My battered Nintendo DS suffered a cat-assisted death right after the new year, giving me the perfect opportunity to take advantage of the post-holiday sales and pick up a 3DS. That meant that once it had arrived, I had to pick its opening game. We all have our quirks about the electronics in our lives; one of mine is an almost ritualistic selection of what exactly gets played or read or loaded onto them first. Magical thinking at its worst, maybe, but it’s nice to imagine you’ve given your iPod or Kindle some extra good energy to carry along by inaugurating it with just the right choice of media.
So once my 3DS had suffered through the hazards of unboxing, in spite of all the shiny recent releases I could have started with—Pokémon X? the Bravely Default demo? the newest Ace Attorney?–I rattled through my box of DS games and pulled out Super Princess Peach.
It’s an odd choice, sure. Almost eight years old at this point, the game got a bit of buzz on its release for reasons both positive (Cute! Fun! Peach’s first starring role!) and negative (Too short! Too easy! She gets her powers from her emotions!) While my grumpy logical gamer mind leans toward the side of the more critical view (barring the ones whose writers made oh-so-witty “Super PMS” jokes in their reviews), I’ve still got an undeniable affection for the quirky game—but more than that, I’ve got a lifelong fondness for its star. We grew up together, after all.
Wind the clock back about thirty years and consider the landscape of gaming in the late 1980s. The U.S. release of the NES in 1985 marked the first sign of the console market getting back on its feet after the industry crash of 1983, while computers saw advances in graphics and sound cards that let game designers pull off some impressive feats of sight and sound. (Well, impressive for that time, anyway.) Being a young gamer then was a stroke of luck.
Being a young girl gamer at that time was a little more complicated.
To be fair, no one ever told me to my face that I shouldn’t play video games. My family even encouraged it, in a way. There’s a picture somewhere of my four-year-old self sitting with my grandfather at his computer, tapping my way through a math game called Funnels and Buckets, and not long afterwards my parents allowed me to spend afternoons button-mashing my way through Space Invaders and Steeplechase on my father’s Atari 2600. But none of the girls I knew played video or computer games, barring the occasional green-tinted trek through Oregon Trail on the school’s Apple IIes. In toy stores, the locked glass-front cases that held cartridges were always situated well away from any aisles that had a Barbie-pink glow. Advertising was certainly clear enough on the issue. (A sampling of commercials from that era provides both hilarity and a general idea of their demographics. How many girls can you spot? How many do you actually see playing a game?)
As a result, when my parents presented me with an NES as a birthday gift, my first reaction to it was mixed confusion and apprehension. Isn’t this for boys? I thought. Am I allowed to have this?
Not that I let that actually keep me from playing. It just became another activity I did by myself, like reading and working puzzles and trying to put a tutu on the family dog. And in my own way I was still lucky, because the 1980s also saw the birth of a handful of female characters that gave my muddled thoughts about gaming the shake-up they needed.
Part of me is tempted to lie and set the responsibility for my wake-up call at the feet of Metroid and Samus Aran. It would make for such a nice story, and dovetail neatly with the game’s legendary reveal: heavily-armed and armored bounty hunter fights aliens and space pirates through a cavernous planet, rides the final elevator to the exit, removes their helmet—ta-da, you’ve been playing a woman all along! Sexist assumptions get a Screw Attack to the face, and every kid playing gets a lightning-bolt revelation that women can be the heroes of a game too.
But Metroid came a little later for me, in the middle of a much slower change in viewpoint that was bookended by the original princesses of the Kingdom of Nintendo: Peach and Zelda.
Peach hadn’t made an impression on me in Super Mario Bros., since she only shows up for about ten seconds at the game’s end—a pretty poor reward for suffering through seven rounds of her being in another castle. Yet when I popped Super Mario Bros. 2 into the cartridge slot, I got a surprise: the game let you pick your playable character, and right there on the selection screen was Peach herself. Or Princess Toadstool, rather, renamed for western releases and forced by graphical limitations to be redheaded instead of her canonical blonde. (She wasn’t even Peach at all, really. For those not up on their gaming history, Super Mario Bros. 2 was originally a different game called Yume Kōjō: Doki Doki Panic, redeveloped and rebranded as a Mario game after Nintendo of America decided the real sequel to Super Mario Bros. was too likely to lead to enraged controller-flinging in the U.S.)
All that aside, even though I knew nothing about Peach in terms of stats or character besides her princess status, the mere fact that she offered me the chance to play through the game as a girl felt like such a novel idea that I picked her immediately. In time I dutifully gave all the game’s other (male) characters a brief try, but always switched back to her, and soon I couldn’t make myself play through the game as anyone else or fathom why a person would choose a different character. In spite of the game manual’s assertion that she was the slowest and weakest of the potential choices, it seemed obvious to me that she was the best option. She could float. How much did strength or speed matter when you could fluff out your poofy skirts and sail over the heads of the bad guys, presumably laughing all the way?
I got to Metroid and Samus soon afterward, and though by then her surprise reveal had been spoiled by word-of-mouth rumors, the setup spurred me to begin pretending that any faceless or suitably androgynous-looking game protagonist was female. Console games in those days were thin on plot and characterization, and 8-bit graphics weren’t always the best at providing gender distinction—so why not pretend that fuzzball Lolo or the nameless protagonist of Shadowgate were really female?
At the same time, over in the world of PC gaming, Sierra On-Line’s Roberta Williams took a break from devising wall-punchingly difficult adventure game ideas and considered the idea of having a female character headline an entry of the company’s flagship King’s Quest series. Rosella of Daventry was introduced in a standard save-the-princess task at the end of King’s Quest III, and then in the opening of King’s Quest IV leapt into the protagonist’s role, agreeing without hesitation to travel to a distant land to seek a cure for her ailing father. A year later Williams gave another female character a starring role in The Colonel’s Bequest, a Clue-esque mystery with Tulane student and aspiring journalist Laura Bow. Adventure games were sophisticated enough to be a real challenge for me at that age, and it wasn’t until a couple of years later that I’d see them through to the end, but at I appreciated that both characters were subject to Sierra’s usual array of puzzles–and their traditional gamut of sadistic and creative ways to die. It felt like a pleasantly realistic sort of equality. Being a girl didn’t mean you should be any less vulnerable to death by falling chandelier or asphyxiation from spending too long trapped in a whale’s mouth.
Not for a minute do I mean to suggest that this handful of characters all popping up within the space of a few years indicates that some sort of quiet feminist push happened in the gaming industry in the 1980s. At best it was a lucky occurrence, a confluence of deliberate good intentions from some game designers and chance suggestion from others. For me at the time, though, it felt like a series of small but crucial oases in a desert. Just as no one ever told me a girl couldn’t be a gamer, no one had said that a game’s main character couldn’t be female…but to actually see it happen and to play it was a revelation.
Which brings me to Princess Zelda, and the moment when my unfocused thoughts about female characters in games began to coalesce into frustration. Zelda’d been absent enough from her first two games (imprisoned in The Legend of Zelda and in a magical slumber in The Adventure of Link) that you could almost forgive so many people for thinking that the “Zelda” of the title was the green-clad boy with the elf cap and no pants, but by 1991’s A Link to the Past she was at least able to kickstart Link via telepathic message into getting out of bed to help facilitate her jailbreak…after which she let Link go off adventuring while she spent the first half of the game hiding in a church and the second half stuck in a crystal.
By then I’d absorbed enough media to realize that the storytelling rule of “women get kidnapped, men do the rescuing” not only jarred with what I knew was possible, but with basic common sense. Though I loved A Link to the Past on the whole, it was the first time I remember being vividly angry at a game’s story for shunting the female character aside. I’d seen that a female character could carry a game, so why couldn’t that happen here? Why did Zelda hang around a wide-open church with only an old priest for a defender when she’d have been a lot safer accompanying the nice young guy with a sword? I played through the opening sequence multiple times and made my first attempts at sequence-breaking trying to avoid her scripted departure; I committed my first act of fanfiction by writing a version of story where Zelda stuck with Link the whole way through.
Following these characters from one installment to the next became a source of both happiness and frustration. Samus grew into a legendary figure in canon and picking up a tremendous following of both male and female fans in the real world, but her characterization remained light throughout ten games and twenty years, making her easy to love as an idea but hard to grasp as a person. Unfortunately, Metroid: Other M proved that trying different things gives you a whole bunch of new ways to fail, and the game’s attempt to flesh out Samus personally and emotionally was controversial at best and at worst judged to be a poorly-written, sexist mess. (The actual issues of sexism in Other M and the industry’s overall treatment of Samus herself is probably a subject for another essay.)
Rosella and Laura both managed a sequel each–the former adding a dose of rebellious princess to her characterization and joining her mother Valanice for a Disney-ish escapade, the latter leveling up from Amateur Investigator to Plucky Girl Reporter and solving a tangled murder/theft case–before the mid-90s decline of the adventure game ended their runs. Though it’s easy to see traces of them in the heroines of the games that have sprung up in the genre’s recent resurgence, the characters themselves seem consigned to relative obscurity.
Even the advancement of Nintendo’s royal ladies can only be described as “unsteady.” As spin-offs and tangential Mario series began to pop up, Peach was consistently present and more often than not playing an active role: running people off the Rainbow Road in Mario Kart; joining the adventuring party in Super Mario RPG; whacking people with her parasol in the Super Smash Bros. series. She has, the Mario Wiki tells me, “appeared in more games than any female character in video game history.” But after that first outing in SMB2 it took almost twenty years for her to be playable again in the main series, and she’s never been able to shake off her status as the ur-damsel of video games. Zelda might have been slow to start, but by the turn of the century she’d finally begun to take a stronger hand in the story and develop a central role in her setting’s mythology, becoming at various times a sage, a pirate, and the incarnation of a goddess, not to mention disguising herself (or switching genders, depending on who you ask) to become the supposedly-male Sheik, who offered advice and ocarina tunes to Link and provided the fandom with a topic of inevitable flame wars for the next two decades. Yet she’s still a kidnap victim more often than not, and her sole playable appearance in the series that bears her name is as a ghost in 2009’s Spirit Tracks. That is, if one ignores the CD-I games, which all right-thinking people do.
It all leaves me torn: glad at how much they achieved; bitter at how much more could have been done with them by now.
The habit that started with Peach is still a deep-set pattern in my psyche: pick the girl every time. Always a female PC inUltima games and the Elder Scrolls series; always Chun-Li in Street Fighter II and Sonya Blade in Mortal Kombat. Revan was always a woman, no matter how much the Star Wars canon said otherwise. Every chance I have to play a female character still feels like a luxury that I need to take advantage of whenever possible. For a long while I had a paranoid notion that my choice ‘counted’ in some way and would be taken away from me if I didn’t appreciate it properly. (Bioware’s reveal a few years ago that they’d been tracking players’ decisions to play a male or female Shepherd in Mass Effect gave me a moment of chilling “I knew it!” frisson.)
I could try to spin this essay here and talk about how pleased I am that the representation of women became better year by year since I first began gaming. I am pleased, and thankful–for Terra and Celes, Rosangela Blackwell and Heather Mason, Alyx Vance and April Ryan, Jade and Chell and Nilin and Clementine and every other woman and girl that my childhood self never could have imagined would show up in a video game. But how much progress has the industry really made when for each one of them, there’s a dozen other female characters that I have to struggle to love in spite of their shoddy treatment by the writers and their skeevy, fetishistic character designs? When the Grizzled White Guy is still the norm for lead characters? When trend of the faceless, voiceless, blank-slate but DEFINITELY MALE protagonist is going strong after more than thirty years?
That’s why even with their weaknesses as characters and mishandling by their parent companies and the fact that there are now other, more fully developed characters that I can (and do) love, some corner of my heart is still has keeps a space for the characters I clung to as a little girl. That’s the part that wanted Peach floating hither and thither and stomping on Koopas to be the first experience on my 3DS, and that’s the part that boots up The Dagger of Amon Ra on my new computer so I can guide Laura Bow through solving a quintuple homicide. There’s a nostalgic pleasure in it, true, but beyond that the experience calls up the emotions I felt decades ago: affection for the characters and anger on their behalf. They bring to mind those first glimpses of possibility that the medium I loved could tell stories that weren’t about men. How long it would have taken me realize that if they hadn’t been there at all? Would I really understand the importance of representation in media–not just for women, but for everyone–if I didn’t have those long-ago memories of how great it felt to suddenly see someone like me in a game? My younger self is still alive at the core of my long-standing enmity with the industry, prickling with irritation every time she sees another guys-only game, wishing she had the power to sit designers down and point to Samus pulling off her helmet and Rosella saying “yes” to an unknown voice and Peach raising her hand when you choose her. Look, that self wants to say. They put them all there for anyone to play twenty-five years ago like it was nothing, but it meant everything to me. Why can’t you do that now?