Check out Part 2 of this series here.
James Cameron’s monsterpiece Aliens opened in the US in 1986. That same year, in Japan, a playing card company re-establishing itself as a consumer electronics giant released a game for its still new Nintendo Entertainment System called Metroid. The game dropped the next year in the US, at about the same time Aliens gained a larger audience with its release on videocassette. The two are forever intertwined for me, and not just because of how much the atmosphere, music, and creatures of Metroid reminds me of Aliens (not accidentally), or the fact that they were, at the same time, my favorite movie and favorite game.
It’s mostly those characters. By now, the bad-assedness of Private Vasquez (Jenette Goldstein) and Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) is well documented, affirmed, and granted. But the other franchise, as successful in its own way if less mainstream-famous, also featured a resourceful, tough-as-a-railgun protagonist in bounty hunter Samus Aran. Wearing a full suit of power armor, constrained by mid-80’s 8-bit graphics, the fact that Samus is also a woman was not apparent while playing the game. This was not advertised by Nintendo, and the game’s manual used male pronouns, essentially keeping her secret from the game’s (mostly) male players. Tantalizingly, the page where Samus and ‘his’ mission is described concludes by saying Samus’ “true form is shrouded in mystery.”
Defeating Metroid took players dozens of hours, as they were required to find a number of secret weapon stashes and learn the patterns of a handful of difficult boss monsters. But those that learned the tricks and replayed the game (including myself) discovered that Samus’s pre-credits salute to the player changed based on how quickly they were able to finish. Five hours or less, and Samus removed the red space helmet, revealing for the first time that he was… she.
This was groundbreaking. Female game protagonists were largely unknown at this time, mostly relegated to quickie tie-in games designed to capitalize on various girl’s toy crazes, or occasionally feminized versions of male characters like Mrs Pac-Man (1981)—never in a AAA action title marketed on back covers of Uncanny X-Men comics. But then it happened that some players, even more skilled, got ever faster. They learned that if they defeated the game in under an hour, Samus’ armor disappeared altogether. She would stand waving back at her operator… in a pink bikini:
Samus undergoes two transformations. Before she takes off her helmet, she is mostly identity-less, intrinsically identifiable because beneath the helmet ‘he’ is mostly the player’s vague projection. Once she unmasks, this projection is shattered, and the made/male-in-one’s-own image is replaced: the confident and resourceful alien ass-kicker is actually a woman. This is surprising, and for its time, incredibly progressive: Ripley would be proud. But in the second transformation, the player’s projection is replaced with something very different: the ass-kicking heroine becomes the ass-revealing reward for player competence. (Years later, metagame rewards would come to be called achievements or trophies). The dual nature of Samus’ transformation exposes a tension that will run throughout the piece below. Specifically, that ‘crossplaying’ gender too often serves to confirm the same harmful ideologies which reduce the bodies of others to objects of desire (or, sometimes, revulsion). But it also produces potentialities: the promise of surprising, often radical re-imaginings of the ways we understand—and are bound by—concepts like gender, sexuality, and identity. Continue reading