Female characters in Nintendo: The effort is there, but it has room to grow

Female characters in video games has been a hot button issue this past year. I won’t get into what female characters are tropes, which are great, and on and on and on. What I want to focus on is the changing culture of playable female characters, namely in recent Nintendo franchises Mario Kart and Super Smash Bros. These franchises are two of Nintendo’s most beloved multiplayer games. These games have both gone through an evolution of playable female characters.

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Nintendo Women’s History Month posters

For Women’s History Month in March, Nintendo celebrated with a poster campaign featuring female characters from their games. They were met with criticism from feminists arguing that these characters are “Ms. Male Characters” who lack depth of personality because they are simply female versions like Toadette (think Ms. Pacman). The other gripe is that characters are over-sexualized which can have a negative impact on the perception of women in society.

Okay. I’ve heard it.

Nintendo is trying. I look at these posters and I see a positive message. Maybe I am a male with more body hair than intelligence, but I see this as a good thing. It was meant as a celebration of women. Accept it graciously. I give Nintendo praise for what they have done with their games to open them up to women. There are more adult women who play video games than boys ages 10-20. Forty-eight-percent of all gamers are women. These number may take some people by surprise given the stereotype that gamers are mostly young males.

However, in comparison to male characters available for play in Mario Kart and Super Smash Bros., there are significantly less female characters. An effort has been made to add more over time, but some of the techniques to accomplish that are a little bit questionable. Let’s break it down:

Mario Kart

Princess Peach was the only female character available in Mario Kart for over ten years. It wasn’t until Mario Kart Wii when we saw a significant number come up. The goal isn’t so much as to “catch up” with the boys as it is to just get a higher number for the girls. What I don’t like about the creation of characters for Mario Kart is that you end up with more female characters, but many of them like Peach and Rosalina simply have baby versions to add to the numbers. You can see the whole list here.

Super Smash

The Super Smash Bros. started off with Samus and Jigglypuff as female characters in 1999. When I first played this game at the age of eleven, I didn’t even realize Samus was female as I never played any Metroid games. We finally got a spike in female characters in the latest rendition of the game, but again, not a lot of original characters. Zelda and Sheik were separated into two characters. Samus was split between her armored version and “Zero Suit” version. Other characters are unisex like Wii Fit Trainer and Robin, where their sex can be chosen at the character selection screen.

Is it ideal representation? No, I don’t think so. But Nintendo is working with what it has. These games have characters based on the the ones pulled from their classic lineup. It’s progress. In the continuation of these franchises, we should see even more female characters join in.

Amiibos.

Last year, Nintendo turned down an offer from Activision’s Skylanders to have them exclusively for the Wii. Skylanders are little figurines that interact with a video game to let you play as that particular character in the game. They are incredibly popular, bringing in $1.5 billion in revenue since 2011. Did Nintendo mess up? Maybe. But then they thought, “we’ll just make our own.” And that’s why we have Amiibos.

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Amiibos work a little differently than Skylanders. Depending on the character, you can use them differently for different games. One way to use Mario here, is to link him up on Super Smash Bros. Wii U and train him to be stronger than your average fighter. You can buy these things for about $13 if you can find them. Or if you can’t, you can buy them on eBay for over $100. Some characters are easy to find, some are extremely rare. This is just one of the Nintendo products with artificial scarcity.

/r/amiibo is a great place to watch the insanity. It’s also a really great place to find what you’re looking for. People will post sitings at sorts and links to order or preorder certain figures. They’ll also vent their frustrations about how they can’t find what they want. What sense does this make? Why doesn’t Nintendo just make a ton of them and sell them all? /u/Majordomo_ makes a good point:

“Here’s the thing; by limiting production they actually are pulling in a larger demographic of consumers. In the short-term they are sacrificing sales to increase the long-term demand through engaging a pool of people that would have otherwise not cared about Amiibo.

Also, with limited shelf space at retailers (The profit margin is slim on a 13$ Toy) it is in the manufacturers best interest to have stock come in waves and be turned immediately. Which is exactly what is happening. Perceived demand when seeing empty shelves vs stocked shelves greatly effects consumer behavior.”

Nintendo knows exactly how this works. They have created the illusion of value. They make people do stupid things. I have a friend with every single one of the Amiibos sitting on his living room floor all still in the boxes. He has preordered all of them and stood in line to receive them. I guess that’s what happiness looks like: 30 or so Amiibos on your floor in boxes.

Nintendo on pace to have more Virtual Console games on Wii U than the Wii

One of the coolest features Nintendo has come out with in the past ten years is the Virtual Console. All the classics you love from the NES, SNES or Nintendo 64 have been available for download on the Wii, 3DS or Wii U. Some gamers are traditionalists and only want to play the classic games on the original console with the original cartridge. I get that. Some music lovers have an appreciation for the sound of a vinyl record. It’s a very similar concept with classic video games. Dusting off the cartridge, switching the console on, holding the original controller, and viewing it on an old CTR television are all part of the experience.

But for all of you that really don’t care about the nostalgic stuff, the Virtual Console puts all of your old favorites on one machine. The problem is that if you’ve purchased one of the 427 titles in the Wii Virtual Console, they don’t automatically transfer to the Wii U VC. Nintendo still cuts you a break, however. If a title is available for the Wii U VC, but you’ve already purchased it for the Wii, it’ll only cost you an extra $1.50 to add the extra Wii U features like GamePad-only play and Restore Points.

But what if the game I want to play is available on the Wii but not the Wii U? You can still play that game on the Wii U by going to the original Wii menu. All your stuff from your former console is still there if you transferred everything over. Those games just won’t have the same functionality. So far, there are a lot fewer games on the Wii U VC, which makes sense. Nintendo brought in 426 titles for the Wii from 2006 to 2013. The Wii U began adding games in 2013. To date, the Wii U VC has 143 games.

You can also choose from a separate list of 171 games on the 3DS virtual console, including some “3D Classics” like Excitebike that have 3D capabilities. As of now, you can “cross buy” titles you’ve bought on the 3DS and get them for free on the Wii U. You cannot get them for free on the 3DS if you bought them on the Wii U quite yet, however.

Has Nintendo been as busy cranking out VC games for the Wii U as they did with the Wii? From November 2006 to June 2013, they came out with an average of 5.325 games per month. From June 2011 to present, Nintendo has put out an average of 4 games per month for the 3DS VC. The average for Wii U VC games is 5.46 games per month since Balloon Fight hit the VC on January 23, 2013.

At first I was upset that there were a lack of games on the Wii U VC, especially because games I owned like Super Mario: RPG for the Wii VC wasn’t available for the upgrade. Considering games are being ported to both the 3DS and the Wii U at the same time, the data shows Nintendo is busier than ever getting your favorite classics to the new consoles.

My encounter with Nintendo’s scarcity

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Earlier, I talked about special edition Nintendo products and how they are only benefitting scalpers. I was one of those gamers that refused to pay more than retail price for a product, even if it was something I really wanted. I wasn’t planning on getting the Majora’s Mask special edition 3DS because it was sold out just about everywhere just as it was able to be purchased. But my friend told me if I wanted one, I should try to get to Target as they open.

I figured, what the hell. The last time I got up early to wait in line for something was back when the original Nintendo Wii was released. I got up around 6:00 a.m. to make sure I got to Target in enough time to get my Wii. I was the first person in line. It was extremely cold that morning, but I came prepared and got my console.

The Target in Morgantown opens at 8:00 a.m. and I arrived just a little after 7:00. There was no one there for the first 15 minutes. The manager saw me standing outside at the door and poked his head out the side door, “We don’t open for another 45 minutes.”

“Oh, I know,” I told him. I guess this new 3DS isn’t that big of a deal. But then more people came. There were five us total. One of guys gave up because he did not come prepared for the cold. Another gentleman was one of the poor souls that had his preorder cancelled by Best Buy. I really hope that we all got our systems. We were all willing to wait in line in the cold before the store opened. We deserved to be rewarded.

When the store finally opened, we all walked back to the electronics section cordially. I feared that someone might make a run for it, but it was agreed upon that we were in the order we arrived. One of the Target employees said, “So you guys here for the Majora’s Mask game?” Uh, not exactly, friend. “What about the system?” a woman asked. Two of the employees looked at each other and paused. It was like they were trying to hide something from us. Like they didn’t want us to have them.

“We have one,” one of them told us. I was honestly shocked. At released, this store got one system. I felt so bad for these other people that didn’t get one, but obviously not bad enough to give mine up. I was probably the only person in the whole city to get one that day. There’s no reason for Nintendo to release that few of a product. There should have been four, one of each of us there. Kotaku posted updates throughout the day of release and the amount of grief people went through to get one was disheartening.

The product itself really is gorgeous. I suggest to anyone that didn’t like the 3DS because of the unstable 3D mode to grab the new version of the hardware. I never turn the 3D off anymore. Games like Pokemon: Omega Ruby still don’t look great because of the drop in frames with the 3D on. I don’t think that game was ever designed to be played in 3D. But Majora’s Mask looks fantastic. You don’t need the special edition 3DS to enjoy it, but you definitely look way cooler playing it.

This is why we can’t have nice things.

No one cared about the new 3DS XL…until Nintendo sold the one with the mask.

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Any Zelda fan that has a true love for the franchise would want to have this. It looks beautiful! And the new 3DS XL solves a lot of the problems associated with the 3D mode that was hard to tolerate for more than five minutes. Chris Kohler at WIRED.com got to play the graphically enhanced Majora’s Mask, originally released for the Nintendo 64 in 2000, on the new 3DS XL.

“My first experience with New 3DS made it clear that it had at least solved the illusion-breaking issue, but I also found that the weird eye fatigue was gone. I could play and play and play in 3-D and totally forget I was doing it,” Kohler said.

Playing Ocarina of Time on 3DS was great, but I never played it with the 3D mode on. I anticipated keeping it off for Majora’s Mask until I read what the new hardware can do. Okay I know! I have a 3DS XL currently. I’ll pre-order the new 3DS XL Majora’s Mask special edition, along with the game. Then when I go to pick it up, I’ll trade in my current device to take a chunk out of the cost! Perfect plan!

Doing a quick search on the product led to some alarming revelations. They’ve been completely sold out…for a long time. The system sells for $199.99. If you really, really want one, you can get on eBay. There are hundreds, literally hundreds selling between $300 and $500. Thomas Whitehead at nintendolife.com explains what is happening best:

“Products designed – by their very concept of being special editions – for dedicated fans are snapped up by many with no interest in them, all in the name of charging those that are desperate. Nintendo gets its cut of the retail sales, but these private sales are a Wild West and are all about exploiting fans for personal gain.”

I’ve been through this hunt before with Nintendo a few times now. It reminds me of the time I searched for the Super Smash Bros. Wii U bunduru complete with Gamecube controller and adapter. It made something I thought should be an extremely simple purchase into something infuriating. I am at least thankful that I have absolutely no interest in Nintendo’s Amiibo figures, designed to used with games like Super Smash Bros. Wii U.

This frustration of artificial scarcity all falls back on Nintendo. Yes, making fewer copies of a product will increase the value, but this only hurts the people who truly love Nintendo and want the products. Carlton McHard is a hardcore Nintendo fan who wants to see some change in how they operate.

“That is the terrible reality of this situation, Nintendo. There are fans out there that have followed you for years. There are some like me who have known you our entire lives. We’re dedicated customers and we want to buy your merchandise. I only wish that you would make it available to us and not punish regular consumers for the sake of your brand. The hype generated around scarcity only creates dissonance between you and loyal fans.”

But who knows how Nintendo will respond? What can we do as loyal fans and consumers? Regardless of how badly you want a product, like the Majora’s Mask 3DS, never buy it for more than the retail price. Also, be at peace with not having the product. Make compromises. Maybe I don’t need the Majora’s Mask 3DS. Maybe I’ll just get a regular new 3DS and find whatever Zelda decorations to put on it.

For now, enjoy the things you already have. Go plug in your  Super Nintendo or Nintendo 64. Play some Mario. It’ll make you feel better.