While working on The Strong’s exhibit on the history of women in the video game industry, I decided to do some research into the earliest examples of playable female characters. I already knew I’d be including some beloved favorites, such as Midway’s Ms. Pac-Man (1982) and Nintendo’s Samus Aran from Metroid (1986). Others were new to me, such as the titular character from the game Lady Bug (1981), a maze game by Universal Entertainment Corporation and the first example of a playable female character in any video game. But one woman stood out to me, due to the evolution—and erasure—of her character.
In 1985, Sega released an arcade game entitled Ninja Princess. Set during Japan’s Edo period, it stars the titular Princess Kurumi who is kidnapped from her castle by the evil warlord Zaemon Gyokuro. Instead of being resigned to her fate, Kurumi quickly demonstrates her prowess as a ninja and escapes. The player spends the rest of the game fighting as Kurumi to regain control of her palace, battling her enemies with throwing stars and knives.
Ninja Princess proved popular enough for Sega to release a port on its SG-1000 home console. It featured fun, colorful artwork by Rieko Kodama, who would go on to earn much acclaim for her work on the Phantasy Star and Sonic the Hedgehog franchises. As an early example of modern-day run-and-gun games, Ninja Princess earned praise for its solid controls and varied attack styles.
So why haven’t many Americans heard of the daring Princess Kurumi? Likely because she doesn’t exist on this side of the world. In 1986, Sega released the American version of Ninja Princess on the Master System home console. Titled simply The Ninja, the game now starred a male character named Kazamaru who took over all the fight scenes on his way to rescue the captured princess. Additionally, Kodama’s colorful backgrounds were toned down and altered to look more realistic, as Sega believed such “cutesy” décor wouldn’t impress an American audience.
While regrettable, Sega’s alterations can be understood from a historical perspective. The mid-1980s American video game scene was dominated by young men and boys, with marketing heavily targeted to that demographic. Sega executives likely assumed a game with a male protagonist and grittier scenery would resonate much more with such an audience. But even so, this erasure of one of the first empowered heroines in video game history is quite unfortunate, and only catered to the still-pervasive stereotypes that not only are video games primarily made for males, but that such males wouldn’t enjoy playing as a female. While this attitude still persists more often than it should, later characters such as Samus Aran and Lara Croft proved female protagonists could sell games just as well as males, but the prevailing default is still a male lead.
Interested in even more history of women as creators, players, and characters in video games? Be sure to check out The Strong’s Women in Games exhibit, now on view until May 2019.