Saturday, February 8, 2014

The One Nintendo Heroine No One Talks About

No, Samus Aran wasn’t the first playable female character in a Nintendo game. She may not even be the second. In fact, there’s a game that came out nearly a year before Metroid that not only had an apparent female protagonist but which also made her gender a Metroid-style end-of-the-game surprise.

First, one paragraph of background that’s skippable if you’re busy, but I swear the links are worth a click.

Last year, I wrote about Francesca, the hero an NES-era video game that shamelessly ripped of Mega Man, and I pointed out how the relative suckiness of this game, The Krion Conquest, was a shame, given how unusually boss Francesca looked on the box art. It was unusual to see a female character — playable or otherwise — looking neither cutesy or sexed-up, I posited, and I asked if anyone could think of examples of similar female characters. I got some good ones, and compiled them in a collection of old-school box art featuring women you wouldn’t want to fuck with (and also one so hilariously early ’90s that it threw me down a Full House rabbit hole). I thought it might be cool to do the opposite and make a collection of old-school NES-era box art that was sexist, but that quickly became depressing and lame. But if it weren’t for that search, I wouldn’t have found how why Samus Aran is only (arguably) number three in the succession of Nintendo leading ladies.


So back in the early days, Nintendo had a hard time with clearly, obviously feminine protagonists. Technically the first was the Clu-Clu Land main character, a fish named Bubbles (Gloopy in the Japanese version). While any text you’ll find online today character uses feminine pronouns to discuss the character, someone just playing the game could scarcely tell that that Bubbles is a fish, much less a female one.

ripped by vile10, via spriter’s resource
And that’s fine. It’s actually even better that Nintendo didn’t make her pink and stick a bow on her. But if you had just rented the game from your local video loan depot, and it like so many game rentals lacked an instruction manual, you probably wouldn’t know that Bubbles was female.

You could say the same thing about Samus, really. Even if you had the Metroid instruction booklet, you wouldn’t know she was female because the text refers to Samus as being male, presumably to preserve the surprise of her true gender when you meet all the necessary requirements. That revelation, in case you’ve forgotten, involves Samus’ space armor coming off to reveal this:

via obsolete gamer
But a year before, Nintendo pulled an almost identical stunt with a character that’s largely been forgotten and whose gender seems to be remembered even less: Mach Rider, star of the 1985 title of the same name.

It looks like this, if you’re not familiar:

The game has Mach Rider racing from city to city in a post-apocalyptic 2112, dodging various Mad Max-looking bad guys. The game never received a sequel, but did spawn an arcade version, Vs. Mach Rider, that offered a clearer look at what the protagonist’s appearance.

Here’s what the character looks like at the start of the game:

via metroid database
A proto-Captain Falcon, you could say. But as you progress through the game, it gradually reveals a second image of a beautiful, Barbarella-esque woman standing precisely where the armored Mach Rider stood before — same pose even, from the waist down.

via metroid database
Most sites discussing this Mach Rider strangeness note that the game doesn’t explicitly state “Hey! Lookie! The Mach Rider is a girl! Your presumptions are dashed!” But to me, the implications are pretty clear, especially when you consider them in the context of Metroid’s similar reveal a short time later. In fact, the Metroid Database has its own piece on Mach Rider that points out that the matter might have been cleared up had the game ever received a proper sequel. It reads in part: “Imagine if Metroid never received a sequel, and all we had to work with was the original game. Would we perhaps be having this same discussion about Samus?”

In 1987, Nintendo (in partnership with Fuji Television Network) released Doki Doki Panic in Japan, and that game featured two clearly, indisputably feminine characters, and in 1998, that game was remade and released as Super Mario Bros. 2 in the United States, starring Princess Peach, pink dress and all.

Gender and video games, previously:

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