Thursday, March 20, 2008

Ladysmash: Gender Roles in Super Smash Bros. Brawl

As have legions of other pre-ordering Nintendo nuts, I’ve now had the new Smash Bros. for a week and have been enjoying it not only as a pretty good (if not outright great) video game but also as a microcosm of video games themselves. Super Smash Bros. Brawl may be a Nintendo-specific tour of video game history — the presence of Sonic the Hedgehog and Metal Gear Solid’s Snake notwithstanding — but by virtue of the fact that it mines the this prolific company’s past, it gives an overview of the medium from damn near its beginning to its current state.

For example: If we’re to accept what this game suggests, video games have not produced a great many mascot characters lately. Or at least Nintendo hasn’t. The newest series represented in this Battle of the Nintendo All-Stars is Pikmin, whose main man Olimar is playable. All the other series represented by playable characters are older, which is especially notable given that Pikmin, having debuted in 2001, is not particularly young. Newer series only offer characters that make non-playable cameos, and I hope some of these faces will return as full-fledged fighters — most particularly Daigasso! Band Brothers’s Barbara the Bat, a Nintendo leading lady the likes of which we don’t see often enough. But all in all, the game boasts a host of old-timers.

more cleavage and more attitude than your typical nintendo lady
Barbara the Bat makes as good a segue as any for the meat of this post, which concerns some notes about female characters in Brawl that, given the game’s status as a de facto gaming retrospective, offers an interesting statement about women in games in general.

The first Smash Bros. game offered only one female character: Metroid heroine Samus Aran, whose suit of space armor completely hides her gender. (Technically, there was this one Pokémon — Jigglypuff, a wiggly-bajiggly sentient balloon who attacks by singing and falling asleep — but I’m not sure it has gender one way or the other. We’ll stick a pin in this one, so to speak.) The sequel, Super Smash Bros. Melee, evened the gender ratio out a bit with the addition of Nintendo’s two highest-profile princesses, Peach from the Super Mario games and Zelda from the Legend of Zelda games, as well as the Ice Climbers, a two-member team from back in Nintendo’s eight-bit days that includes a boy, Popo, and a girl, Nana. Counting Jigglypuff as female, Nana as a separate character and Zelda as a separate character from her alter-ego, Melee offered six female characters out of a total of twenty-six. It was a step in the right direction, but some decisions on the programmers’ parts presented the female characters in an odd light.

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For example, Princess Zelda functioned as a sort of time-share, at least if the person playing as her wanted to take full advantage of her abilities: She could transform into her alter-ego, Sheik, to use an entirely new moveset. Whereas Zelda was physically frail and attacked with her Sparkle Princess Magic, Sheik moved quickly and ninja-like. That’s a plus, as far as making Zelda a character that players would want to pick, but the fact that Sheik is apparently male (or at least male-looking) put an unexpected spin on things. Because Zelda and Sheik are the same person much in the same way that Bruce Wayne and Batman are the same person, Sheik probably isn’t actually male. But the character certainly seems male, if not just androgynous: a deep voice, unfeminine musculature, and an apparently shrink-wrapped bosom. I’m probably reading too much into the character’s duality, but it nonetheless seemed to suggest that Zelda — on her own, with her long hair, in her princess gown, with her sparkle magic — wasn’t strong enough to duke it out with the other Nintendo mascots.

Then there was little Nana. Though players could choose to control her and make Popo her computer-directed partner in battle, the default setting was Popo in the lead and Nana trailing faithfully behind her — with him wearing blue and her pink. Putting Nana in the lead gave the pair different color schemes, as if to suggest that doing so was a departure from the traditional order — and the traditional blue-as-masculine, pink-as-feminine setup. Which it was.

Melee brought back Jigglypuff and Samus — the former still essentially asexual and the latter still encased in her space armor — but Peach served as the game’s shining beacon of pure femininity. And this might have been a good thing if Peach wasn’t a total idiot. (In one of her victory poses — post-battle, after she’s kicked the tar out of her opponents — she waves like a beauty queen on a parade float and stupidly asks “Oh, did I win?” Yes, Peach, you did, but every time you open your mouth, you set the women’s movement back a few years.) I would be way off base to infer that Peach was a worthless character, however. In fact, she was one of the best in the bunch. She draws several certain skills from Super Mario Bros. 2, such as hovering in the air for an extended period of time or pulling turnips from the ground and using them as projectiles. Peach also fought with a whole arsenal that she could pluck out of hammerspace, though most of it serving to remind players that Peach was, in fact, a girl: parasol, frying pan, golf club and tennis racquet. In the end, I’m not really sure what to make of Peach, who basically endorses a whole host of female stereotypes but who, despite this, manages to kick ass, take names and do it all when wearing heels.

Following all the hype leading up to Smash Bros. Brawl, I at least thought Nintendo might have thrown a new female character or two into the mix. Nope. The roster of thirty-six apparently couldn’t include even one new ladyfighter. (At least the previous ones all returned — even stupid Jigglypuff.) What Brawl did add into the mix, however, was the Final Smash — a last-ditch super move designed to knock enemies senseless with a special amount of visual flair. Zelda’s, Jiggypuff’s, and the Ice Climbers’ are fairly unimpressive, both visually and as far as they relate to gender roles. Samus’s and Peach’s, however, merit a few words.

Samus got one of the most powerful moves in the game: the Zero Laser, which wipes out one side of the screen with a superpowered shot from her arm cannon. But aside from blasting her enemies into crispy bits, the move also strips her of her armor, revealing her human form for the first time ever in the Smash Bros. series. The Freudian-minded among us would have a hard time not reading some symbolism, what with the apparent robot man ejaculating one huge destructo-beam before revealing himself to be a sexy whip-wielding lady in a cat suit.

from spaceman to sexy lady through the magic of undressing
Sort of in the way Zelda and Sheik complement each other, Samus’s alternate form — she is known as Zero Suit Samus, which could be taken literally to mean “naked Samus” — allows her to hop about nimbly and hold her own against enemies she couldn’t before. Still, it’s curious that she essentially performs a striptease to make the switch.

look for the great white blast around 1:40

As far as the Final Smash as a means of characterization, Peach took a turn for the worse. Her Peach Blossom, as with everything else about Peach, seems to underscore the fact that she is, in fact, the girliest girl who ever engaged famous video game characters in physical combat.


snooze, gobble, thwomp

That’s it. As she does a little dance that puts everybody else to sleep and litters the stage with peaches. She can chose to either give her opponents a solid knock while they sleep or eat the peaches to restore her health. I’ll admit there’s a certain amount of strategy in this — bash heads or eat fruit, and in what combination? — but I just can’t help feeling that the whole move is just lame. Why stick the most feminine character with the only super move that restores health? For comparison’s sake, Mario gets a souped-up fireball, and Link gets a flurry of sword slashes. Even Donkey Kong gets to go to town on a pair of bongos and trap foes in his island rhythms. Peach gets dancing, napping and fresh produce. Given how Nintendo normally treats her, I’m not sure it would have made much sense to allow her anything more, but it sucks nonetheless that she gets the “nice” move.

As I said before, it also sucks that Nintendo bother with any new female characters for this latest outing. Some might say that the roster presented in Brawl is accurate, for better or worse. The fact is that female characters only recently started playing significant, active roles in most Nintendo games, so it follows that a project offering an overview of video game history should reflect that. While this is true, I feel like Nintendo could have acted as agents of social change, so to speak, and simply bumped up a few ladies up to all-star status. Those who designed the previous games did so when they promoted the likes of Ness (from Earthbound, which was next-to-unknown at the time the first Smash Bros. hit shelves), the Ice Climbers (whom even frothing Nintendo fans had forgotten about), and Marth and Roy (who hail from games in the Fire Emblem series that either hadn’t ever been released in the United States or simply hadn’t been released yet).

It’s a moot point now, but in case anyone doubts that Nintendo overlooked a few worthy contenders who just happen to be female, here’s a short list of them and their qualifications.


In order: Midna, who happens to have done more than Zelda herself in the most recent Zelda outing and who also happens to be the title character in Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess. Lip, the main character from the Nintendo game Panel de Pon, who manages to rule despite the fact that she is a fairy wielding a flower wand. Dixie Kong, first-ever female Donkey Kong protagonist and technically the first ever Marioverse character to lead her own game. Krystal, the ladyfox from Starfox, who manages to make everyone feel uncomfortable about anthropomorphic animals. Marina Lightyears, protagonist of the Treasure-produced Nintendo 64 title Mischief Makers, which was a Nintendo exclusive and which rocked considerably. Kumatora, the only remarkable female character from Mother 3, who manages to prove that princesses need not necessarily rely on sparkle magic. This one kicks ridiculous amounts of ass. And finally Bubbles, the Clu Clu Land heroine who defies description and logic.


And that’s not to mention the four female Nintendo characters who just appear as cameos in Brawl: the aforementioned Barbara the Bat — who, once again, rocks — as well as Fire Emblem swordswoman Lady Lyndis, WarioWare ninja twins Kat and Ana, and Drill Dozer maniac Jill, who seems like an unlikely Smash Bros. fighter but who could have easily ruled in the style of Tron Bonne in Marvel vs. Capcom 2.

In conclusion, I guess, Brawl had a lot of potential for the advancement for the advancement of in-game gender politics but failed to deliver. Perhaps the next Smash will right this wrong?

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