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 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 definitely 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 mysteriously becomes 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 PC 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.

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!

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