Last years Metroid Dread bring metroid‘the heroine in the limelight, reminding everyone what a great character she is. She’s a tough and powerful female space warrior and one of the best gaming heroines of all time. He certainly did a great job of rekindling the hype for the upcoming Metroid Prime 4.
While Samus is definitely among the best female protagonists in gaming, she’s not the first. There are many other great ladies who preceded her. Some of them are well known, but most are more obscure. These ladies deserved to be recognized for their contributions to the diversity of the early games.
Lady Bug – Lady Bug (1981)
Lady Bug, from the game of the same name, is perhaps the game’s first female protagonist. On the side of her arcade cabinet, she is depicted as a fairy in a ladybug outfit. Most reissues of this Atari classic depict her as a human woman. The game, however, casts a little doubt on this.
The game itself is a Pac man clone, as the player navigates a variety of mazes trying to collect all the collectibles. Given her basic graphics, Lady Bug simply looks like the bug in the game. Yet, even though she really is a bug, she is the start of a female revolution in gaming.
Mother Kangaroo – Kangaroo (1982)
Among the myriad of games available for the Atari 2600, Kangaroo doesn’t stand out much and it’s an early platformer that’s inspired by donkey kong. A kangaroo must climb a series of steps while avoiding dangers. The platform is not very deep and clumsily uses the upward direction to jump.
The game was groundbreaking to feature the very first playable mother. The kangaroo fights against the monkeys to save his Joey, whom they have kidnapped. She even breaks the genre norms of early video games by being a physical threat that can easily knock enemies aside. Although it’s an animal, it’s a pretty cool character for the game’s first mom.
Papri – The Girls’ Garden (1985)
girls garden is a game developed by SEGA for a Japanese-only PC. The game is an arcade-style maze adventure where the player controls a girl named Papri. Papri has a boy she wants to impress and sets out to retrieve a maze-shaped flower from the garden to impress him. Each round of the game requires Papri to find more flowers for his crutch.
The game is more than a little dated, but it has a cute charm to it and also stands out for its development team. sonic the hedgehog creator, Yuji Naka, was one of the game’s programmers, starting his career at SEGA here. Papri might be a little quaint, but he started a trend for SEGA that would result in big female characters like Bayonetta, the cast of Sakura Warsand a ninja princess.
Kurumi – Ninja Princess (1985)
With a game title like ninja princess, you know the protagonist is going to be cool. Kurumi-hime, the titular ninja princess, sets out to defeat the dangerous overlord Gyokuro. She does this by throwing knives and shuriken with deadly precision at enemy ninjas and she’s actually quite a violent heroine despite being called a princess.
Perhaps SEGA felt the name would be unappealing overseas, as the game’s English name was changed to Sega Ninja. Still, that doesn’t change Kurumi’s toughness. The game is essentially a run-and-gun shooter, although it launches its projectiles instead of firing them.
Reika Kirishima – Time Gal (1985)
Time Gal is an obscure game, but one with a lot of ambition. It was an FMV game inspired by the likes of dragon’s lair, but rather than being an anime, its animation was done by the famous anime studio Toei. This gave it a very nostalgic 80s vintage anime aesthetic to check out today.
Not that the game has aged well, as the gameplay is similarly limited, consisting entirely of punishing quick events. Additionally, the titular Time Gal’s outfit has been criticized for being sexualized. Reika is a pretty strong protagonist though. She chases bandits for many periods and saves the universe in the end with her laser gun.
Billie Sue – Wabbit (1982)
The Atari game wabbit is described by Polygon to be the “first console game with a named playable female character who is not off-screen”. Kangaroo cast doubt on that, but Billie Sue is definitely the first playable human female. She’s a worker who throws eggs to scare the rabbits off her carrot patch, and aesthetically she looks a lot like the main character of The Wizard of Oz.
The game is considered as one of the best games created by developer Apollo. Its quality and its protagonist were the work of the programmer Van Mai. For a long time, the woman who brought this game to life was unknown, until the Video Game History Foundation found it in 2022.
Toby “Kissy” Masuyo – Baraduke (1985)
A yellow space adventurer explores an alien environment. They fight through waves and waves of dangerous monsters before removing their helmets at the end of the game to reveal that they were actually female all along. She’s not the heroine of Metroid, but rather Toby “Kissy” Masuyo from baraduke and she passed the “space explorer revealed to be female” trope in games a full year before Samus.
Toby would then go on to appear in sequels and Mr. Driller series. She had a few children with the star of dig dug before leaving for other adventures. Toby was definitely an icon for early gamers, but she wasn’t the only “Proto-Samus”. Nintendo themselves released a game called Mach Rider featuring a male motorcyclist who is slowly replaced by a female during the arcade version. This reveal is more vague, but if it is indeed canon, it seems that Samus had two predecessors.
Princess Athena – Athena (1986)
Most of the game’s early female protagonists are sadly irrelevant these days. SNK’s Athena from the eponymous game is the exception, though she has to jump through a few hurdles to get there. The original game began with the divine princess Athena, a warrior with divine origins. The game is a fun platformer, but it was its sequels that made the game stand out.
Psycho-soldiers came out a few years later, featuring one of the first vocal tracks in video games. This introduced Athena Asamiya, the reincarnation of Athena, who derives her psychic powers from her original. Athena then appeared as a character in the king of fighters series, which released an entry this year. A line can be drawn between the original Athena and the appearance of her reincarnation this year.
Ki – The Return of Ishtar (1986)
1984 saw the release of The Tower of Druaga, where the knight Gil must save the princess Ki from the demon Druaga. It’s a pretty standard “damsel in distress” plotline, which made the sequel so important. Player 1 did not control the hero Gil, but rather Ki. Return of Ishtar featured Ki in a headlining role as the main hero.
It was the first time a female character became a playable role in the video game. It wouldn’t be Ki’s last playable role either. The next game in the series would be a prequel where Ki was the only playable character.
Mrs. Pac-Man – Mrs. Pac-Man (1982)
Mrs. Pac-Man is certainly the most famous female video game star before metroid. His game started life as an unauthorized mod of Pac-Man, and she ended up becoming one of the show’s most famous characters. She would go on to appear in most Pac man games and even got a few more titles that she headlined herself. However, she recently stopped appearing in Pac-media.
The story behind it is complicated, but the simple version is that the original rights holders of Ms. Pac-Man sold the character to another company that Namco doesn’t want to negotiate with. As such, other female characters were created to fill the void. The new remake, Pac-Man World Re-Pac, even replaces the Missus with a new character called Pac-Mom. It’s an unfortunate fate for one of the first ladies of video games.