From the release of Donkey Kong in 1981 up until now, not much has changed in the way Nintendo goes about making their games. I am not talking about the presentation or mechanics, these indeed have changed, improved, and revolutionised in the past thirty-six years. Rather, I am referring to the lack of change we see in how Nintendo represents its characters – specifically, the baffling way Nintendo treats women.
While there are many female characters within Nintendo titles, few are, what an informed person might call, representative. Nintendo is a company which prides itself on delivering accessible and welcoming games to families, so you’re unlikely to see the over-sexualisation of women in its first party games. Rather, Nintendo’s shortfalls in this regard come in the form of an inability to modernise and move away from their early tropes, and in the dichotomy they create between the presentation of women as traditionally male and traditionally female.
To clarify, Nintendo appears to have an issue in depicting feminine women as having their own agendas and strength. Instead, to give their female characters agency they feel the need to strip away their femininity and present them in a masculine way. It also works the other way round, in that characters presented in a non-feminine way will lose their agency and independence as soon as they display any kind of femininity. In short, in Nintendo games, if, as a woman, you wish to do anything you must be a tomboy. Otherwise, you wear a dress and get yourself captured. There doesn’t appear to be much in the way of a middle ground.
It is worth noting that Japan, on the whole, still values the traditional gender biases that many – though not enough – in the rest of the world are trying to move away from. This is perhaps why it has been able to get away with it for so long. While Western companies are also maintaining this gender imbalance, they receive consistent backlash for it from what is now a predominantly female community. Japanese companies, however, don’t appear to have this issue domestically. That this still permeates industries in Japan has resulted in Nintendo being referred to as, among other things, feudal in its attitudes. Unfortunately, it’s hard to argue with that assessment when one really begins to look at their flagship franchises. This is particularly disappointing as someone who loves Nintendo, and owes them a lot of gratitude for helping me through my childhood, but who also strives for equality, equity, and representation.
We’re going to look at three examples* from these core franchises in order to examine just how badly Nintendo represents its female characters. Each example has different issues, but all three fall into the all too familiar tropes of “the damsel in distress” and “women as reward” that have plagued the medium from its inception. While this article focuses on one company, that certainly isn’t the extent of the problem. This piece in combination with a previous one on Hideo Kojima’s use of women in gaming starts to paint an unfortunate and altogether troubling image of the gaming landscape.
Of all three of the examples I am going to use, Samus Aran is perhaps the most tragic in that for the time in which she appeared she came close to being a revolutionary character for female gamers. At a time when gender ethics in games was so far from being a concern it may as well not have existed at all, to see that Samus was a woman at the end of 1983’s Metroid must have come as a huge shock to players, but also a welcome sight to any female gamers playing in the early 80s.
However, there’s a reason that it was such a big surprise that Samus turned to be a woman at the end of Metroid – because the developers went out of their way to portray her as a male. In an industry that, at the time, was concerned only with marketing to young boys – who made up the majority of the gaming audience – the idea of playing as a “girl” might put some people off. After all, young boys who are not yet interested in girls often find themselves avoiding them and anything to do with them. As a result, Samus was entirely marketed as a male character. In the instruction booklet, Samus is listed as “he” and “him”. Yet, the developers decided at a late stage to reveal her as a woman at the end of the game.
This consideration wasn’t made with representation in mind, nor as much of a twist. Rather, it was conceived as a reward for the presumed male player base. Completing the game sees Samus remove her helmet, letting her long hair free. However, should you complete the game faster, you can access the same ending screen, except Samus is in a leotard or a bikini, depending on how much time you took. It’s a rare example of Nintendo deploying women as rewards in the form of over-sexualisation, and it doesn’t look any better today than it did then.
Going back to the original point, however, somewhat more troubling is the implication of the suit she wears itself. Throughout the series, it has been purposefully neutralising of the feminine qualities that Samus possesses. This is no accident, and the implications are problematic. In referring to Samus exclusively as male throughout the marketing and presenting her as an overtly male character in-game, while having her take off the suit in favour of a bikini at the end, Nintendo is implying that her only value as a woman is in being a semi-naked reward for the player. She can be a “strong” woman, but only when she dresses and acts like a man. Otherwise, she is at the whim of the male fantasy. It feels like a perverse way for men to have their cake and eat it too: live the fantasy of fighting space pirates through this overtly male character, then be rewarded with the girl at the end.
Throughout the franchise, developers have felt the need to cover up Samus’ femininity and when they do reveal it, it is used not to empower her further but to undermine all that has come before. Often it is as a reward, usually as having Samus remove the suit to show off her body. But even in later games, the more comfortable developers become with showing her face and body in a more appropriate way, the more she has evolved from a lone wolf style of character to a woman subservient to male superiors – principally, the character of Adam. In other words, the more developers opt to present Samus as feminine, the more they force male stereotypes and male superiority upon her.
It is this pattern that can be observed in Nintendo’s other games – especially The Legend of Zelda. The idea that once a character is revealed to be a woman they become somehow less than if they were presented as a man or in a masculine way. In knowing now that Samus Aran is a female character, it is easy for us to appreciate her exploits as a woman. However Nintendo, in their treatment of her womanhood as a prize undermines that appreciation, by making the culmination of those exploits little more than a show for male gamers.
Princess Peach is the epitome of the Nintendo girly-girl. If you needed any convincing that Nintendo views femininity as a weakness and those that possess it as mostly useless, Peach is your reference point. Peach is one of gaming’s cultural icons; ranking alongside Mario and Bowser/King Koopa as one the longest serving and most enduring characters in the industry. And yet, whereas Mario and Bowser have a reputation for being one of the best combinations in gaming, Peach’s legacy is one of being there to be rescued. Much like Zelda, she is a character bound by one ideology: this is a woman in distress. In every mainline Mario game since Super Mario Bros. Peach has been kidnapped within the first ten minutes. It is then the player’s job to go rescue the helpless princess, after which she is presented to you as a reward for a job well done – often bestowing a kiss as thanks for rescuing her.
This idea of rescuing a female character and receiving some kind of sexual favour from her is, unfortunately, not even remotely unfamiliar in games, especially those of the 80s. It’s a characteristic that we, as men, have ingrained in us. It is a learned behaviour. Thanks to women’s presentation in media like this, and lessons from old-fashioned and misogynistic men around us, we are taught early to expect these kinds of rewards from women. With these ideas of privilege already in our heads, these early experiences in games can only reinforce these outdated concepts. I’m not suggesting that this happens in an active way, that’s veering into Jack Thompson territory. We do not have a direct cause and effect reaction to media. But with learned behaviour like privilege – be it sexism or racism – we, as human beings, are all too susceptible to passively reinforcing that; to subconsciously saying “this presents this, so I must be right”. Now, compared to the sexual representation of Samus, one might think a kiss on the cheek from Peach is harmless by comparison. But the fundamental truth is that they are both teaching the same thing; they are both propagating this idea of privilege, that, in some way, we as men deserve woman as a reward. Which is wrong.
That there is so little to really say about Peach is testament to how much Nintendo have abused her character. In thirty years she remains something of an empty vessel, likely as she appears in so little of each game – really the beginning and the end. She has little or no influence on the rest of the journey. Indeed, she is simply there to reward the player at the end of the game.
Even in her own game, Super Princess Peach, she is not allowed to pull away from the empty portrayal of femininity that Nintendo have enforced on her throughout her existence. In a game that could have turned the formula on its head, being a rare example of the “dude in distress” trope, it instead undermines its entire existence by making Peach a sideline character in her own game. The focus instead is on her parasol, who is a cursed boy. What’s more, Peach is imbued with special powers; these powers are her out of control emotions. That’s right, Peach’s abilities are based on the typical male view of women and their feelings. This excessive emotion, by now a sorry female stereotype, is even turned into the core gameplay mechanic of Super Princess Peach – which only serves to draw attention to that same stereotype, propagating this idea that femininity is equal to weakness.
Princess Zelda is a particularly baffling character. Whereas Princess Peach is the epitome of the girly-girl at the mercy of the big bad, Zelda, especially in more recent iterations, is presented as a character with her own mind. She can be wise and act as a guide – as we see in Ocarina of Time and Twilight Princess – and yet she is also cast in the same role as Peach. She and Princess Peach share the dubious honour of being portrayed as little more than hostages from the early 80s to today. Yet, throughout the modern iterations of the game (N64 onwards) it is not necessarily the character of Zelda that makes her helpless – as is the case with Peach – but rather the moniker. We’ve seen Zelda start out as or become different characters in most modern Zelda games. In Ocarina of Time, she appears as the character Sheik, a guide for Link who is presented as knowledgeable and perfectly capable of looking after herself. Yet, once she reverts to the Zelda character she is more or less immediately kidnapped, her rescue being the set-up for the end game.
Similarly, in The Wind Waker, we are introduced to Tetra, a feisty pirate captain from the Great Sea. Before her transformation into the titular princess, she is strong-willed, with her own agency and purpose. For most of the game she is helping Link, not the other way around. If not for her, Link would be killed by Ganondorf in their first meeting and without her he would never have saved his sister (the driving force of the first half of the game) or even accessed Ganondorf’s base. Yet, as soon as she is revealed to be Zelda, she is told to wait dutifully for Link (the man) to return and is then quickly captured to set up the end-game. As soon as this change comes on, we see little of her original character retained. She aids Link in the final battle, yes, but the moment she puts on the traditional Zelda dress something changes in her character and it is not until she goes back to the tomboy appearance of Tetra that we see the strong-willed girl return.
For the upcoming Breath of the Wild, Nintendo supposedly entertained the idea of making Zelda the protagonist. Given the glimpses of her in the trailer, she certainly appears to be a more capable character than previous iterations, her dress better suited to adventuring – though this may be yet another illusion – so there is no reason this could not have worked well for the franchise, especially as it is called The Legend of Zelda. The idea was abandoned, however, with the reasoning “if we have Princess Zelda as the main character who fights, then what is Link to do?” (Eiji Aonuma, producer). With this thinking behind the game, we can be pretty sure then of the fact that Zelda in her latest iteration isn’t going to be breaking down many gender-boundaries.
So what’s the distinction that makes Zelda so useless despite what she may be capable of in other guises? The answer, as we have seen already: Nintendo’s attitude to femininity. Much like Samus Aran, Zelda’s femininity isn’t used to empower the character, but to rob her of any agency and give the player a prize to attain. Throughout the series, Zelda has been a McGuffin to set up the final stretch of the games, which invariably involve defeating the boss and rescuing the princess. Sheik and Tetra are overwhelmingly male portrayals of the character. Tetra is presented as a tomboy and Sheik even has her figure altered to appear more masculine. Somehow, the idea of presenting feminine characters as capable seems difficult for Nintendo. As soon as Zelda sheds the Sheik persona, she returns to the typical damsel we’re so used to seeing in Zelda games, similarly, Tetra puts on the Zelda dress and suddenly becomes a trophy rather than the fully fledged character she could have been.
It would have been easy for Nintendo in these two instances to create interesting and complex characters, at odds with the traditional gender roles they’ve adhered to in the past. Instead, they opted for exploiting the character’s gender as a symbolic reward. Indeed, in every game in which Zelda appears, whether she is holding her own or not, she requires saving at some point.
In all of these examples, we see a worrying trend that has endured since the early 80s. In this way, it is difficult to argue that Nintendo is anything but feudal. Some may cry that limitations in visual technology made Samus’ bikini necessary, but in truth, eight bits was more than enough to show that she was a woman without it. Others may say it is tradition; these games have always been like this, so why make changes now? Why question Link’s place as the protagonist of Zelda’s series, why wonder whether Peach could have more to her personality than helplessness? It’s too late to change the characters and preserve the series. But this too is a lazy and weak argument, especially for a company for whom the characters are not its chiefest concern, as Nintendo’s priority has always been gameplay. Throughout their existence as a game developer, Nintendo have always put gameplay ahead of story and character. This is why the same themes and stories keep recurring in these games because little effort is really put into the story. So how would it really affect these series if the characters were different; if Link was female or Peach rescued Mario for once? The answer, it wouldn’t.
But Nintendo’s problems are deeper than whether women can be their protagonists, it’s the way they treat their female characters that is the real concern. That Nintendo appear to believe that femininity; that womanhood, cannot be associated with strength or individuality is increasingly reprehensible the more time passes. Rather than the women in their games choosing to portray themselves as androgynous or tomboys, this persona is forced upon them in order to excuse the fact that, for Nintendo, women are participating in a story in an active way. Far from simply falling in line with tired tropes, it is that Nintendo appear to genuinely buy into them that is the really worrying factor here.
The demographics of video games have shifted substantially since the early 80s, yet Nintendo fails to evolve with them. Recent statistics show that 52% of gamers are women, across a wide range of devices. The gaming industry as a whole does not reflect this at all. Nintendo, with their feudal approach to character, are somehow managing to fall behind an industry that is already lagging well behind.
This near punishment of femininity, and its use to strip power from characters, is a trait Nintendo needs to lose and fast. They seem to believe that the pressure that is applied to them is about making playable characters female – though they don’t even do that – yet in doing so, they’re missing the point. Representation isn’t just about being able to play as a female character, it’s about that female character having meaning and a character of their own; not being dependent on their male companions for identity or a male guise for strength. It’s about the fact that women are human beings, not just prizes to be handed out at the end of the journey. As someone who grew up with Nintendo, for whom their games were a genuine refuge in childhood, I can only hope they see this and make rapid change to their outlook and approach – before I lose faith in them forever.