Vs. Mach Rider
Including this game is a stretch, in more ways than one. The cartridge version of Mach Rider did not give any indication of the gender of the Rider. Neither the box, the manual or the in-game text use any personal pronouns. They only say "You are Mach Rider!"
However, Mach Rider, like many other early NES titles, was released in the arcades as part of Nintendo's Vs. System. The Vs. System was an arcade cabinet with NES hardware inside. Typically two games could fit on the motherboard, and each game was released as a package of ROM chips. Some of these games have been hacked to work with NES emulators or even the NES via reproduction or flash carts. If the individual ROMs are dumped and complete, you can make almost certainly make it work in a quality NES emulator.
There are two sets of Vs. Mach Rider ROMs in existence. One set is the "Endurance Course" portion of the Mach Rider NES cart. The second set is the "Fighting Course" portion. Both are considerably more challenging than the cartridge versions. Unlike the cartridge version, you can continue where you left off after you lose all your lives at the cost of a credit. With either ROM set, you will see a picture of Mach Rider standing in front of the bike with the words "Insert Coin" and "Push Button 1 to Start".
As you can see, the Rider is in full-body armor and wearing a helmet, making his or her gender uncertain. The Rider's build suggests that a man is inside that suit. However, as after you finish the first level, the screen shows the bike without the rider. A few tiles are then displayed that show a different image, like so :
As you complete the next nine stages, more and more titles are revealed until you see this image after you beat course 10 :
Unfortunately, there is no additional text in the game which may explain exactly who this character is supposed to be. Is this Mach Rider without the suit or a female survivor that Mach Rider has rescued? The best evidence to suggest that it is Mach Rider is that the suited image of Mach Rider does not appear in the frame and that arguably Mach Rider's identity has been slowly revealed during the course of the game. The text does not indicate any survivors have been found until very late in the game. Perhaps the slow reveal demonstrates the extent to which you have saved the survivors. If the character is Mach Rider, why would she hold a knife instead of the machine gun? In Super Smash Bros. Melee, there is a trophy of Mach Rider that can be earned, and the explanatory text uses the male pronoun throughout.
There is another issue with Vs. Mach Rider's inclusion in addition to its arcade-only release. The best evidence I have seen is that only the Endurance Course ROM set was offered for sale overseas. The Fighting Course ROM set appears to be available in Japan only. If this is the case, then the case of Mach Rider's inclusion in this list is even more strained.
While Metroid was released before Athena in Japan, in the US it was not released until August, 1987 (not 1986 as some sites and even the official NES game list state). However, Athena was released in the US in June of 1987, which makes it the first official NES game with a female protagonist.
Athena is a terrible game, mainly due to its awful hit detection and poor controls. Athena herself is portrayed (outside of the US cover) as child-like seeker of adventure. For more on Athena, read on here : http://www.hardcoregaming101.net/athena/athena.htm
By far the most famous game on this list, the gender of the character was a surprise reveal at the end of the game. The manual is deliberately misleading in this instance :
"The space hunter chosen for this mission is Samus Aran. He is the greatest of all the space hunters and has successfully completed numerous missions that everybody thought were absolutely impossible. He is a cyborg: his entire body has been strengthened with robotics, giving him superpowers. Even the space pirates fear his space suit, which can absorb any enemy's power. But his true form is shrouded in mystery."
The manual uses the male pronoun throughout, but at the end it does hint at a surprise at the end of the game and the "final outcome" depends on how it took the player to beat the game. When you beat the game, you will see this screen : What happens next depends on how long you took to beat the game. If you took more than five hours, you will only see Samus in a suit, either with back turned (10 or more hours) or first raised in the air (3-5 hours) :
But if you take between 5-3 hours, 3-1 hour or less than 1 hour, Samus' true form is progressively revealed :
Samus does look more than a bit like the woman shown in Mach Rider screenshots above. There is no official support that the character may be one in the same. Metroid takes place around the year 20X5 and Mach Rider is set in the year 2112, so it may not be totally impossible that the two could be the same, but it is highly unlikely.
The password system is one advantage over the Japanese Famicom Disk System original, it is extremely versatile. Others I could think of include the faster arm cannon shooting, extended escape music and a lack of load times. Metroid for the FDS has some of the longest load times of any game for the FDS. However, the most unique thing about the cartridge Metroid is the ability to play as suitless Samus.
If you beat the game with the 3-5 or 1-3 hour ending, you will get to play as Suitless Samus and with whatever powerups (but not energy or missile tanks) you had acquired in the next game. There is no way to get Suitless Samus in the FDS version. You will not get Suitless Samus if you beat the game with Armored Samus in less than 1 hour, probably because the designers did not anticipate that players would ever be able to do that.
However, Metroid's password system allowed for some very easy to remember passwords. One in particular was well-known back in the NES era, JUSTIN BAILEY ------ ------ That would allow you to play as suitless Samus without having to officially discover the secret by beating the game with a good time. I remember a friend of mine that did not believe that Samus was a woman. We both knew of the Justin Bailey code, but he insisted that Samus and "the woman" were not one and the same. I knew from reading video game magazines that they were, but I was unable to convince him until we beat the game together and he could see Samus transform. After that there was no further talk of Samus and "the woman".
This progressive revelation of Samus during the game's ending according to the time taken to complete the game survived into every other 2D Metroid game. The 3D Metroid games also feature this, but instead of time they use the percentage of the game completed.
Metroid is an undisputed classic. Unlike later non-linear games, Metroid doesn't try to hold your hand and point to the way. Metroid : Zero Mission does engage in rather blatant finger pointing, but it has so many ways to break the intended sequence of events that you can easily go in an unintended direction.
This game's US version is almost as coy as Metroid regarding the identity of the protagonist. The game's manual refers to your character as a "highly sophisticated aerobot transformer." The manual uses the impersonal pronoun "it" throughout to refer to The Guardian. The only way you would know that your character is female is to play the game and beat the opening level. Only in the exploration stages does you character show graphics that would indicate she is a female.
In Europe, the box art in some countries shows a female face clad in body armor, and in Japan the artwork clearly shows a female cyborg. The Japanese version's box art and text is more explicit than the English version. The introductory text in the Japanese version, played if no button is pressed on the Title Screen within 30 seconds, is as follows :
"A huge unidentified object is approaching the Earth. It was made in the far past by another life than the human race, and occupied and inhabited by a vicious creature in the long period. In order to save the Earth, the strongest women warriors go into action."
The English version's opening scroll text goes like this :
"Long ago, an alien race sent a huge world hurtling toward the Earth, loaded with a cargo of mysterious lifeforms. You must battle your way deep within the alien world to destroy its vicious inhabitants. You are the guardian of the Earth and your saga will become The Guardian Legend."
In addition, most US NES versions of Japanese games copy the manual artwork found in the Japanese manual. The US manual copies all the artwork from the Japanese manual except two images showing that the Guardian is female. If there is any doubt that Broderbund was trying to avoid the issue of the title character's gender, this should silence that doubt. Their marketing strategy was to avoid the issue at all costs, undoubtedly to avoid turning off male gamers by prominently featuring a female character in the game. I'm surprised that Broderbund did not change The Guardian's sprite graphics, but then they would have to change something else. Just in case anyone had any doubt about The Guardian's gender, at the end of the game, this screen appears :
The developer of this game, Compile, made quite a reputation for itself with its vertical-scrolling shooters, which include the Aleste/Power Strike and Zanac series. Compile would feature female protagonists in some of its later games, including Aleste 2 (MSX2), MUSHA Aleste (Mega Drive/Genesis) and GG Aleste (Game Gear).
As far as the game goes, this is definitely one of the best fusions of two different gameplay styles for the NES. The team behind The Guardian Legend gave itself reasonable goals. They implemented a vertical scrolling shooter mode based on Zanac and an overview exploration mode inspired by The Legend of Zelda. The graphics and music are especially impressive, with many enemies filling the screen without much slowdown. The bosses are impressive because they are so large. The developers did this all within 128KB cartridge, which is even more impressive.
Of the two gameplay modes, the shooting stages (the corridors) are the stronger of the two. This is unsurprising considering Compile's pedigree in vertical shooters. By contrast, nothing consequential seems to happen in the exploration stages (the labryinth). The difficulty spikes in odd places, with the fight against the second Optomon like hitting a brick wall. In addition, the weapon choices are not equal or nearly so. The lengthy passwords can cause frustration.
Like VS Mach Rider, this one is a questionable inclusion at best. Although the Guardian Legend seemed embarassed by its protagonist, at least they kept the cute girl image at the end in the game. When Konami localized Salamander as Life Force, they took out the credits and the multiple endings. The best ending in Salamander, seen if you use no continues, included graphics of the pilot of the Vic Viper taking off her helmet to reveal herself to be a woman during the credits :
After the planet Zelos explodes in Life Force, only KONAMI is shown with the credits music playing, and pressing start sends you back to level one with whatever lives and powers you had at the end. Life Force and Salamander share the same ROM size, so leaving the pilot out completely was probably not a size decision. I could postulate that the credits were removed to obscure the fact that Japanese programmers made this game, but Konami (and Ultra) was generally not a company to hide its origins when releasing games outside Japan. Of games from this period, only Top Gun omits credits in the U.S. version.
It is important to note that Life Force supports the Konami code for 30 fighters per continue, Salamander does not. As the Konami code made it much, much easier to defeat the game without continuing, perhaps Konami believed the continue-based endings had no meaning.
Of course, for such a bad-ass game like Life Force, perhaps Konami decided to cut out the woman because it would turn off boys from their products.
Faria - A World of Danger and Mystery!
This is an overhead adventure game with similarities to The Legend of Zelda and Dragon Warrior. The game's packaging and manual is intentionally very ambiguous about your character's gender. The manual either uses "you" or "the warrior" to refer to the main character. However, some of the artwork betrays a feminine appearance. Look at the armor, particularly the legs, on the box art. Also, some of the armor as shown in the manual has an area which would suit the female breast well. Finally, the in-game character sprite looks just a little more like a boy than a girl :
The game apparently does not have any closeups of the main character. The Japanese box art makes it quite clear that the title character is a girl. However, during the game there is a twist, sort of the reverse of Metroid. It turns out that there was a curse on the title character that turned him into a girl. His proper sex is a boy, and when he changes back toward the end of the game his sprite becomes much more masculine in appearance. This allows him, when he rescues the princess (the object of the game), to marry her and live happily ever after.
The game itself is passable as a Zelda clone, but the Dragon Warrior inpsired random enemy battles were ill-advised. The fact that your character controls like a brick, has a narrow range of attack and there is virtually no hit recovery time makes this game more difficult than it should be. The graphics are rather strange with many NPCs looking impossibly goofy. The browns and reds in the NES palette are all over the place in this game. The soldiers in the game are female.
This game is relatively simple and reminds me of the Hydlide and King's Knight. Fortunately it is better than either of those two horrible games. It was released in April 1990, and is a relatively simplistic game for one released so late in the NES's lifecycle. The main character is a female Elf named Christine who goes off to fight a Shogun and his Ninjas to save her kingdom. It is odd but I can find no Japanese release for this game. The principal frustration is the control scheme where you simply cannot turn, each button press either moves or turns and moves you character, leading to cheap deaths. If you press the select button between the stages, you get a status screen like this :
At least for once, the cover/label artwork has not been localized for this game. This is probably due to a lack of funds. With this cover/label artwork, we get something of a sense of the gorgeous artwork of Japanese Famicom games. They almost always put the stuff we got to shame.
The Krion Conquest
This game borrows many gameplay elements from the Mega Man series, but I would not go so far as to deem it a Mega Man clone. The main character, Francesca, is a witch who can use six types of magic, selected on a menu screen. Her wand can shoot a normal shot that can be charged (think Mega Buster), a ball shot that can bounce around walls (similar to Gemini Man's power), a fire power which can damage all enemies on the screen at the cost of 1/3 of your life (similar to Toad Man's power), an ice shot that can freeze enemies when powered up (just like Ice Man's power). She can also summon her broom which can be used to transport you over gaps or spikes (one of the Rush types) Francesca's in-game sprite looks like Mega Man, she controls like Mega Man, makes similar sounds and dies like him too. Unlike Mega Man, she starts with all these powers at the beginning of the game, and can shoot upwards and shoot while ducking. Her powers are needed to be used far more frequently to defeat enemies than Mega Man's special powers. Her powers do not have any weapons energy, with the exception of the Fire power. Also, there is no stage select. There are five rounds with three levels and a boss at the end of each road. Unfortunately, you don't get the boss's power when you beat him. The graphics are good, but the music isn't going to give any of the Mega Man games a run for their money.
In Japan the game is known as Magical Doropie, which is a transliteration of Dorothy, which happens to be the witch's name. In both versions of the game, there is an introductory scene, but there are cutscenes in Magical Doropie. These cutscenes were removed for The Krion Conquest. Also, the title screen for Magical Doropie has an image of Doropie whereas the The Krion Conquest only has the title in uncharacteristic archaic lettering. There is a screen with an image of Doropie announcing the beginning of each round, and at the end of each stage a hexagram is drawn on the screen. Nothing so interesting with The Krion Conquest. The sole image with Francesca has been redrawn somewhat from the original to make her look more like a girl than a young woman. The ending is particularly affected by the cuts. Also, there are no continues in The Krion Conquest, which makes a hard game much, much harder.
Unlike The Guardian Legend's localization, where efforts were taken to minimize the gender of the character, The Krion Conquest has minimizing of another kind going on here. Vic Tokai kept the localization as cheap as possible. It would have cost some money to translate all the dialogue and fit it into the ROM. While the hexagram drawing had to be removed because of Nintendo's censorship, any other graphics that would have to be redone, such as the Title Screen or the Round Intro Screen, to show a more youthful main character, were apparently out of Vic Tokai's budget. The box for The Krion Conquest shows a female witch and the manual does not try to obscure the fact that your character is a female witch named Francesca. Fortunately, some good soul wrote a translation patch so we can now enjoy Magical Doropie as the programmers originally intended.
WURM : Journey to the Center of the Earth
While The Guardian Legend was a successful synthesis of two different gameplay styles, WURM was way too ambitious and ended up failing on multiple levels. It is not an awful game, just one whose ambition outstripped the resources (I believe all of three people contributed to the game) devoted to it. WURM includes cutscenes (Ninja Gaiden) horizontal shooting stages (Gradius) vertical shooting stages (Life Force), sidescrolling action/fighting exploration (Golgo 13) and boss battles conducted in a first-person view (Golgo 13 first person enemy shooting mode). Because some of the same people who worked on Golgo 13 : Top Secret Episode worked on this game, it is something of a spiritual successor to Golgo 13.
WURM is the first NES game to portray a female character as something more than just an in-game sprite and a closeup photo. The main character of this game is Moby, cut straight from the anime world with green hair and a suit that covers about 60% of her body. Thanks to the cut scenes and interactive segments, Moby will interact with various members of her crew and enemies. She is given a love interest and a crucial plot point revolves around that interest. Unlike The Guardian Legend, the box art and manual do not obscure the fact that the main character is a female.
Unfortunately, WURM was released during the "Red Stripe" era of NES games. This is the box-label styling Nintendo adopted after the release of the SNES. Because attention was being quickly focused away from NES games, this game is more obscure than it deserves to be.
None of WURM's five gameplay styles is particularly great. The SHUMP style sections are just not very memorable. The great SHUMPs of the NES : Life Force, Zanac, The Guardian Legend, Gradius and Gun Nac, are not threatened by this game. There is a sameness to the levels and the enemies are fairly generic. While the ship (VZR) has many different abilities and modes, only a few get to see any real use.
The cut scenes suffer from repetition, both in the sense that graphics are being constantly reused and the cut scenes generally proceed in the same fashion. An example, Dan in the ship announces that they have hit something. The scene pans to Moby, who speculates on the situation. Then Moby is shown walking out of the ship and discovering something. The English is somewhat awkward in these scenes and dialog is also being reused. They are nothing like the dynamic and inventive cut scenes of any of the Ninja Gaiden games. The ending is just a screen of text, leaving the player extremely disappointed after watching all the cutscenes that appeared prior thereto. You would expect some really spectacular ending animations, but you get zilch.
The sidescrolling stages appear to be, developmentally, somewhere in between the two Golgo 13 games. Moby has two weapons, her kick and her gun (with limited ammo). Duke Togo had the same two weapons, although Moby's kick is closer to the second game. These stages disappoint because of the very limited variety of enemies you encounter and the relative featurelessness of the background graphics. Fights with the Nonmaltas become very repetitive, very quickly. The stages also show where the game had some rushed areas, namely the boss fights against Zolda and Icamod. These guys, supposedly the #3 and #2 to the main villain, run away after a few shots from Moby's gun every time. Apparently the developers did not have the time to give them an AI more appropriate to their status.
Finally, the boss fights are very strange. The game puts you in a 360 mode where you can shoot at the monster. No matter how many times you shoot at his weak point, you cannot defeat him until you raise the Probability Factor to 100%. How you do this is not well-explained. You can raise the score by talking to your teammates in the right order, but some can say something stupid and lower your score. You can also sometimes regain or lose some health by talking to them. Talking to the team only gets you part of the way, to raise the score all the way you need to shoot the monster as he is attacking you. Further, you need to select the right weapon. Of course, it is hard to tell when you actually hit the monster's attack. This typically takes several minutes as you go back and forth between talking and shooting, making it increasingly tedious.
This is another game where the US got hideous box/label art and Japan received beautiful box art. The Japanese box shows Moby prominently in a very attractive profile (with uncharacteristic blond/light green hair). The US got something fugly by comparison, which implied that there were a male and female playable character.
Ghost Lion is a Role Playing Game with a girl named Maria as its central character. It plays like Dragon Warrior, with a menu box allowing you character to interact with the world, view status and use items. It uses odd terms like "Hope" for Level, "Courage" for HP and "Dreams" for MP. The main character can attack on her own and she can summon spirits to help her for a battle, not too dissimilar to Pokemon. Summoning a spirit costs a turn and Spirit Points. The spirits have their own HP and can attack on their own and some can cast spells. If one gets put out of action you can summon him or her again.
The plot falls into a standard trope of a girl trying to find her lost parents. Her parents were lost researching the Legend of the Ghost Lion, which incidentally is the name of the game on the Title Screen. You go to search for them, fall off a bridge and spend the rest of the game in a dream world. The game is more colorful than your average medieval fantasy RPG. You will be seeing Maria's face a lot, she reacts to damage and winks at you when you beat a monster.
Ghost Lion was released in October, 1992 for the NES. The gameplay is very primitive by 1992 standards. The Japanese version was released in July, 1989, where it would have been more impressive, especially from an RPG from a publisher (Kemco) who did not make RPGs their stock-in-trade. The game is not as difficult as other NES RPGs, it was clear that with the main character and the plot that Kemco was trying to target younger players.
There are no experience points or any equivalent in the game. You increase your level by finding "fragments of hope" in treasure chests. There is no healing magic, you have to buy "Bread" to heal damage. While Maria can equip more powerful weapons, there does not seem to be any typical armor in this game. Instead, there are defensive items you can use, defensive spells some of your spirits can cast, and your spirits can defend you by taking hits meant for you.
You also acquire new spirits by finding items, and as your level increases, so do their abilities. You do earn money (rubies) from battles, but you will fight enough random battles that there is little need to grind for gold. You can heal yourself for free at the fairy area where you also save your game (like to the King in Dragon Warrior, but he doesn't heal you). Death only means you lose half your money and start back at your last save, exactly like Dragon Warrior. This is still a NES RPG, so you can expect tedious random battles and items that do very little at the higher levels.
Ghost Lion is another game where the US box art does not compare to the Japanese box art. This is a common issue with Famicom games, they have better box art, more colorful manuals, and even more colorful and varied cartridge shells!
I have not discussed licensed games with female protagonists like The Little Mermaid or Barbie, their stories are well-known. Most of the games described here are somewhat obscure, although I believe there are two classics (Metroid, The Guardian Legend) here. All of these games, except for Athena, are quite playable and enjoyable.
As far as the portrayal of girls and women go, you should not expect much here. Video games were marketed heavily toward pre-teen and teenage boys. More maturer gamers would have a more satisfying selection in many instances from PC games. Video game marketing toward girls has always been a tricky subject, and marketing games to girls during the NES era was particularly non-existent. The thinking was that boys identify with strong, male characters and prefer to rescue damsels in distress than play as a heroic girl/female character.
Ghost Lion appears to be the only game that may have used a female protagonist broaden the appeal of the game to girls. I suspect that a lack of funds to redraw the player sprites prevented The Krion Conquest and The Guardian Legend from removing the female character completely.
I have discussed four games here that use some form of surprise gender reversal. Amusingly, TV Tropes actually identifies this as "Samus is a Girl". It is fairly popular in anime, so it is not surprising that it is one of the tools of surprise Japanese programmers used in their games. The surprise is based on the fact that we expect that a humanoid that kicks ass is a dude. When the dude turns out to be a dudette, the less mature among us gasped in awe, disbelief or puzzlement. It also gives the programmers an excuse to insert eye-candy into their games, and Nintendo was the first with VS Mach Rider. At least the NES, in the hands of a great graphic artist, can do justice to the female form.
Female characters are rarely well-developed in video games, but in the NES era, there was little attention to narrative or story, and what little attention there was left little in the way of development. Just about everything is an archetype or stereotype. Moby from WURM may be the best-developed female character in this list, but she is defined in very, very broad strokes in the anime mold.
None of these female protagonists, with one or two possible exceptions, were really played up as "sex symbols". Although no doubt unintentional, Nintendo's censorship policies limited the overtly sexist depictions of female lead characters. Supporting female characters, from Donkey Kong's Pauline and Super Mario Bros. 1 & 3's Princess Toadstool onward, would continue often to be depicted as helpless damsels in distress needing only to be saved, but this was not unique to Nintendo. The NES did suprisingly well in limiting sexism in the games using female protagonists, and the games are more enjoyable because of it.