I’m trying not to say ‘Zelda isn’t an RPG’. ‘Zelda’ and ‘RPG’ both mean too many different things to too many different people for that to be a useful statement. But I think I can say something useful about what I look for in an RPG – and particularly a JRPG – by contrasting it with what I look for and love in Zelda games. For clarity, I’m a 3D Zelda person – I’ve generally found the 2D games frustrating to play, though that may be because I’ve mainly played them on handheld and I kinda hate handheld gaming.
To start, here’s what I understand by ‘RPG’: a system of abstraction(s) that primarily serves to mediate the telling of a story. This is a pretty broad definition (the ‘primarily’ is important), but I think it’s useful because it captures the connection between pre-digital pen-and-paper RPGs and their digital analogues. The downside is that it leaves out the act of roleplaying that makes up such an important part of the pen-and-paper experience.
Anyway, what I mean by it is this. The abstractions in RPGs serve a primarily extrinsic focus. Phenomena like HP and XP encode the labour and temporal cost of travel. World maps and sidequests indicate scale. The more abstract components of the game are there to set a tone and player mindset for the story developments, which are generally treated as less abstract.
The 3D Zelda games, though, have a different focus. For one thing, the biggest abstractions in Zelda games are the puzzles; not the player’s actions but the environments that induce them. The player’s attention is drawn more to the phenomenal/sensory qualities of their actions – the flight of the boomerang, the heft of the megaton hammer, the whoosh of flying through the air with the hookshot.
As a complement to this, Zelda games generally have less involved storylines. It’s telling that the games that do have stronger emphasis on storytelling – Majora’s Mask and especially Twilight Princess – have more in the way of player action that mediates story. Moments like the sequence where you carry the injured Midna to Zelda, or the horse-and-cart bit where you transport Ilia to Kakariko Village, are more about the urgency of the moment, the dramatic interruption to the otherwise pervasive melancholy of Twilight Princess’ Hyrule, than the phenomenal qualities of the specific actions the player takes.
There are exceptions on the other side of the equation as well, of course. Action RPGs and even some more recent turn-based ones do take an interest in the intrinsic qualities of their abstractions. This can take the form of Tales-style combat, levelling systems like Final Fantasy X’s sphere grid and the Lillium Orbs from Tales of Xillia, or even quicktime events, as in Final Fantasy XIII-2.
Almost every game that has a story dabbles in abstractions that favour the story; similarly, almost every game period dabbles in abstractions that feed the senses. The question is one of balance. When I go to my collection of Zelda games, it’s because I’m looking to have my attention drawn to a particular sensory/phenomenal mode of engagement. When I go looking specifically for a (J)RPG, I want to focus on the narrative and register other interactions as in service to that.
 I think this is true whatever RPG you play, but it’s probably less true for more modern western RPGs than JRPGs.
 There’s a whole complicated question of the role of abstraction in fantasy narratives – magic and magical creatures as metaphor, fantasy hierarchies as engagements with real politics and so on – but it’s too big a topic to get into here, hence the ‘generally treated as’.
 The cart-and-horse sequence is also a call-back to the similar escort mission in MM, an explicit link between the two games.