This article discusses the evolution of playable female characters and their roles in video games from Nintendo’s 1980s franchises to recent releases.
Save the princess! That has been a job for the likes of Mario and Link for decades. However, things are starting to change, and many modern princesses are perfectly capable of saving themselves, thank you very much. The video game market is no longer dominated by male gamers, and content is changing to reflect that; however, years of sexism in gaming makes this revolution a long and slow process.
“Samus is a GIRL?!”
The mid to late 1980s saw the birth of several famous franchises that many modern gamers cherish as classics: The Legend of Zelda, Super Mario Bros., and Metroid round out Nintendo’s big names. During this time period, Nintendo games tended to have a common goal: save the helpless princess who got herself captured…again. Mario used his jumping abilities to progress through different worlds, trying to make his way to Bowser’s Castle so that he can defeat the antagonist and save Princess Toadstool (who later became known as Princess Peach).
In the Legend of Zelda, Link navigated through dungeon after dungeon in order to reach the evil Ganon and destroy him, thereby rescuing Princess Zelda. It was this pattern of the hero saving the damsel in distress that set the stage for what may still be the most jaw dropping moment in video game history: “Samus is a GIRL?!” Samus Aran, of the Metroid series, was the first playable female character in video game history. However, this is not made clear until the end of the game, after the player had spent a great deal of time with the newly revealed heroine. Since then, an overwhelming amount of video games have not featured even a single playable female character.
Everyone Likes to Party!
The incredible reception of these games led each of them to spawn a thriving franchise, and in this Nintendo saw the opportunity to create games that feature all of them together. Super Mario Kart, Mario Party, and Super Smash Bros. were three of the first games to feature playable characters from different games within Nintendo’s repertoire. Unfortunately, each includes just one female character. While this was a step in the right direction, it was a small one.
In 2001, Squaresoft released the first Final Fantasy game to feature full voice-acted dialogue. While the Final Fantasy series had featured a handful of female characters before, this time they were numerous, playable, and expressive. Voice actors gave life to interesting and powerful female protagonists that became an important part of the team. Gone are the days of one female healer in the party; the first years of this century saw stunning magical attacks and various demonstrated abilities displayed by the female characters. To Nintendo’s credit, by 2001 there were also various playable female characters in their cross-franchise games, but Final Fantasy’s voice acting allowed female characters to develop personalities in an unprecedented way.
Lightning Strikes Twice
It may very well have been the invention of the XBox Live headset that uncovered a long-buried truth: girls play video games too. The market is not homogeneously males, and it would be foolish of video game companies to ignore that. Final Fantasy X became the first title in the series to lead to a direct sequel, and who became the focus of that game? A trio of females, armed with guns, swords, and attitude. This bold move was the newly formed Square Enix’s nod at the female gamers, assuring them that the washed up trends of the 1980s are done for. Three installments later (all of which featured playable female protagonists) Final Fantasy XIII hits stores, starring the strong and independent yet deeply mysterious leader, Lightning. This a dramatic departure from the many bubbly, cheerful girls of previous releases, and conveys a sense of maturity and empowerment that demands respect. Final Fantasy XIII became just the second title in the long ongoing series to receive a direct sequel.
While Mario and Link continue to live out (most of) their days saving their damsels, modern female video game characters can take care of themselves. From their beginnings as plot devices and healers, the ladies of video games unionized in cross-franchise party games and came out leading their own story lines. Though these games are certainly overdue, the video game community is finally starting to represent women in the way that they deserve: competent, strong, and independent. Even Princess Peach has turned the tables; in the mid-2000s she starred in her own game for the Nintendo DS.