Sword‘s shields - wood is weak to fire but metal resists it, metal is weak to electricity but wood resists it - but would it make sense to apply it more liberally to offensive tools as well?
I’m not saying Zelda necessarily needs to embrace everything that RPGs do, but there’s definitely an extent to which what RPGs do already makes sense for the series, and I think it’d be a positive step forward to keep on searching for ways to incorporate these elements in a way that deepens the game and expands its contents. Skyward Sword was a nice first step, but let’s see what the HD future holds.