I went to my local mom-and-pop game store the other day to see what girly titles they had in stock. Among the pony simulators and preschool-toy platformers was an older DS title that predated my DS ownership, and therefore I never knew existed: 2006’s Super Princess Peach.
Peach, and her pre-NES counterpart Pauline, have been kidnapped and saved by Mario dozens of times over the past 30 years. I’d do the math, but I’m lazy. Trust me, though – it’s a lot. Sure, in the first few Paper Mario titles, she did some exploring and could send Mario (aka, “you”) badges, but for the most part, she’s been a largely passive character in a very active series.
The awesome thing about Super Princess Peach? It’s a platformer in the vein of a classic Mario game, but this time, Peach gets to save Mario. In fact, Peach is the only playable character. This is amazing, guys! It took 25 years, but Miyamoto finally helped produce a game with the woman as the hero!
The lack of heroines is a longstanding issue in mainstream gaming. As a child of the 80s, I grew up on arcade cabinets at the mall and Atari and NES games at home. In the arcade, you had Ms. Pac-Man and, I guess, Mama Pig in Pooyan as female protagonists, but the vast majority of games in the early 1980s were either genderless (You’re a spaceship! You’re shooting spaceships!) or featured male protagonists.
At home, it wasn’t much better. Yes, there was Samus Aran in Metroid, the first notable human female protagonist of a mainstream videogame. But it says something that the “reveal” – learning at the end of the game that Samus was a woman – is still considered one of the greatest plot twists in gaming history. It was shocking then, and it would still probably be shocking now, that the androgynous bounty hunter character with whom you’d beaten a challenging game was not a dude. Because, apart from Princess Leia and Ripley in Alien(s), how many badass women had you ever seen shoot guns in space in 1986? It was revolutionary. And, sadly, it still kind of is.
You also had Peach as one of the four playable characters in Super Mario 2. She could float, which was incredibly useful. But after that title, she became a non-playable character (in most games, where she needs saving), a minimally playable character (as in Paper Mario where she has tiny playable cutscenes, but still needs saving), or a playable character in non-narrative games like the Mario Kart and Mario Party series. She’s integral to the Mario world – she is, of course, the Princess of the Mushroom Kingdom – but she’s never the star.
The lack of female protagonists in classic games has led us to modern programmers making awesome patches for the games, like this one, where a dad redesigned Donkey Kong so his 3-year-old daughter could play as Pauline. Or this one, where an animator redesigned the original Legend of Zelda so that Zelda could actually save Link for once. But this is all wishful thinking in hindsight. There aren’t that many universally accessible games with heroines who don’t need to be rescued.
And this is why Super Princess Peach is such an awesome game. Because she is the star, and she’s the one doing the saving! After 30 years, it’s finally an acknowledgement that a pink dress and tiara doesn’t mean you can’t jump on some Koopas. The premise of the game is this: Bowser found a powerful wand that he uses to capture Mario and Luigi. Princess Peach returns to the castle to find them gone, and she goes off to save them with the help of Perry, a talking parasol that grants her powers.
The game is as well-designed as any Mario game and plays like pretty much any other Mario series platformer. You jump a lot, you kill enemies and earn coins, you move through a variety of levels and a variety of terrains, you fight bosses… It’s almost like you’re playing with Mario! But the difference between a traditional Mario game and Super Princess Peach lies in the powers Perry the parasol grants you. Because Perry channels emotions. So if you want to channel “rage,” Peach is enveloped in fire; “sadness” means that she cries a lot and runs faster than normal; “joy” means she can fly; “calm” allows her to recharge her hearts. All of which are incredibly useful. Crying, for example, can make beanstalks grow, and…
Fuck you, Miyamoto. Try again.