When it comes to female video game protagonists, there is one name that is conspicuously missing from any lists I have ever seen, despite having starred in over 45 games for PC, console and handhelds since 1984. While her status as a property outside of video games could explain the snub, the fact that’s she been around since the dawn of the console age and continues to appear in games to this day makes the absence of serious discussion of her as a gaming protagonist seem a little strange.
I’d venture her exclusion from the ranks of video game heroines has more to do with her being relegated to the pink ghetto of ‘girl games’, a genre that is routinely dismissed as unworthy of serious discussion. Which is a shame, because for generations of girls, especially those growing up in the 90’s and early 2000’s, she may just have been their first introduction to the world of video games.
That’s right. I’m talking about Barbie.
Everyone’s favorite plastic fantastic dream girl made her video game debut in 1984’s Barbie for the Commodore 64. Developed and published by Epyx, the game revolves around helping Barbie get ready for a date with Ken. You get to talk to Ken on the phone (real voice audio!) and then drive around in a blue and yellow convertible to try on different outfits for your date. If you pick the wrong outfit, the date is canceled. But, if you get it right, you get a dream date with Ken and a delightful picture of the two of you together.
As far as gameplay goes, it’s incredibly simplistic and the graphics are similarly unimpressive, limited as they were by the Commodore 64’s palette and processing power. There’s also the dubious message for girls that they should be spending their time looking nice for men so they can get free dinners and trips to the pool, but considering the game was made before Barbie became a career woman, I guess it’s understandable.
Next up was 1991’s multiplatform title, Barbie (are we sensing a theme here?), which was created expressly to bump up video game offerings for girls. The plot of this one is really just a gussied up version of the first Barbie game with Barbie traveling through a bunch of dream worlds in order to put together an outfit to wear to the Fantasy Ball with Ken.
Since this was the NES era, instead of just pointing and clicking on outfits, the game is actually a platformer, with Barbie collecting pearls, records and coins in order to unlock the various components of her outfit in each world. In her quest she is aided by a variety of animal helpers, including dolphins, rabbits and cats.
Despite tepid reviews, the game itself is notable for its eschewing the violence typical of games at the time, focusing instead on puzzles and problem solving. A GameBoy version with slightly less clunky platforming called Barbie: Game Girl was released the following year.
The two games that followed, Barbie: Super Model and Barbie: Vacation Adventure mark the beginning of Barbie’s foray into “educational” games, although that point could certainly be debated. Both games follow a similar format of assorted mini-games, ranging from driving a car to walking on a runway to a swimming mini-game in Vacation Adventures that looks suspiciously similar to the water level in Donkey Kong Country, only without any of the difficulty or nuance of the former.
Super Model also has optional bonus levels that again involve dressing up and matching outfits to a magazine cover.
There are a couple of titles in the action/adventure genre that stand out for their inventive use of Barbie’s occupational flexibility (remember, she’s been everything from an astronaut to Audrey Hepburn). Barbie: Magic Genie Adventure for the Game Boy Color again uses a mini-game format, but the mini-games are broken up by surprisingly enjoyable flying sections (you’re on a magic carpet, natch) and replaying them on multiple difficulty levels yields new items and powers.
The 2001 PlayStation title (also available on PC) Barbie: Explorer stands out for basically being a Tomb Raider clone with Barbie standing in for Lara Croft.
Like the rest of the Barbie oeuvre, Barbie: Explorer is completely devoid of any sort of combat, making it a kinder, gentler option for action adventure fans. It was followed by the Horse Adventures series and a whole bunch of very mediocre games based on very mediocre direct-to-DVD animated movies.
The last Barbie game I wanted to talk about was 2013’s Barbie Dreamhouse Party which has become notorious online for basically being a parody of itself.
The game is a companion to a 3D animated webseries called Life In The Dreamhouse, which itself is a sort of satire of reality TV shows. However, Dreamhouse Party takes things to a whole new level of weird by introducing a pink GLaDOS type AI that locks Barbie and her friends into the mansion and forces them to compete against each other in a seemingly endless series of mini-games in order to escape.
Like the majority of video games based on licensed properties, the quality of Barbie games tends to range from garbage to mediocre, with sales based largely on the name recognition of the Barbie brand than on whatever the games can bring to the canon of video games. And that’s a real shame. For parents and others looking for violence free games appropriate for children, the pickings can be mighty slim.
Sure, Barbie might not be the best role model for little girls, with her focus on appearance and gender stereotypes, but as a doll she can do anything, even become a game developer. It’d be nice if more of her games also embraced this adventurous spirit.