The Princess and the Powersuit

by Martin Robinson

 

Nearly 30 years on from her creation, Nintendo's Samus Aran remains a unique force within video games

'But our princess is in another castle'.

 

Of all the phrases born from the video games industry's golden dawn in the 80s, there's perhaps none more powerful, or more widely quoted. It's a poetic nod to the futility of the medium: a little thumbed nose towards the player, impishly goading them on towards the next goal, to climb the next flag pole or to defeat the next boss before they do it all over again.

 

In that short phrase, there's also a portrait of the virtual world that was being forged, a masculine fantasy archetype that's changed little over a quarter of a century later. It's a place where women are kept out of sight, and where men must rush to their rescue. It's the medieval through a marshmallow filter, where fairytales of sugar-sweet princesses and candy-cane castles prevail, all underscored with gender politics served up from the dark ages.

 

In the original 1985 Super Mario Bros., the princess finally appears once the hero's quest is over, only to coldly send the player back to the beginning to start over again. In the following year's The Legend of Zelda, another of Ninteno designer Shigeru Miyamoto's 80s classics, your reward for completing the arduous adventure is a brief glimpse at the titular princess you've worked so hard to save. In the 19 games that have followed in the series, it's a formula that's remained steadfast.

Square Square Square

In Metroid, a 1986 Nintendo adventure that blends the action of Mario with the open-ended exploration of Zelda, the game's sole woman wasn't revealed until the adventure was over, either. Having conquered the hostile planet of Zebes and driven the marauding Space Pirates away, the player's powersuit fell away to reveal that Metroid's one woman was, in fact, you.

 

All these years later, and the revelation has lost little of its power. And all these years later, quite damningly, Metroid's Samus Aran stills stands alone in a medium where, despite an almost even gender split among players, virtual worlds are still resolutely male.

 

We should be thankful, though, as it almost wasn't to be. The decision to make Samus Aran a woman was taken late on in the development of the original game, the idea a casual suggestion from one of the staffers to director Yoshio Sakamoto. "But I couldn't foresee what a huge impact this would have on the future of the franchise."

It's never really been certain what that unnamed coder's intentions were - and it's safe to assume they're informed partly by nothing more noble than mere titillation, with Samus revealed in a bikini that can, with the input of a cheat code, be unlocked to wear throughout the game - but they helped create a female video game lead who remains peerless in the mainstream. Unlike Street Fighter's Chun-Li, Samus isn't defined by giant thighs and a flash of knickers, and unlike Lara Croft, she's not been drawn to excite the sticky desires of sweaty-palmed boys. Beneath the androgynous lines of the powersuit, Samus is an incredible hunter whose gender never comes into play.

 

That there's no concession made is thanks, in part, to circumstance. As with the Alien series' Ripley, the switch wasn't made until most of the role and context was set in stone (manuals included with early copied of the game still referred to Samus as 'he'), though Metroid is arguably more progressive with its portrayal of gender. There's no play upon the vulnerability of the lone female, a classic horror trope that props up the first Alien film - instead, Samus is a powerful hunter from the off, even before she's in possession of all the tools the player must track down throughout the course of her quest.

 

Samus gets one up on Ripley in other ways too, even if she remains eternally in her debt (the dragon-like Ridley, Samus' arch-rival is a clear nod to Dan O'Bannon's creation, as well as the original film's director). Soon after Aliens messily attempted to entwine the biology of its two stars in the woeful Resurrection, Metroid explored similar territory, although it was much more convincing in its execution. Samus' continuing empathy with the species that threatens the universe is quietly explained in 2002's Metroid Fusion, as it's revealed she's taken on their own DNA in a bid to survive. And, like them, she takes on a solitary roaming existence, defined only by her encounters with the organisms she seeks to destroy. Classically, Samus' hard-edge has been told through nothing more than pixels and a supreme sense of her place in an increasingly hostile environment.

Yet as video games have found a voice and moved away from their own silent era, so they've struggled to find a place for Samus. Nintendo's insistence on leaving her mute in order to present the player with a blank canvas onto which they can project themselves - an approach that remains in place with Mario and Zelda to this day - served her well in 1994's Super Metroid, as well as in the Prime series at the turn of the century that saw her return after an eight year hiatus. When Samus' cold, hard eyes reflected back at the player in Metroid Prime's first-person visor, it seemed Nintendo had found a smart rebut to the machismo that, through the then burgeoning Call of Duty series, was increasingly defining hte medium. It was almost enough to forgive the heavy mascara visible in that brief flash of her features.

That voice grew ever more important to players, though, prompting Nintendo to hand the series over to Team Ninja for an outing that would attempt to bridge that gap between Samus' original 2D exploits and Prime's 3D adventures. Perhaps we shouldn't have expected subtlety from a developer whose most notable achievement was introducing breast physics in the risible Dead or Alive games, a series in which skimpily dressed teen girls pummel each other for the pleasure of a largely male audience.

 

But still, Team Ninja's treatment of Samus in Meroid: Other M hurt: as story took precedence for the first time in the series, the brilliant blank cipher was damply sketched as a sulking teen rather than the strong warrior that once was. To make matters worse, in opposition to the free spirit Samus has wielded before, she spent the entire game acting in blind subservience to bland commanding officer Adam Malkovich.

 

It was a miserable retooling of the character, and one the series hasn't yet recovered from: in the three years following Team Ninja's Other M, Samus has lain dormant, with Nintendo seemingly deaf to the calls for a more fitting return for its famous star. Mario and Zelda are now leant on with increasing conviction by a company keen to leverage the most out of its heritage, yet their contemporary Samus, perhaps the company's most fascinating creation, remains unloved and ignored.

 

Worringly, it seems that having inadvertently created video game's strongest woman all those years ago, Nintendo no longer knows how to handle a character whose defining traits are her solemnity and sexlessness. Princess Peach and Zelda are rescued once over each financial year, yet Metroid has been cast adrift to wander in the void. To have come so far, it's depressing to discover that Samus is locked away in another casltle, and to realise that, for now, it's where she's likely to remain.

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