I'm currently looking for paid writing gigs, so if you might want anything written shoot me a message (craighats at hotmail dot com).
In case the contents of this blog don't make it obvious enough, I have something of an affinity for slightly "offbeat" titles, so if there's something out there that few others cover, there's a fair chance I'm at least somewhat up on it.
If there's any sort of (reasonable) inquiry you'd like me to address, please don't hesitate to be in touch.
Below are a handful of recaps and other links (oldest listed first by section), in case you're interested - asterisks mark promoted articles.
Funny where an idea for a blog can come from: a few weeks ago, as his theme piece for “The Forgotten”, Cadtalfryn posted this writeup about M.U.S.H.A., a scrolling shooter for the Genesis. As nice as the piece was, the article itself isn’t what got my proverbial motor running; that distinction actually belongs to a short follow-up comment by our very own Elsa. If you haven’t read her blog before (and you should), Ms. E. frequently voices an understandable incredulity towards gaming’s relative lack of female avatars to match its ever-growing number of female players – as such, part of her response to Cadtalfryn’s post was an off-the-cuff expression of surprise that the game’s main character (a mech pilot) was, in fact, a woman. Unable, as ever, to keep my big yap shut in any shmup-themed discussion, I replied to Elsa that she might be surprised at just how many shmups have put gals in the driver’s seat over the years; I didn’t give any specific examples, but the discussion never progressed much beyond this point, so the matter was pretty much left at that.
Granted, I wasn’t just talking out my backside: right off the top of my head I could name a decent handful of shooters with bona fide female leads. In spite of this, my words somehow became stuck in my craw after that fateful post - before long I couldn’t help but wonder just how much my comment really meant. How notable, I pondered, is the shmup genre for including playable women, when you look at “the big picture”? How substantial a list of “shmupettes” could I cobble together with a bit more effort? Helpless to keep my curiosity in check, before long I was off and running back to the numerous shooters I’d tackled over the years, doing my darndest to recall and record how many of them featured a lady or two someplace within – I have no idea how Elsa might have reacted to my original comment (if she even saw it), but as my quest wore on nobody could have been more surprised than I was. Especially for a genre so focused the traditional “adolescent male power fantasy” of blowing lots of stuff up, the number of starring roles women had landed in a wide variety of shmups, going back to near the birth of gaming itself, struck me as nothing short of remarkable. I got fired up enough, in fact, to seek the help of my compatriots at the shmups.com forum in an attempt to verify and complement my own findings. And then, obviously, to start writing.
When I later hinted to Elsa that I was working on a response to something she’d said on here, she was sure that, at the very least, a “counterpoint” was on the way; in truth, that’s not really what I’m aiming for. I’ll be the first to avow that, in spite of the notable leaps that depictions of women in games have made over time, there’s still a ways to go, and the shmup genre is, to be frank, no exception – as elsewhere, even if you disregard the plethora of plain ol’ “sausage fest” shmups out there, a disproportionate amount of “eye candy” is on display when women do show up, not to mention that female characters of all sorts are frequently relegated to the Player 2 or “co-pilot” spot, which could be interpreted as a “backhanded compliment” in and of itself. Some might also question just how unique or prolific the shmup is when compared to its cousins, as platformers, fighters, puzzlers, RPGs and other “older” game types have plenty of their own examples of women in starring roles: to put it plainly, I didn’t bother to do any sort of genre-to-genre comparison, and thus can’t respond to such arguments in any meaningful way.
Notwithstanding, once the idea had burrowed its way into my thick skull I knew I had to bring this project to bear; shmups are, after all, the ancestor of every “shooting” game (and, if you want to get technical, any video game, period) that’s come since, including the modern FPS, which is the most frequent (and, arguably, deserving) target of Elsa’s (and others’) criticism. As a shooter player still largely stuck in the auto-scrolling days of yore, I had to know, or at least try to find out, just how and why games literally built around guns and explosions, then and now, have taken such different approaches (and non-approaches) to depicting women onscreen; a look back at where we’ve been seemed like a good place to start. Granted, I’m not out to change the world here (as if I could), but hopefully readers, regardless of how immediately invested they are in digital gender equality, will be able to learn something from this particularly niche retrospective – with all the talk of “realistic depictions” and “in-depth characterizations” floating around the gaming community these days, I still think that the gals who’ve battled slimy space aliens and evil intergalactic empires with little more than a menu portrait to make us aware of their existence deserve a little attention too. Back in those days, after all, a woman who wanted to serve her planet had to tackle gaming’s highest-risk environment (not many planes or spaceships could take more than one measly enemy bullet) for shamefully low pay (the standard rate being three lives for a quarter), frequently without being given so much as a single line of text-based dialogue for anyone to remember her by. Well, ladies, Jade, Faith, and Alyx send their belated regards, and now, so do I.
Before proceeding further, I’ll briefly detail the trio of ground rules that I set and followed to the best of my ability while deciding who and what to include herein:
1) Any game that I research for the piece must be “primarily” a shooting game – while its entire duration doesn’t need to be spent blasting away totally uninterrupted, titles with short shooter segments to “break up” another gameplay type were not considered.
2) Eligible characters must be at least “technically” playable – while co-pilots make the cut, any NPCs, including wingmen, radio support staff, and enemies (let alone the occasional damsel in distress) are inapplicable. I’m not looking for females who are “just kind of there” – I want women who are out on the front lines and directly on the receiving end of the player’s controller in at least some capacity.
3) While I’m willing to make a few exceptions for “guest” appearances from non-shmup video games, licensed characters are also not allowed: female pilots from the anime-based "Macross" and "Bokan" shmups, for instance, are excluded. I’m concerned primarily with women created specifically to appear in a shooter, as opposed to those who just happen to be visiting from out of town.
I think that about covers it – now, let’s get down to business. I’m going to explore the history of women in shmups in the same way I’d cover the evolution of the genre itself – in chronological order, broken up into rough “eras”…with one or two “extra” sections thrown in for completeness’ sake. This retrospective is not a complete one, but it’s as close to that ideal as I and my forum helpers could make it – I’d certainly be interested in hearing about anybody I’d missed. In the meantime, strap yourselves in, folks, we’re lifting off – to all the laser-blasting ladies out there, this one’s for you!
The Pioneers (1985-1989)
In the beginning, there were spaceships, airplanes, and the occasional astronaut suit...or, at least, crude monochromatic heaps of pixels that kinda-sorta looked like them. Who were the fearless heroes within, vaporizing the invaders and navigating the asteroid showers? At first, nobody really cared – so long as things went “blip” and disappeared when you shot them, that was all you needed. Before long, though, as more and more hats landed in the ring of the hunt for the next big arcade shooting sensation, it became apparent that to stand apart from the competition you needed a little “something extra”; moreover, the addition of a story and a character or two was a relatively hassle-free route to take to that end. While generic genderless “space cadets” and square-jawed Flash Gordon types quickly dominated the scene, a few enterprising titles took a different route – bucking the prevailing trends of the era, they extended a once-in-a-lifetime offer to any sprite-based female who was sick and tired of being repeatedly kidnapped by street thugs and/or ravaged by a pantsless General Custer, giving them the opportunity to serve and protect their entertainment medium out on the farthest frontiers. Anyone who’s played most shooters from back then can tell you that this wasn’t easy work – these trail-blazing women, however, still chose to answer the call.
I suppose it’s only appropriate to start with the series that sparked this whole discussion, namely Compile’s Aleste games, better known to some as Power Strike – yup, the aforementioned “M.U.S.H.A.”, aka Musha Aleste, is not even remotely a stand-alone title. In fact, while the heroine who originally caught Elsa’s attention was renamed “Terri” for the game’s U.S. release, in Japan she’s known as Ellinor, and had first appeared a year earlier in Aleste II for the MSX2 – more than that, in one fell swoop she’d become the series’ most popular and frequently-recurring protagonist, largely supplanting Ray Waizen of the first Aleste, who in this case was reassigned to an NPC role. It must also be noted that this rise to fame occurred with scarcely a whiff of eroticism attached to her character – no mean feat back in those days, let alone now. While Ellinor wasn’t destined to become quite as indispensable as some others in her field, (for instance, in 1992’s Super Aleste she was replaced by a male, assisted by a femme-cyborg co-pilot named Thi), she’s still fondly remembered by longtime fans, and she wasn’t alone either – actually, slightly before her time, another Compile starlet named Alyssa (Miria in Japan) had made a ground-breaking appearance on the NES. If her name rings a bell you’ve probably played classic shooting/adventure hybrid The Guardian Legend; while she didn’t get away with as modest a costume as Ellinor, Alyssa made up for it by not simply piloting a spaceship, but transforming into one for the game’s scrolling segments. To this day few other shooter personalities, regardless of gender, have ever duplicated her unique talent.
Meanwhile, beyond the sprouting console scene, the birthplace of the shmup, the arcade, was experiencing its own quiet, gradual integration, albeit one which would have repercussions for years to come – no single personality of the era is more well-known to shooter stalwarts than a woman named Tiat Young, the near-constant 2P avatar for Taito’s Darius series. While her 1P counterpart Proco (the two names together, spelled backwards, form “Taito Corp”) got most of the screen time, the two became inseparable for years on end, bowing out only for the final Darius arcade game, where a new girl named Lutia followed her partner, Sameluck, into battle one last time (recently it was revealed that another fresh female face, “Ti2”, would be appearing in the upcoming Darius Burst). Jaleco actually went one step further with its propeller-plane shooter Plus Alpha, in which both the first and second player’s pilots, Selia and Rumy respectively, were women – Kaneko’s Heavy Unit also put a lady in charge. The obscure MSX ground-based shmup Undeadline, meanwhile, was an early title to offer players a choice of several different playable characters, one of which was a kunoichi named Ruika – unfortunately, only a male warrior was included in the later Genesis port that most are familiar with. Also on the MSX, even a major genre presence wasn’t shying away from implementing a feminine touch – while most of Konami’s iconic Gradius games don’t discuss the face behind the legendary Vic Viper, the MSX port of series offshoot Salamander gave the second player a ship called the Thrasher and a woman pilot named Zowie Scott. No, don’t ask me, all I know is that it was the 80’s.
Perhaps this era’s most influential development towards the inclusion of women in shooters was the rise of the sub-genre known as the “cute-em-up” – shmups with a decidedly cartoonish, humorous, or otherwise “less serious” appearance and/or tone to them than most (though not necessarily any less deep or challenging). While so-called “hardcore” gamers of the age tended to prefer cold steel and bulging biceps, those who didn’t mind (or openly desired) a change of pace flocked to these distinctive titles, and moreover female characters found it much easier to gain a foothold within this up-and-coming niche. The archetype for the whole bunch is Konami’s Twinbee, which first appeared in arcades several months before Super Mario Bros. launched the NES – while the 1P pilot “Light” takes the vanguard, his red-headed 2P cousin Pastel (piloting the Winbee) is responsible for much of the series’ popularity, and has not been left out of a title since. A few years later came Cotton, the kooky story of a young broom-riding magician in search of legendary magical candies to munch (the fact that eating them would throw off the world’s balance doesn’t seem to bother her); when a pair of Saturn-era sequels finally rolled around in the late 90’s the titular heroine was now accompanied by rival broom rider Appli, and even her diminutive fairy companion, Silk, who had previously served as an “option” helper, was now fully playable. Perhaps the most unusual case of all is 1987’s Rabio Lepus, which puts you at the helm of a sentient rabbit-shaped spaceship – the second player’s bunny blaster, while identical to the first in terms of performance, has a little yellow bow attached to one of its ears, just to let us know that the developers hadn’t forgotten their female audience even way out on the fringes.
The above are a relatively modest group in terms of size, and in their day were thoroughly outnumbered by their male counterparts – it wouldn’t be long, though, before they had ample company.
The Second Wave (1990-1993)
As garish neon was replaced by garish product placement and Duck Tales gave way to Gargoyles, what some fans consider the “classic” age of scrolling shooters also came to pass: the fondly-remembered years before the genre grew both oversaturated and increasingly inaccessible. As the shmup’s commercial appeal remained steady but mounting floor-space competition (from the suddenly-hot tourney fighter set in particular) pushed developers to place even more emphasis on the appeal of unique characters, female protagonists, suddenly in unprecedented demand, redoubled their efforts to invite gamers of all sorts to join them in their continuing quests for galactic peace. Judging by the results, said gamers did not let those calls to action go unheeded.
Perhaps no place in all of video gaming served as a more hospitable base of operations for female shmup protagonists than the PC Engine, better known to most readers as the TurboGrafx-16: especially if you include imports and the CD add-on, anime girls were everywhere on the system, and plenty of them weren’t content to just whisper meekly at the player during cutscenes, but wanted a piece of the action. And they got it – at the forefront, once again, was Compile, whose Spriggan (no relation to the anime) and Sylphia are still feverishly sought after by enthusiasts to this day. Another coveted acquisition is cute-em-up Magical Chase, which stars a pint-sized witch named Ripple; of course, the comparatively common Gate of Thunder, featuring a co-pilot named Esty, is considered essential to any system’s collection as well. Even the genre-defining Irem, following in Konami’s footsteps, assigned new face Leza Steffanie to operate the all-important Force device in R-Type Complete; in similar fashion, an enhanced CD version of an older Toaplan shooter, Hellfire S, introduced a pair of female pilots unseen in previous editions. Perhaps most unbelievably of all, the Cho Aniki games, infamous for their surreal squadrons of bikini-briefed muscle men, actually include an honest-to-goodness woman named Benten as a selectable character in several iterations – not like anyone noticed. Of course, not every available gig at the time was a particularly desirable one – the heroines of Burning Angels are more brazenly fan service-y then most, and the inclusion of a girl in the cracked-out scatological shooter Toilet Kids certainly didn’t do the fairer sex any favors – but on the whole the 16-bit era, especially on the TurboGrafx, provided an important step forward for gender equality in shooters.
Interestingly, while the rival Genesis is probably most frequently associated with images of the oiled-up shirtless dudes from Altered Beast and Golden Axe, if you look around the system’s library enough Sega almost seemed to be competing with NEC in terms of giving female headliners a tangible presence, at least on the shmup front – one early example is lone mech pilot Zana Keene of Arrow Flash, who was followed a year or two later by Lucia Cabrock of the now-prized rarity Gleylancer, who also boasted a more complete and compelling back story than most of her predecessors. Jetpack-clad teammates Madison and Crystal, meanwhile, were dispatched to rescue a prince, for a change, in Trouble Shooter (aka Battle Mania) and its sequel, while faithful co-pilot Misao served with distinction in Sol-Deace and Sol-Feace for the Genesis and Sega CD respectively. Elsewhere on the CD another highly collectable acquisition, Keio Flying Squadron, flew onto the scene – while under-age heroine Rami-chan’s signature bunny-girl suit and dragon mount might not sound particularly empowering, it all comes off as more bizarre than anything else, which fits the tone of the rest of the game to a tee (the main villain is a super-intelligent raccoon, if that tells you anything). The SNES, for its part, was a relatively barren front for women seeking starring roles in a shooter, showcasing little more than co-pilot Cynthia Matthews of Athena’s obscure BioMetal, but its elder sibling, despite being on its last legs, made up a bit of ground - Konami’s Crisis Force gave the fading NES one more female second-player pilot, while genre mashup Wurm placed the green-haired Moby at the forefront of her subterranean tunneling crew.
Those more at home within the arcade scene, meanwhile, still had plenty of new feminine personalities to meet, frequently several months or more before home ports appeared: Holly of Air Buster (aka Aero Blaster) and Nova of Acrobat Mission are two early examples. In a separate show of progress, while late 80’s fantasy shmup Dragon Spirit had only featured a male hero, followup Dragon Saber gave a woman named Siria the 2P spot; Joanna of hidden gem Nostradamus and Zeal of the broom-tossing Mystic Riders, as well as the second player of the many-buttoned Daioh, received similar billing. An increasing number of other titles, perhaps in response to Street Fighter II and its ilk, now opted to offer up several selectable characters, and many included at least one female on the roster – the slightly off-kilter Sonic Wings (aka Aero Fighters) series, whose choices range from a pop idol to a mother-daughter team, is one relatively well-known example, while Technosoft’s Hyper Duel and Visco’s Earth Joker kept things rolling on more obscure fronts. Alongside Taito’s continued genre presence via the classic Rayforce, two upstart companies destined for notoriety were also staking their claims, with some new recruits in tow – one was Raizing, whose first shooter, Mahou Daisakusen (aka Sorcerer Striker) featured a cheerful magician named Chitta. She would make numerous cameos in the company’s later offerings, and would be complemented by novice magic-user Laycle, giant fairy Nirvana, and sorceress Karte further in the later Mahou games. The other newcomer, Psikyo, later became known for a series of naughty mah-jongg games as well as its shmups, so its treatment of women over the years is expectably spotty – while Jane the ninja and Koyori the shrine maiden were relatively innocuous presences in their first game, Sengoku Ace, the latter was given super-cleavage in the sequel, and further additions Junis and Mizuka didn’t fare a whole lot better. One welcome exception, however, is “robo-samurai” Katana – if you’ll pardon the spoiler, at the end players discover that “it” is actually a bad-ass female ronin named Kirie. Finally, while it certainly took them long enough to do it, iconic shooter developer Toaplan at last featured Beltiana and Alteeno in its final masterpiece, Batsugun.
As the comparative length of this section suggests, a good amount of progress had been made since women first climbed into the cockpit - this impressive display, however was itself merely another precursor for what was to follow.
The Cavalry Arrives (1994-1998)
The 1990’s, once in full swing, were something of a transitional period – while the shmup’s potential audience was still pretty vast, the main threat to continued prominence arose not from cabinet-based competitors but the latest upgrades to the home console scene, coupled with the growing distaste for “arcade-style” gameplay, among both players and critics, that spawned as a result. Putting out an old-school shooter was suddenly a much riskier proposition than it used to be, and while renewed efforts to innovate from a gameplay perspective were at the forefront, few designers dared to release even the most polished title without a hefty dollop of surface appeal that could bring in as many potential customers as possible. Faced with their most daunting challenge yet, the once-exclusive club of leading genre women continued to grow at an unprecedented rate, more determined than ever to prove their worth.
Out of the gate, the aforementioned Psikyo and Raizing quickly continued to expand their fanbases, which remain fiercely devoted down to this day – the former owes a particular debt of gratitude to its feminine front-runners, none more deserving than Gunbird heroine Marion, who went on to guest star in multiple titles throughout the company’s tenure. Two of her series companions, Yuan-Nang and Tavia, are frequent picks by players due to their bullet-cancelling abilities, though even more people likely took visiting personality Morrigan of Darkstalkers for a spin on the Dreamcast’s Gunbird 2 port. Five of the six pilots in the WWII-themed Strikers 1945 were also female, though they were unfortunately forced to pose in various stages of undress if the player could perform an especially difficult clear – in fairness, however, the lone male flyer, Aine, was obliged to do the same. Finally, there was Tyora of the somewhat experimental Sol Divide, who boasted her game’s most powerful projectile attacks, as her masculine counterparts were more focused on melee combat.
Raizing, in the meantime, gave their own character roster its biggest single shot in the arm with fan favorite Armed Police Batrider, whose enormous cast introduced policewoman Shorty, psychic warrior Maria, and gang leader Birthday to the fold. As an additional surprise, the developers called up Car-Pet, a minor NPC from Mahou Daisakusen, and made her fully playable – she quickly became a mainstay on many high-ranking players’ teams. The company also expanded on the basic gameplay concept of Taito’s aforementioned Rayforce with the acclaimed Soukyugurentai (aka Terra Diver); two of the title’s three fighter pilots (named Kaoru and Rudy) were women. The aging Taito, not wanting to be left out, introduced Anne, Shario, and Mayoru to the roster of time-travelling shooter Gekirindan, while Capcom gave some girl power to the 2P spot in Eco Fighters – not long afterwards, even the standard-bearing Raiden series finally took on a dash of feminine personality via its offshoot Raiden Fighters games, by promoting the petite Fairy (formerly a rare bonus item) to a powerful hidden playable character. SNK, for its part, assigned new heroine Kaoru to headline its R-Type knockoff, Pulstar – the expanded sequel, Blazing Star, would recruit Leefa, Asayuki, and Naomi as squadmates for her. In the background, yet another major force in shooter development was quietly creeping up on its competitors, and was now prepared to introduce women to its workplace – while Cave’s first two shooters (DonPachi and sequel DoDonPachi) lacked any real female presence, in 1998 it sent out Irori of ESP Ra.de and Stephanie of Dangun Feveron in rapid succession. They would hardly be the last. And then, of course, there was Treasure’s legendary Radiant Silvergun, which entrusted its 2P spot to a young lady (albeit one with funny-looking headgear) named Reana.
Of course, as had always been the case, the “big” names weren’t the only ones behind the push for gender equality in their shooters – smaller companies like Warashi were also doing their part, in titles like Shienryu and Sengeki Striker. Data East, after two Vapor Trail games, finally implemented an even split between male and female pilots in the third iteration, Skull Fang, while Visco did the same with P-47 Aces (the second in its series), as well as the stand-alone Storm Blade, whose Camel Yuki Anderson is in competition with Zowie for the award of “weirdest name ever” in all of shmup-dom. Atuja of the little-known Varia Metal never escaped obscurity even in her game’s prime, but sky pirate Ruby and fighting nun Isha of Takumi’s Giga Wing made enough of a splash to earn a home port, and were followed in the sequel by twins Limi and Romi along with the cybernetic Chery. The “cute-em-up” subset was also unquestionably in its prime – by now Konami’s emblematic Parodius series had hit its stride, and once all was said and done around ten females were playable throughout the series. It’s fair to note that some may understandably object to Hikaru and Akane’s missile-riding antics and other less-then-forward-thinking imagery found in these games (especially the last one, ever-so-subtly titled Sexy Parodius), though on the male end Koitsu and Aitsu had to put up with condom-shaped shields too. Jaleco’s own Game Tengoku spoofs brought back Selia of Plus Alpha, and also invited several of the company’s non-shooter female protagonists (most notably the titular star of Momoko 120%) over for some fun – the Saturn port of the first game even brings in two total newcomers, Miki and Misato, to pilot the UFO/tank craft from Field Combat. On other cute-em-up fronts, the girls (five of six of whom were all-new) outnumbered the boys in the gloriously goofy send-up Space Invaders ‘95 (aka Akkanvader) - perhaps the most fondly-remembered title of all, however, is ADK’s versus-puzzle shmup Twinkle Star Sprites, which features over a dozen playable females, from the evil-cake-summoning Memory to the raccoon-tossing Mikoto, across two games.
Women also continued to earn more up-front time in the latest batch of console-exclusive releases, even after the all-girl space pilot quartet of Ginga Fukei Densetsu Sapphire (a graphical marvel then, and an oft-pirated collection piece now) more or less closed out the Turbo CD’s long tradition of inclusion. While Sega’s Saturn received few shmups that weren’t arcade ports, Technosoft’s Blast Wind, and its 2P lady pilot, Forn, made it into that exclusive club. The original Playstation was the recipient of more unique offerings, such as the bizarre flying-vacuum-cleaner shmup (yes, you read that right) Kyuiin, whose 2P Hoover jockey is the first player’s little sister – another obscure (and personal favorite) title, Harmful Park, sends a pair of teenage gals out to reclaim a corrupted amusement park with the help of ice cream lasers and homing jelly beans. While it’s debatable whether or not the AI piloting system “Chronos” of GaiaSeed is technically female or not, despite its decidedly feminine tone, for many PS1 shmuppers the most memorable name of the era is Captain Nikola Michaux of Philosoma – while her face is never seen (at least until the non-shooter sequel, Phase Paradox), her voice narrates one of the most memorable opening sequences ever to grace the genre. Finally, Cenes Crawford, pilot of the “Gauntlet” craft from Thunder Force V, holds the distinction of being the only console-exclusive woman protagonist of the era to appear on both competing systems (or at least the only one I could find).
While there were plenty of high points to celebrate as far as women’s presence within the genre was concerned, it unfortunately can’t be overlooked that this period was when shmups as a whole began to fall out of favor with the gaming mainstream – sadly, some of the female characters who had waited so long for their chance to shine couldn’t help but be swept up in a tide of mediocre-at-best releases and ripoffs which put the old-school shooter into a rut that it’s yet to climb out of. Kranichi of Stahlfeder as well as Reny and Vel of followup AirGrave on the PS1 are remembered by next to no one, though their fate is still preferable to that of the cast of Planet Joker on the Saturn, regularly cited as the system’s worst shooter and one of the lousiest shmups ever made. In the arcades Polette and Mary of Eight Forces fared no better, as did the 2P heroine of the painfully-generic-despite-the-name Hotdog Storm; of course, that’s not even taking into account semi-pirated games like Rapid Hero and Sen Jin: Guardian Storm, which openly stole assets from other games (usually Psikyo’s) and plastered them over a (usually hackneyed) game underneath. Perhaps the single lowest depth that a playable female character was subjected to, at least in an “official” title, existed in the hentai (pornographic) title Steam Hearts – Fallandia, the 2P catgirl, assisted her brother in the rape of each and every defeated boss in the game with the help of a…er…well, if you really want to know any more you can look it up yourself.
The writing was, needless to say, on the wall for the era of shmup prosperity…and many of the women who had worked so hard to keep it afloat.
The Lean Years (1999-2003)
If video games had existed back in Wagner’s times, we might well be attending performances of the Shmupperdammerung at the opera today: even the tragic Norse gods of old have trouble holding a candle to the twilight of the classic scrolling shooter, brought on with stinging suddenness by a perfect storm of shifting consumer tastes and a deepening dearth of applicable talent among developers. Anyone familiar with those old myths, however, knows that even the end of the world doesn’t mean the end of everything, and that a handful of hardy survivors soon claw their way to the surface after the flames have subsided. In similar fashion, while the raw amount of shooters released around the dawn of the 21st century is somewhat depressing compared to more bountiful times, by now a vast majority of the subpar output responsible for the genre’s downfall had been mercifully weeded out. In any event, as the once-mighty shmup struggled to keep its balance whilst the very earth crumbled beneath its feet, a new generation of heroines, once again limited in number but undaunted as ever, rushed forth to help it find its footing.
The saddest occurrences of this era, by far, were the premature demises of several former powerhouses who either henceforth ceased to develop shooters or shut their doors completely. Compile, a mainstay from the beginning, put out its last shmup, Zanac Neo, as part of a late-released PS1 compilation in 2001 – Noa Cronbit, pilot of the game’s “Scar-Face” fighter, was its last leading lady. Of course, by that point both Raizing and Psikyo were already long gone, having both released their final shooters the previous year – the pair put women in the forefront up to the end, though, with Rosita and Kana helping to close out Brave Blade and Sonia ushering Dragon Blaze to its final rest. The one exception to this general trend was Cave, which quickly moved to fill the gap left by its withering competition, and was now packing plenty of feminine presence to boot: Kosame of the excellent Guwange is many players’ favorite character, and while the pilots in Progear are boys, all three of the selectable “gunners” are girls. While the red-haired female pilot of the IGS-developed DoDonPachi II: Bee Storm is seldom remembered, the trio of robotic “doll” assistants (Shotia, Leinyan, and Exy, with a fourth, Piper, added for the 360 port) of the “official” series followup, Dai-Ou-Jou, have received far more attention. While in this case the “loli” stylings added to these characters can be at least partially excused, as their presence in most of the game’s desolate, dreary concept art is more macabre than titillating, this sudden shift in tone would hint at a less-desirable aesthetic approach to be taken in many of the company’s later titles.
Meanwhile, even during these difficult times for the genre, a few smaller developers still strove to break into what remained of the scene, and frequently put a lady of their own in the spotlight: the super-niche Warashi, amazingly, managed to weather the storm, and subsequently put out Shienryu Explosion (aka Steel Dragon EX), which features several selectable women. Visco also refused to give up on the shmup and released the two samurai-flavored Vasara titles within a year of each other; both include a female character (Magoichi and Sandayu, respectively) who bears each game’s widest-coverage melee attack, which has made them runaway favorites for many modern shooter fans. Treasure, naturally, also continued to show its support with the iconic Ikaruga, whose 2P ship, the Ginkei, and its pilot, former mercenary Kagari, have wowed viewers of double-play videos the world over. One entirely new participant that rose to the occasion during this time period was Korean developer Skonec, which introduced gamers to the bullet-scratching Psyvariar games: the first two titles starred a loner, Sakura Diesell, while the most recent entry allows players to select mech jockey Kei (interestingly, she’s actually the more “blow stuff up-centric” character, as opposed to her more technical male parter, Yuhei). Another fresh face to the scene was Taito offshoot Alfa System, whose Shikigami no Shiro trilogy, also built around a “grazing” mechanic, boasts five original playable women, two feminine spirit helpers, and even a pair of lovely “guests” from the non-shmup scene, specifically Tagami of Elemental Gearbolt and Reika Kirashima of FMV chestnut Time Gal, who actually gets to dress a bit more practically this time around.
As the new millennium progressed it became increasingly clear that the old-school shooter was not quite dead yet – battered and torn, yes, but still very much alive, even if most gamers (especially outside of Japan) had failed to notice. Moreover, the genre was still, against all odds, a good place for a woman to land a primary role – the question lingered, however, as to just how far the suddenly-humbled shmup was willing to go in pursuit of a hoped-for return to prominence. It wouldn’t be long before both anxious gamers and their onscreen avatars would find out.
The Hard Road Ahead (2004-Present)
Finally we arrive at the modern gaming scene as most of us have come to know it – arcades, once the shooter’s perennial stronghold, are an increasingly elusive rarity even in the East, largely supplanted by ever-more-powerful consumer systems, and the high-score board competitions of yore upended by the more immediate gratification of online deathmatches. More reliably than ever, the few shmups still able to make it to market are slapped with reviewers’ knee-jerk label of “outdated”, no matter how many unique and finely-tweaked features they have to offer: what’s a desperate developer to do? As in ages past, the women are once again being called upon to serve their genre: unfortunately for them, as well as the long-suffering fans of their illustrious ancestors, the job description isn’t quite what it used to be, and in many ways depictions of females in shooters have taken a decided step backwards in recent years.
The chief offender here, in many regards, is Cave – of course, seeing as the company is arguably the only “major” developmental force still going relatively strong in this area, it couldn’t really be any other way. Its earliest release along this stretch, ESPGaluda, isn’t as skeezy as some later titles, but does get a bit weird – while technically you’ve got one male (Ageha) and one female (Tateha) to play as, plus a second female (Asagi) in the sequel, all three characters’ bodies switch to the opposite sex when they use a certain special ability, so it’s kind of tough, if nothing else, to say just what the gender breakdown is here. Anyway, soon afterwards came Mushihime-sama, which stars Reko, a teenage girl who rides atop a giant beetle, Nausicaa-style: while it’s not very noticeable in-game, Cave’s character designers still made sure to heavily hype the fact that they didn’t give her any underpants (what’s a gal have to do to get a decent wardrobe manager?), right on through to the series’ first sequel and puzzle game offshoot. The bottom really started to drop out, however, with Ibara – while both playable pilots are men, each of the game’s six stages concludes with an impractically-dressed lady boss (they’re still infamously tough opponents, mind you). However one may feel about this marketing ploy, you can’t argue with what rakes in the cash – these lingerie-clad adversaries became so popular that a pseudo-followup, Pink Sweets, was released soon afterwards, and this time the vixens were selectable (and the bosses are…wait for it…a different group of scantily-clad women. Oh, and one guy…in a pimp-esque fur coat.) Before long the company was in pursuit of ever more fringe demographics with Muchi Muchi Pork (“muchi muchi” is a Japanese term meaning “sexily plump”, so you can probably guess what’s in store here…including sow’s ears and curly pink tails) and the goth-lolita-heavy Death Smiles, the sequel to which even throws in a “trap” character for good measure. While Cave’s fanbase praises most of these games in terms of how they play, even some of them are starting to tire of the increasingly fetishy mindset at work in the art department.
Things look rather glum in several other sectors, as well – Warashi finally gave in to the allure of the mecha-leotard with Trigger Heart Exelica, while Konami has arguably sunk even lower with Otomedius (“otome” = “young woman”) – as you might expect, seven of the eight playable characters are nubile young lasses, and all of them are scarcely developed as characters beyond their demeaning closet choices. More than that, unlike its spiritual predecessors, the Parodius games, this title doesn’t offer the player any manner of humor or bizarreness to take the edge off its personalities’ low-rung appeal; it almost comes off as an open admission that T&A is all that the developers have left to turn to at this point. As if to drive the sentiment home, a more innocently childlike girl named Mei Mei finally made a recent appearance…in the disposable Shin Chuuka Taisen (aka The Monkey King) for the Wii. Not all of the word on the street these days is bad, however – one relatively bright spot for the women of contemporary shmupdom is new developer Milestone, who have not only featured playable female characters across several solid games but have kept them at least relatively non-objectified, from Chaos Field’s Ifumi to Radirgy’s Shizuru to the eponymous Karous. G.Rev also came through with its World War II-styled helicopter shooter Under Defeat – heroines Wilhelmine and Adele are all business, and moreover look the part.
So where are shooters, and the fictional women who live them, headed from here? Obviously it’s a bit hard to say, as the only major release with a confirmed feminine presence on the horizon at this point is fighting game spinoff King of Fighters Sky Stage, which puts Athena and Kula into a different set of circumstances than usual – might we be seeing more outside licenses like this staking claims, and moreover will they be franchises which know how to treat a lady? Or are shmuppers fated to endure more and more of the recent “bottom of the barrel” trend, as the remaining vestiges of the industry become less and less able to resist the easy-money allure of the raised hemline? Dare we hope for an eventual return to the days when scrolling shooters, once considered an indispensable part of gaming itself, provided a standard-setting opportunity for female characters to endear themselves to the gaming public at large?
Whatever ends up happening, even the lengthy history depicted above doesn’t quite tell the entire story.
Bonus Stage 1: Borderliners
In case you’re not familiar with the term, “borderliner” is a word used by shmuppers to describe “shooting” games that don’t quite qualify as “shmups” – while exact definitions vary, tube shooters, run-n-guns, rail shooters, and others like them generally fall under this broad classification. While I’m not planning to go into as much depth here as above, I’d be remiss not to call some attention to at least a few of the “other” shooters that have maintained their own storied traditions of equal-opportunity employment.
Actually, if you go back far enough, borderliners actually comprise some of the oldest examples of female appearances in shooting games – one of the most illustrious is Namco’s “jetpack shooter” Baraduke, in which your character (either 1P Kissy or 2P Takky) ditches the space helmet at the end to reveal her face (a little ways before Samus first did so, actually). While the accompanying Engrish text sort of spoils the moment by telling the player “YOU ARE A BRAVE MAN”, Kissy (later renamed Toby Masuyo) made a high-profile reappearance years later when she was ret-conned into the Mr. Driller storyline. Sega’s arcade title Ninja Princess also put a fighting female on the front lines back in 1985, though unfortunately she was replaced by a “generic” ninja in the Master System port that most have played. Other early examples are Hiromi Tengenji of Burning Force, Eve (and later Elfie) of the Blaster Master series, and Sayo-chan (aka Pocky) of the Kiki Kaikai - Pocky and Rocky games, who was joined by Shinobi (Little Ninja) and Miki (Becky) farther down the road (the unofficial sequel, Heavenly Guardian, stars two snow spirit sisters, Sayuki and Koyuki). Konami’s Devil World (aka Dark Adventure) put the crossbow-wielding Labryna in the 1P spot in 1987; the company also made sure to include its own lady ninja (Yuri by name) in the Sunset Riders-esque Mystic Warriors by the time the early 90’s rolled around. Little-known Genesis overhead shooter Twinkle Tale, meanwhile, gives players control of an apprentice witch named Saria, while cult favorite Alisia Dragoon took care of business in the system’s side-scrolling department; across the border, the SNES’s Wild Guns allows comers to select the sharp-shooting Annie. Both systems also played host to Julie in Zombies Ate My Neighbors, though only the latter platform ended up showcasing her encore in Ghoul Patrol.
Several series now regarded as classics took some time to diversify their workforce, but eventually came around – Contra first added Sheena to the roster in Hard Corps, as well as Lucia and Tasha later on, while Metal Slug favorites Eri and Fio have been part of the crew since the second installment (with Nadia standing in for one game), with Red Eye, Tyra, and one or two others holding down the portable fort. Gunstar Super Heroes’ Red, in turn, made her own mark on the GBA (a series copycat, Gunner’s Heaven for PS1, also included a girl named Ruka), Elevator Action recruited Edie and Sarah in its more recent titles, Leona finally made it into Ikari Warriors proper once it hit cell phones, and Orta not only shattered Panzer Dragoon’s glass ceiling but brought Azel from Saga along for the ride. Others had the right idea from the start, such as Treasure’s Bangai-O, which welcomed Mami and Ruri in the first and second game respectively; the company also gives Airan Jo and Kachi their due in its Sin and Punishment series, not to mention Shyna’s starring role in Silhouette Mirage. SNK also redeemed itself further with its pair of overhead Shock Troopers games, which include at least two selectable female characters apiece. Of course, Gauntlet’s Valkyrie (and later the Elf as well) is one of gaming’s more iconic figures, though for my money Erin and Diana of Arcus Odyssey (whose plot, as it happens, revolves around a world-rending conflict between two super-powerful women) are equally noteworthy.
Naturally, plenty of more obscure borderliners were moving things forward as well – Toaplan helped out on this front with Fixeight, two of whose selectable soldiers were female, and ADK offered players yet another kunoichi named Rayar in Ninja Commando. Momoco and Hanna donned cyber-suits in Final Zone II for the Turbo CD, while Mizuki Makimura was half of your team in Fortified Zone for the humble Game Boy. A little farther down the road a small group of Capcom’s more famous ladies, most notably Street Fighter’s Cammy, crashed the party in Psikyo’s Cannon Spike; meanwhile, Clara of the decidedly non-famous Power Instinct series starred in an isometric shooter, Prikura Daisakusen, with younger sister Kirara in tow. Even more recently, three of the five playable characters in G. Rev’s Mamoru-kun is Cursed! are girls, and if you count both primary and assistant pilots in its Senko no Ronde series you’ve got another dozen playable women. If you’re really into the obscure, PS1 puzzle/shooters Calcolo! and Finger Flashing also fit the bill; if you want to go even further you can sniff out the scattered remains of two unreleased borderliners, namely Treasure’s arcade racing hybrid Gunbeat and Data West’s PS1 overhead shooter Bounty Arms.
And again, those are just the ones we dug up without trying particularly hard.
Bonus Stage 2: Doujins
I was a bit hesitant to even include a section on “homebrew” shooters in here, but not for the reasons you might think – as one of my forum fellows put it, “you’re gonna get absolutely swamped. It’s hard to even find a male pilot.” He certainly wasn’t kidding – for whatever reason, “unofficial” shmup developers, if they include a human character at all, will almost without exception make it a female. If you don’t mind reaching a bit, you might consider this to be the genre finally coming full circle, in a way – while women made a notable amount of appearances during the shooter’s heyday, even in the aftermath the modern-day shmup stronghold of doujin development has given them a more prominent (“dominant” might be the better word, actually) place in the spotlight than ever. Of course, how many of them could be considered “strong leads” or “role models” or what have you is still debatable, but it’s still a phenomenon that outpaces similar trends just about anyplace else – thus, while attempting to chronicle every applicable game here is a fool’s errand, there’s no way I could avoid mentioning at least a handful of the home-made shooters that continue to bring females to the fore.
At the top of the list is one of the few examples that some of you might have heard of, namely the long-running “Touhou” series (aka the “Shanghai Alice” games), developed by a solo programmer known as ZUN and featuring a huge cast consisting almost entirely of (minimally-fetishized, thankfully) magically-powered young girls blasting the heck out of each other (but never getting hurt too much, it seems). Who is available to play and who appears as an NPC varies from game to game, but regardless of casting specifics you’re going to find yourself weaving through elaborate, screen-filling bullet patterns (and sending out a few of them yourself) that redefine “girl power” – the series is so popular that other homebrewers have concocted their own tributes to it, from fighting games to platformers to rail shooters and beyond. Another high-profile doujin shmup developer, Platine Dispotif (aka Murasame) has featured at least one female protagonist in just about every shooter on its roster, from Gundeadligne to Hitogata Happa to Royal Edoma Engine, plus several others.
Some other homebrew shooters worth mentioning are the Cave-esque titles from x.x gameroom – everything he’s done so far except the (gender-neutral) Blue Wish games has featured a female protagonist. Studio Siesta’s cute-em-up Trouble Witches, for its part, was well-received enough to earn an official arcade release - Ohbado’s Angeraze games have also seen their share of popularity, while French Bread’s Bike Banditz (another personal favorite), welcomes its own pair of feisty females to its futuristic hover-bike gang. For a few final recommendations, check out Buster’s unusual “mermaid shmup” Vacant Ark, Tennen Sozai’s eXceed series (one of which is an Ikaruga tribute), Amusement Makers’ Giga Wing-esque Samidare, any of Orange_Juice’s Suguri games, and any of Eikyuu Loop’s twin-centric TWilight games. Again, this is nowhere near a complete list, but it doesn’t take much effort to discover a whole lot more if you’re interested.
You’ll also have to excuse me, of course, for not even mentioning the various doujin-developed “borderliner” games, along with a handful of other various semi-applicable categories. If you go in search of these specimens yourself, just make sure not to overload your hard drive TOO much.
True Last Boss: Men Blow Up Mars, Women Vaporize Venus
So, we’ve now journeyed through most of the history of the shmup in an effort to better understand the place that female characters have occupied therein over the years – at this point the question becomes “what have we managed to find out about how this relates to women in gaming overall?” Of course, it’s a bit tough to state anything “for certain” when speaking from an industry outsider’s perspective, but a few general trends do stand out. For one thing, it seems safe to surmise that shmups possess their relatively diverse gender record largely because, in most cases, the sex of the human characters affects the onscreen goings-on less than pretty much anyplace else. Even considering the vast amount of characters out there, shooter players have undeniably spent the vast majority of their time looking at a jet or spaceship, getting only fleeting glimpses (if that, even) of the personalities at the helm, and moreover don’t have much time or inclination to mull over plot points whilst stumbling through a screenful of enemy bullets. Some might cite this superficially “neutral” nature of most shmup avatars as a “screen” of sorts that limits the scrutiny of normally-more-discriminatory players, though as Elsa herself has pointed out, the physical differences between male and female aren’t nearly as pronounced even in a more “traditional” combat setting, assuming that both sides bother to suit up properly. Of course, this does nothing to explain just why a shmup developer might be more likely to choose to include a woman instead of a man – just being given an opportunity, after all, doesn’t mean one has to take it – and after all, aren’t both genres, like every other, always trying to increase their intrinsic appeal to fans, whether via genuine inclusive outreach to female players or shallow fan service to the guys? Why, then, does one of them still seem to do it so much more often than the other?
To that end, one might guess that the “sci-fi” setting most commonly found in old-school shooters is more palatable to some when it comes to women stepping in (c’mon, who doesn’t love Ellen Ripley?), at least compared to “realistic” warfare backdrops (c’mon, who actually paid money to see G.I. Jane?), but while there is indeed some general disparity between, say, shmups and FPSes, there’s also plenty of overlap – after all, scrolling shooters have frequently tackled “actual” war, in some capacity, going back at least to Capcom’s 1942, and moreover one of the most popular first-person series currently in existence is the futuristic Halo. It’s also possible, of course, to analyze the most common geographical origins of each genre, as shmups have traditionally been a Japan-developed property while the FPS is among Western studios’ most prolific output, but I can’t see this route as anything but a red herring – to be blunt, there are many admirable things about Japan and its culture, but forward-thinking attitudes toward women are decidedly not among them (granted, pretty much every nation on Earth, to some degree, undeniably has its own issues in this area). Maybe all of that doesn’t even matter – could more female developers have worked on shmups than other genres over the years, and thus skewed those games closer to equal representation than most? I personally have no idea, though if I had to guess off the cuff I’d say “no”. Alright then, perhaps it’s something to do more with the players than the developers – might more girls intrinsically prefer to play shmups than FPSes, and the marketing department merely followed suit? Again, I’m officially clueless on this, but in like manner I very much doubt that this was ever the case. Of course, if anyone out there can decisively prove me wrong, I’ll be the first to listen to what you have to say.
In the end, the concrete factors behind the relative prevalence of females in the shmups of old versus the prevalent shooting games of the present are likely to remain largely a mystery – of course, one doesn’t need a documented reason for their existence to be glad to have them around, just as they are. While my deepest id’s inner chauvinist pig (all guys have one, even if they won’t admit it) scoffs at the notion, I have to say that all the chest-thumping among certain self-important gamers about how “manly” this game or that one is has long worn out its welcome – this unfortunately underscores the fact that shooters, like most types of video games, haven’t always treated the female demographic with the respect it deserves. The genre’s long history undeniably holds out hope for the future, however – even with things as they are now, I’m willing to bet that if gender equality ever does become a true-blue reality for gamers, the humble shmup will be the one leading the way once more: if some of the more recently-popular “shooter” factions decide to follow in its footsteps, so much the better. To Elsa and any other somewhat frustrated girl gamers out there, while I must apologize for this article’s lack of concrete “answers” to what ails you, hopefully it’s a little bit of reassurance that even this ancient genre, at its best, has been a driving force in advancing the cause of women onscreen. There’s still plenty of work to be done, but there is encouragement to be found in gaming’s past as well as its future.
To the fictional females of yore, meanwhile, who have helped to make this hallowed, historically-rich corner of gaming what it is, I hope to be seeing you again, someday soon.
Allow me to offer one last word of thanks to my compadres at the shmups.com forum, who helped make this article as wide-ranging as it is. Always glad to know that you folks have my back!