Tomb Raider Pixel Chicks

Tomb Raider Pixel Chicks
A decade after Lara Croft busted her way into pop culture, and many a teenage boy’s dirty dreams, the Tomb Raider archaeologist with disproportionately distributed pixels has become the Guinness Book’s "Most Successful Human Video Game Heroine.”

Sure, the induction is suspiciously timed to coincide with the release of Legend, the latest in the long-running Tomb Raider franchise. But it’s hard to argue with 28 million sales, especially when the new game shows such a vast improvement over its immediate predecessors (a feat achieved by firing the previous developer and bringing back Croft’s original creator Toby Gard).

"She was the first three-dimensional female character in video games ever,” says Matt Gorman of TR publisher Eidos Interactive. "As far as the female form is concerned, she was essentially the first kiss for most gamers. There was nobody else besides Ms. Pacman and as hot as she was, she really didn’t bring us that far into appreciating females in video games.”

Ms. Pacman is the most successful arcade game ever, but there’s historically been a lack of playable female characters. Most were like Super Mario Bros’ Princess Peach, who existed exclusively to be kidnapped and rescued.

Carmen Sandiego made a formidable globe-hopping antagonist in the mid-’80s while Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat featured kick-ass female fighters a few years later, but the discrepancy remained. A 1992 study found the covers of Nintendo’s top-sellers featured nine female characters versus 115 males.

"Originally for Tomb Raider it was meant as a product differentiator,” says Gorman. "There were no other games out there with strong female characters. Once you put the female form into three dimensions, some people immediately cried out exploitation of women but it was really just physical representation of women. It wasn’t to capitalise on the sexual appeal necessarily.”

Maybe not "necessarily,” but the gamer demo was boy-heavy and so Lara Croft was top-heavy — legend has it a slip of the finger accidentally blew up her boobs 150 percent during the design process and there they stayed. The marketing machine turned the plucky heroine into a virtual supermodel and it wasn’t long before hackers created a "Nude Raider” patch to strip our heroine bare.

"Take a look at Tomb Raider one and three and there’s certainly some augmentation that occurred,” admits Gorman. "An easy button to push to get people to notice was turning up the cup size. It became so absolutely ridiculous. You lose credibility when you’ve got these giant balloon-type things.”

Though Tomb Raider began falling out of favour, sexing-up cyber-babes remained a constant — in 2004, the half-vampiric star of BloodRayne even appeared topless in Playboy. More recently Joanna Dark, the spy star of 2005’s prequel Perfect Dark: Zero (whose N64 debut was credited to creator Martin Hollis’s belief "there should be more games centred on women), posed suggestively in British lad mag FHM. The cover teaser read: "Step aside God. The perfect woman — as created by man!”

The recently-released Rumble Roses XX is rooted in the same mentality and takes advantage of the Xbox 360’s next-gen graphics to make its fetishistic females as sexy as pixels allow. Reminiscent of the late, lamented Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling league, this voyeuristic sequel is too over-the-top silly to really be considered sexist and the well-calibrated wrestling matches between schoolgirls, pop stars, dominatrixes and nasty nurses are a guilty pleasure (at least for me).

Besides, change is coming, albeit slowly. The pastel-coloured Super Princess Peach for Nintendo DS revamps the side-scrolling Mario series with the no-longer-in-distress damsel rescuing the kidnapped plumbers. Of course, the newbie heroine is still clad in a pink gown, armed with a parasol and her power-ups are all emotional: joy, rage, gloom and calm. She’s also looking for a stolen "Magical Vibe Wand” but let’s not even get into that. So it’s fun and adorable but a little condescending.

On the other hand, Nintendo DS is also home to the fantastic, online-enabled Metroid Prime Hunters, the latest iteration in the 20-year-old galactic bounty hunter series whose debut upended gender roles by revealing in its game-ending plot-twist that protagonist Samus Aran was a woman.

The Metroid series is as acclaimed as ever and one of the only franchises to feature a badass heroine whose sexuality is irrelevant, though that’s partially due to her ever-present armour and the game’s first-person perspective.

As for Lara Croft, she’s still packing both sets of big guns, though Legend slims her down some and makes the British babe brainier and more athletic.

"What people forget when discussing feminist icon or sexual object is that you can be both. An easy example is Angelina Jolie — she’s an incredibly beautiful woman but look at all the causes she stands for and charity work she does,” argues Gorman. "[We want] a strong character that both men and women can relate to — and they’re not going to relate to a giant-breasted bimbo.”

The increase in female gamers, who already number 43 percent, should eventually force the industry to follow suit. But to fast track the revolution, women need to get into development and design games they themselves want to play. Only then will realistic pixel chicks no longer be anomalous.

Other Distractions

The Godfather: The Game (EA; PS2, X-Box, PC)
Considering Francis Ford Coppola’s Godfather films are themselves adaptations of Mario Puzo’s novel, Coppola seems disingenuous railing against this video game version (especially considering Godfather III). But who needs Francis when you have great voice work from James Caan, Robert Duvall, Abe Vigoda and even some from the late Marlon Brando. (It’s unfortunate Al Pacino was made an offer he could refuse.) The Tommy Gun-laden game follows major plot points of the Corleone saga, but its non-linear structure makes it feel like its own world rather than a rehash. It does resemble a Grand Theft Auto prequel with the Liberty City mafia relocated to 1950s New York. But that’s no knock; the sandbox setting lets you climb the crime ladder at your own pace, earning respect, extorting businesses, taking over rackets and making your rivals sleep with the proverbial fishes.

Grandia III (Square-Enix, PS2)
Though Japanese role-playing games have generally been a niche genre on this side of the sea, Square-Enix has made major inroads with its multi-million selling Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest franchises. However, you couldn’t be blamed for not having even heard of the first two Grandia games — not that it matters, since there’s very little carry-over. Like most J-RPGs, this sequel is essentially an interactive anime film with plenty of lush cut scenes. But GIII doesn’t skimp on the in-game visuals either, as your character Yuki, a young wannabe pilot, escorts a mysterious woman (are there any other kind?) through an endangered, monster-filled landscape. Though the complex "Ultimate Action Battle” system has been reconfigured to be faster and more dynamic — and is deservedly considered a pinnacle of RPG combat — it is still basically turn-based, which can be a frustrating turn-off for non-fans of that fighting format.

Odama (Vivarium, GameCube)
Odama is, above all else, odd. This third-party GameCube title somehow combines a pinball game with a real-time strategy military simulator that requires microphone-enabled voice commands and is all wrapped up in a samurai’s kimono. And yeah, I said pinball. The titular Odama is said ball, a giant sphere you propel with flippers around the battlefield (which you can even "tilt”) while ordering your feudal soldiers to take on the opposing forces in order to defend the philosophical Way of Ninten-do. It’s the brainchild of cult designer Yoot Saito, best known for SimCity spinoff SimTower and the Sega Dreamcast virtual pet Seaman, which also used microphone technology and was purposefully strange. Odama is quirky, confusing and dead difficult — let’s just say your yelling won’t be used exclusively to move the men around — but it’s also invigoratingly innovative, even if it doesn’t totally work.