This all made me think of a subject I haven’t picked up in a while.
Now, one of the responses to Sarkeesian’s first video pointed out that she didn’t mention one of the reasons the Mario and Zelda don’t evolve: Their creator, Shigeru Miyamoto, isn’t big on plot elements. He’d rather minimize backstory, let players get to the fun part and not bury the essence of the game. Especially back in the earlier days, Miyamoto wasn’t about to let co-workers who thought otherwise meddle with his brain babies. (That’s less the case now, and it’s worth pointing out that as the stories behind these games grew deeper, we got less wimpy female characters, like Rosalina and Midna.)
In that same early age of home console Nintendo, however, Mario and Zelda weren’t Nintendo’s only attempts at launching power franchises. They were just the most successful ones. A few months after Legend of Zelda hit shelves, Nintendo debuted two other games: Metroid and Kid Icarus. The two are “sister” series in more than one way. For example, Metroid baddies show up in Kid Icarus. In both, the screen can scroll both vertically and horizontally, whereas the first Mario and Zelda didn’t. Both were developed without Miyamoto’s participation; Gunpei Yokoi served as producer for both, and many of the staffers who worked on Metroid shifted to Icarus as they finished their work. Both didn’t receive sequels until years later. And both offer major roles to female characters that Mario and Zelda do not.
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Most people know that. But the game also pits Samus against a female(ish) big bad: the Mother Brain. There’s not too much explicitly female about a cycloptic brain in a jar, but all the literature discussing the Mother Brain as a “she” — even on Captain N, where she was inexplicably voiced by the guy who voiced Audrey II in Little Shop of Horrors.
That’s something that literally never occurred to me until this month: that a game debuting that early in the story of Nintendo would have a female hero taking down a female villain — an all-knowing, all-seeing, all-powerful big bad, no less.
Kid Icarus also boasts better feminist credentials. Though the hero is male — more a boy than a man, though I’m unsure if that matters — the big bad is female. It’s Medusa, who in the universe of the game is the goddess of darkness, and offered as the antithesis to Palutena, the goddess of light and the game’s damsel in distress. (Importantly, Medusa looks like a woman, but she also has a Mother Brain-y like form where she appears as a huge, one-eyed head… thing.) Yes, there’s a woman awaiting rescue at the end of the game, but there is something different about it being another woman who locked her up, especially when those characters function as stand-ins for God and the Devil, or at least Athena and a Lady Hades (Ladeez).
This all proves nothing, of course, and it’s worth underscoring that Metroid and Kid Icarus didn’t find the success that Super Mario Bros. and Legend of Zelda did. The former only became a successful franchise in 2002 and the latter just received its second sequel in 2012. But when you’re looking at the early days of Nintendo, with Princess Peach and Princess Zelda mostly sitting around in dungeons, it’s kind of cool that female characters in other games were being given something interesting to do: be evil, get captured or take of their clothes at the end of the game. There’s a case to be made for finding elements of the sacred feminine in Mario and Zelda, but it’s a dig to get there. With Metroid and Kid Icarus, it’s right there in the instruction booklet.
Gender and video games, previously: