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.