The Queen of Fighters

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When I splashed out on a brand new Neo Geo Pocket Color back in 2000 it came in an appropriate/unfortunate shade of blue camouflage (something of a then/now back there on my opinion of that particular colourway) and was accompanied by the excellent Samurai Spirits! 2 and the game I’m going to talk about today: SNK Gals Fighters.

A handheld fighting game brought to you by the developer responsible for Blazing Star doesn’t inspire a great deal of confidence no matter how much love you may have for that excellent sci-fi arcade shmup and its peculiar brand of slightly insulting on-screen messages, especially when all of the headline brawlers had already received excellent ports (Last Blade may have come after Gals Fighters, but there’s not even a gap of two months between them) and as lovely as the system was there just wasn’t the volume of fans there to support the usual array of sequels, “Special”s, or “Hyper Fighting”s that keep established series going. Luckily for all of us it appears that it’s literally impossible for anyone to make a bad fighting game for the system and it’s all very much business as usual on the quality front for Gals Fighters – which is to say any other handheld format before or since would give an arm and a leg to have such a fast paced and fully featured title grace their library. Like other Neo Geo Pocket bop ’em ups its designed to be equally entertaining whether you can only have a quick go or want to settle in for a longer session and thanks to the relatively substantial unlockables (three playable characters in this case – two unique fighters as well as the final boss) as well as the attention given to game-changing items and the brilliant one-off pieces of artwork found in everyone’s individual endings it always feels like you’ve had a good time and have something to show for your efforts even if you can’t remember all the special moves and picked your main based entirely on how cool their portrait made them look.

There’s a good chance even people who do know what they’re doing won’t be able to stop themselves from picking characters based on nothing more than their expressive portraits and visual style: It may come on a teeny-tiny cartridge but there’s a lot going on in Gals Fighters – everyone has a fun introductory animation, their own taunt, and a whole range of goofy blink-and-you’ll-miss-them reactions. Athena seems to change costume every time she breathes, her battle wardrobe filled with tributes to past versions of herself going all the way back to her original arcade game. Movements are deliberately exaggerated making them easy to read even under the less than perfect lighting conditions you’ll probably be viewing them under, and the attention to detail in the backgrounds with their simple but effective animations and palette changes all look fantastic. The only “problem” here is that every other fighting game on the system also looks good and Gals Fighters doesn’t appear to be visually too far off from other – and perhaps most importantly of all for fans of physical media – cheaper, titles. Some sprites have had every single frame redrawn (Shiki) to match the larger and more detailed sprites found in later releases for the handheld… while others are directly lifted from other games with little more than a minor palette change (Mai). Even then those characters have had their special effects polished up, but you would have to either compare the two side-by-side or be really familiar with the earlier releases to appreciate the difference. For all the money saving recycling that’s gone on there’s still more effort in here than Capcom ever put into making sure… let’s say… Morrigan, just to pull one example out of the air completely at random, fit seamlessly into their new surroundings.

So on the whole it’s the same as all your other pocket SNK fighting games but also a bit better, and if you have ever had a good time with any of those (Who hasn’t? I’ve honestly never heard of someone not enjoying them) then you’ll feel right at home here. Unfortunately there’s also an elephant-sized difference in the room that sets it apart from the others too: This is a special “girls only” fighting game.

Uh oh.

That’s not a good sign. That’s either a pink game aimed at eight year old girls who think “glitter” is a personality type or a pink game that’s teenager-sexy in the “everyone has huge boobs and fits an obvious fetish” sort of way. In either scenario the mechanics will be cut back to basics to avoid scaring off either girls who have clearly never played a game before (of course they haven’t – they’re girls) or people who the marketing material will insist wish to play one handed because nobody can object to a joke about men having a wank in any context without being told they’re boring, and the whole thing becomes equally embarrassing for long-term fans and curious newcomers alike.

Thankfully that’s where Gals Fighters is different: It’s called Gals Fighters because its the fighting game where (almost) all the characters happen to be women, not King of Fighters: For Girls (although sadly that does now exist, word for word). For all the blimmin’ pink splashed around on the menus and the box it honestly doesn’t feel like it’s throwing women (as a target audience) an half-hearted bone: “Here’s a girly fighting game for girls to play while real gamers play real fighting games”. It never feels like there’s been an attempt to create a split between “real” fighting games and “something for the ladies” here – it’s just a really well made game that’s a lot of fun to play.

Why does that matter?

Well it shouldn’t, not really. But it does. In an ideal world there’d be more than enough games to suit everyone – mainstream games in all genres and for all ages and preferences with proper budgets and marketing, manufactured in such quantities normal people go out shopping and find them sitting on a shelf – in much the that same way that you can walk into a generic entertainment store in a town of no notable size and come out with a freshly-released slasher flick, the soundtrack to a romantic musical, an old kids TV show on DVD, and a shirt with the logo of a cool metal band you hope nobody ever asks you about because you’re a faking faker who still listens to Meat Loaf. Some niches are bigger than others, and some tastes are considered more “normal” than others, but by and large for anyone with non-gaming interests it’s easy to find material made by and for “their people” in common public spaces and just get on with enjoying whatever it is they like best.

Gaming isn’t like that. Gaming companies still think the original Xbox’s neon green colour scheme is a great look for “hardcore” tech, for goodness’ sake.

Nobody ever belongs everywhere, but it’s important to belong somewhere.

And that may come as a surprise to hear out of the keyboard-mouth of a woman who likes to spend most of her free time playing and writing about weird old videogames. I have forever been the outsider looking in, and in many ways I bring it upon myself – why hunt down PC-98 games when Overwatch and Minecraft are far more acceptable and easy to access? Why force my way into gaming at all when there are Taylor Swift concerts to buy tickets for or Louboutin shoes to drool over (yes, I did have to look both of those things up) and nobody would ever bat an eyelid at me in those spaces?

I like games. That’s all there is to it. I want to be normal within my preferred hobby, to be allowed to exist within that space simply by deciding I want to be there. Not an exception (or exceptional). Not apart. Not having to justify myself to random guys who think a tatty copy of Super Mario Bros 3 makes them the oracle of retro gaming.

And this is why Gals Fighters feels so remarkable to me: Because of how unremarkably it treats its cast. This isn’t a game on a righteous crusade to either extreme end of the scales – it’s just fighting women, fighting. Yes they’re pretty but the artwork never tries to push them towards either softcore titillation nor unnatural modesty – even Mai, whose whole everything can be summed up as “jiggly chest kittens” is presented in a way that makes her a fighter and a character first. Here’s a game full of beautiful women who look and dress in a conventionally attractive manner (“Show women actual respect” and “Make women dress like nuns and act demure” are two very different things) who still pass the (admittedly flawed) Bechdel Test – that’s women who talk to other women about something other than men (it sounds like a low bar, but you’d be surprised). Yes it’s all a bit sad that I boot up at a twenty year old 16-bit fighting game for the first time in a while and think “Hang on a sec, this is proper no-ifs-no-buts positive representation!” instead of “Whip’s amazing, isn’t she?” or “Akari’s a lot of fun”, but that’s just the way the hobby is.

None of this is meant to imply that other, more modern, examples aren’t out there either – just that it’s nice to see a game get it right without it being, y’know, A Thing. A lot of this is an accidental byproduct of The King of Fighters series the game so heavily bases itself on, which has always tended to have a good selection of women in interesting (actually interesting, not “interesting”) attire, and Gals Fighters is simply copying what went before. But isn’t that the point? Those earlier games set a good example, and Gals Fighters continued that fine tradition.

That’s it. That’s all it takes.

11 thoughts on “The Queen of Fighters

  1. Just keep writing about these old games that have interesting Gals Characters because they’re forgotten about and frankly it’s ridiculous we live in a world that screams gender wars over video games continuously when the ‘venerable’ media that is games has had some great female representation for years. Set the record straight kimimi!!

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    1. I’m not sure I’m reading your comment right and I apologise if I’ve got the wrong end of the stick but let’s have a go:
      I wouldn’t see Gals Fighters as anything more than a single neat exception to the overall rule in the genre or gaming as a whole. It’s proof we had great female representation once, years ago, not that we’ve had great female representation for years.

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      1. But there are so many games, that did have. Maybe I’m biased because we didn’t have Nintendo where I live, the first console they officially released in my territory was the Wii. But I did get to play a bit on Megadrives that friends owned and my first console was the PlayStation alongside the PC.
        Soo… Just off what perhaps smaller sample I’ve come across in no particular order (also maybe I’m biased from mainly playing RPGs which generally seems to be a genre with stronger female character presence)
        Yuko Asou from Valis
        Alisa Dragoon (which is probably why I still like summoning classes until today)
        Which jumps me to the first of many Final Fantasy characters (as party based game their all special)
        Rydia (FFIV)
        Rosa (FFIV)
        Celes (FFVI)
        Terra (FFVI) orphanage scene breaks my heart
        Yuna (FFX) whatever Tidus says it’s Yuna’s quiet leadership that drives the plot, it’s her pilgrimage after all and she is truly the one to undo the legacy of her father though Tidus does this as well
        Yunalesca (FFX) stands opposite to her successor Yuna but her initial attempt and sacrifice though is successful in establishing Sin as a threat to Spira.
        Alis Landale (Phantasy Star)
        Alys Brangwin (Phantasy Star IV) although not technically the protagonist she is a main character and does essentially lead the early game
        Rinoa Heartilly (FFVIII) She may be a damsel in distress as pursued by Ultimecia (another strong female even if a villain) particularly in the moon rescue but she’s still competent and capable as a leader of the resistance and her nascent powers give her an important role in an end he lineup
        Maria (FFII) one of the three central line up characters, and her quest to rescue her brother Leon inverts the damsel trope. Whilst placing her in a moral alignment against
        Leila (FFII) who as a pirate seeks only her own gain but is converted to assist the rebellion
        Princess Hilda (FFII) is also notable as leader of the Rose rebellion
        Dagger/Garnet (FFIX) whose quest is to ultimately attempt to preserve her kingdom (which with the succession from her mother seems fairly matriarchal)
        Beatrix (FFIX) who is of course Steiner’s great nemesis throughout the game, and the resolution between the two smacks much of ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ methinks Steiner doth protest too much!
        Also Eiko (Ffix) who is arguably mechanically stronger white mage than Garnets summoning…
        I haven’t even touched on FFVII whose ladies likely need no introduction not the later games in the series as I want to step away from one games legacy

        To delve a bit more into early PC games particular adventure games
        Nico Collard (Broken Sword series)
        Grace Nakimura (Gabriel Knight series)
        To which modern characters like Roseangela Blackwell and Kathy Rain owe inspiration to!
        Also since my brain has decided to link this to Jane Jensen’s games there’s
        Rosella (Kings Quest IV)
        Survival horror has
        Aya Brea (Parasite Eve)
        Claire Redfield (Resident Evil)
        Jill Valentine
        Ada Wong (also adding diversity she’s actually the 2nd Asian female character here with Grace Nakimura being the first, racial diversity I’d give you as scarce especially since anime characters could lean either Asian or Caucasian and are usually interpreted as Caucasian, which is a little strange actually)

        And then RPGs again
        Baldurs Gate has Imoen, (best stats in the game!! Unless you role your character high) Dynaheir, Jaheira (whose incredible loss into BG2 cements her as one of the strongest characters in gaming, the way she overcomes her grief is so well written). Branwen, Safana, Shar-teel (she’s quite the misandrist!), and Viconia (Viconia into BG2 is also interesting… Her romance arc in particular is deeply based around true mural respect, something that challenges the concept of drow as simply sexual titillation for viewers!)
        Then of course There’s still Neera Mazzy Fentan and Aerie latter two coming from Baldurs Gate 2…
        Quite the diversity of women!

        Bastila (KotoR)
        Kreia (KotoR II) and my favourite female character of all time, her role as a mentor to the players protagonist is astounding plus the way they drive Nietzschean concepts through her to reinterpret ‘the force’ is one of the best in all star wars cannon!

        Aribeth de Tylmarande (NWN) her evaluations and questioning of justice untempered by mercy bears fruit in the final dlc content

        Almalexia (Elder Scrolls)
        And speaking of Elder Scrolls and the tribunal… Vivec was the first character that introduced me to the concept of androgyny (some early LGBTQ)
        Azura admittedly daedra but she does serve to invoke prophecy onto the players protagonist and in so doing determines the plot to truly take shape and determine your role as Nerevarine (whether it’s fated or by choice)
        Of course some of the other female daedric princes have negative stereotypes of women such as Boethiah, Mephala, Namita and Vaermina all of who are weavers and toy with deception… And Meridia is interesting too taking an archetypical feminine role as giver of life but that is spun into hatred of the undead…

        Another lady who hates undead is Queen Catherine from Heroes of Might and Magic 3… her campaign is pretty hard pressed.

        Ladies from the Ultima series, personal favourite of mine is Gwenno. As she is both an explorer and scholar, best way to learn is to experience directly!

        Shion Uzuki from Xenosaga
        Lenneth and Silmeria from Valkyrie Profile (I played the PSP versions so not sure if they changed them??)

        Amaterasu from Okami

        April Ryan and Zoe Castillo from Longest Journey and Dreamfall
        Who in their role as young adults searching for meaning seem to be forerunners of Chloe Price and Max Caulfield.

        Then there’s still characters from Star Ocean, Tales of series…

        Most of these titles range from late 80s then a break and resurgence in the late 90s and early 2000s with final fantasy running throughout. Then a bastion of female characters from late 2000s up to the present. I haven’t even mentioned other games I’ve played rather noticeable triple AAA titles like Dragon Age and Mass Effect.

        Plus most of the RPGs I’ve played usually allow for choice to be male or female… Baldurs Gate opening quote in 1999 of females and males of the Forgotten Realms being equal has never left me.

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      2. This is where we differ on the “no ifs no buts” part of positive representation:
        How many of those characters you listed are the primary protagonists? How many of them start the game as the lead and then stay that way until the credits roll? How many of them aren’t killed off, captured, or tormented to give the male lead a reason to fight/be strong/carry on? How many of them don’t need rescuing? How many of them aren’t given to the male lead as a romantic reward during the story? How many of them don’t have a male alternative?

        Some, for sure, but “Yes she isn’t the ~lead~ lead but she’s not complete trash either” isn’t the representation we (as gamers of any gender) should say is a good enough standard – and it shouldn’t be easier in 2020 to find a game where you play as a car surrounded by other cars than it is to play as a woman surrounded by other women.

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  2. Ugh wordpress made me lose the reply but had a few responses…

    So let’s rule out JRPGs because you don’t want them apparently as examples of female representation, except for Final Fantash VI and XIII. however I will add the Atelier series that does have multiple female protagonists as does Legend of Heroes Trails in the Sky has Estelle Bright. the Valkyrie stories would obviously stay too. Ys sadly is out as well except for Ys Origins which has Yunica Tovah as it’s protag but you may exclude it as she rescues Feena and Reah (apparently you view women rescuing women as bad, correct me if I’m wrong on that assumption, see more about it below).
    If I take out party based RPGs then the majority of the games are female protagonists all the way through some as characters in their own right, others are option to make a female or male avatar (I’d argue that avatar creation is still single lead protagonist as you stay with that character throughout the tale, I suspect you’d disagree there) and a few exceptions that have dual male/female protagonists that switch roles. Catherine from HoMM 3 being one such example as she leads only one campaign for a faction, other factions obviously need other protagonists or Resident Evil that usually makes you switch, depending on the play through you choose.

    Which then if majority are female protags then challenges the other assumptions below… For instance in RPGs your character is usually rewarded with a male (and sometimes female if you’re playing Bioware games) character of your choice as a romantic partner.
    As for undergoing bad experiences well yes, that’s usually how characters grow develop irrespective of gender. Torture does occur and I specifically want to highlight Baldurs Gate 2 here. Because if you’re playing a female character you undergo torture alongside Imoen, but part of your escape, which Imoen orchestrates, is then followed be dealing with the psychological repercussions. What’s wrong with a female character helping another female recover, is this not the basis of friendship? And why, oh why would it be problematic for a man to help a woman through such a situation or vice versa? Do we not need games that encourage compassion and give male or female protagonists to act in ways that are more than just kill, bash, smash? To display empathy, kindness and compassion, those traits that are usually defined as feminine virtues?
    (So a side question is why is it wrong for male characters to display traditionally feminine virtues in a game?)

    I could also give a few more example of female led hidden object games, or even a few other point n click games… But they are out there, some I havent played yet so can’t tell if they meet your story assessments above,
    Probably wouldn’t meet your character requirements as I don’t like flat dull Mary Sue’s that don’t display any negative traits, I far prefer characters to be nuanced with both positive and negative qualities so many characters I’d like would be excluded by your criteria of having no negative traits associated with them. I just can’t play a perfect princess, I find such characters unappealing. Ok Elodie from Long Live the Queen may be an exception… But then it’s the player that is essentially mutilating and torturing her by driving her into multiple bad endings, the game is nearly masochistic… Except when you do finally achieve a good ending that doesn’t have any of those terrible outcomes and well… That is the winning state after all. To have Elodie survive and prosper but… I’d give you that it’s problematic so maybe can’t be included. Probably why I didn’t think of it initially.

    And inevitably don’t all characters need rescuing in some way, whether they rescue themselves (most point n click games), rescue others or rescue themselves. Bad stuff often happens in games and it’s how the character gets out of it (using force, intelligence, or wit/persuasion) that ultimately defines them, male or female. What’s wrong with this story beat? What tension would there be otherwise if characters weren’t challenged by circumstances?

    Sadly my experiences seem to be far out of the norm even though I’ve found many games over the years with great female representation (which doesn’t require the game to have only a female protagonist by the way but it’s cool if it does).

    Uhm yeah racing/vehicle games have seriously taken a knock in recent years… Very few released. But there are many great female led games released in recent years so I’m actually going to answer the rhetorical question: just look to Celeste (Celeste), Jesse Faden (Control), Aloy (Horizon Zero Dawn), Aliya (Heavens Vault), Miriam (Bloodstained), Ophelia (Elsinore), Gris (Gris) ok I’d get you may want to exclude Ophelia and Gris on your criteria but that would remove the incredible agency and/or rewriting of these characters in overcoming circumstances to save themselves.

    And I’m not even into 2020, those are titles released in 2018 and 2019 only! Many of which are mainstream critical successes. Ok Horizon Zero Dawn is technically 2017. But others are all just those two years. Can’t speak to 2020 bit can be followed up at end year since by then you’d actually know of the women meet your very very limited concept of female representation. Pity because you’re loosing out one many fantastic portrayals.

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  3. Love these old pocket fighters, but like you said, who doesn’t? I was really disappointed that that newer all-gal game they released didn’t capture the fun of these old titles.

    Can’t wait to see what artistic direction they take with the new King of Fighters game. The last one was some mixed bag, but the spirit was there, even if the graphics weren’t. I’d love to have my jeans and t-shirt superhero gal back!

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    1. I agree with you! The last KoF wasn’t the prettiest of the bunch, but there’s no denying that its heart was in the right place :D

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      1. Most definitely! It is one of my favorites this generation, and omg that unlockable fallery *droooool*

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  4. This reminds me of the Casio Loopy, A 16-bit console, for girls! They got all of like 12 games in before they realized girls play super mario world not because its marketed to them as a gender, its just a good game, for everyone. Admitted, I totally want one, because the sticker function sounds awesome. Who cares its all in Japanese? There’s an rpg from a dogs perspective, I am there in all ways but financial!

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