Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Femme Fatales: A History of Female Heroes in Gaming Pt. 2 - The 90s

Picking up where we left off last time, let's continue taking a look at some of the many games starring female heroes, in the pre-Lara Croft era!

It's Ax the Barbarian!

Game: Golden Axe
Year: 1989
Publisher: Sega
Character: Tyris Flare

This next entry, as far as I know at least, has the distinction of being the first "beat em up" style game, to feature a female playable character. Golden Axe, originally an arcade hit by Sega, that was later ported to the Sega Master System and Genesis, is very obviously inspired by the hit "Conan the Barbarian" movies of the 1980s. It features the same kind of "before history", barbarian type fantasy setting, and one of the heroes is literally a barbarian named Ax Battler. The other two heroes of the original game, are dwarf Gilius Thunderhead, and amazon warrior Tyris Flare. If nothing else, the creators of this game had naming on point. So much so that the villain's name is Death Adder, with 100% lack of irony.

To Battle!

Now while the "beat em up" genre is generally regarded to have begun with 1987's Double Dragon, and later refined by 1989's Capcom hit Final Fight, it's still fair to give the original Golden Axe some credit in shaping its future as well. For one thing, it was probably the first to have a fantasy setting, and also the first to really feature upgradable special powers, in the form of magic. Each character even has a different magical power, typically revolving around a specific element like lightning, fire, rock, etc.

The game was popular enough to spawn three major sequels, the first of which, Golden Axe II, was actually my first exposure to the series. Tyris Flare stars in the first two games, and while the third on Genesis (which NA nonsensically didn't get a retail release of), features a character that is basically her, with the pointlessly different name of "Sarah Burn". A somewhat rare arcade-only sequel called Revenge of the Death Adder doesn't feature her at all, but it DOES have a pretty awesome female centaur named Dora. But Tyris has a place in gaming history, both as a great character, and for setting a precedent that other beat em ups would follow, of including female fighters.

He's totally not Cody from Final Fight. At all.

Game: Streets of Rage (aka Bare Knuckle)
Year: 1991
Publisher: Sega
Character: Blaze Fielding

Speaking of beat em ups by Sega, this series was introduced as exclusive to their popular Genesis console in the 90s. The first game is pretty solid, though it is also in many ways a blatant knock off of Capcom's Final Fight. Most especially the "main character" Axel Stone, who in every meaningful way looks exactly like Cody from FF, right down to the blond hair, blue eyes, and blue-jeans with a white shirt look. He's even a street "mixed martial artist" like Cody. But alas, what matters, is that Blaze, for many fans of the series, was actually the most popular character.

Blaze in SoR 3.

 The game received two Genesis sequels, making something of a complete trilogy. Part of the playable cast changed with each game, but Axel and Blaze remained the stars throughout. The game sees a crime boss called "Mr. X" trying to take over the city, so in the original, three police officers essentially leave the force to go underground and take out these gangs "outside the law". Mr. X remains the main antagonist for all three games, though of course each time he has a new evil scheme. As for Blaze herself, well, she's a judo expert, an ex-cop, in the second game a dance instructor, and by the third, she's a private detective. Now if only someone would be nice enough to give us an old school, sprite-based, GOOD Streets of Rage 4 after all these years...

One of my personal favorites.

Game: Arkista's Ring
Year: 1990
Publisher: American Sammy
Character: Christine

A game that is much more personal to me, because it was one of the very first games I owned on the NES. Arkista's Ring, as I have discussed before, is a top-down arcade styled action game, not unlike The Legend of Zelda, but having more in common with Gauntlet. I remember as a kid, really being mesmerized by the box art, both because I thought Christine was beautiful (I may or may not have had a childhood crush on her for a minute), but also because I thought she was really cool. She's this green-haired, green-eyed, fearless elf warrior, who is setting out to save her land of Arkista, both because no one else will stand up to face the evil Shogun, and because she's a bad ass.

You have to accessorize.

The game has around 30-odd levels, and as you progress through each relatively small stage, you use Christine's projectile attacks (default bow and arrow, later on she can get an item to throw huge fireballs, even through walls) to destroy all of the monsters, which will then give you the key to advance to the next stage. You also get treasure bags from some enemies, which will often give you items. But every so often, you'll also get another hit point in the form of a heart, and eventually, pieces of armor. Which you WILL need all those hits late in the game, because ninjas are no fucking joke. Once you beat the game once, in true 80s arcade fashion, the game essentially starts you over, but it just gets harder. This happens twice, as you don't get the "ending" until you beat it THREE times in a row, which of course is brutal. The good news is, you get to KEEP all those extra hits, AND you get the eponymous "Arkista's Ring", which is a magic ring that basically heals you as you walk around, easing the pain of just how hard the game gets on concurrent playthroughs.

I really wish more people knew about this game, and Christine. It would be swell if someone would make a new game starring her, set in Arkista, but knowing the way modern gaming often goes, maybe I should be careful what I wish for.

In Space, no one cal tell you're not the same actress!

Game: Aliens
Year: 1990
Publisher: Konami
Character: Ellen Ripley

Released exclusively to arcades some four years after the film, Aliens is a two-player Shoot 'Em Up game, that is styled more like a Golden Axe flavor Beat 'Em Up instead. Starring Ellen Ripley and Corporal Dwayne Hicks from the movie, you the player(s) must make your way through the hellish hallways of the LV-426 colony Hadley's Hope, trying to destroy the Xenomorph menace, and save the life of the colony's only survivor, the little girl Newt.

It's a little known fact that Xenomorphs are allergic to bleach.

While the game does take some creative liberties, such as Ripley suddenly being blonde, and some decidedly unusual (even for Xenomorphs) Alien types you have to fight, the game overall retains the spirit and style of the film it's based upon. The game features a couple of "bonus round" levels where you  must shoot aliens from the top of film's tank, and in the final battle with the Queen Alien, you even get in the iconic loader exosuit to fight her. Not the greatest game on earth, but decent fun when playing with a friend.

Hot Spy Action!

Game: Rolling Thunder 2
Year: 1991
Publisher: Namco
Character: Leila

Another game I've talked about before,  the original 1986 arcade hit Rolling Thunder, starred the agent Albatross, and saw him trying to save the world from the terrorist organization Geldra, while also trying to save his partner, fellow agent Leila. Well, in a rare turnabout in the video game industry, in the 1991 arcade sequel, you could now play AS agent Leila, the damsel you rescued the first time around. Imagine that, you save somebody, and then you actually get to PLAY them!

World Crime Police Organization Agent, Leila.

Not only can you play Leila in the sequel, but the game also features 2-player co-op, which in this type of game, probably makes the brutal difficulty a bit less. Unfortunately, Namco didn't have the foresight to keep 2-player OR Leila around for Rolling Thunder 3. To be fair, in the Genesis-only sequel, you don't get to play Albatross either. As the plot goes, Albatross and Leila are assigned elsewhere, so you the player, get to play a NEW agent named...Jay. While in all fairness, this game has a reputation for being rather good, and did add some solid new elements to the gameplay, I would argue that it was really unnecessary to do away with 2-player, and to NOT keep the same characters that fans already knew. Still, Rolling Thunder 2 is one of the first games to feature a woman who shoots guns and blows things up, IE the "typical action star" archetype.

She just wants to be part of your world.

Game: The Little Mermaid
Year: 1991
Publisher: Capcom
Character: Princess Ariel

Based on the 1989 hit Disney animated feature film of the same name, The Little Mermaid counts doubly as not only a prime example of a game starring a female hero, but also as a sterling example of a licensed property game that DOESN'T suck! Released in 1991 for both the home NES console and portable Game Boy, the game of course features Ariel, as her regular Mermaid self, swimming around six ocean stages, collecting items and defeating enemies mainly by throwing shells she finds, or by trapping enemies in bubbles to use as projectiles, ala Bubble Bobble. The NES and GB games have minor differences, but for the most part are the same.

"That's a huge b****!"

The game sees Ariel having already been turned human by the witch Ursula, and having met and fallen in love with Prince Eric. In the meantime, that bitch Ursula is up to no good, putting the fish of the sea under her control, and it's now up to Ariel, who has to return to her Mermaid form, to go stop her from taking over the whole ocean. This is a major turn from the film's story, where Ariel is not really much of a hero, as her father Triton and Prince Eric have to basically clean up her mess. But in this game version, Ariel is the one saving the day, and the game happens to be pretty fun to boot!

It's Ariel the Dolphin!

There was also a 1992 game called Ariel the Little Mermaid, on Sega Genesis and Game Gear, made by Blue Sky Software instead of Capcom, and it shows. In this game, you can choose to play as either Ariel or her father King Triton, and the game design and play style is far more reminiscent of Sega's own Ecco the Dolphin games. You still have to adventure around the ocean and ultimately defeat Ursula, but the game is generally regarded as not being nearly as good as the NES classic.

Better than Ninja Gaiden?

Game: Shadow of the Ninja (aka Blue Shadow)
Year: 1990
Character: Lady Kaede

Released in 1990 as something of an answer to the popular Ninja Gaiden games, the Natsume developed and published Shadow of the Ninja, is a fun yet highly difficult affair. With gameplay mechanics that are arguably better than NG, and featuring ninja action equally bad-ass, Shadow is a lesser known game, but well worth mentioning. The game's story takes place in the far future of 2029, where the United States has been taken over by the evil Emperor Garuda. For some reason, defeating him and freeing the U.S. is entirely up to two ninja masters from the Iga Clan, Lord Hayate and Lady Kaede.

"Get Over Here!"

The game features both single player and two player co-op play modes, and in either mode you have the option to choose to play either Hayate or Kaede. Both characters are functionally identical to the other, but it's still a neat feature to be able to choose. The default weapon of choice is a katana sword, though you can also get a power-up that swaps this out for the longer-range kusarigama weapon shown above. You can also get projectile sub-weapons like shurikens and grenades, as well as being able to summon lightning to strike enemies if your health bar is full enough.

In an ironic twist, Natsume actually started developing a Game Boy version of Shadow, only for Tecmo to buy the rights to it. They then effectively had it turned into a "Ninja Gaiden" game, called Ninja Gaiden Shadow, even though the game features Shadow's gameplay and same basic storyline, including Emperor Garuda.

Ms. Mega Man

Game: The Krion Conquest (aka Magical Doropie)
Year: 1991
Publisher: Vic Tokai
Character: Francesca (aka Doropie aka Dorothy)

Taking a step even further into the obscure, I'd like to introduce you to an oddball game that, when I first encountered it online years ago, I honestly thought it was a Mega Man hack. But no, what it is, is "Magical Doropie". What is that, you ask? It's a game by Vic Tokai, very loosely based on The Wizard of Oz, hence a heroine named Dorothy, or rather the very bad "Engrish" Doropie. But for the American version, they decided to change the name of the game to The Krion Conquest. Confused yet?

She's one righteous Mega-Babe!

The basic setup, is that the Earth has basically been conquered by the Krion Empire, with an army of robots who are seemingly invincible to all weaponry, except magic. Because of this, magic users have been sealed away. A mercenary named Kagemaru hires a girl named Francesca (Magical Doropie), the only witch not to be sealed, to use her magic to fight back against the empire. And there you have it. The game features very Mega Man esque gameplay and aesthetic, though it apparently featured extra abilities like ducking and vertical shooting, as well as a charge-shot before that was introduced in Mega Man 4. Not only were most of the game's cutscenes cut out for the North American version, but it was also made more difficult by nonsensically removing the ability to continue after getting a Game Over. Both a curiosity and a rare NES gem, Krion is definitely at least worth a look.

A Holy Grail for collectors.

Game: Magical Chase
Year: 1991
Publisher: Palsoft
Character: Ripple

Speaking of games starring magical witch-girls, another fairly rare gem, and in fact one of the most expensive games to collect these days, is the PC Engine/TurboGrafx hit Magical Chase. Developed by Quest, also known for the Ogre Battle series, Magical Chase is a horizontally scrolling "Shoot 'Em Up" game. For those unaware, old school "shooters" like these, feature automatically scrolling levels, where you control a ship or some other person or craft, in this case a young witch, and you have to  shoot an oncoming torrent of enemies, all while avoid the "bullet hell" they often unleash.

How adorable!

The TurboGrafx is a console already well known for its wealth of shooter games, and it really says something that outside of the Star Soldier, Air Zonk, and perhaps Lords of Thunder games, this "hidden gem" is widely regarded as not only one of the best shooters of the console, but of the entire 90s era. The story stars the young witch in training Ripple, who has broken her promise to her master not to look inside of an ancient book. By opening the book, she has released six demons upon the world, and unless she is able to get the demons back in the book, her master witch will turn her into a frog! Gameplay-wise, the game features attributes to other similar shooters, such as currency which you collect to use in shops, to upgrade your weapons, as well as large, colorful boss fights.

*Record Scratch*

On a final note, some folks would be forgiven, if they got this game confused with ANOTHER witch-starring, side-scrolling TurboGrafx shooter, which released the SAME year! Released for the Turbo CD (or Turbo Duo if you were cool enough to have one), Cotton: Fantastic Night Dreams, ALSO featured a young, broom-riding witch flying through levels and wrecking shit with her magic. This game featured a young witch named Cotton, and her sexy, bikini-clad fairy sidekick. It's actually kind of hilarious that both games came out the same year on the same system, but it is my understanding that both are quite good, either way.

Jazz Hands!

Game: El Viento
Year: 1991
Publisher: Wolf Team (Renovation Products in NA)
Character: Annet Myer

 Speaking of obscure, there exists a little-known series of games on the Sega Genesis, which are in part not well known, because they don't have related game titles. Originally released in 1991 for the Mega CD (Sega CD), and ported to the Sega Genesis (Megadrive) in North America, the first game in the trilogy was called Earnest Evans. Featuring the titular hero, a whip-wielding adventurer in the mold of Indiana Jones, Evans is trying to finish his grandfather's goal of attaining three ancient idols with enough power to destroy the world, so they can be kept out of the hands of evil. With only one idol left to find, he races against time, and a rival treasure hunter. During his quest, while in Peru, he meets a  young woman named Annet Myer, who has green hair, and a bloodline with some kind of connection to the ancient god Hastur.

Earnest Evans meets Annet Myer.

Well, the NEXT game in the series would star Annet herself. Entitled El Viento, but featuring similar side-scrolling gameplay to its predecessor, the sequel follows Annet as she tries to stop the evil cult of Hastur, to which she has ancient connections, from trying to destroy the world. Annet uses boomerangs (even though she's from Peru), and ancient Hasturian magic, to stop cultists, as well as Al Capone-like mobsters. Sounds appropriately weird, right?

El Viento gameplay.

Annett Futabi gameplay.

Don't worry, it gets even weirder! The Mega CD got a third Japan-only sequel, called Annett Futabi, this time changing the gameplay to more of a Final Fight style scrolling Beat 'Em Up. The third game concluded the Earnest Evans storyline, as he must assist Annet in stopping yet another world-threatening plot, by a cult who wants to steal her special magic amulet. All in all, I'd wager most people, even many "serious gamers", have never heard of this series. But I'd be willing to bet all three games are rather fun, and it would be nice if good ol' Earnest and Annet could get resurrected for a new, modern (preferably non-shitty) adventure!

More lightning than you could shake a cloud at!

Game: Alisia Dragoon
Year: 1992
Publisher: Sega (or Game Arts)
Character: Alisia

Throwing one last Sega Genesis entry on the list, Alisia Dragoon was developed by Game Arts, and released in 1992. Another side-scrolling action game, this one features a more (obviously) fantasy setting, starring the protagonist Alisia, who must use her magic powers to blast everything in sight. In the Western releases of the game, it is simply stated that Alisia is some kind of "Gladiator", who is trying to destroy evil and save the world from a "Silver Star", with the help of her animal companions. The gameplay allows you to blast in basically all directions, and you do indeed make use of awesome familiars, like a Fire Dragon and a Thunder Raven.

Blastin' shit is a full time job.

In the Japanese version of the game, at least in the manual, they have a more elaborate back story, where Alisia is the daughter of a powerful sorceror, who has sealed away the demonic Baldour, and sent him into space. Her father is tortured to death by Baldaour's followers, and when the villain himself crashes back to Earth and begins to revive, Alisia must take up her father's mission to defeat the evil and save the planet. Pretty grim stuff, but also kinda epic!

Watch out for that tree!

Game: Jill of the Jungle
Year: 1992
Publisher: Epic MegaGames
Character: Jill

Released at the height of the "Shareware" era of PC DOS games, and a contemporary of such home computer titles as Commander Keen, Duke Nukem, Cosmo's Cosmic Adventure, and Monster Bash. While the brunt of these episodic games were made by companies id Software and Apogee Software, another new player in the field emerged in the early 90s, trying to make themselves "sound bigger" than they were, hence they called themselves "Epic MegaGames". And in point of fact, one of their earliest games, was a side-scrolling affair entitled Jill of the Jungle.

Jill in action.

The game stars Jill, an Amazon warrior who you guide through jungle landscapes, defeating various monsters, collecting keys and solving puzzles to advance. At times Jill must transform herself into other creatures, and as with most games, the difficulty ramps up the farther you get into the adventure. For those not familiar with what "Shareware" was, it was an early 90s PC business model, in which gamers could get the "first episode" of a game for free or very cheap (in my case I got these discs at the "99 Cent Store"), and then if you LIKED the game, you could mail order the second and third episodes for the full regular price. The three episodes of Jill were called: "Jill of the Jungle", "Jill Goes Underground" and "Jill Saves the Prince". The three episodes feature a combined 50 levels of gameplay.

Not a massive hit, but enough of one to help put Epic on the map, they would go on to higher fame with another side-scroller called Jazz Jackrabbit in 1994. And of course, these days, they are most known for the 3D shooter franchises Unreal and Gears of War, as well as being fairly infamous for practically everybody and their pet dog licensing the use of their "Unreal Engine" development tools.

Don't go in that house...

Game: Alone in the Dark
Year: 1993
Publisher: Infogrames (I*Motion in NA)
Character: Emily Hartwood

Sticking to PC for a moment, another early 90s PC hit, a substantially bigger one than Jill in fact, was an entry in the "point and click" style, as well as one of the earliest "Survival Horror" style games, called Alone in the Dark. As advertised on the cover art, the game was heavily inspired by HP Lovecraft stories and mythos, dealing with supernatural terror from "beyond". More puzzle than action oriented like later horror hits such as Resident Evil and Silent Hill would become, Alone was a game that challenged you to think...all while being scared out of your wits, naturally.

One of the scariest things about the game was the graphics, obviously.

The story sees you choosing to take on the role of two protagonists, either Edward Carnby or Emily Hartwood. Whichever you choose, you wind up stuck inside of the massive and seemingly empty Derceto mansion. Starting by figuring out how in the HELL to get out of the initial attic scene, the player must guide the character through a horror-filled house, trying to avoid (or very clumsily fight) enemies, and discover the secrets of the place so you can hopefully escape alive! While Carnby is a private investigator, hired by an antiques dealer to track down a piano in the house, as Emily, you are the niece of the mansion's previous occupant, Jeremy Hartwood, who has mysteriously committed suicide. As you advance through the game, you find evidence that the house was originally built by an evil occultist named Ezechiel Pregzt, and that Uncle Jeremy killed himself to keep from becoming the host for Pregzt to possess. Now YOU, the player, must avoid the same fate!

A fairly major hit of its time, Alone in the Dark would spawn an entire franchise, some later entries of which were not so great at all.

THE game that kicked off an entire genre.

Game: Street Fighter II
Year: 1991
Publisher: Capcom
Character: Chun Li

While there have been some heavy hitters on even just this 90s list, in the world of video games, and certainly in the 90s, perhaps no female character was a bigger deal, pre-Lara Croft, than that of Chun Li. A franchise that started as the fairly obscure original 1988 Street Fighter arcade game, and then gained steam with the popular Beam 'Em Up spinoff Final Fight (originally titled "Street Fighter '89"), the game that truly started a craze, Street Fighter II: The World Warrior, was released in arcades in 1991. And it is not over-exaggeration to state that SFII was THE arcade mega-hit of the entire decade, hands down.

Hey that cost money!

While the "star" of SFII was the star of the original game, Ryu (or alternately his friend and rival, Ken Masters), the sole female character of the game very quickly took the arcade world by storm, and became one of the most popular video game characters of all time. That character was Chun Li, an Interpol agent who was looking to avenge the death of her father, against the tyrant of Shadaloo, M. Bison (in Japan called Vega). The self-proclaimed "Strongest Woman in the World", Chun Li was a master of Wushu, and her trademark move, the "Lightning Kick", would make her famous. That and her thighs of steel.

How does one fight with such ridiculous bracelets?

Capcom obviously knew that Chun Li was a hit in the making, as she featured prominently on much of the early artwork for the game, including the North American SNES box art. After multiple "upgrade" versions of SFII, including "Champion Edition" and "Hyper Fighting", in SUPER Street Fighter II, released in 1993, Chun Li would be joined by a second female fighter, the British special forces agent Cammy (also known for her legs). And while there were early games of the 1-on-1 style BEFORE SFII, it is widely regarded as being THE game that really kickstarted the entire "fighting game" genre.

The 90s was an explosion of other developers trying to cash in on Capcom's massive success, as well as Capcom themselves making other fighting hits. Titles like Mortal Kombat, World Heroes, Samurai Showdown, King of Fighters, etc., would become very well known to gamers worldwide, and it all started, in great part, due to the success that characters like Chun Li brought in 1991. To close out this list, I'll include a cavalcade of OTHER female fighting game stars that followed in Ms. Li's ample footsteps, and if I miss anybody, trust me, there are tons just from 1992-1996 alone.

Sonya Blade, from Mortal Kombat.

Janne, from World Heroes.

Mai Shiranui, from Fatal Fury / King of Fighters

Princess Kitana, from Mortal Kombat II.

Nakaruru, from Samurai Shodown.

Sarah Bryant, from Virtua Fighter.

Morrigan and Felicia, from Darkstalkers.

Storm and Psylocke, from X-Men: Children of the Atom.

Black Orchid, from Killer Instinct.

Michelle Chang, from Tekken.

Taki, from Soul Edge.

So there you have it! There are even more characters that I didn't mention from 90s games, but I feel like, between these two articles, I have now made a fairly comprehensive list of "Who's Who" in the history of female game heroines. As I stated at the beginning, Lara Croft absolutely deserves her status in gaming history as an IMPORTANT female character. But is she the virtual "First Lady of Gaming"? I'd hardly think so.

Until next time, check out of these games!

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Femme Fatales: A History of Female Heroes in Gaming Pt. 1 - The 80s

It's no great secret, that a majority of video games ever made, either feature male humanoid, or some kind of non-human characters. Male characters, by far, have dominated gaming throughout its history, and this owed in large part for many years, to the notion that females didn't really play games. There seems to be a running idea amongst certain, especially younger gamers, that there really weren't many video games that starred female protagonists, until the infamous Lara Croft in 1996's Tomb Raider. That she essentially started a trend, so to speak. While I know many gamers know that to be untrue, at least to some extent, the general notion still pervades, and she is often credited by gaming media and journalists in that kind of light. Well, for people who knew, or didn't know, I am here to fully bust that particular myth, by pointing out not just that there were female game heroes before Lara, but that there were actually quite a fair few.

The original game.

Now first off, let's make something perfectly clear. This article is not a "hit piece" on Lara Croft and Tomb Raider. I have never personally been all that big a fan of the series, simply because I didn't care for the clunky gameplay of the first couple entries, and have just never gotten into the franchise as a whole. But I absolutely recognize and respect the place that Lara and her games deservedly hold in gaming history. She was , at the very least, the first major female game hero of the 3D gaming era.

Early 3D, rough around the edges, visually and functionally.

The original Tomb Raider was released by Eidos Interactive, developed by Core Design, in North America in November 1996. It was released on the Playstation, Sega Saturn, and home PC. It was one of the pioneering 3D action/adventure games, as well as being one of many games of that era to embrace a story narrative told through (at the time) expensive CGI cutscenes. Lara Croft has since gone on to star in a little over fifteen different games, across various platforms, as well as featuring in two theatrical films, and has all around become a major media figure, and well known icon of the gaming industry. However, before November 1996, there were actually a large number of games that either featured, or outright starred female heroes, so let's take a look at them.

THE First Lady of gaming.

Game: Ms. Pac-Man
Year: 1982
Publisher: Midway/Namco
Character: Ms. Pac-Man

While it originally started life as what amounted to a hack of the seminal 1980 arcade blockbuster, Pac-Man, it was eventually (and thankfully) presented to Midway/Namco and released as an official sequel, known as Ms. Pac-Man. It was decided to make a female version, in part, because Midway and Namco both noticed that a LOT of people playing Pac-Man at the arcades, were actually girls/women. This was THE first official video game to star a female character, and it's worth noting that this was in an era when most games starred spaceships and frogs and other such things, NOT people. Pac-Man was the first official "game character", and thus known as a "gaming mascot", and his future wife was not far behind.

The Whole Pac-Family!

Ms. Pac-Man was also notable as being arguably the first video game to feature in-game cutscenes. And IN those cutscenes, Pac-Man and Ms. Pac-Man meet, fall in love, and start a family. There were even games released starring their son, in 1982's Baby Pac-Man, and 1983's Jr. Pac-Man. The whole franchise was so popular, that it spawned an early 80s cartoon series by Hanna-Barbera, which was one of the first cartoons I remember seeing and loving as a kid. Pac-Man and Ms. Pac-Man were not only the first male and female mascot characters of gaming, but they also started the first FAMILY in gaming.

Animated Adventures.

Game: Time Gal
Year: 1985
Publisher: Taito
Character: Reika

Hot off the success of the groundbreaking interactive animation arcade hit, 1983's Dragon's Lair, Japanese arcade giant Taito, responsible for such massive hits as Space Invaders and Bubble Bobble, decided to take a crack at this new concept themselves. Originally released as a Japan-only arcade game, 1985's Time Gal largely used the same formula, and proved fairly successful. Unfortunately, North American audiences wouldn't get to experience her exploits for almost a decade, when the game was finally ported to the Sega CD in 1993.

Journeying through Time.

Plotwise, the game stars Reika, a sort of "Time Agent", who has to bring down the infamous criminal Luda, and stop his attempts to go back and mess with history. Much like Dragon's Lair and its spin-off Space Ace, the game features heavily comedic scenes, and basically plays out like a cartoon that you can interact with. In some respects, some might well consider that the ancient precursor to what are now called "Quick Time Events", the difference being, that in THESE types of games, the entire gameplay style is watching a story unfold, and pressing inputs at the right moment to help the hero along. To my knowledge, Reika might well be the only major female star of this genre of game, but regardless, even though she was unknown outside of Japan for years, Time Gal is still an innovative part of gaming history.

The original action heroine of gaming?

Game: Athena
Year: 1986
Publisher: SNK
Character: Princess Athena

While there may be some I'm missing, as far as I'm aware, the next major female-starring video game came in 1986, thanks to the Japanese arcade giant SNK. Athena was a fairly basic, and hard-as-nails arcade side-scrolling action platformer, though it featured unique elements such as her ability to take on different weapons of fallen enemies, as well as gaining different armor, even later in the game taking on alternate forms, such as that of a mermaid. The game was released in North America as well, though it was only a minor hit. It WAS enough of a hit, however, to receive a fairly decent port for the NES, which came out in 1987.

Far from perfect, but in many ways ahead of its time.

 The story features Princess Athena, of the heavenly "Kingdom of Victory", who gets bored and wants to go on adventures. She thus opens the forbidden "Door Which Shouldn't Be Opened", and finds herself plummeting from the skies, down to a savage land called "Fantasy World", which is ruled by the evil monster Dante. She loses her robes in the fall, leaving her nearly naked and defenseless, and must survive in this world by fighting monsters and gaining armor and weapons along her journey. She sets out to defeat Dante, and to find her way back home.

I think they meant to say PSYCHIC Soldier.

See? PSYCHIC powers.

Athena actually was popular enough in Japan, that SNK rushed out something of  sequel that same year, 1986. Titled Psycho Soldier, this game doesn't feature Princess Athena, but rather a girl from the modern era called Athena Asamiya, who is rumored to perhaps be a descendant or even reincarnation of the mystical Athena from the first game. This Athena has powerful psychic force within her, which gives her various abilities, that she wishes to use to help the world. She also apparently wants to be a successful "pop idol". In the game, the second player can also play as her male friend Sie Kensou, who also has psychic powers, and together they must defeat evil forces that are threatening the city (and the world). In an odd turn, THIS Athena would go on to be a popular and long-running character, not in action games, but as a fighter (along with Kensuo) in SNK's King of Fighters series. Though, the original Princess Athena DID finally pop up as a secret boss and unlockable fighter in the 2003 arcade fighter SNK vs. Capcom: SVC Chaos.

Nintendo's original lady warrior.

Game: Metroid
Year: 1986 (1987 in NA)
Publisher: Nintendo
Character: Samus Aran

Hot on the heels of their own string of innovative mega-hits, such as Super Mario Bros. and The Legend of Zelda, Nintendo also produced a tale of darkness and isolation, in their side-scrolling labyrinth game called Metroid. While not AS big a hit as Mario or Zelda, it is often considered to be part of Nintendo's top "Trinity" of franchises.

Fighting alone against the forces of Darkness.

This game featured its own innovations of the time, such as the ability to backtrack in side-scrolling (and sometimes vertically scrolling) environments, and the ability to layer permanent power upgrades, such as bombs, missiles, and more powerful armor and beams. The gameplay featured a focus on exploration, finding secrets, and finding upgrades to your powers to advance to new areas. Visually, it was somewhat inspired by the popular "Alien" films, and they included a very foreboding soundtrack to further set the mood.


What really set Metroid apart, aside from its genre-defining gameplay and difficulty, was the surprise that awaited players good enough to beat the game within a certain time limit. If beaten in under five hours, the game's ending reveals the hero, Samus Aran, without armor, showing her to be (at least in her original 8-bit appearance) a green haired woman! There was some trickery involved in the NA port of the game that added to this surprise, because they deliberately misled players by referring to Samus as "he" in the game's manual. This revelation that Samus was a girl the whole time, is one of the most infamous and legendary moments in gaming history, and helped to propel the popularity of both the character and her games. In fact, there was an almost equally infamous password you could use, "Justin Bailey", which when entered would allow you to start the game as Samus, sans Power Suit.

But beyond the surprise of her gender, what's more important in that, is that Nintendo basically made the first female game hero whose gender isn't implicitly embodied in her name and/or appearance. Even Ms. Pac-Man was called "Ms.", and had a bow and lipstick to let you know she was a girl (because if they hadn't, she would have looked just like Pac-Man). With Samus, she is a hero in a suit of space armor, and thus while she IS a girl, the fact that she is, isn't one of the sticking points of the game. In THAT sense, Samus Aran could be argued to be the first, and one of the only, game heroines whose gender isn't emphasized (unless you work for special endings).

An absolute masterpiece.

Next to Lara Croft, Samus Aran has starred or featured in more games than any other female game character, herself clocking in at over fifteen as well. The 1994 hit Super Metroid (aka Metroid III), would even further establish the character as an icon, as the game is largely considered to be one of the best ever made, and it is credited (though Metroid and Metroid II also played a part), in establishing what is now referred to as the so-called "Metroidvania" 2D style of games. Part of Samus' charm, has always been her air of mystery, and her obvious strength and bad-assery. She is a notorious and dangerous Bounty Hunter, but has also shown nobility and compassion. She is certainly a strong candidate for my personal favorite game heroine of all time.

The Unknown Classic.

Game: Super Mario Bros. 2 (aka Doki Doki Panic)
Year: 1987 (1988 in NA)
Publisher: Nintendo
Character: Princess Toadstool (originally Mama and Lina)

Originally released as the Japan-only Doki Doki Panic, the main characters were based on mascots for the Yume Kojo festival. The game starred a family, Papa and Mama, and their children Imajin and Lina. Of course, as most gamers know the tale by now, this game was preferred by Shigeru Miyamoto and Co., to be transformed into what WE would come to know as Super Mario Bros. 2, over the original game of the same name, which we would later know as "The Lost Levels". And to be perfectly fair, I think we won out on the deal, as the "Lost Levels" Mario 2 is basically just a more messed up version of Mario 1. "OUR" Mario 2, is a fun, unique, and rightfully beloved game.

Transformed, as if by magic!

While Super Mario Bros. 2 received significant cosmetic changes to the graphics, mainly to make the characters Mario and the gang, and to turn certain items or power ups into familiar Mario items, the vast majority of the game remains unchanged. Except that you got the added improvement of being able to choose which character you played before each level. In Doki Doki, you were stuck with a character for an entire word. As far as the characters themselves went, they played exactly the same as their Doki Doki counterparts. Mario was like Papa, the "all-around" character, Luigi was like Mama, a character with a hilarious high jump, Toad was like Imajin, whose jump was lowest but who was fastest and picked up items the fastest. And last but not least, Princess Toadstool (as she was known in America before Super Mario 64 popularized her for us as Peach), was Lina, who was slowest, but made up for it with a sweet floating jump (that many gamers use to cheat by just playing her the whole game).

Jump for Joy!

Either way, as Doki Doki Panic, the game stands out as one of the earlier to let you play not one but two female characters, and one of the few games to feature an entire family as its heroes. And as Super Mario Bros. 2, it's one of only two only main series Mario game to allow you to play both Princess Peach and Toad, both of whom are awesome. In 2013, Nintendo would release Super Mario 3D World for the Wii U console, which brought back many elements of Mario 2, including the ability to play those four characters. Toad got his speed back (and then some), and of course Peach brings her patented floating jump, which many players STILL abuse by just playing her the entire game to make it "easier". But her magical floating ability is definitly iconic in gaming history.

A highly underrated game.

Game: Legacy of the Wizard (aka Dragon Slayer IV: Drasle Family)
Year: 1987 (1989 in NA)
Publisher: Nihon Falcom
Character: Drasle Family (or Worzen Family)

Originally released in Japan on the Japanese MSX home computer, under the title Dragon Slayer IV: Drasle Family, this game is part of the Dragon Slayer/Xanadu series. The original Dragon Slayer, released in 1984, is credited as being the very first "action rpg", and this game continued to evolve that formula. Ported to the NES and released in America as Legacy of the Wizard, it is one of many somewhat unknown and certainly underrated role playing gems that exist on the Nintendo Entertainment System.

Side-Scrolling goodness.

The game stars the Drasle family (called the Worzen family in the US release), who are on a quest to defeat an ancient dragon, who is trapped in a magic painting, hidden in an an underground labyrinth. To defeat him, they need to find the mystic Dragon Slayer sword, and survive all sorts of perils to get to him. The family consists of two parents, Xemn and Meyna, their two children Roas and Lyll, and the family pet Pochi, a monster who acts like a dog. There are also the grandparents Jeila and Douel, who are not playable, but help the family along via the password system. The reason this game gets included in the list, obviously, is because it is one of the first games to feature the ability to play as male and female characters, and the mother Meyna and daughter Lyll have unique abilities, just like the other characters, which make them fairly indispensable throughout the quest. It's also one of the only games to star a family as the heroes.

One of the first RPGs I ever played. Still a favorite.

Bosses in this game are no joke.

On a side note, the following entry in the series, Dragon Slayer V:  Sorcerian, was the first PC rpg I ever played, and one of the first I ever played period, along with Final Fantasy on NES. This game took a different approach, allowing the player a massive amount of autonomy, especially for 1987. You could fully create your own characters, choosing one of four "classes": Fighter, Wizard, Elf, or Dwarf. And you could, of course, make them male or female, meaning that if you felt like it, you could very well make an all female party, of up to four heroes. You can actually create more than that, but can only have four at a time during levels. The game has some unique mechanics, such as being a side-scroller with up to four players at once (you control the one in front, but can cycle characters in the lineup as needed). It also featured its own sense of time progression, as years pass as you played different scenarios (levels), and went to the "Training Fields" to acquire new skills. Your characters aged over time, and would eventually die of old age, which is very realistic, but I also found sad. The game was released on PC DOS in 1990, which is the version I played, on big five-inch floppy discs, no less. I wish this game had been ported to NES, as I would have loved to play it there. It was ported to the Mega Drive and PC Engine CD (Genesis and Turbo Graphx in NA), but only in Japan.

One of the first games to establish the "JRPG" style.

Game: Phantasy Star
Year: 1987 (1988 in NA)
Publisher: Sega
Character: Alis Landale

Phantasy Star is considered one of the grandfathers of the more traditional "JRPG" genre, in contrast to Falcom's "action rpg" series such as Dragon Slayer and Y's. Phantasy Star's main problem, is that it was released on the Sega Master System, which was popular in Japan, and especially in Europe (and apparently South America), but never saw a ton of success in North America. Thus, like many of the Master System's other gems, it was largely unknown by most NA gamers. It wasn't until the explosion of popularity for the Sega Genesis in the 90s, that the series became more well known, through its second, third and fourth entries.

Turn-Based Battle Mode

The main thing that makes this original entry stand out, is that while the other games may feature female characters, this is the only one, and one of the only famous classic JRPGs ever, to star a female protagonist. Set in a strange mixture of science fiction and fantasy, the story takes place in the solar system of Algol, which features three major planets, Palma, Motavia and Dezoris. The plot features a healthy amount of political intrigue, about a once-benevolent king who joins a new religion, and mysteriouslybecomes a cruel tyrant. As resistance leader Nero Landale is killed, his sister Alis sets out on a mission of revenge, and to finish his quest to save their world. She is joined by a few other characters to form a "party", which is typical for JRPGs, and together they set out to free Algol. The Phantasy Star series is not as popular as Final Fantasy or Dragon Quest,  and it sadly (at least to me) turned into an "MMO" styled series with the advent of Phantasy Star Online in the late 90s, but the original quadrilogy is considered to be one of the best rpg series of all time.

Another original female action hero.

Game: Valis
Year: 1986 (1991 in NA)
Publisher: Telenet Japan
Character: Yuko Asou

Originally released on various Japanese home computers in 1986 and 1987, Valis was developed by Wolf Team, and was one of the first side-scrolling action games, along with Metroid and Athena, to feature a female character. The game stars schoolgirl Yuko Asou, who is "fated to protect three realms", our world Earth, the Spirit World, and Vecanti, the Dream World.  She does so by wielding a mystic sword called Valis, which allows her to play the part of a mighty warrior, and not merely a child. She is summoned to Vecanti, which is under attack by the Demon Lord Rogles, and must save it, even while battling her brainwashed friend Reiko.

The Sega Genesis remake.

 The game proved popular enough to receive not one but two remakes, one on the Sega Genesis in 1991, which was America's first exposure to the series, and a Japan-only remake on the Magic Engine CD in 1992. It was also ported to the Famicom (Japanese NES) in the late 80s, but that is generally considered a lesser port.

Holy fire breathing tigers, Batman!

The game received three major sequels in the 90s, Valis II and Valis III both also being ported to the Sega Genesis. And then Valis IV, which released in 1992 on the PC Engine, and 1993 on the Super NES. Through the course of the series, Yuko grows up, and grows in power, at one point even being joined by her sister Valna in battle. By the time Valis IV rolled around, she had basically become a goddess. All in all, while not super well known, Valis is a very solid series of action games, and one of the only prolonged game series to solely feature a female hero.

Originally called Psycho World. What's up, Japan?

Game: Psychic World
Year: 1988 (1991 in NA)
Publisher: Sega
Character: Lucia

Another side-scrolling action game, Psychic World was a Sega Master System gem, although it was also released on the portable Game Gear. Its gameplay revolves around the ESP Booster psychic abilities of the hero, Lucia, and features upgradable weapons and abilities which the player must then use strategically to properly advance through the game world. Certain levels have elemental themes and hazards, for example, and so the player must use the appropriate power to deal with that.

Lucia in action.

The plot centers around a mysterious science lab, where Dr. Knavik caries out experiments with the help of his assistants, the sisters Cecile and Lucia. It turns out his experiments often dealt with monsters from some other world (or something like that), and at some point they finally rebel, and trash the lab, kidnapping Cecile while they're at it. It's up to Lucia to save her sister and stop the monsters, which she does with the aid of Dr. Knavik's latest invention: The ESP Booster, which gives its wearer amplified psychic powers. I actually only recently became fully aware of this game, thanks to the awesome retro game streamer "Hungry Goriya", so shout out to her for helping more of the world know about this fun (but hard) classic.

Before I wrap up the 80s, let's take a look at some other honorable mentions:

You can create female characters in old rpgs like Ultima.

And Wizardry.

Lizzie the Lizard was always my favorite.

Thyra the Valkyrie is legit.

Alien Syndrome co-stars Mary and Rick.

For those who aren't aware, Mothra is a girl. Kinda?

And of course, Popo and Nana are brother and sister.

So with THAT, I'm going to end this look at the 80s. But stay tuned, as there are plenty of pre-Lara Croft 90s ladies to talk about!