Inspired by a recent discussion on Fave This, I wanted to talk about three Nintendo games that have story elements I read as progressive, and how the handling of those elements ultimately disappointed me in some way despite that.
Spoiler warning for The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, Super Mario Odyssey, and Pokémon Ultra Sun/Moon. I enjoyed playing all three games, and found these moments in particular to be simultaneously exciting and vexing.
Zelda: the titular princess is given much more character than in previous games, a plucky, adventurous, researcher who roams Hyrule trying to figure out the secrets of Sheikah technology. The discussion on Fave This centered around the fact that all of Zelda’s development takes place via optional flashbacks, and she ultimately plays the same passive role (aiding the hero) that she plays in other games in the series. For me this glimpse of a different kind of Zelda was fascinating and uplifting, and having her shoved into the same old role at the end was a disappointing conclusion to the most interesting version of the character. Zelda in BotW was the hero I wanted to play, desperately searching for a way to save her kingdom from Ganon.
Mario: I love the ending scene where Peach rejects both Mario and Bowser’s advances, commandeers Mario’s airship, and leaves. When encountered in the post-game, she explicitly states her joy at being able to travel the world on her own terms, a wonderful break from the traditional “and then he gets the kiss” ending. The disappointment from Mario came from the fact that Peach was kidnapped (again) in the first place, a trope so done to death it’s exhausting. In Mario and Luigi: Bowser’s Inside Story, Peach blasts Bowser out of her castle with a magic wand, I would love to see more of that and less kidnapping being written for Peach.
Pokémon: The character of Lillie received a great moment in Ultra Sun and Moon’s postgame Episode RR where she gets to fight alongside the player character in a battle. She has, inexplicably, a Pokémon that is at endgame levels, despite a self-professed dislike for Pokémon battles. Mechanical gripes aside, I love the agency Lillie is given, even though it’s only used to help the player. Her agency is then immediately snatched away, as Guzma shows up to help the player. For some unknown reason Lillie decides that she should go back to only healing the player’s team and not battling, despite other characters fulfilling both of those roles in the past. It would have been one thing if she had tried her hand at battling and decided it wasn’t for her, but she tries, wins, and then declares herself to be bad at it. It frustrates me that her character development was subjugated to mechanical needs, and it felt even more cruel since (unlike Sun and Moon) you got to witness her battle.
These three moments feel like Nintendo and The Pokémon Company International tentatively trying out new story ideas, changing old, stale plot beats to make things fresh and interesting. I’m left with a couple of questions and concerns: Are these moments indicative of a shift in the way these tropes are handled? Or will a future Zelda or Mario game fall right back into the tropes we know and hate? Ultimately I feel like the moments I’ve outlined here are a step forward for portrayals of women in games that are undermined in the same instant they’re set free. I would love to hear other examples of progressive story elements in recent games that were undermined, or other ideas about the ones I’ve already outlined.