Female representation in games has taken a long road to get to where it is today, and it still isn’t perfect. The reveal of Samus Aran being a woman at the end of the original Metroid was a mic drop moment far ahead of its time in the games industry. Yet, while later icons like Lara Croft have carried this mantle onward, Nintendo still hasn’t done much with female lead characters outside of Samus. That’s a shame as when they aren’t just afterthoughts or damsels in distress, Nintendo’s female characters represent a ludicrous amount of potential for interesting stories and gameplay. The gaming industry still hasn’t reached a stage of equal representation for female characters in video games, and with Nintendo’s vault of varied and charismatic leading ladies, there’s a lot more it could be doing about it. It’s time for Nintendo’s heroines to get the spotlight.
An overly short history of Nintendo heroines
The reveal of Samus was a very forward-thinking move from Nintendo. By placing it at the end of the game, players had already grown to like Samus for the capable and badass bounty hunter that she is. While her gender reveal was a big surprise, I’d speculate that it wouldn’t have changed the opinions of players that had already become fond of her. In modern times Nintendo wouldn’t have to resort to such lengths to ensure the acceptance of a female lead, which makes it all the stranger that it has done so little with female heroines since.
Excluding the Metroid series, female-led Nintendo titles are a rarity. Dixie Kong took center stage of Donkey Kong Country 3: Dixie Kong’s Double Trouble!, Lip was your guide to Panel de Pon (Tetris Attack), and Nintendo-related cult classics Fatal Frame and Eternal Darkness also featured female leads with Yuri Kozukata and Alexandra Roivas respectively. Third-party heroines like Bayonetta round out the notable mentions, but this is where things get tricky. Characters like Princess Peach and Zelda are often playable in multiplayer hits like Mario Kart 8 Deluxe, Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, or Super Mario 3D World, but these appearances only amount to being fun options rather than the point of those games.
Super Princess Peach stands out as the notable outlier. The Nintendo DS game flipped the script by letting Peach take command of her own adventure to save Mario and Luigi. It served as an example of how Nintendo could be inventive with a well-known formula by simply putting Peach in the spotlight. Unique abilities, platforming mechanics, and a charm all its own set Super Princess Peach apart from the rest of the Mario franchise.
Alas, as one of the few exceptions in recent times, this isn’t much to celebrate. Zelda is yet to be the star of her own (mainline) series, and other interesting Nintendo characters and heroines such as Isabelle, Pauline, and the Squid Sisters have only seen supporting roles thus far. Nintendo has an inconsistent history with the implementation of its female characters, and that needs to be addressed.
Nintendo is a pop culture icon and, as such, has a large and diverse following. In recent years the percentage of female to male gamers in the United States has been nearly equal. Fair representation would give Nintendo’s female audience characters to relate to, promote feelings of inclusivity within the medium they enjoy, and serve to create role models that young girls can look up to. Even among male Nintendo fans, it would reinforce the notion that players from all kinds of backgrounds can come together to enjoy the same gaming experiences. Nintendo already champions inclusivity in other respects, such as its all-encompassing approach to difficulty, so making its female fans feel respectfully represented in the games they enjoy would be the next logical step.
Considering how seriously Nintendo takes its friendly brand image for the sake of both the consumers and its financial success, it would make sense to work on this sooner than later. That said, it has to be done the right way and not to simply fulfill an obligation. A great Nintendo game with a fantastic lead that happens to be female is essential, rather than feeling like the game is only being pushed because the lead is female. Meaningful character moments are a natural part of this. Samus is defined by her swift decisive actions. But on the other hand, Princess Peach has too often been relegated to the damsel in distress role, and tying her emotions to a game mechanic in Super Princess Peach was poor stereotyping by modern standards.
So, how can Nintendo ensure that its female player base feels meaningfully represented within its first-party lineup? Whether it’s through the eventual release of Metroid Prime 4 or hopefully some more surprises we can’t see coming yet, Nintendo already has some iconic female characters it can make use of.
A new avenue for Nintendo’s creativity
Putting aside the important matter of representation, could Nintendo be creatively limiting itself by not fully utilizing its female characters? If Nintendo is consistent at anything, it’s innovating with its games, and making use of its female leads could be a new avenue for this creativity. Princess Peach and Zelda would be a great place to start. Super Princess Peach gave us an idea of what could be possible, but this concept can be taken further.
With or without bringing back the somewhat questionable emotion mechanics, a Princess Peach 3D platformer could make use of her umbrella to attack enemies descending from above, while her floating ability could create fun vertical movement options. Alternatively, what about a different genre like stealth? Peach is often a prisoner of Bowser’s castle, so what if players could sneak and fight their way out, Metal Gear Solid-style? It could even work as a roguelike. (Feel free to use that idea, Nintendo.)
Taking inspiration from Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity, could Nintendo create a new Legend of Zelda experience focused around Zelda’s rune magic? Different iterations of Zelda offer plenty of ideas for mechanics. Maybe her penchant for research in The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild could be implemented into puzzle-solving in a similar manner to that of the Batman: Arkham games. Playing as Sheik could lead to some faster-paced ninja gameplay, and given the lore regarding Zelda and the royal family, the story of such a game could go to some really interesting places.
Elsewhere, with the fun music of Splatoon, the Squid Sisters could star in a rhythm game or their own cooperative adventure. Perhaps Isabelle could be the protagonist of an Animal Crossing management simulator. Endless possibilities are at Nintendo’s fingertips, so long as it makes use of the rich stable of female characters and heroines it already has.
How would you like to see Nintendo’s heroines get the spotlight?