Release Date: November 21, 1985
Publisher: Pony Canyon
Role: Main Playable Character
Any Subsequent Appearances: No
Introduction: Pony Canyon, a popular Japanese record label, decided to cash in on Nintendo’s successful Famicom by producing games themselves. Onyanko Town was their first title, developed by the now infamous Micronics, who would go on to ruin Capcom and SNK ports in a few years with their shoddy programming. Here, however, the team created a simplistic maze game starring Milky, a mother cat who continues to lose track of her son. She must brave a cityscape full of hateful canines and homicidal butchers in order to retrieve her son. Her only defenses against the horde of haters are manholes that drop dogs to their doom, and grabbing the occasional fish, rendering her invincible to the canine cavalcade.
Character Design/Personality: Milky wears a pink dress with an apron, strongly suggesting that she is very much a housewife. She’s hunting down her wayward son, which shows she cares for the lad, but could also posit that she doesn't pay him the attention he needs. She lives in an animal kingdom equivalent of the sundown town. She doesn’t have much of a personality from the in-game spritework. She is excited when she returns home with her son, leaping high into the sky. Beyond that, there isn’t much to go on.
Impact on Narrative: She is the heroine of the piece, so there’s that. She is the one who rescues her son and braves the mobs of hateful neighbors. However, she has little agency because she can't do much of anything beyond wander about the maze and open and close manhole covers.
Positive Aspects: She’s the second lead female on the Famicom, and the first from a third-party! She is one of the very rare “mother” characters in a game.
Negative Aspects: Her design is very stereotypical and trite. Her game’s design stacks the deck against her very heavily, as she has no real way to combat the game’s obstacles and foes beyond running away. This reflects poorly on her having any control over what is happening to her. Her environment is toxic and has unexpected parallels to real-world race and sex relationships.
My Reactions: Not a very progressive character by any stretch of the imagination. A helpless woman trying to retrieve her son who wandered off smacks of negligence at best. Add in the creepy tangent that every single creature in the game world is looking to kill her, and she has no recourse whatsoever... and you have a rather unsettling title. Unintentionally, Milky’s plight could have grander significance in terms of studying the game as a discourse on racial dynamics than as an actual game. It’s sort of eerie how much the game’s design mimics what I’m reading in James Loewen’s excellent but terrifying Sundown Towns.
Future Appearances: As far as I know, this is her only game.
Release Date: February 21, 1986
Format: Disc (Japan)/Cartridge (other territories)
Role: NPC (Damsel)
Any Subsequent Appearances: Yes… well, sort of
Introduction: Princess Zelda is Nintendo’s second leading princess, and their third damsel in distress thus far. She is the namesake of one of the greatest video game series of all time, although in this game her role is marginalized in contrast to Link and Ganon. In the original game, she is kidnapped by Ganon for her Triforce of Wisdom. Unfortunately for the King of Evil, Zelda had already split apart the Triforce and hidden it all over the realm. Her final task before her kidnapping was to send Impa, her nursemaid, to find a worthy hero to put a stop to Ganon’s tyranny… which leads to Link getting involved. She appears in the game’s ending, following Link’s victory over Ganon, in a room in Level 9 completely surrounded by flames. Link’s sword extinguishes the fires, and Link returns the Triforce of Wisdom to her. She holds the reformed Triforce high as Link does the same for the Triforce of Power, plucked from the ashes of Ganon.
Character Design/Personality: Her artwork depicts her as a Disney-esque Princess. She wears a simple pink dress with a plethora of bows, pink pearls, and a jeweled headband on her head. She is depicted in a prayer-like pose, suggesting meekness. In-game, her dress is the same color as Link’s outfit at the time (red is likely what most players ran across). She stands still until Link touches her, and then the game ends with them both holding their respective Triforces aloft. She expresses a smile at her freeing moments, but that’s really it in terms of personality.
Impact on Narrative: She is the arbiter of the game’s storyline — without her initial actions, Ganon would have dominated Hyrule without any problems. She scattered the Triforce shards across Hyrule (supposedly by herself? Considering the hells in those dungeons…I find that dubious. But hey, maybe she’s like Smash Bros. Zelda when she’s not in Ganon’s clutches). She also indirectly recruited Ganon’s rival Link through her nursemaid, Impa. However, beyond setting the game’s plot into motion, she’s almost trivial to the actual goings-on of the game. Link's quest only bumps into the titular princess at the very end.
Positive Aspects: She did have the foresight to hinder Ganon’s efforts of taking over Hyrule with her pre-game actions...
Negative Aspects: Unfortunately, Zelda’s origin is pretty terrible. She defines the damsel trope here: she only appears in the endgame, and serves as the “reward” for beating the game. Link’s motivation? Save Zelda. Furthermore, she is clothed in “feminine” colors and garments. She’s also a princess, which begs for the damsel trope. It set into motion the recurring “kidnapping Zelda” motif of the franchise, and she is almost always captured, assaulted, or somehow diminished in the narrative as a means of plot progression. Even her most empowered moments (save Smash and Hyrule Warriors) lead to this end result. Ocarina of Time’s Sheik? Snatched by Ganondorf moments after her big reveal as a disguised Zelda. Wind Waker’s Tetra? Once she’s confirmed to be the princess, she’s shut away in a dreary castle and then swiped by Ganondorf. Skyward Sword? She’s pursued throughout the entire game by Ghirahim, and when her true power is ultimately unveiled, he manages to finally catch her and whisk her away. It’s ridiculous how often this happens.
My Reactions: This rendition of Zelda is nothing special or noteworthy. She’s a means for the game’s story to hinge upon, and that’s it. More disappointing is how Nintendo continues to recycle Zelda’s helplessness into nearly every other project under the franchise’s umbrella.
Future Appearances: This Zelda is only in this particular game. However, her ancestors and descendants have made many further appearances in gaming lore, typically in a similar role of damsel. There are a few exceptions to the victimized rule, though: Super Smash Bros. Melee brought Zelda into its lineup, granting her a magic-infused moveset based on Link’s Goddess magic from Ocarina of Time. She could also turn into Sheik for Melee and Brawl. In the 3DS and Wii U entries, Sheik was isolated into her own character, and Zelda gained the Phantom from Spirit Tracks as a new move. She’s got some hard hitting strikes, especially in the air, and is a solid, empowered character in the series (outside of the Subspace Emissary, where she is, once again, kidnapped for a time). Hyrule Warriors also grants Zelda a more liberated role within its playable roster, although I haven’t played that yet, so I’ll refrain from further comment for now.