Thursday, October 17, 2013

Nintendo is Afraid of Dynamic Female Characters--Part One feat. Samus Aran

How many times have I started a rant with “I love Nintendo, but...”? My loyalty for the company runs deep; my annoyance at their treatment of female characters runs deeper. While others are slowly realizing that girls in video games are worth more than their breast size or ability to be kidnapped, Nintendo’s leading ladies are still singing that one, tired old song. 

Since I can go on forever with a topic like this, I’m going to split tangent this up into parts...starting with the more unexpected subject: the shortcomings of Samus Aran.

I know what you might be thinking: “What? Samus is so BA with her power suit and arm cannon...” And yes, no one can deny that the famous alien hunter has had some amazing adventures throughout her series. But we cannot overlook the fact that Samus’s gender was originally an afterthought. 

The most famous identity crisis in history.

Now I wasn’t even alive when the fateful meeting took place, but I’ve always imagined that it happened a little something like...

Nintendo main offices, late afternoon. Several Metroid team members are sitting around a conference table. There's a lull in the conversation. 
TEAM MEMBER #2: “Hey, wouldn’t it be funny if there was a chick under the suit? 
(Awkward silence) 
TEAM LEADER: “Put her in a bathing suit at the end of the game and it just might work.”

Of course, this small change broke down a huge wall in the video game industry, showcasing the untapped potential in female protagonists. I’m not trying to belittle its influence. However, throwing in a short scene of a blond in a bikini and carefully crafting a multidimensional female lead character are two different totally things.

And since Samus’s first appearance, Nintendo has done nothing but prove that they have absolutely no clue what to do with her. 

She could be so much more than a chick in a suit.
In most games, Samus is a silent killing machine who leaves nothing but destruction and dead Metroid husks in her wake. A lone wolf with just enough background and characterization to justify her actions. Since she spends the majority of each game encased in metal, it sometimes seems like Nintendo is trying to hide her femininity behind her shiny armor. But the status quo set in the original title is always maintained: play well enough and you’ll get to see what she’s got under that suit. At it’s core, Samus’s femininity is a reward, not a defining character trait. Her body is nothing more than an object used to extend gameplay.

Whenever Samus is playable sans suit, her outstanding physical prowess is completely overshadowed by her outfit. The Zero Suit--though more practical than a bikini/leotard--leaves nothing to the imagination. And don’t even get me started on that whip...

It’s as if Nintendo isn’t sure whether to push Samus’s gender under the rug or beat players over the head with it. 
Yep. Definitely a woman.
And then there's Other M. This title isn't just a weak installment gameplay wise, it completely undermines what little character development the bounty hunter has. She has all of the most powerful weapons available from the jump, but she can only use them when someone tells her to. She’s already triumphed over Ridley at this point, but she is paralyzed by childhood flashbacks when she sees him again. She’s seen developing relationships with several other characters for once in her life, but she plays supporting role to all of them, forcing them to save her when she should be saving them.

Here, the lone wolf is put on a very short leash.

"Permission to think, sir?"
It’s clear that with Other M, the developers were trying to present a version of Samus that’s more “human”, more relatable. What better way than to put a few chips in her seemingly invincible facade? Even the most powerful have to fail sometimes... he team just spent so much time trying to prove that she could be vulnerable, they overlooked the need to equally develop her strengths. This would have been the perfect time for Samus to overcome debilitating fear through the power of her resolve, to maintain her independence when dealing with the authority figures of her past. Instead, she is simply presented as a stubborn, immature cadet who never quite grew up. Once unstoppable, Other M Samus only seems to take the role of hero when given a little push.

If that is all that Samus is going to be, she just keep quiet and stay in the suit. 


The numerous flaws in Nintendo’s favorite princesses Peach and Zelda seem a bit more obvious. They’re just stereotypical damsel-in-distress right? Well, next time I’ll explore how these two characters fall into the same patterns as the lonely Metroid hunter (with Zelda being the more tortured of the two).

For more on Nintendo and women:
"For Girls Only"--Nintendo Invites Females to the World of Video Games
"Play As You Are"--Nintendo and the Female Audience Part 2


  1. It's true that Nintendo hasn't done much to flesh out Samus Aran as a character. But I think it's just that story and character development have always been an afterthought to control and gameplay for Nintendo. Personally, I wouldn't have it any other way.

  2. I agree that Nintendo isn't known for its well-developed stories...I'm just against the idea of setting up a potentially strong female character only to weaken her in pursuit of a storyline. I would prefer it if they simply let her stay one dimensional.

    Imagine if they did the same thing to a character like Link. All of a sudden the silent, courageous hero can only use his weapons when some random person gives him the green light. Halfway through the game, he has a emotional breakdown when he sees Ganondorf.

    We don't have to worry about something like that because they would never do that to such an iconic character. Anyone that tried to pitch that idea would be thrown out the building. What makes Samus any different?

    1. On that point, agreed! Other M is a pretty good gameplay experience, but a catastrophe as a story.

      What makes "Samus" any different?....well, Samus was never the concern. Metroid has always been a well-received series, but it was never a great commercial success, and its taken greater gameplay risks in its history than Zelda or Mario. Making the Prime games into first-person shooters was groundbreakingly different, and it payed off. Seeking to revitalize the series further and possibly make it more accessible, Team Ninja added a storyline and extensive voice-acting to Other M, which did not pay off. Needless to say, they will not be making Metroid games again anytime soon.

      I guess what I'm trying to say is 1) Nintendo is entitled to take risks with the Metroid series because the stakes aren't too high financially (not to mention they're trying to find ways to breath new life into the series) and 2) the last thing Nintendo ever intended to do was to sabotage Samus as a character. In fact, the only people we can blame that on are those at Team Ninja.

    2. You had me nodding along with up to that last sentence! While it might have been Team Ninja's idea, there is no way that Nintendo just handed over their property and said "Okay, do whatever you want." Things like the CD-I Zelda games and the the old Super Mario Bros. movie has made Nintendo into a very protective company. They have their hands in the pot at all times. And even if they didn't see the game until it was a finished product, somebody could have/should have stepped up and said something.

      "A bad game is forever" and all that.


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