It's no secret, especially among my friends, that the Zelda series of console games is my favorite series of games period. They are beloved by a great many people and are some of the top ranked games of all time on all time top 100 lists and on places like Game Ranking and MetaCritic.
The thing that strikes me as most interesting though is that there are almost ZERO clones of Zelda. I'm probably missing a whole bunch but I'm going to try to point out what I see as unique to Zelda that is missing from every other game that claims to be close.
First off let me point out, by clone I mean for example there are tons of other platformers than Mario. There's Sonic, Gex, Rayman, Asterix, Kid Chameleon, Spelunker, Miner 2049r, Jumpman, Kirby, Kloanoa and on and on. There are just tons of platform games. Sure there are shooting platformers like Turrican, Ratchet & Clank, Earthwork Jim vs Character platformers like Mario, Sonic, Kirby. But still, you could come up with a list of what it means to be like Mario and of that list Mario might be the best of them all but there are at least several platformer that arguably in the same mold as Mario.
An even easier example is First Person Shooters. Sure Modern Warfare 3 looks amazing compared to Doom but at a basic level they play almost the same. The emersion and realism is much better and they have lots of subtle and not so subtle differences but arguably Doom, Quake, Unreal, Half Life, Call of Duty, Metal of Honor, Resistance and a host of other FPSes all fit in the same bucket.
Or how about racing games. While their are some outliers that maybe add weapons or make crashing a part of game play, most racing games are really just more of the same. I'm not saying GT5 is not vastly different than Ridge Racer. But even if you want to split those in to simulation racers vs arcade racers vs kart racers there are plenty of each type to put in their respective categories.
There are brawlers as well. God of War, Devil May Cry, Afro Samurai, Bayonetta, Ninja Gaiden are all arguably cut from the same stone. They may have vastly different art styles, moves, and settings but at their core they are the same game.
But now let's come to Zelda. What other games are cut from the same mold. To figure that out we first have to describe what makes Zelda a Zelda game.
Here's my attempt and describing the features I see as essential to being considered a Zelda like game. You could call this "the Zelda test". If a game has all 8 of these features, maybe it could be considered in the same category as Zelda.
1) The game must have a relatively large world that you can mostly freely explore.
Your ability to explore it might be limited at first but over time those limits are removed. Games that off the top of my head that might fit this description. Grand Theft Auto 3 or 4. Oblivion, World of Warcraft. Half Life 2 might seem like a big world but you can't freely explore it. It's one long mostly linear experience.
2) The game must have a relatively large inventory of items you can choose from.
It's hard to say what "relatively large is" but I'd like to distinguish between say DOOM, which has 6−10 items and a typical Zelda game that has probably 32 to 64 items over the course of game. Some usable (sword, potion) some not (Triforce Piece)
Under this feature we might list most RPGs as they have large inventories.
3) Many of the items must open up unique game play.
In a Zelda game, most items bring you very unique game play. Using a bomb is vastly different than using the sword which is vastly different than using the boomerang which is vastly different than using the leaf etc... Compare this to say a typical RPG where the game play itself doesn't change much based on your items. You may be able to do more damage with a certain attack against certain enemies or heal more with a certain spell vs another but what you as the player actually do doesn't change much. You pick Attack A, B or C, you pick Magic, D, E or F.
What games provide very different game play with different items? Not many come to mind. Super Mario 3 has like 10 unique suits. Some let you fly, others let you swim, etc. Kirby has all the different enemies he can eat which each give him unique abilities.
3b) The game must require you to switch between items often.
There are a few games where you might get an item that offers unique game play but you don't have to use it much if at all. An example might be Ratchet and Clank which has like 20 weapons, though most of them are basically just different kinds of guns. But for the most part you can just stick to your favorite gun and play the entire game. This is as opposed to Zelda where you find yourself constantly switching items. To get to that ledge you need the hookshot, from there you want push the heavy plate so you put on the iron boots, then you need to shoot the target that appears so you equip the arrow. That reveals a wall with a crack so you have to use a bomb. Zelda games have you constantly switching which items your using.
4) The game must give you quests / missions that you can often choose to do or not.
There must be quests. I don't mean just fetch quests. I mean you need NPCs to talk to that provide clues or direction as to what to do next. Of course lots of games have this though I want to distinguish between NPCs like in Call of Duty or Half Life that really just give you orders, not direction. You must have the freedom (most of the time) to do what you want. So again, Oblivion probably fits this. Maybe GTA as well since you don't have obey. CoD and HL2 do not fit though. You basically have to do what the NPCs say or the game stops.
5) The game must have puzzles built into the levels.
Again, I want to distinguish from the puzzles say in Bioshock, the hacking puzzle which is not really part of the main game but is rather a mini game vs say the ones in Portal which are part of the main play of the game. That brings up a good example that Portal is one of the few games off the top of my head that has puzzles similar to Zelda. Maybe Tomb Raider, Uncharted or God of War have a few though very few.
5b) The puzzles must require the items unique abilities.
We need to distinguish from just walking around various mazes (dungeons, castles, buildings) which is a kind puzzle (find your way through the maze, collect all the keys) to the kinds of puzzles found in Zelda. We also need to distinguish from just needing various kinds of keys even if they aren't called keys. If the game says "find the moolark to proceed" and all you need to do is find it and present it or place it at the right place that's really just a key and not some item's "unique ability."
In Zelda many of the items you find are required to solve the puzzles near where that item is found. You need the Iron Boots in the dungeon they are found in to go walk under water or to weigh down various levers. You need the Hookshot in the dungeon it's found it to get around the dungeon or pull things you couldn't otherwise reach. You need the leaf in the area it's found to power windmills or glide to places you couldn't get without it.
6) Weapons must be somewhat unique.
By this I mean in Zelda, each weapon often has a specific use. The sword is required for some enemies. For others you must use the hookshot. For still others an arrow is required. Others a flame arrow. Still others a bomb. Compare to say DOOM (or most FPSes). In Doom each weapon is really the same weapon with different stats of range, power and reload time. A pistol has very little power and reloads quick. A shotgun has great power up close, but poor power far away and reloads slowly. The nail gun is very fast. The BMG is super slow but has huge range and power. But, effectively they are all useful against all enemies. There are videos of people killing the boss with just a pistol. Newer FPSes add things like how well a weapon aims, how much it recoils, or how heavy it is and therefore how much it effects your movement but still the weapons are still variations on the same basic weapon.
In Zelda you can't do that. If a specific enemy requires fire arrows it requires fire arrows. Bombs won't do.
Of the top of my head I can't think of a whole lot of games that work this way. Metroid comes to mind as a step in this direction.
7) The game must have action based combat.
In Zelda all combat is action based. This is why Zelda is NOT an RPG and RPGs are not clones of Zelda. Most people seem to have stuck in their head that RPG = Game with magic, inventory and quests. That's wrong. RPG, in the context of video games basically means quest based game with turn based combat. This means Pokemon is an RPG. Zelda is not. The original meaning of RPG as Role Playing Game has almost no meaning in video games. When you play Need for Speed you are "Role Playing a Racecar Driver". When you play Metal Gear Solid you are "Role Playing a super spy". When you play Madden you are "Role Playing some football players". Yet we don't call racing games nor stealth games RPGs. Instead, for video games RPG means "A game where you walk a character around a map, get told things to do by NPCs and resolve combat through turn based or rule based decisions" (World of Warcraft, Super Mario RPG, Pokemon, Earthbound, ...)
Games that have action based combat? All brawl games. God of War, Batman: Arkham Asylum, Castle Crashers.
8 ) The game must require precision combat.
In Zelda there is no button mashing. Mashing the button will get you no where. Each weapon, each item requires very unique controls and many enemies require unique styles of combat on the part of the player. This is to distinguish from most brawl games like God of War or Devil May Cry where for the most part you can just mash the buttons. Sure you can pull off special moves and sometimes you have to block or defend but mostly button mashing will work.
8b) Most enemies require unique game play.
In effect rule #8 leads to rule #8b which is why I've grouped them together.
In Zelda some enemies you can just walk up to and smash. Some have a protective shell and you must use a different item to snatch it away or flip them on their back before you can attack. Others have shields so you can't attack from the front. Others jump back when you swing the sword so you need to find some other way to get to them or back them into a corner. Some crawl on the walls making it hard to use your sword and easier to use a ranged weapon. Others go crazy once awakened forcing you to have to run away.
Again, compare to say Doom where just like you can use any weapon on any enemy, for the most part every enemy does the same thing. Walk straight toward you and fire or swing. Sure there is slightly different game play depending on if they are hard to kill, so you have to back off, or have very powerful attacks, so you have to play more cautious. But, for the most part they are basically all the same enemy with different graphics and settings (speed, strength, damage, firing rate) adjusted.
Or compare again to God of War where for the most part you can just mash the buttons. The enemies look unique. They might have stronger weapons or interesting quicktime event deaths but they are all basically the same in terms of actual gameplay. Face the enemy, press one of the attack buttons, maybe block sometimes, repeat.
So that's the 8 rules of the Zelda test.
I think that sums up the 8 or so features a game needs to be considered a Zelda clone. The question I have is WHY AREN'T THERE MORE? Doom sold great and companies saw that and have been making clones ever since. I've listed a bunch above. Some have even taken them in slightly new directions (adding vehicles or NPCs etc). Many have been extremely successful. There are lots of brawlers. From the originals like Final Fight and Double Dragon to Streets of Rage and Golden Axe up to Onimusha, Devil May Cry, Ninja Gaiden, God of War etc. There are lots of RPGs, Final Fantasy, Dragon Quest, Oblivion, Mass Effect, Fallout, Dragon Age, etc.. Lots of clones, lots of good games.
Zelda is one of the most successful series ever so why so few clones?
Close? Well, many have pointed to GTA as somewhat Zelda like. It's got features #1, 2, 4 and 7. Oblivion. It has only #1, #2 and 4. I've heard some people claim Tomb Raider as a Zelda like game. It's missing features #1, #2, #4 and #8/8b and arguably a few others. Okami? Okami is missing #8 which is one of the most essential. Metroid Prime? Missing #3, 4 and 8. Beyond Good and Evil? Missing #2, #3, #5, #8. Starfox Adventures? Seems to be missing #5, 6 and 8. Illusion of Gaia? Seems to be missing #6 although it's been so long since I played I don't remember. Startropics? One of the few games that handles #8b pretty well but I think it's missing 2 and 3.
In fact how about in table form
|Open World||Many Items||Unique Items||Quests||Level Puzzles||Unique Weapons||Precision Combat||Unique Enemies|
|Half Life 2||✓|
|World of Warcraft||✓||✓||✓||✓||✓|
|Super Mario 3||✓||✓|
|Ratchet and Clank|
|Call of Duty|
|God of War||✓||✓|
|Beyond Good and Evil||✓||✓||✓||✓|
|Illusion of Gaia||✓||✓||✓||✓||✓||✓|
Notice I didn't say anywhere the game has to be fantasy based. I can certainly imagine a game that has all 8 features above that's based in space based. I can image one with all those features based under water. An inner space based game with those 8 features would be great. Or how about a cyberspace based game with those 8 features. WHERE ARE THEY!
Speculation: Maybe there are so few clones because having all those 8 of those features is damn hard. It's much MUCH easier to make a game like DOOM or God of War where for all intents and purposes there is just 1 type up weapon with 4−5 settings and sets of graphics to make it look like there are more. There's just 1 type of enemy with 4−5 settings and different sets of graphics to make it look like there are more. That's much easier than having every enemy require lots of custom AI and every item require lots of custom code and then that leading to having to design levels that use all these special items in unique puzzles.
Also note that even if a game had all 8 feature above, while it could then reasonably be put in the same category as Zelda, it doesn't mean the game would be good. Still, it would be awesome if more people tried.
A friend of mine mentioned that maybe my list is too strict. Too many rules makes it hard for any game to meet the test. He has a point. I guess my counter argument would be that Zelda is such a complex game it's hard to come up with a shorter list of rules that really emphasize why no other similar games have ever been as well received. Basically it's because they missed something essential to bring out the essence of what makes Zelda so different from other games. A game might look similar (walk a character around in the 3rd person, explore, talk to people, fight monsters, collect stuff) but those similarities are too superficial in my opinion.
If I had to pick the minimum test it would be rules #3, #5, #6 and #8. #7 is really just part of rule #8 as you can't have precision combat without action based combat but separating the it into 2 rules makes it clearer why an RPG is not a Zelda clone vs why a brawler with a few puzzles is also not a Zelda clone. Unfortunately even with just rules #3, #5, #6, and #8 there are few games that meet just those 4 rules.
I don't know why there are so few Zelda clones. All I know is it's one of my favorite games. It's beloved by many and us Zelda fans all wish we were as lucky as FPS, Brawl, RPG or Racing game fans and had just as many great series to choose from. Who knows, maybe someone that wants to make a Zelda like game will reference this list and find some inspiration or guidance for their own designs. I hope I do 😉