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, 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 sorcerer, who has sealed away the demonic Baldour, and sent him into space. Her father is tortured to death by Baldour'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!