It was sadly difficult to find four heroines from NES games.
These days it can be easy to take for granted that women can—and do—take front and center in a lot of popular games. Enough so that if you search Steam with the “female protagonist” tag, you’ll get more results than you have time to scroll through. But back in the ’80s and ’90s, that was not the case.
It was different times back then. And I’m not sure why it took so long for game publishers to realize that gamers are okay with female characters and we actually like seeing women kicking ass in video games.
If you comb through the NES catalog, you’ll find very few actual female protagonists. There are plenty of women getting captured, needing rescued, offering healing and all that stuff. But sadly true, playable female leads are very tough to find.
So here’s my very short list of female protagonists in NES games. I’m aware there are a few others, if you start getting into relatively obscure titles like Arkistra’s Ring, or games where the woman is still just a supporting character, like Dragon Warrior II.
So yeah. These are just the really badass ones that own the screen in popular games, and don’t need male characters to prop them up.
Samus Aran, Metroid
The most obvious choice for our list here is Samus Aran, the bounty hunter from Metroid.
Unfortunately, the attitude toward female protagonists during the NES era was very different. Samus’s gender was kept a secret, presumably thinking that little boys wouldn’t be interested in playing as a girl. They didn’t all get their cooties shots, I guess. Or possibly making Samus a woman was a last-minute decision. The instruction manual even refers to Samus as a he.
There are multiple endings to Metroid, and the faster your completion time, the more clothes Samus removes. The worst ending she removes nothing, but anything better than that, and she’ll reveal enough to show that she’s a lady.
Otherwise players might never have known. I made a video about this a while back. To me, it seems crappy to feature a strong leading lady, then force her to strip down to her unmentionables. If you really want my opinion, check out the video I made a while back.
Anyway, despite the humiliation of being forced to undress, Samus is a certified badass and metroids should quiver in fear.
Princess Toadstool, Super Mario Bros 2
Princess Toadstool has been my main for 30 years. She FLOATS for crying out loud! And she’s much easier to control than that maniac Luigi with his flailing legs.
And really, it’s nice to see her out of her castle, out of King Koopa’s clutches, and out in the world doing her part to keep Subcon safe. Never mind that the whole game is just a dream and never mind she’s just a reskin of another character. The important thing is that she showed up ready to battle.
The Guardian, The Guardian Legend
Many readers are only reading this to make sure I include the Guardian from The Guardian Legend. Don’t worry. Here she is. Except there’s one small problem. The Guardian isn’t really a woman. She’s a “cybernetic aerobot” transformer who identifies as “it/that.”
I’ll go ahead and count her anyway because she is illustrated as a woman and brings an undeniable feminine charm to the NES catalog.
(The Guardian Legend also features in my post NES Games with Split Personalities)
Vic Viper pilot, Life Force
Did you know? I sure didn’t.
In Life Force, the pilot is never shown. She’s not mentioned in the manual. But in the non-US version of Life Force, Salamander, completing the game using no continues leads to the “best” ending, in which the pilot removes her helmet to reveal that she’s a woman.
Why did Konami choose to take this out of the US version of the game? I don’t know. They dramatically changed the ending sequence for Life Force, removing the end credits entirely. It seems petty, but the best reason I can think of is that they were afraid that American boys would be grossed out if a girl piloted the Vic Viper.
For what it’s worth, I’m glad that things have changed in this department. It’s ridiculous by today’s standards that any publisher would actively work to hide a game protagonist’s gender. But those were crazy times, man. Crazy times.
Thanks for reading!–GG