In the 90s, when I was a spacey little kid with almost no awareness of the outside world, the idea of GIRL POWER was all over the media and inescapable. The Yellow and Pink Rangers fought side-by-side with their male comrades, the Powerpuff Girls were making superheroics super cute, and the Spice Girls couldn't restrain themselves from shouting that phrase every time they wandered in front of a camera. But despite the seemingly positive message in that slogan, I was kind of indifferent to it. All it really did was make me wonder why these figures, if they were so powerful, had to spend so much time telling everybody (especially boys) about how powerful they were? I wanted to see girls being powerful...and because that's who they were, not because they had something to prove. Thankfully, I wound up finding characters like that in video games.
During my formative years in the nineties and the aughts, I spent a hell of a lot of time playing video games. Most of those games had me either playing as a dude or following stories about dudes. And that was fine—I mean, shit, I love me some video games—but I always felt most excited when I played games with female characters. It felt like it was being confirmed that these games were for me too. But it was about more than just the games: I got to see women being heroes, and that is something that a growing girl needs.
It was actually kind of hard to write this list, because games back in the day really didn't have that many lady characters, and I didn't play every game there was, of course. But here are the ones that really stuck out for me.
Natalya Simonova – Goldeneye 64
Let's get this out of the way: in terms of gameplay, Natalya as a companion character is a huge ass-pain. She seem to seek death, like a lemming that just listened to every album of This Mortal Coil. She carries a Cougar Magnum, but never freaking uses it. There's also friendly fire, so if her dumb ass runs in front of you while you're plugging jungle operatives, that's curtains for her. But if you think about the fact that she is instrumental in the storyline, and she is probably the first female playable character in a multiplayer shooter, it drives up her stock a bit. Back when I used to play Goldeneye with my sister and her friends, there was something so satifying about being able to shoot people in the face with a grenade launcher while sporting a black skirt and a sensible blouse.
Plus, Natayla managed to put up with Bond constantly pointing a gun in her face without even flinching:
Chun-Li – Street Fighter II
This one is pretty obvious. I mean, it's a fighting game: whipping ass is the objective. When I was writing this list, I also thought of Sonya from Mortal Kombat, but the truth is that Chun-Li's moves are just better. For sheer fighting proficiency, Chun-Li is one of the best characters in Street Fighter. Her Lightning Kick and helicopter spin move are pretty damn formidable. I know dudes who would choose her over Ryu or Ken. I think I also like Chun-Li because of her aesthetic. She dresses cute, and she has the bun-bun hair, but she also has thick, can-crushing thighs. I love a lady who looks like she could snap spines with her legs. As an added bonus, I think that Chun-Li was the first badass character that taught me how to put my bitch face on:
That's some top-notch disdain.
Yuffie – Final Fantasy VII
A lot of people would say that Tifa is more badass than Yuffie. Yeah, Tifa is a proficient hand-to-hand fighter, and she is more of a main character than Yuffie is, but I just never got into Tifa. She seemed so concerned with Cloud all the time—talking about him, worrying about him. Even her backstory positions her as "Cloud's best friend" and kind of makes her life seem to revolve around him.
Yuffie on the other hand is a motherfucking ninja—literally. She wields a giant shuriken, has a quick wit, and even quicker fingers, as she repeatedly steals shit from people (even her teammates) right under their noses. She eventually comes around and devotes herself to the cause of saving the world, which just makes her even more likable. When Cloud and his crew show up to Yuffie's city for the first time and get outfoxed by her over and over, it is both hilarious and inspiring.
Also, her ultimate attack is a giant beam of awesome:
Princess Peach – Super Mario Bros. 2
Most of the time, it seems like Peach's main occupation is being a perpetual kidnap victim. That's like the premise of nearly every Mario game ever. But in SMB2, she gets to be part of the action. More than that, she is the best damn playable character in that game. She can freaking float! I can't think of a single person I've ever met that played as any other character in that game. I played with Toad a couple of times, and then I was like, "Why am I bothering with this chump? Princess for the win." She is so iconic in that game, that they wound up putting her moves from SMB2 into the Smash Brothers games; she floats and she can throw turnips. Also, as many might recall, Peach doesn't sit idly by in Super Mario Bros. 3 either. She manages to get secret messages to Mario and send him magical items. Not exactly a passive prisoner. Peach even gets her own game later on, Super Princess Peach, and it is tons of fun. And guess what? Mario gets his dumb ass captured in that game, and Peach saves him.
Sheik/Zelda – The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time
I could write an entire post by itself just about Ocarina of Time. That game changed what I thought a video game was. And one of the best parts of that game is Sheik. Sheik shows up as a mentor and a savior while Link is running around Hyrule still learning how to swing his sword. At first you don't learn what gender Sheik is, but there are some hints, especially at one point when she gets thrown around by a monster and a rather feminine voice escapes her. It's not revealed until much later in the game that Sheik was actually Zelda all along, hiding in plain sight from the main enemy, Ganondorf.
I was so inspired by Sheik's fighting skills, her wisdom, her agility. She was even trained by a woman: her boydguard, caretaker, and a descendant of shadowy warriors, Impa. Hell, between the Gerudo and Impa, and other sages like Saria and Ruto, this game is chock full of female characters taking charge and kicking ass. Even when Zelda isn't posing as Sheik, she does a lot to defeat Ganon. She imbues Link's arrows with light, which is the ultimate weapon against Ganon. She uses her magic to hold him down while Link delivers the final blow. And if it weren't for her and the Seven Sages, they wouldn't have been able to seal Ganon away. Still, my favorite parts are when Sheik gets into the action. When I heard that Zelda would be able to transform into Sheik in Super Smash Bros: Melee, I just about wet myself with happiness. I always wanted to be able to kick ass with Sheik, and my dream was realized. It's still something I find incredibly fulfilling today.
Nowadays, there are more ladies in video games than ever. It's pretty exciting to watch it unfold: my childhood self would be starry-eyed playing as Talim in Soul Calibur or a game like Elderscrolls, where the story revolves around whoever you create. Here's hoping that the more we female fans speak up, the more we'll get women characters who kick as much ass as the men. Maybe we could even get some more in starring roles? Fingers crossed!
Main image via zelda.wikia.com. Other images via the following sites (in order): goldeneye.detstar.com, pixgood.com, streetfighter.wikia.com, fightersgeneration.com, instructables.com, dealne.com, heypoorplayer.com