TAT Archive – Nintendo Shows Its Feminine Side

Originally published in 2014, for The Australia Times Games Magazine.

With all the talk of the increasing presence of women within the world of videogames, there has recently been a strong scrutinising over the role of Nintendo’s treatment of the fairer sex. In the past, the granddaddy of the industry has been accused of being somewhat conservative regarding the progression of females within gaming (not to mention the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered community). It has been seen in some circles that the Kyoto firm has stuck too close to its traditional Japanese ideals, and that it has failed to evolve with the times. In this piece, I will argue that Nintendo is in fact one of the most progressive gaming companies out there, and that criticisms levelled towards its perceived ignorance toward social changes is quite unfounded.

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For 125 years, Nintendo has been a progressive company.

From the firm’s ‘innovate or die’ mantra of the Yamauchi family to Gunpei Yokoi’s ‘lateral thinking of withered technology’, the Hanafuda-cum-videogame peddler has redefined both hardware and software time and time again.

So why the accusations of being ‘behind the times’?

Well, some of it has to do with its stance on online gaming. Others meanwhile, deride the Big-N’s de-emphasis on powerful console specs. Others still shake their heads in dismay over Iwata’s relationship with 3rd parties. However, those are discussions for another time. The particular point of consternation I want to chat about is (you guessed it) the issue of gender equality; both in Nintendo’s titles, and as an overarching theme throughout the corporation’s culture.

Being a multi-billion dollar company run primarily by elder Japanese gentlemen, a cynic would point out that this fact alone would disqualify Nintendo as a forward-thinking, multicultural institution in the vein of younger, hipper companies like Valve or even Microsoft – and honestly, this may have been true once upon a time. After all, the Nintendo of the 1980s and ‘90s was a different beast compared to today’s whimsical fun-lovers; the late Hiroshi Yamauchi was well-known for his ruthless business tactics. However, the Nintendo of today is one that has been humbled by the failure of the Virtual Boy and the underwhelming performance of the Gamecube, as well as the radical changing of the gaming marketplace. The 2014 Nintendo is one of humility and a willingness to engage in silly buggers.

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It’s a fundamental change in attitude that is prevalent in the entertaining Nintendo Direct videos, and the engaging Treehouse videos that dominated this year’s E3. This is a Nintendo where Satoru Iwata engages in an epic brawl with Reggie Fils-Aime, whilst Bill Trinnen awkwardly explains Tomodachi Life, and Masahiro Sakurai trolls his Smash Bros fans. It reflects the mindset of a company that is no longer run by stuffy suits (despite the protestations of whiney shareholders and analysts).

So what does this have to do with the state of females within the industry? Well, in this aspect, its Nintendo’s willingness to change its internal corporate structure that signifies a greater importance placed on non-Japanese/non-male designers. In terms of those ever-lovable ‘Gaijin’, the most famous examples are Texas-based Retro Studios and the Canadian Next Level Games. Even within Nintendo’s own development houses, foreigners such as British born James Turner have created exciting new games like the eShop title HarmoKnight.

But what about the girls? Perhaps the most prominent female designer in Nintendo today is Aya Kyogoku, who is a director of the highly popular Animal Crossing series. In recent years, she has become increasingly prolific within the gaming media when promoting the franchise – particularly in regards to the 3DS’ New Leaf. During an interview at the Game Developer’s Conference a few years ago, Kyogoku revealed her beginnings at her illustrious employer, by stating that:

When I first started [at Nintendo], it wasn’t uncommon to be the only woman on the entire team.”

However, according to Animal Crossing co-director Katsuya Eguchi, by the time New Leaf had completed development, nearly half of the game’s staff was female. Additionally, it was imperative that this diversity amongst the development crew would be reflected in the final product:

We wanted to make sure that the content allowed all the players to express their individuality, that it is was something men and women of all ages would enjoy. So in order to view the project from a variety of perspectives, we made sure the team was made up of people from various backgrounds and life experiences. My experience has been that when you bring people in with a variety of interests beyond just games, that opens you up for the possibility of discovering new ways of playing and new experiences to provide to our users… possibilities for exploration beyond just ‘I want to make games.’”

Kyogoku added:

Having worked on this team where there were almost equal numbers of men and women made me realize that [diversity] can open you up to hearing a greater variety of ideas and sharing a greater diversity of ideas. Only after having working on a project like this, with a team like this one, was I able to realize this… In my years at Nintendo, I have come to discover that when there are women in a variety of roles on the project, you get a wider [range] of ideas.”

Not only that, the audience of the game itself proved to be particularly revelatory, as revealed by Nintendo CEO Satoru Iwata:

In the first three weeks of Animal Crossing sales, by the end of November, the largest group was 19- to 24-year-old women. I’ve never seen something like this before.”

Additionally, when the game was bought with a 3DS console, 56% of buyers were women, which left Iwata “speechless.”

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On a wider spectrum, a recent report on Nintendo’s internal Kyoto restructuring revealed that 40 to 50% of the entire company’s graphic artists are women; which is a pretty astounding statistic for a company often lambasted for being ‘behind the times’.

Similarly, a recent update for the new Smash Bros by Masahiro Sakurai displayed an alternative costume for Zero Suit Samus; which he stressed was designed by a female member of the development staff. Sure, this quick note by the Melee Maestro could have been interpreted as a man eager to avoid any angry Miiverse comments accusing him of sexism – but the truth is, Nintendo has been surprisingly vocal about the importance of women within the last 12 months or so.

With the flak the company received over the Tomodachi Life same-sex fiasco – and the accusations of a lack of racial diversity in Mario Kart 8 (really) – one could assume that Nintendo has been on a desperate crusade for good PR. Still, according to Nintendo of Canada spokesman Matt Ryan:

In case you haven’t noticed, [it] is kind of a theme for us; the more recent prominence of female characters. Having female characters playing a role that we haven’t seen often in the past, outside of Samus. And that leads us right back to Hyrule Warriors, seeing Zelda kick some serious ass is pretty impressive. It’s not something that we’ve necessarily seen before from Nintendo. Female Nintendo protagonists are finally stepping into the forefront in their role in the game. Whether it’s all the female heroes in Hyrule Warriors, Bayonetta, the female characters in Super Smash Bros, or Samus in Metroid. Even Splatoon!”

The man’s not wrong. First, we have Bayonetta – a franchise that was bought back for a sequel thanks to Nintendo’s phoenix down-esque check book. As you may remember, the original Bayonetta was critically acclaimed for its intense action gameplay – but also due to the Bayonetta character herself. She was a shining example of a female character; an impressively designed protagonist that wasn’t degrading – but empowering. With Bayonetta 2 on the horizon, Nintendo has chosen to give her a second chance at stardom – to show the games industry that there is ample room for female icons that are not named ‘Lara Croft’.

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Then there is Hyrule Warriors, the Zelda/Dynasty Warriors that has gained lot of buzz because of its female roster that seemingly outnumbers the guys. Princess Zelda, Impa, Lana, Agitha, Midna, Princess Ruto… It usually takes an iffy game like Dead or Alive to see such a major focus on the female form. In an interview, producer Yosuke Hayashi stated:

I personally like strong, fighting women, and we’re happy to say there will be other characters like that, other strong female characters in the game.”

He emphasises the strong design of Zelda herself, and how her regal status means more than just being kidnap-fodder. This is a Zelda who can ‘kick some serious ass’; a Zelda who is a fearsome leader of armies and an able-bodies swordswoman.

Another game mentioned by Ryan – and perhaps the biggest of the lot – is Super Smash Bros. for Wii U and 3DS. This is a game that speaks just as much about Nintendo’s legacy of great women in its games as much as it does about its diverse character roster. In truth, Nintendo has always been at the forefront of female progression within videogaming – most notably due to Samus Aran, the protagonist of the revered Metroid series. Detractors like to point out the ‘submissive’ role played by Princess Peach in the Mario games; but in truth, the ruler of the Mushroom Kingdom has always been a diverse character. She’s been Mario’s equal in the franchise’s innumerable amount of spin-off titles, shared the starring role in mainline games such as Super Mario Bros. 2 and Super Mario 3D World, had her own game in the form of Super Princess Peach, and has shown her wiliness in the Paper Mario titles. Likewise, Rosalina has become a very popular personality since her debut in 2007’s Super Mario Galaxy, where players were treated to her surprisingly sad backstory. Aside from Mario, Zelda and Metroid, the Smash Bros roster reveals just how rich Nintendo’s history is in terms of strong female characters. Wii Fit Trainer, Lucina, Palutena, Robin, Animal Crossing Villager, Sheik… And with possibly more to come, it’s evident that Nintendo’s past output has been very female friendly.

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Indeed, Nintendo’s games have always been popular with women – protagonists like Mario and Link are very non-threatening to those who possess double X chromosomes, because they have never been overtly masculine. In fact, it could be seen that Nintendo’s most popular characters are somewhat asexual in nature, due to the firm’s focus on gameplay above all else. Developers such as Shigeru Miyamoto have always viewed their characters as avatars that act as a direct link toward their players – regardless of gender, race or religion. In fact, Link himself was named as such for that very reason!

This ‘everyone included’ philosophy has also extended toward Nintendo’s hardware itself. The Wii and DS consoles helped to shatter the walls between the ‘hardcore’ and the ‘casual’, and helped to make the gaming culture a less inclusive place long before the advent of smartphones. These two consoles made gaming a much more open place for females, with games like Wii Sports, Nintendogs, Dr. Kawashima’s Brain Training and Professor Layton all proving that videogames could be more than testosterone-drenched gore-fests; that there was a wider audience besides 18-34 males and (dare I say it) awkward shut-ins. Nintendo provided a platform which was fully embraced by Apple and its revolutionary iPhone – a device that has made virtually everyone a gamer. And this trend has continued today, as Shigeru Miyamoto stated during the company’s most recent shareholder meeting:

Every year a number of companies exhibit at E3 and Nintendo is compared with other companies, most likely with Sony and Microsoft. This year, the majority of what the other developers exhibited was bloody shooter software that was mainly set in violent surroundings or, in a different sense, realistic and cool worlds. Because so many software developers are competing in that category, it seemed like most of the titles at the show were of that kind. In such circumstances, Nintendo looked very unique and was able to receive such positive reactions as “Nintendo had a variety of different software” and “the company is offering games we can feel safe with.” From this aspect of differentiation with the other companies, we had a great E3 show this year.

In summation, it is clear that Nintendo has made the industry a better place for female gamers – and it continues to do so with a swath of new titles that avoid the industry-wide trend of slapping a gun to a muscle-bound white guy, before letting him loose on a hapless horde of zombies. Whether reflected via its corporate culture, or through its products, Nintendo has shown that the games industry can be a very fertile one for females; both designer and consumer alike.

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