Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Finding the Feminine (if Not the Feminist) in Early Nintendo

If you don’t read about video games, then you probably don’t know of Anita Sarkeesian. She is a feminist blogger whose talking head stars in the “Feminist Frequency” online series, and she recently rose to a greater level of prominence as a result of a successful Kickstarster campaign to explore the role of female characters in video games. The campaign also elicited a shitstorm of harassment that basically proved Sarkeesian’s point that video game culture can have a nasty, misogynist bent to it, but the first video premiered on March 7 in spite of the small but active band trying to keep girls out of the treehouse.

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In the first installment, “Damsels in Distress,” Sarkeesian seems to be laying groundwork for the rest of the series, explaining the origins of the “lady tied to the train tracks” stock character and how it relates to video games. She actually talks about video games a lot less than you might expect — like I said, I’m guessing she’s building a foundation, but there’s a point when you may think, “She’s still going on about this?” — and the two franchises that get the most attention are Mario and Zelda. This too has earned her some criticism, as newer franchises feature more progressive politics than do these series that have remained fundamentally unchanged since they debuted in the 80s. But it’s Nintendo, and in addition to Mario and Zelda being two of the most long-lived successful video game franchises ever, those early days of the original Nintendo Entertainment System were hugely important to the medium. Thus, it’s a good place to start. Neither series has ever come close to gender parity, and regardless of whether you think they should, that is exactly why this very month has seen the release of hacked versions of Donkey Kong and Legend of Zelda that allow you to play as Pauline or as Princess Zelda and rescue their respective dudes.

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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In Metroid, of course, the big reveal players get for completing certain requirements is finding out that Samus, the robot-looking dude they’ve been controlling all this time, is actually a woman — and what a woman! She’s wearing a weird mom bathing suit and everything!

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.

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In the third Metroid game, the brain gets a body, and graphics designer Toru Osawa explained that his initial impulse had been to make her look like “an old lady living in my apartment complex.” You can still kind of see that in the final design:

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:

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