Retro Heroines

It all started when I made this weird, rambling post complaining about Samus Aran’s characterization in Other Msome crappy new game I hadn’t even played. Basically, I feel like there aren’t enough awesome female protagonists in video games. I took an inventory of every console game I’ve purchased in the last ten years and made a list, and was shocked to find that there have only been five really memorable heroines who aren’t sultry sex kittens and who don’t have to share their spotlight with some dude. So I figured I’d blog about them! There were a lot of also-rans and not-quite-greats as well, so I’ll be covering them as well. Thanks very much for reading!

Video Game Heroines Series
Week One: Supplanted Heroines
Week Two: Great Gaming Heroines #5: Ashley Robbins
Week Three: Shantae vs. Shanoa — An Action Girl Case Study
Week Four: Great Gaming Heroines #4: Commander Shepard
Week Five: The Off-the-Shelf Heroine
Week Six: Great Gaming Heroines #3: Jade
Week Seven: Sharing the Spotlight
Week Eight: Great Gaming Heroines #2: Lightning

Retro Heroines

I hope the PlayStation era is considered retro here in the crazy, futuristic landscape of 2010. Otherwise more than half of this article is going to be… well, not pointless, but at least improperly defined.

When I took stock of the great female characters from my own game collection, I only looked back ten years. The gaming landscape has changed an incredible amount just in the course of this current generation, let alone going back to the days of grainy polygons or jagged sprites.

And besides, games older than that tend not to be easily accessible on my shelf. I might have had to expend more effort than simply swiveling my chair around.

I did want to break the 10-year rule for at least one week during this series, though, mainly because I knew if I didn’t someone would stand on a table and stomp their feet while yelling about Terra Branford. And, uh, it gave me an excuse to do some retro gaming myself.

Lara Croft
(Tomb Raider series, 1996-present)

It just didn’t seem right to do a totally unscientific case study on video game heroines without mentioning Lara Croft. The only trouble was.. uh… I’d never actually played Tomb Raider. Despite there being about six dozen entries in the series, and despite the series being exactly the type of game I most enjoy, I’d never touched any of them.

The dawn of the 32-bit era was a strange time for console gamers. Nevermind the fact that I, personally, had been brainwashed into buying anything with the Square logo stamped on it — graphics had finally advanced the the point where sex appeal could be the main selling point of a game. And believe it or not, I was the only teenage boy in the world who wasn’t interested in playing a game about tits. I hadn’t yet developed my insatiable lust for gameplay; I was more of a “story is king” kinda guy. (Xenogears had a Square logo on it, too.)

So it was real easy to give Lara Croft and her conical chesticles a pass.

In the interests of science, though, I went ahead and downloaded the original Tomb Raider onto my PSP. It was clunky and hard to play, but otherwise very agreeable to my puzzle-platforming appetite. So agreeable, that is, that I quickly rushed out to buy a copy of Tomb Raider Anniversary for Xbox, which I also enjoyed despite a reservation or three.

Two things leapt out and shocked me about these games. For one, Lara was nowhere near as sexualized a character as I’d expected she’d be. And second, Lara’s actual characterization was much different in each of the two games.

I don’t have space here to really get into the amoral goals, daddy issues or homicidal tendancies of the two Laras. Those are interesting topics, but they pale in comparison to how she is not a sex kitten. She has a pixie-ish face, full lips, tight, accentuating shorts and other… copious assets. But beyond simply being a hot girl, she’s not an object to be lusted after. She’s not sultry or flirtatious, she never strips on camera, and the only men she’s ever onscreen with get their asses kicked pretty thoroughly — by her. The game doesn’t even provide many opportunities for Lara to be sexy; she spends most of it with a diseased grimmace on her face.

I EAT PEOPLE

Here’s the thing: while it’s obvious Lara was designed to appeal to the baser instincts of the teenaged gamer geek, that’s not the core appeal of Tomb Raider. The original game is very difficult, often opaque, and quite lengthy. I don’t doubt that a lot of copies of this game went flying off shelves based on nothing but the design of the heroine, but this series went on to have sequels. Something tells me that someone who makes his gaming decisions based on T&A is not going to be in it for thirty hours worth of pushing blocks and connecting mineshafts.

Sex appeal can ignite interest, but it can’t carry a series. That’s the lesson worth learning from Lara, in the end. Think Nariko is paying attention? Nah, me neither.

Aya BreaAya Brea
(Parasite Eve, 1998, PS1)

I first played Parasite Eve the very week of its release. It’s one of the few games I remember the actual experience of purchasing, because I had to have my mommy buy it for me. It was M-rated, see, the first such game in my collection, and Target didn’t want to sell me a copy on account of I was a snot-nosed high schooler at the time.

I didn’t buy Parasite Eve because it was M-rated though. Or because it stars one of my favorite gaming heroines of all time. Or because I thought the game looked fun or interesting. I bought it because… uh… it had the Square logo on it.

But let’s not talk about 15-year-old Brickroad’s irresponsible shopping habits. Let’s talk about the hot chick in the voluptuous evening gown. I know the in-game CG renders look vapid and doll-like, but back in the day Parasite Eve was one of the most realistic-looking games ever released on a console. Aya was sexy in a way Lara Croft and Tifa Lockheart weren’t. She was neither scantily-clad nor well-endowed. Instead, she was simply a reasonably good-looking modern woman… the kind who could turn your head if you saw her on the street. I wonder if the game would have sold more copies if they’d put a full-body shot of Aya on the cover. (Judging by Parasite Eve 2‘s sales — maybe not so much.)

If only it weren’t for those creepy, empty eyes.

Actually, that slight tinge of creepiness works well for Aya. Even before we learn the dark secrets from her shadowy, mysterious childhood, there’s something a little… off-kilter about Aya. She seems almost uncomfortable in her own skin. The game opens with Aya and her unnamed date attending the opera, but really, Aya is only going through the motions. It’s not that she’s awkward or anti-social; in fact, nobody in the game really comments on it. But Aya herself seems to be merely sleepwalking. Living vicariously through her own life.

Of course, when the monsters show up Aya whips out her firearm and plunges fearlessly into a sewer in pursuit. She’s one of New York’s finest, after all. Much of the game revolves around Aya, a rookie cop, being the only living human in NYC who can approach the mutated squirrels and re-animated dinosaurs plaguing the city without bursting into flame.

I played Parasite Eve start to finish every couple weeks at least until Final Fantasy VIII came out. It’s entirely possible that Aya was the first video game character I legitimately fell in love with… Lightning being the most recent. Apparently, Aya and Lightning will be able to dress as each other in their respective upcoming PSP games. I wonder if my inner 15-year-old will be able to handle it.

AthenaLys's Favorite Game Ever
(Athena, 1987-ish, NES)

Ha ha ha ha ha! As if I’ve never played this terrible game. I just put this here to annoy my friend Lys. See, he was going to come along anyway and scold me for never playing Phantasy Star and therefore being unable to include Alis in this week’s list. But this will take the wind out of his sails and put him on the defensive, instead. He’s a wily cat, that Brickroad! Let’s move on.

Terra Branford
(Final Fantasy VI, 1994, SNES)

Aside from having naturally green hair, hat-induced amnesia and a magical furry alter-ego, Terra may be one of the most believable characters ever to grace a Final Fantasy game. It’s the angst that does it, in truth; Terra had flaws and vulnerabilities for her to mope about, but not in such excess that people rolled their eyes and turned off the game. A player can look at Terra’s situation early in FF6 and empathize with the fear and inadequacy she feels… mainly because she isn’t defined by it. She’s clearly a fighter, even from the start, but the combination of her mental state and the unsureness of her position makes the player want to just reach into the screen and protect her. And indeed, this is how the first four or five major characters in the game react to her.

TerraIf that had been all to Terra, she would probably still be a fan favorite. She changes though, and quite dramatically; the amnesia convention allows for a pretty convenient switch-flipping scene in that regard. Specifically, Terra transforms into a pink, naked blur and screams out of the plot for a couple acts. When she comes back, memory in tact, Terra’s story becomes a search for identity, and how that identity can help bridge the divide between two worlds.

Terra’s strength, both in and out of combat, increases exponentially upon her return to the party. Early on she is always being manipulated by someone; first the Empire, then Kefka specifically, and later the Returners (despite their best intentions). Later she takes a much more active role in the plot, making important decisions about the team’s role on world affairs, and becoming more comfortable with who and what she is. There is a somewhat anemic subplot where she yearns to understand the hyoo-man concept of love, but the topic is deftly handled. She doesn’t simply fall in boring one-dimensional love with one of the male leads. Rather, she explores the concept as part of the overall human experience. She eventually finds it too, in a quite unexpected place.

The story moves on from there, of course. FF6 has that thing where, you know, the world gets destroyed by a feral clown. The thing to note is that the complexity of Terra’s character occured in the mid-nineties on a 16-bit console. Now that we have consoles so advanced they’re not even commonly measured in bits anymore, why are we still putting up with no-frills Japan-o-trope characters in our RPGs?

Though her in-game artwork never changes, you can just feel that Terra holds her head higher in the second half of the game. Neither the player nor the other cast members are called upon any more to coddle her, either. No, that spotlight shifts over to Celes, whose cold shoulder attitude and emo suicidal swan dive rolled enough eyes for the both of them.

Next week is the grand finale, and I’ll warn you now that I’ll be breaking my own rules again. Nothing like a little hypocracy to really spice things up! Thanks for reading.

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8 comments to Retro Heroines

  • Merus

    “I’ll warn you now that I’ll be breaking my own rules again.”

    Great Gaming Heroines #1: Brickroad

  • ShifterChaos

    Ah… Terra… Yep, it just went down hill from here, Square. I hope that the angry fanboy you talked about wasn’t me…. cuz it might have been. It just occurred to me while reading this that every Final Fantasy title up to 7 has had a remake/spinoff except this one, just an almost (and slightly improved) port to the gameboy… sad really, since it is home to a great cast of characters, and, in my opinion, the best female protagonist I have had the pleasure to be infatuated with.
    As always, I enjoyed this entry, like everything else you write. Cant wait to see how the Novel turns out, you spoony bard! Keep up the good (if slightly unproductive as of late) work. I propose a pepsi-distributed beverage toast in your name, may your legacy live on in infamy!

  • Lys

    It worked! Oh, it worked, you wily cat! >_<

    (You really should play Phantasy Star, you know.)

  • Craze

    Lara Croft’s face is wonderful.

  • Scott

    I second Lys’s motion, you really should play Phantasy Star.

  • WIP

    Always one step ahead…

  • Metal Man Master

    As a recent Phantasy Star inductee, I third that Lys guy’s Phantasy Star nomination. It can take a while to get into because Alis has Super Dying Powers until you get her like five levels and her first two allies, but the game’s like, five bucks on Virtual Console.

    However, aside from Alis’s motive and minor bits of text, there’s not really much character development to speak of, if any. Guess that’s to be expected from an 80s RPG, though.

  • Sanagi

    I’d forgotten how ugly Lara Croft was. She makes SMB1’s Princess Peach look attractive.

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