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 Pok√©mon — 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.


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?


  1. Anonymous8:54 AM

    What about Daisy? If you're going just by the number of games she has appeared in, she would be the female Nintendo character who would most deserve a spot in the next game.

  2. I guess that's a point, but in my opinion she's a sucky character who doesn't really do all that much. Besides, if we're going by sheer number of game appearances, there's a whole host of minor league characters who have also racked up tons of appearance but who no one really would want to see as a playable character. If you really wanted to pull a character from the Mario games, there's quite a few who are known for actually doing something rather than just being derivative of more famous characters.

  3. Come to think of it, since I put this original post up, it came to light from partially developed data found on the Smash Bros. Brawl disk that Dixie might have actually been planned as as a playable character at some early point in the game. Pink though Daisy might be, she's not excessively girly. Also, there was evidence of an additional Zelda counterpart to Toon Link. If she followed her adult model, might have been able to switch from frilly princess mode into Tetra, a tomboyish pirate alternate persona from Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker. So there's some evidence that the game's designers made at least some effort to progress away from stereotypical female video game characters.

  4. What about Captain Syrup?

  5. ...and to think that Daisy does show up in SSBB. She is a palette swap for Peach. So, does this count as a cameo?

  6. The S: Though Syrup would be cool, I feel like she might have been off my radar when I originally wrote this post. Between then and now, she got bumped back into the public eye with Wario Land: Shake It! and now might have a better chance than any of these to make it into the next Smash Bros..

    The Strategist: Yes, Daisy did make it in as a cameo, but so did everyone else I suggested as being worth including, except for Marina, though most of them less playable cameos than Daisy's.

  7. GlenboLake9:43 AM

    Lyn really should have been playable in Brawl

  8. Anonymous2:11 PM

    Chrono trigger and cross where great games but the new and improved list for super smash brothers dojo battle will out the nu. Looking for 100 characters to put in, nintendo only and included third party. Email to
    I am David

  9. Sakurai stated he was considering more female Smashers, and at least two other 3rd party characters besides Solid Snake, and we know that there weren't any new female characters added...
    The Wii-U game can hold more than 50 characters this time, while the 3DS can have version exculsives...
    But in recent Iwata asks, and other interveiws, he repeatedly says he wants Capcom characters... Obviously he's targeting Chun Li, of the Street Fighter Series.

    My female Character lists would be...

    Chun Li,

    Krystal from Starfox using her ancient staff, and two outfits like Wario has, although I'm guessing that because of snapshot mode pervs they may exclude her Adventures outfit...

    Female Pokemon Trainer as as alternate outfit B/W version trainer...

    Lara Croft, Tomb Raider Anniversary for Wii specifically for Wii-U version, using tazers, tranques, knives, ect...

    Blaze the Cat as a Sonic Clone, on 3DS version except the only approximately copied attack is the final smash, Burning Blaze... while her spin dash is more like Meta Knight's Tornado when the button's released...

    & Alice from Resident Evil, it's amazing how all these female 3rd party characters got their own movies...
    ...Sega & Nintendo need to get better Media tie-in deals...

    And a character that guys don't go gaga for, a humble character just waiting to let out her obvious feelings of outrage! Cooking Mama, using her Frying pan, rolling pins, throwing plates like Frisbees and tossing out bad sushi that poisons players who walk over the items...

    I wouldn't enjoy a series that has too many female fighters, but with the wider selection, and better 3rd party relations they really should add more now...

    Also the whole Peach thing, she's a prude who hasn't developed a full personality... At least Rosalina has a personality! Daisy is also known to be reckless, overeagar and hasty... Rosalina has few flaws but makes a great character nonetheless...

    Also, if making Jigglypuff like that, why not make a shiny orange Heart-tailed female Pikachu alt. form wearing a Silk Scarf... (I thought pink bow, but why go where Jigglypuff went)

    Daisy should be promoted to Assist trophy, unless the other series also get 5 characters in the game, then she should have multiplayer game based attacks, wearing her sports outfit redesigned to fit the game's artwork.

    And Tetra would make an excellent female swordsgirl...
    ...Although they might go for Ghost Zelda this time around, I'd want Tetra to Transform into Toon Zelda only for her Final Smash, then after the Light Arrow she'd have generic Zelda moves until she decides to transform back, however Tetra should also have a secret smash taunt that allows the transformation, allowing her to have more attacks than Sheik, and she'd need to in order to be balanced, a B & down move to throw bombs, as she could have some cloned moves from both Link and Zelda...

    And I agree on Syrup for Wario's series, in adventure mode she can have an extreme rivalry with Wario, and side with Mario, making Wario even more angry! Syrup should also make cameos in the new Warioware games.
    Her attacks could have cartoon sneakiness like firing a cannon out of nowhere. Her final Smash would unleash an ancient artifact, possibly a Magic Lamp... ...That oddly releases Golden Sun Djinni to summon her Genie? That is truely Warioware style! Or flooding the stage with water and Smashing her Pirate Ship into the stage! Unleashing her sticky pirate crew...

    I also have ideas for guy characters like Crash Bandicoot...
    (mainly 1 girl character 'til Twinsanity, which added 2, one was the evil headmistress of the Academy of Evil, whom Cortex supposedly killed-off after the boss fight)
    ...and Zoroark* who would know Snarl, & theif which steals held items from other characters...
    *Zoroark can be Male or Female, but nearly 87.5% of all Zoroark are Male, although the one in the 13th Pokemon Movie is female...

  10. Deceptimon5:00 PM

    If imitation is the most sincere form of adulation then Nintendo apparently likes Rouge The Bat, having spinoffed her twice (Barbara The Bat from Jam With The Band and Ms. Mowz from Paper Mario The Thousand Years Door), Cream The Rabbit and Blaze The Cat are both born on a Nintendo console, so these are the three Sonic girls that have the biggest probabilities to be in the game IMHO. Thought Barbara The Bat, with her soniclike design, might replace them and have moves similar to the ones of both said ladies. There are sevaral arguments against her, but they all can twisted in her favour.

    1) "She is just a mascotte. Almost not even a character!"

    Well! So was Captain Falcon. In the first F-Zero we could see him only in the comic inside the instruction booklet (and he was lacking of his typical Space-Ghost/Batman look). In F-Zero X he was only a couple of fix 2D images. Super Smash Bros. was the first game featuring him as a kickass fighter, whose moves were invented ex novo, included the famous Falcon Punch, now as famous as the Dragon Punch of Ryu and appeared even in the F-Zero animated series.

    2) "Very few people know her! And less appreciate her!"

    So can be said of the Ice Climbers. They are more popular now for their appearance in this series than in their original game. Still, they are not very appreciated. Nor is Jigglypuff, who was originally in the game just as a clone of Kirby.
    Plus Nintendo could use the series as a trojan horse to launch her, as they did with the new version of Pitt.

    3) "She is too sexy!"

    Well, Zerosuit Samus wears a skin tight suit that doesn't hide her very defined curves, as much defined as the panties of Princess Peach every one can easyly see.
    And both of them are less toony than Barbara.

    4) "She is selfish and egocentric! Just one step from evil!"

    So is Wario. Despite that she has been the protagonist in several games and has appeared in most of Mario's spinoffs. And the Super Smash Bros. series has already some evil characters. Even because they are essential for the story mode.

  11. Anonymous2:30 PM

    Very interesting article. The only thing i would say is you mentioned peach and zelda having extremely girly moves as if it was a bad thing. I do like the strong female character, but why cant strong female characters be tough, and pretty? To me its twice as bad ass for peach to be very feminine and still kick ass. I win with her all the time.

    1. I agree. Peach is actually my main in both Melee and Brawl. But I'm just happier when they're not saddled with the tropes of femininity -- pink, hearts, etc. -- because that tends to stunt their development as a character. Samus, for example, is a space bounty hunter, and here whole everything comes from that background. Peach, however, is largely just THE GIRL -- a big pink doily who often struggles to have more depth than just being feminine.