Friday, January 4, 2008

Frothing Girl, Oozing Boy — The Gender Mysteries of Clu Clu Land

I’ve found something interesting about Clu Clu Land, everyone’s favorite childhood video game.

What’s that? Clu Clu Land was only you’re second favorite?

Okay, I guess I can deal with that sad fact. I mean, when I say “Nintendo,” the first thing I think of is a Pac-Man knock off that more or less faded into obscurity after hitting the market in 1984. Oh, and it started a fish that didn’t look like a fish. Classic!

image courtesy of

image courtesy of

In any case, for the few of you who don’t know, Nintendo did release a game called Clu Clu Land back in the early days of the NES. And it did, in fact, bear a few similarities to Pac-Man, though the game mechanics were just different enough that I wouldn’t necessarily call it a full-blown rip-off. The game starred Bubbles, a “bubblefish” who didn’t look much like an anyfish and had her navigating a series of mazes. Just as Pac-Man had to evade the ghosts as he zoomed around his mazes, Bubbles had to avoid prickly unira, or sea urchins. Her main mode of defense — and this is where the game works especially differently from Pac-Man — was spitting bubbles at the urchins to stun them and them running them into a wall, where’d they dissolve into the standard 100 points.

The game takes place underwater and all the main players are sea creatures, but Clu Clu Land weirdly doesn’t allow Bubbles to swim so much as spin. It’s hard to explain, though the below video might help.

As you can see, the playing board consists of various pegs that Bubbles spins around, as if she were holding onto them with one hand. (Yes, it’s technically a pole dance.) If she lets go, she’ll continue in the direction she was facing at that instant. If she wants to switch directions, she’ll have to snag onto another peg and start spinning around it again. Spinning is central enough to the game that its name is actually a transliteration of the Japanese onomatopoeia kuru kuru, which also appears in the title of another Nintendo game that revolves around (ha) spinning, Kuru Kuru Kuruin.

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Bubbles beats a maze by swinging around the right pegs. Passing through the “correct” spaces triggers the appearance of a small gem — or as the game refers to them, gold ingots. When all the gems have been uncovered, they form an image, kinda-sorta in the style of connect-the-dots.

But her pole dancing isn’t what made me want to write about her. No, I recalled something today that I initially learned a few years ago: While in the U.S. her name is “Bubbles” and she’s female, in Japan, the character is named “Gloopy” (or “Groopy” or “Guruppi,” depending on who’s doing the translating) and he is male. Or at least I’ve been informed that this is so. It’s documented online fairly often at least that there’s a some confusion about the characters’ in different parts of the world.

Either way, Bubbles is definitely a lady in the U.S., which could make her the first-ever playable female character that Nintendo ever created. (Nintendo, remember, did not create Ms. Pac-Man.) And that itself is odd, since there’s absolutely nothing about her that looks feminine, and one notch odder yet when you take into account that she was showing up in a time when female video game characters wore bows and dresses and generally did everything and anything they could to look girly. And if Nintendo did change Gloopy the Boy to Bubbles the Girl en route from Japan to the United States, it would have been a highly unusual move for a video game company at the time — and, really, one that doesn’t make a lot of sense.

Then there are the names, of course, which struck me as vaguely sexual. (Hence the post title.) I suppose there’s no reason why “Gloopy” couldn’t have been a female character’s name. But I’m glad I changed it.

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Bubbles never went on to much stardom after 1984 — certainly not anything like that other, more famous Nintendo tranny, Birdo — though she did score both a cameo in Smash Bros. Melee as a trophy and another as an unlockable playable character in the Game Boy Advance game DK: King of Swing. (Weird, I know. It doesn’t take place underwater and she’s surrounding by Donkey Kong’s extended simian gang. But whatever.) But at least now she gets to have the legacy of having ambiguous gender.

That’s something.

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