Take a look at the lineup of four characters above. If you could choose three of them to be in your party based on looks alone, who would you choose? The spiky haired silent hero? The bulky, muscular bad ass? The waif female who is probably a white magic user? Sure you would. As cookie cutter as they are, characters like these are almost always seen as great assets to one's team, no questions asked.
More likely, however, is the "fact" that there's a good chance he's completely useless.
First, let me explain what I mean by "cute". Human and humanoid characters, however big eyed and adorable they may be, don't count (sorry Tingle, though I still think you rock too!). I'm talking about all of those cute/weird looking nonhuman creatures present in the gaming world. Cait Sith, Quina and Mog of the Final Fantasy series are examples. Then there's Xenogears' Chu Chu, Shining Force's Jogurt, Tales of the Abyss' Mieu, Breath of Fire 3's Pecoros, and dozens more in RPGs. Heck, there are eight in Chrono Cross alone, and Pokémon stars almost nothing but.
Take Cait Sith for example. Visually, he was one of the most interestingly designed playable characters in FFVII. But lots of people don't bother to use him because Square made him weak in comparison to everyone else. His Limit Breaks, though they can be powerful, rely solely on luck. His weapons tend to have plenty of Materia slots, but that doesn't change the fact that he had bad stats working against him. It's hard to find a reason to justify using Materia on him instead of someone who packs more of a punch, and more reliably.
As much as I love the Pokémon series, it is probably the worst offender of all. Its mechanics are deeply rooted in the misconception that cute, nonhuman creatures are weaker than those that are ugly or human. You may start out with an adorable Bulbasaur, but in order to make it reach its full potential, you have to let it evolve into a frightening Venusaur. Only then can the monster be taken seriously and kick some ass come time to fight the Elite Four. And they can't even do that without you, the human Pokemon Trainer.
Quina is the specific character I had in mind when I originally thought of this Monthly Musing topic. As a young, impressionable child, Final Fantasy IX was the first disc-based FF game I had ever played. As such, the characters and world and cinematics blew me away. Everyone and everything was perfect... except for Quina.
Fortunately, there are exceptions to all of these "rules". The Mother series is a great example, since it also bucks other less favorable RPG trends. In the beginning of Earthbound, Ness's pet dog King is one of the greatest allies he has, though for a short time. Mother 3 does it one better by having two cute little animal buddies, Boney the dog and Salsa the monkey, along for the ride. They're insanely useful and even play integral roles in the game's story.
FFVI's Mog stands out from the list of cute characters in that many players choose him to be in their parties, even though they have several other, human choices. Why? Because he was made to be useful right out of the box. Despite the fact that little bear-like creature is shaking his rump on the battlefield, Mog's dances are always worth having around.
Chrono Trigger's resident cute guy, Frog, not only has the ability to kick ass, but he's also a fully fleshed out character. He has the body of an amphibian and his throat puffs out adorably every time he has something important to say, but those things never work against his credibility. With an interesting story, a major role in CT's plot and a believable, interesting personality behind him, he is as developed and serious a character as his human peers.
Sometimes, designing a good cute character can be all about what is left unsaid. They don't have to be as cute as they look, nor do they have to shock you with how cool or violent they can be. They can just be, and our minds can fill in the rest.
Sonic the Hedgehog is a survivor of the Golden Age of Cute Animal Platformer Mascots, though I'm using the term "survivor" very loosely. But back when he was just an animal saving other animals, he sparked my love and appreciation for the non-human hero. He had an immense amount of depth to him because they left his character very open to interpretation. He symbolized friendship. He was a friend to Tails, to all the animals he busted out of their robotic shells, and to me, because I was just a lonely little kid who had nothing but a Sega Genesis.
After a decade of having his token attitude cranked to unbearable levels, he's been turned into a horrible example of how to design your cute platforming critter. Placing him in a world that is similar to ours and giving him human love interests, a evil-looking transformation, and a sword has just hurt even the biggest Sonic fan's ability to take his character seriously anymore. There's too much fluff, and sadly, he might have a lot to do with why other cute lead roles don't appeal to a lot of people anymore.
So who does it right? HAL Laboratory does, with their little pink creampuff of a mascot, Kirby. Namco also has a contender in Klonoa. These two are part of a small group of non-RPG characters who are unapologetic about how adorable they are, because it makes them no less capable of kicking butt or being backed by a meaningful story. To be honest, the ending to Door to Phantomile was one of the few times in my life where I was moved to tears by a game's story. That cute little rabbit cat's story made me cry! Klonoa should not be the exception, but the rule.
What's the reasoning behind all this? Well, human instinct makes it hard for us to take cute things seriously. Most of us turn into squealing babytalkers when an infant or animal is presented, so it's only natural that we act the same way toward a creature that is a composite of the two. I mean, that's why the American covers and commercials of Kirby games still depict him as uncharacteristically tough or angry.
But that's not a good excuse. The worlds depicted in videogames are often not our own, so who's to say that things work using the same ideals? Why should cute equate to novelty when the supposedly "serious" humanoid hero is capable of carrying a sword three times his size?
What I'm asking for is a little more equality. Cuties should have a fair shot at being better characters, if not more useful. Give them a powerful special move that isn't dependent on luck and decent stats. Make their personalities and lives as rich and colorful as their appearances. They deserve so much better than to be screwed over design-wise because they are often much better captors of players' imaginations than human characters. To have that childlike wonder squashed every time they walk in only to say their catchphrase is a horrible thing to do.
I care because I like these characters a lot. Not because I'm a girly-girl and I want everything to be cute (though that may have something to do with it), but because I think they often have way more interesting designs than those who are not cute. I would like to be able to play as someone more interesting looking than a human and not become disheartened because they're specifically designed to be weak and one-dimensional.
The idea that cuteness somehow makes a character inferior must die.