1) 1 - Character Advancement:
2) 1 - Combat:
3) 1 - Items and Equipment:
4) 2 - Story: main story at the forefront; world full of hints and lore;
5) 2 - Exploration: open world from the beginning, visited locations remain open
6) 2 - Quests and Puzzles: side quests not related to the main quest, puzzles and riddles to solve
This is my favorite of the series, although I haven't played in a long time. It was one of those games I so eagerly waited to play as a kid that when we did get it I pretended to be sick the next day on the following Monday. This game offers such a polished update that I often wondered why other game series weren't as good.
While the Adventure of Link offered more RPG style play with experience, levels, and stats, A Link to the Past lives up to its name by going back to its roots of equipment upgrades, no character combat stats, and rupees. With such a deep world with side stories and quests, puzzles and riddles, and a world to explore that expands to double its size by the end, it's easy to see why some call it an RPG.
Like I mentioned in my previous article on cutting adventure games, there's a emphasis in Zelda of the player improving, and less of one on the character. Genres lines should divide games based on how the game is played. If the player is expected to actively maneuver the character to gain an advantage, then it shifts towards an action game. On the other hand, if the movement is not active, or if there's no movement in combat at all, then it abstracts it in such a way that the character is more involved in combat than the player. The player only influences actions, and the character stats and situation determine how effective that action is.
Action-RPGs blur the line by giving character stats that improve actions while still relying on the playing to time them. The defining factor here is that the character improves and it becomes less important that the player becomes better at the game. Still, the action elements are present, which is why it's a hybrid or sub-genre.
The best genre definition I've seen, and the most commonly used, for this type of game is action-adventure. Basically, it's an action game, but much of the game has adventure elements where certain items are needed to progress (placing gems in slots, speaking the correct phrase, or merely having the right key). There's an emphasis on inventory or environmental puzzles. More and more games are picking up RPG mechanics by including character upgrades, equipment, and items that add abilities or increase stats. Going forward we'll see more and more edge cases.
So what to do? The scale's first two points separated character advancement through repeated action from stat increases to give extra weight to the first point; the main difference is a feeling of unlimited growth versus predefined upgrades. Of course, most games have a level cap (maybe not all), so it's not completely unlimited, but level caps are rarely reached. Invest a bit more time, and the played can have an easier time by gaining a few more levels. There's a pitfall here; it's sometimes unclear how powerful the character should be at any point. This makes the experience feel a bit more open, rather than having static upgrades that enforce the idea that a designer intended a certain amount of power before moving on.
The Legend of Zelda games have health upgrades in the form of heart containers and heart pieces introduce in this game, but that's the only character stat that increases. Some are hidden, and if the player finds the game difficult there's the option to seek them out. However, attack and defense power are directly linked to Link's equipment. His abilities are dependent on him finding tools or upgrades. Unless a player gets better at a game, or finds a way to get an upgrade early, options are limited when faced with a difficult boss.
In the end, if a game is labeled as an RPG then I expect to have the option to grind, even though I rare choose to do so recently. The scale isn't perfect, I'll be the first to admit it. A game could skew the scale in some way without being an RPG. I've yet to find such a game on console, but it could happen. That'll be an interesting day.