In light of my last post, I began thinking about Nintendo’s roster of female characters as a whole and how they influenced my general outlook on girls in video games. Out of all of them, there was one that took a while to remember, but on closer inspection, she was really the basis for a lot of my own characters and opinions of what a lady character in a game should aspire to. And no, she’s not a princess.
Back in my wee baby days, I only used to watch my family play games while perched on the arm of a chair trying to get a good angle for the Gameboy screen (this predates the Nintendo 64, even). I remember my excitement after watching my brother do a speed run of Metroid II and seeing the swimsuit ending confirming Samus as a girl, but at my young age, I didn’t really grasp how important that was. No, my favorite female character for a time ended up being someone from Wario Land: Super Mario Land 3. A mouthful, I know, but in the midst of Wario and all his unique powers and lust for greed sat a woman who, though the final boss of the game, really presented me with my first character with moral ambiguity.
As is somewhat obvious, Wario was everything Mario wasn’t: greedy, gross, unheroic, lazy—the list goes on. So by that precedent, who would be the counterpart to Princess Peach? It would have been easy to make an unvirtuous, rude princess that Wario had to save (which, okay, would have been kind of funny), but in Captain Syrup we got so much more. As the name implies, Captain Syrup is the captain of her own ship and runs her own pirate gang called the Brown Sugar Pirates, and has several battalions of loyal crew men working under her. In gameplay, Wario sets off to steal all her treasure. The interesting thing is that her gender is kept a secret until the final battle where they meet face-to-face, and in the reveal Wario especially is surprised that she’s a woman. In later games, she steals all of her treasure back, and even dupes Wario into getting her more treasure. I don’t think anyone would call Peach incapable of her own domain, but we never really get a look at what that domain is (we get some idea in the Paper Mario series and Mario RPG, but it’s still kind of ambiguous). For the first time in the Mario universe, we got to see a woman who could take care of herself. More than that, we got to see a woman who, while the end boss, wasn’t really presented as a bad guy, but also clearly wasn’t “good”.
These days, we have more complexity with the Mario characters—such as long-time nemesis, Bowser—as Nintendo explores when they act alongside the heroes and why they would, but Syrup, I think, really paved the way. Having what boils down to a bit part in only three games, I can’t say I have much to go off of. However, it would only be four years from Wario Land’s release that Ocarina of Time would debut on the Nintendo 64 which features some rather complex female characters as well. So if we look at the progression of things by release date, the fighter Samus (1986, 1991 for the one I watched) paved the way for the maybe-enemy Syrup (1994), who continued the call for complex characters like the ladies Zelda, Nabooru, and Ruto (1998). You may be thinking that Syrup still doesn’t really belong on this list, especially next to these ladies from wildly popular franchises, but let me explain.
Having a female villain is not what I’d call uncommon, per sé, but back in the early days of gaming it was particularly difficult for a woman to be anything but a damsel. Even now, many games don’t often include women in enemy mobs, and when they do they’re usually distinguished by making them over sexualized for the situation. But in making the main boss of a game from a huge franchise—even a spin-off from said franchise—a woman who is driven by her own motivation that, for the most part, has nothing to do with the “hero”, as well as someone who isn’t sexualized, was a huge step toward something great.
Syrup was no one’s damsel, and she could hold her own against Wario, creating a truly equal playing ground. In Wario Land: Shake It, a Wii title that came out a few years ago, Syrup’s character is further explored as she teams up with her enemy, Wario, and completely tricks him into retrieving the “Bottomless Money Sack” for her. And, though perhaps not as much of an anomaly these days as writing for female characters becomes more nuanced and complex, these small additions help to solidify Syrup as the complex character she was, and continues to be: not a hero, not a villain, but someone who’s after her own rewards by her own means.
Though there haven’t been any new Wario-centric games announced for the future, I really hope Nintendo comes back to this series and this set of characters. I’d love to see Syrup on a next gen console and see how her character fully develops when pitted against the garlic-lover. Although I understand that she’s not particularly memorable, I hope that I’ve
piqued your interest so that you’ll think about her a little more closely, as well as any other side-character. With some introspection on what makes women characters effective or ineffective, we can continue to improve. Hell, who knows: the next game may star Syrup. It’s not likely, but I can dream.