I’ve been playing video games since I was about three years old. My dad is a gamer, and he introduced me to video games by way of the Nintendo Entertainment System. I remember watching him play Tecmo Bowl, Ninja Gaiden II, and Renegade, and he handed me the controller for Sesame Street: 1-2-3 and Super Mario Bros. (he may have assisted me with Duck Hunt).
As I enjoyed more video games, I noticed a pattern: female characters always seemed to find themselves in a pickle. King Koopa kidnaps Princess Toadstool and is holding her hostage in a lava-filled fortress in multiple Super Mario titles. In Rolling Thunder, Agent Albatross must rescue Agent Leila Blitz from a secret society. CIA agent Irene Lew relies on Ryu Hayabusa’s skills to save her in most of the Ninja Gaiden games.
When would I play as the ladies rather than as the gents charged with rescuing them?
Fortunately, since the Super Nintendo Entertainment System’s glory days, many games now boast female protagonists who can hold their own next to their male counterparts, giving girls everywhere virtual role models who overcome trials and obstacles to save the world.
In no particular order, here are my top five favorite ladies in gaming from my childhood (i.e., games I played before I turned 18).
Kunoichi (The Ninja Warriors, SNES)
One of my favorite beat-’em-up games is The Ninja Warriors on the Super Nintendo (known as The Ninja Warriors Again in Japan). I frequently chose this game on my family’s weekly video game rental night because I loved having the chance to play as a formidable female protagonist. Well, allow me to clarify: female-passing. Kunoichi, as well as the characters Ninja and Kamaitachi, is an android.
The androids’ goal is to overthrow the despot Banglar and restore peace and freedom to a “once great and wealthy nation.” Kunoichi wields a katana, kunias, throwing shuriken–and prehensile blonde hair. Yes, players can use the android’s long, blonde locks to tie up and toss enemies.
My nine-year-old self adored this android’s form and moves so much that I created a series of fan fiction lovingly transcribed on loose leaf paper with No. 2 pencils (yes, these tales are still in my possession and will never see the light of day again). Even though Kunoichi is technically a mechanical being, I still regard her as one of the most inspiring female figures in video games from my childhood.
Dixie Kong (Donkey Kong Country 2 and Donkey Kong Country 3, SNES)
I wasn’t a full-fledged tomboy as a kid, but I hated wearing my long, curly hair down. I despised the feeling of anything touching my neck, so my mom put my hair into a ponytail every single day.
Imagine my delight when I discovered the adorable Dixie Kong in Donkey Kong Country 2 and then Donkey Kong Country 3–she wears her hair in a ponytail as well and can spin it like a helicopter’s blades!
This gal rocks out on electric guitar if you complete levels with her in DKC 2. She blows bubble gum or sips lemonade while waiting to progress. She embraces femininity while also kicking some Kremling butt.
The beautiful and exciting levels in DKC 2 and 3 captured my imagination, and I often would narrate my own stories aloud while playing through the caverns, pirate ships, volcanoes, and snow fields. Dixie’s appearance and capabilities helped me to feel more comfortable in my own skin and reassured me that girls could both enjoy looking cute while also craving adventure.
Claire Redfield (Resident Evil 2, Nintendo 64)
Allow me to regale you with my first entry into the world of survival horror.
The year is 2001; I am twelve years old. My dad picks up a Nintendo 64 port of Resident Evil 2 from our mall’s K·B Toys. I pass by the TV in the living room, where he is playing his new game. I see a guy in a police officer’s uniform near a banister and bookshelves.
“You need to check this game out,” my dad exclaims. “It’s like a mystery game where you’re trying to figure out what happened to everyone.”
A few weekends later, a friend comes to hang out, and I suggest we play this “mystery game.” I discover we can choose between Leon S. Kennedy, the cop my dad chose, or Claire Redfield, a college-age lady searching for her missing brother. We choose Claire and quickly realize Resident Evil 2 is far more than a mystery game.
The suspense, jump scares, atmosphere, and enemies produced many sleepless nights, but I did eventually beat the game with both Leon and Claire in both scenarios (I must admit that the N64’s inclusion of infinite ammo and invincibility alleviated my fears). I would play as Claire again in Resident Evil – Code : Veronica on the GameCube (and even cosplay as this version of my favorite RE lady), but her debut game succeeds in portraying a realistic woman who has both heart and courage in the midst of utter devastation. Claire genuinely wants to help any survivors (spoiler: not many are left), wields weapons with impressive finesse, and manages to escape Raccoon City with the new goal of ousting the Umbrella Corporation. What is cooler than that?
Jade (Beyond Good & Evil, GameCube)
Jade is a photographer, reporter, yoga enthusiast, martial artist, and foster sibling to orphans at the Lighthouse on the planet Hillys. An orphan herself, Jade cares deeply for the wards in her shelter and blames herself for their kidnapping at the hands of DomZ, an alien race that has wreaked havoc on Hillys for over two decades.
I love Jade’s skepticism and sense of justice: she is suspicious of the propaganda Alpha Sections feed the residents (and for good reason) and risks her own life to expose the truth of their ulterior motives. She attacks enemies with a lethal Daï-jo staff and is a lithe gymnast, but her camera is where her true power rests as she works to inform her home of the nefarious human trafficking perpetrated by the DomZ and Alpha Sections.
I love seeing both strength and vulnerability in characters; I want to see them vanquish foes but also embrace their emotions and worries. Jade executes her missions with grace under pressure–and sheds some tears.
Paula Polestar (EarthBound/Mother 2, SNES)
EarthBound captured my attention immediately when I saw depictions of a modern city on the back of the box. I had never played a game in which the setting resembles real life, much less protagonists only a few years older than I was at the time. My excitement only grew when I began naming the main characters: I would have a chance to play as a girl!
Paula Polestar is no shrinking violet. Most female characters in RPGs possess mostly healing powers, and while Paula can assist with giving her party food and restorative items, she is, in fact, the only PSI user to never learn healing powers. Where Paula shines is straight combat: her psychic prowess is the strongest among the fellows in her party, and her “Pray” ability is what ultimately defeats Giygas .
A child of only eleven, Paula shows foresight when she contacts Ness telepathically and fortitude when she is kidnapped and imprisoned. We learn she is fond of teddy bears and beloved by the young children at her parents’ preschool, revealing her soft heart and gentle nature amidst her keen battle skills.
Representation matters: by seeing strong women and girls at the forefront of the games I played, I found myself inspired and more confident in my abilities.
Which female video game characters were a part of your childhood? Let me know on Twitter!
Image Sources: Cover Photo – The Ninja Warriors Fandom; First Photo – Torne (YouTube); Second Photo – Donkey Kong Fandom; Third Photo – Mario Wiki; Fourth Photo – Strategy Wiki; Fifth Photo – Beyond Good & Evil Fandom; Sixth Photo – EarthBound Fandom