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A Defense of Miyamoto

Anita Sarkeesian just launched her Tropes vs. Women video series a few days ago with its first installment, „Damsel in Distress (Part 1).“ I’d like to thank her for her well argued and informative take on one of the most powerful tropes in video games established in this medium by Shigeru Miyamoto. Unfortunately, as Sarkeesian correctly points out, this age old trope works against female gamers‘ identities and against a balanced view on gender in general.

Nevertheless I feel that some perspective can be added to points raised by Sarkeesian in her video. She rightfully feels cheated of a female video game heroine which had great promise but was turned into the usual damsel after a suggestion of Miymoto to make the game Dinosaur Planet part of an older, established franchise, surely to increase its sales potential. Some more blatant stereotypical ideas presented in the eventual Star Fox Adventure game made by Rare and later in the video in TV ads for Zelda („Will you get the girl? Or play like one?“) are products of Western interpretation of Miyamoto’s damsel plot device and should not be attributed to Miyamoto directly.

Still, the video gives off the impression that Miyamoto is a bit of a villain who stands at the center of a problem that upholds sexist views in games and male gamers who play those games, and also denies female gamers a greater wealth of strong female characters to play as. Sarkeesian argues that in core Nintendo franchises and especially in the core series of Mario platformers the damsel depiction (being reduced to a helpless object) is maintained with little steps to change this trope.

It is true that in the Mario platformers, which aren’t very story heavy and rely on simple plots like the save the princess one, the only female playable character is there only because a non Mario game needed to be reskinned. It bears mentioning though that this original game already had a female character and was also made by Miyamoto, who doesn’t use the kidnapped princess plot here but instead kids are getting kidnapped (more concretely, sucked into a book). The older family members then follow them into the book to rescue the kids.

There is also the similarly big Mario RPG franchise in which Princess Peach frequently features as a playable character. In the Square developed (but Nintendo produced and published) Super Mario RPG for SNES, in true Final Fantasy fashion the kidnapped princess plot device is only a warm up to the true adventure. In Final Fantasy the opening credits only roled after the princess had already been saved and in Final Fantasy III Princess Sara is the only inhabitant of a castle town who escapes being turned to stone and helps the heroes to save her home and its populace. Playable female characters also abound in later Final Fantasy installments.

Consequently in Super Mario RPG, Peach joins the heroes gathered with Mario as playable character and even the villain Bowser fights among them. In later Nintendo developed Mario RPG games Peach again becomes a playable character, sneaking around in Bowser’s castle after again being kidnapped in Paper Mario for N64, and like in the only Mario Bros. platformer in which she starrs as a playable character, Super Mario Bros. 2, in the platform/RPG hybrid Super Paper Mario, she and Bowser again are among the four playable characters. Players even get to experience being hit on by a male nerd gamer, dating simulation game style.

It is true that the damsel plot device is still maintained today but there is a much greater awareness for the device and also ironic parody of it.

In one part of Sarkeesian’s video we see Peach and Zelda dressed in Mario and Link’s hero attires. They also are capable fighters in their female dresses in the fighting game series Smash Bros., which features an all star cast of Nintendo mascots. The fighting game genre, while having its fair share of sexist stereotypes also, did produce a great wealth of female playable characters so it’s no surprise that in Nintendo’s take on the genre, which is a huge franchise of its own, the damsels become capable fighters as well.

super-mario-mii5But in the recent 2D Mario installments, even though they feature 4 player modes with as many playable characters, Peach again is reduced to being a price, stolen like a cake which Mario wanted to eat. This is true but the game is extremly low on plot and the above mentioned opening scene is just hilarious and more of a self aware parody. What escaped Sarkeesian’s attention (in the first video at least) is the fact that in the latest Wii U sequel of New Super Mario Bros., we can play as our own Mii wearing Mario’s costume. So in this game players can become the main character, regardless of their Mii’s gender.

The Mii, one of Miyamoto’s most recent successful inventions, are meant to bring the players themselves into the games and have an adequate avatar also for their gender. As they now have started to wear costumes of the Nintendo mascot characters they should remind us of Japanese TV commercials in which the players playing the Mario and Zelda games suddenly have become Mario or Link themselves, wearing their costumes. With his games, Miyamoto makes us gamers heroes in his image. He also makes female gamers into damsels, which is what Sarkeesian rightfully criticizes.

6But the symbolic, narrative meaning of the damsel plot device is also becoming more and more apparent with the new Mii franchise. In StreetPass Plaza, an app pre installed on 3DS handheld game devices, there is a mode called Find Mii in which your Mii, regardless of gender, is abducted and encaged like a princess damsel from a Mario or Zelda game. Other Mii characters which you collect by passing other 3DS owners on the street can rescue your kidnapped Mii self and find hats to wear for your Mii. Once the evil kidnapping boss is defeated twice there is even a hat that makes your Mii look like the villain.

Mii characters can turn into any Nintendo type of character, may they be heroes, damsels or villains. Each are creations of the game creators and each represents a part of them too. Sarkeesian comments that while she grew up playing Nintendo games which she loves, we also must view games critically when warranted. So villain Miyamoto (an image Sarkeesian draws up in her video) made hero Miyamoto come out in Sarkeesian to fight for the freedom of helpless damsel Miyamoto. We all have the features of villains, heroes and damsels. We all do bad things, we all do good things and we all feel helpless sometimes.

Sarkeesian is fighting the good fight and Miyamoto, even though he may appear a villain, is cheering for her to succeed. For a new generation of games with new plots and new heroes.

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