Women in games have always been a sore subject among those striving for gender equality; but that doesn't mean forward steps haven't taken place.
Progress of female representation in the games sphere of influence has been slow, to put it mildly. Generally, the women who garner the most attention from the fan base appear in entertainment like Dead or Alive: Extreme Beach Volleyball or the infamous BMX XXX. All too often game developers feel it necessary to remind us that, yes, women have breasts.
One could look at the current gaming landscape and wonder if any progress has been made at all; but I remain cautiously optimistic. So as we begin Women's History Month, I'm beginning this small series to take a look at the history of female representation that has somehow affected change in the industry - to chronicle and catalog, to explore and open a dialog.
These are the five women who bucked the trend of the current gaming landscape - whatever it was at the time - to truly stand out as unique in their own ways. The first on our list is Ms. Pac-Man, the heroine of 1981 that continues all these years later to outshine her male counterpart.
Developing the Miss
At Ms Pac-Man's core, she wasn't initially a female. In fact, she wasn't a Pac-anything. Before she tried on her pretty red bow and began chomping ghosts, she was a bootleg game called "Crazy Otto."
As this hack was in development, Namco was hard at work on Super Pac-Man, which was to be the follow-up of the original hit title. But Midway, the North American distributer of Namco's games, was growing increasingly impatient with the development process.
"Crazy Otto" from the General Computer Corporation was a fairly direct Pac-Man clone, with different boards following the same principle game mechanics, and a Pac-like figure that included legs as well. The GCC presented their bootleg to Midway, who was thrilled with the prospect of a new hit title without all the messy work of waiting for Namco to finish development. So they bought the rights to the game, and reworked the sprites to become the Ms. Pac-Man we know today.
Why Was She So Important?
Ms. Pac-Man was the first popular female protagonist in gaming history. Quite simply, she was different by nature of being a "she." Though sparse on story, the game presented us with one of the very first prominent female heroes to grace our arcade boards. To Midway, it was a way of getting girls to play games; and though a mere palette swap may seem a cheap tactic by today's standards, at the time it was fairly effective.
Games before Ms. Pac-Man tended to have a male hero at the helm, usually coming to the aide of a helpless damsel. The first Donkey Kong game, released the same year as Ms. Pac-Man, included a distressed Princess (who you know as Princess Toadstool or Peach) being saved by the heroic Jumpman (later renamed Mario).
In Ms. Pac-Man, the populus was presented with a heroine every bit as capable as her male counterpart, and many find her game superior to the original all these years later.
On the Other Hand...
For all her strong points, Ms. Pac-Man as a character is fairly shallow. She's essentially a palette swap of the original dot-eating yellow pie, and has no outstanding female qualities aside from her stereotypical beauty mark and red bow. In these early days of simplistic gaming, Ms. Pac-Man was more a stand-in for the intellectual property than a real hero in her own rite. In the rare case since the 80s that Pac-Man games have had stories, Ms. Pac-Man has been either forgotten or taking care of the Pac-babies.
Next Time: The Galaxy of 8-Bit
Ms. Pac-Man was the trailblazer, but not what one would call the most progressive character in gaming history. As we moved forward into the 8-bit Golden Age of gaming, we found a new hero; an orphan raised on a distant planet and determined to rid the galaxy of Space Pirates and the parasitic creatures they breed.