Hurray, another feature at last, and a list-based one at that! Let’s do this!
I don’t have to tell you that the game Metroid was a milestone in gaming. On top of being an early console game that favored dark, foreboding atmosphere over colorful, poppy backgrounds, it was a huge, complex, and excitingly dangerous shooting game that made you think.
Also, oh yeah, that’s a lady in that bounty hunter space suit, son!
Often considered one of the most shocking, revolutionary moves in gaming, the “Samus is a GIRL” surprise ending (that the instruction book didn’t seem to know about) rocked our collective gaming world, and proved once and for all that women CAN star in video games!
While this is great (essential, even), the only thing is, despite what you may have heard, Samus isn’t the first lady to star in a video game! Not by a long shot! In fact, she’s not even the first to pull the ”gender reveal” move, but I’m getting ahead of myself.
While I don’t have to tell you about Metroid, I’d like to tell you about 13 other women who, considerably less popularly, starred in video games made before Metroid‘s 1987* U.S. debut!
In order to keep the amount of entries to an arguably reasonable number, I set a few rules:
- No Ms. Pac-Man or other abstract shapes, no matter how feminine.
- No “player 2′s”, that is, no games are listed where you can choose to be a male instead of a female or where the lady of the game is relegated to second player. These are women of default player status.
- No previously-established literary characters; all of these characters are either original to the games or the other pop media for which they were created.
- Nothing from games that were designed for the early childhood set, such as 1986′s Cabbage Patch Kids: Adventures in the Park, because what the hell.
- None of those Atari-era porno games, because no. NO. (no no no)
So, without further adieu, here are our 13 mostly original, mostly non-children, mostly non-nude human heroines of pre-1987 gaming, in somewhat chronological order:
1. Benthi, Galactic Saga IV: Tawala’s Last Redoubt (1981)
Goodness, what a title…
Tawala’s Last Redoubt is the fourth title in a series called Galactic Saga, which was a text-based strategy game developed for computers, most notably the Apple II.
While each game is considered (by folks much older than myself) to be a large influence on other text-based strategy games on the Apple II, Tawala was the first and only title in the series to star Benthi, a rebel leader and, presumably, all around badass.
Mind you, given the earliness of these games, that badassery doesn’t really come across graphically, in fact I watched this video of the game being played and she seems to be represented by little more than a tent and some words.
Still, you’re a lady in a tent who is attempting to take down the established world government in the form of the titular despot Tawala, and conquer an entire planet with a starting army of only 100 soldiers and 15 guns. I’m not sure how that isn’t awesome.
2. Kim Kimberly: Snowball, Return To Eden (1983, 1984)
Rounding up our collection of text-based history is the protagonist of the first two “interactive fiction” games out of a trilogy called Silicon Dreams, which was released on pretty much every ancient computer.
Your adventure starts with Kim Kimberly waking up from a space-nap on board the Snowball 9, en route to colonize a distant planet, whereupon she discovers that her shipmates have been murdered and the ship has been set on a collision course with the sun. Man, hate it when that happens.
Anyway, her remarkably content-heavy adventure takes her across an impressive 7000 locations (250 in the sequel; considerably less because they actually had graphics in that game!) In them, her character is actually written to be somewhat gender neutral; the name “Kim” supposedly chosen to be androgynous, but it’s established in small ways that she is in fact a lady, and the third game in the series (set way after the events of the first two games and starring a nameless male), she is quite clearly described as a “tall, athletic, intelligent woman with brown eyes and fair hair.”
3. Papri, Girl’s Garden (1984)
This Japan-only title is probably most notable for being the first title developed by Yuji Naka, the dude who not only co-created Phantasy Star** and invented its innovative “3D scrolling” dungeons, but was also the main programmer behind Sonic The Hedgehog.
The female lead in this game is rather notable for at least one reason: the game had a rather unique approach to mixing its adventure game qualities with an early “dating sim” feature, and so one of your tasks is to charm the pants off your darling boy toy Minto.
While certainly not significantly girl-powered or anything, it’s at least an interesting thing to behold, as it’s kind of a role reversal for the time. Minto is real fond of flowers, and Papri picks them for him while avoiding bears and what-not.
That’s right, this game has you running away from all kinds of crazy things that want to kill you on your way to woo your little blue boy, and most of those things are freaking BEARS.
Best part is, since this is an early video game, your darling Minto will run away with your rival if you don’t succeed in bringing him enough slightly ursine-gnawed flowers. Who said games for girls were easy?
4. Barbie, Barbie (1984)
OK, I know, this one breaks 2 of my rules (no children’s toys and no previously-established literary characters), but I can’t help myself.
The first video game to feature everyone’s favorite ode to sexism, Barbara Millicent Rogers, Epyx’s Barbie was also apparently one of computer gaming’s first “talkies”!
Yeah, I didn’t say it was going to be all good.
As this video illustrates, a nearly comatose Barbie is invited by her equally lethargic plastic boyfriend Ken to go to the pool, and your sacred quest is to make sure she does enough shopping to find the right outfit for the job. It’s no blasting aliens on a desolate planet, but man you’d think it was gaming gold based on the comment section!
5. Princess Kurumi, Princess Ninja (Sega Ninja) (1985)
Designed by Reiko Kodama, one of the more famous female developers during Sega’s early console days (credited as Executive Designer on Phantasy Star, for instance), Princess Ninja was a top-down shooter in the vein of Ikari Warriors or Guerrilla War. You play the titular (tee hee) Princess, who was apparently designed to not wear pants, but oh well.
Kurumi’s adventure takes her across Edo-era Japan, where she pantslessly shurikens everything in sight, and I’m not going to lie, it’s awesome.
Something that’s interesting to note, however; its home port, on the SG-1000 system in Japan, was re-titled Sega Ninja and then actually brought over to America’s Master System as The Ninja (a no-nonsense title if I ever heard one). That’s all well and good, but what’s wrong with this picture?
That’s right! Our ninja princess has suddenly changed into a male character!
At least he’s wearing pants though.
Future compilations of old Sega arcade games corrected this and put the Princess back in her place (throwing ninja stars at everything, duh), but they were too late. The Ninja was a drop in the bucket of those classic ninja games, and they couldn’t even boast having a lady in the lead.
By the way, on top of being a female-fronted shooter predating Metroid by about a year, Princess Ninja also predates Sega’s most famous ninja, Joe Musashi of the Shinobi series, by 2 years! That’s right, she’s the original Sega ninja; so sneaky that we didn’t even know she was supposed to be a girl in the first place. Hence, the best ninja.
6. Reika Kirishima, Time Gal (1985)
Well, in case you’re not hip to the laserdisc era of gaming (which I’ll understand because it was brief and not all that great), basically it was the first in a series of games wherein you control a character through a fully animated adventure, where you must push the right button at the right time in order to not die. Nowadays this gimmick only appears briefly in some games and we now know it as “Quick Time Events”.
Well, in this niche of niches, there existed at least one particularly excitable girl named Reika, and her quest was a confusing romp through time called Time Gal!
The game was beautifully animated and rather well-made for the time (remember, this is BEFORE Metroid), and was met with fairly good reception. Personally, I really like that the game actually gives you some kind of damn clue as to what you should be doing to proceed. I’m still peeved at Dragon’s Lair for offering no such information as I continually dumped quarters into it as a kid, waiting for some kind of gameplay to show up.
Anyway, despite the game’s relatively high quality, 1985 was actually a bit late for this kind of game, and not enough people were still into the interactive-movie games enough to make this one much of a classic.
It’s really too bad, because I would have liked to see where else Taito could have taken the character. Reika has a LOT of personality (bordering on some kind of personality disorder, if we’re being honest here), and though her design was clearly based off of Manga eye-candy, she brought a lot of life and humor to the table, even if in a declining format.
Interestingly, however, she is one of the few ladies on this list that has seen the light of day since the Reagan era; Reika is a main character in Castle of Shikigami III, which is the newest in my favorite shooter series. Of course, she brought her garrulous nature and knack for bad jokes with her, with often-amazing results. At least they stuck a skirt on her, as well as a hat for some reason:
“Space is an ocean of Space.” – Never truer words were uttered.
*I picked 1987** because, while Metroid was indeed developed and released in Japan in 1986, so were a few of the examples I want to talk about, and some of the dates are cloudy at best. While some of these *may* not technically predate Metroid‘s 1986 release, they were at least close enough to not be considered derivative. Anyway, if you’re really the kind of person who has to be nitpicky about calendar dates, understand that you’re reading this well after the world was supposed to explode.
**And it’s a real shame I had to go with 1987 as well because Phantasy Star, Sega’s flagship RPG series that stars an awesome lady by the name of Alis Landale, was released toward the end of that year. She’ll show up on this blog though, worry you not.