10 of the best leading ladies from retro games

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Ah, leading ladies — always a subject worth talking about, especially if we can spread a little positivity in the process!

If you happen to follow the modern gaming scene, doubtless you’ve noticed a few overly provocative trends tend to come up on a fairly regular basis, typically in the name of hatebait — gotta get that all-important “engagement”, after all.

One of the most popular of these obnoxious trends is “this new game has a female protagonist, ooh, the dudebros gonna be mad”. Which is stupid, because any gamers of culture will know that everyone has been quite happily chilling out with lady protagonists for years at this point — and indeed, some of the most beloved games of yesteryear feature women in the leading roles.

So, with a mind to putting this stupid argument to bed once and for all (I know that’ll never happen, but it’s nice to aim high sometimes) here are ten of the best leading ladies from retro games, in roughly chronological order.

Ms. Pac-Man

Leading ladies: Ms Pac-Man

Developed in 1981 and finally released in 1982, Ms. Pac-Man was a sequel to Namco’s Pac-Man that Midway developed without Namco’s authorisation. It ended up being immensely popular — and many people prefer it to the original Pac-Man for the various refinements and enhancements it brought to the basic formula.

Ms. Pac-Man herself was subsequently seen in animated cartoon shows, readalong books, on lunchboxes and plastered over all manner of other merchandise. It was the ’80s, after all, and if you could slap a cool-looking character on something and sell it for twice the price of the same thing without the cool-looking character on it, you would damn well do that.

Thyra the Valkyrie

Leading ladies: Thyra the Valkyrie

Although not the sole lead of 1985’s Gauntlet from Atari Games, Thyra the Valkyrie shared the spotlight with Thor the Warrior, Questor the Elf and Merlin the Wizard as part of the playable cast.

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Thyra was a well-balanced character, offering solid attack and defence in both ranged and melee combat, making her a good choice for starting players. And you just know she could almost certainly drink the others under the table.

Samus Aran

Leading ladies: Samus Aran

Samus Aran, who first showed up in 1986, is probably one of the most well-known leading ladies on this list, so including her almost feels like cheating — but her popularity cannot be underestimated. And, interestingly, the announcement of a new Metroid game is never accompanied by either people complaining about the presence of a female protagonist nor people complaining about people complaining about the presence of a female protagonist.

Which, to be perfectly honest, is absolutely fine with us. Samus is a highly capable protagonist who still has lots of stories to tell — so here’s hoping we’ll be able to enjoy many more as the years go by. And perhaps get another chance to re-experience some of her most well-regarded adventures — where are our Metroid Prime remasters, Nintendo?

Alis Landale

Leading ladies: Alis Landale

Sega’s 1987 title Phantasy Star was a revelation in so many ways. It was an excellent dungeon crawler, it blended elements of both eastern and western approaches to role-playing games, and to top it all off, it had a leading lady who didn’t stand around crying or getting kidnapped. Nope; when Alis saw her brother get murdered, she got mad.

What followed was an awesome sci-fi adventure that helped pave the way for the now-familiar blend of classic fantasy and science fiction we regularly see in today’s Japanese role-playing games — along with the genre’s tendency towards well-crafted female protagonists today.

Laura Bow

Leading ladies: Laura Bow

Laura Bow’s two adventures, the work of Roberta “King’s Quest” Williams, were noteworthy in the late ’80s for being some of the first games that truly felt like they were genuinely mature — and not in the sense that they were sexually provocative like their stablemates in the Leisure Suit Larry series.

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Nope, both The Colonel’s Bequest and The Dagger of Amon Ra were interactive mysteries of the calibre you’d expect to see from actual books for grown-ups — and leading lady Laura Bow herself was an interesting character who was more than just a “blank slate” self-insert for the player character. She even gets a callback in Sierra’s much later adventure Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers by Jane Jensen — did you spot it?


Leading ladies: Chun-Li

Although, as we’ve seen, 1991’s Street Fighter II was far from the first game to feature a woman in a leading role, for many people it was the first where it felt like something of a big deal was made of it.

Okay, at least part of this was attraction to her tights-clad and very visible thighs — and there’s nowt wrong with that, there isn’t — but Chun-Li was also popular because she was a fun character to play as, and was more than capable of standing toe-to-toe with her male rivals in the cast. In fact, many publications at the time declared her as one of the best characters in the game — or at the very least, one of the easiest to get to grips with.

Claire Redfield

Leading ladies: Claire Redfield

First appearing in 1998’s Resident Evil 2, Claire Redfield has been a fixture in Capcom’s long-running survival horror series ever since. Effortlessly cool and seemingly able to take the zombie apocalypse perfectly in her stride, she went on to have a variety of further adventures throughout the series and remains a popular character to this day.

Claire’s popularity stems at least partly from the fact that she’s a fairly “normal” character who initially just happens to get embroiled with the whole mess that is Resident Evil’s Umbrella saga. This is especially played up in Capcom’s recent Resident Evil 2 remake — but it’s still evident in the original version, too. From Code Veronica onwards, though, there was no turning back for her…

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Miku Hinasaki

Leading ladies: Miku Hinasaki

First appearing in 2001’s Project Zero (also known as Fatal Frame or simply Zero), Miku Hinasaki went on to play a major role throughout the rest of the series, which is bursting at the seams with top-notch leading ladies. Miku appears prominently in both Project Zero 3: The Tormented and Project Zero: Maiden of Black Water.

Hailing from a family with a particular sensitivity to the paranormal, it’s clear from the outset of the first Project Zero that there’s something special about Miku — and discovering the many mysteries that surround her over the course of the rest of the series is fascinating.

Miku’s another great example of a character who, despite her supernatural tendencies, is popular for her relative “normality”. She’s not a hero, she’s not The Chosen One, she’s just a girl who happens to get wrapped up in a ghostly mess — and a dab hand with a ghost-bustin’ camera.


Leading ladies: Shanoa

And to wrap up today’s list, we have Shanoa from the Castlevania series, who first showed up in 2008’s Castlevania: Order of Ecclesia and subsequently also appeared in Castlevania Judgement and Harmony of Despair. She’s a powerful magic user, able to absorb gylphs and use them to summon magical weapons and elemental effects, and a member of the titular Order of Ecclesia, the only organisation capable of defeating Dracula in the apparent absence of the legendary Belmont clan.

Shanoa is a tragic figure with a fascinating backstory that is explored in detail over the course of Order of Ecclesia, and her narrative can come to one of several conclusions according to the player’s actions. She also kicks ass in the vastly underrated multiplayer installment Harmony of Despair — so give her a shot when fighting alongside your friends!

Who are some of your favourite leading ladies from classic games? Be sure to let us know down in the comments — these lists are always a great way to start some conversation!

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