Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Girl on Girl Games: Barbie

Girl on Girl Games: Barbie for NES

Barbie in full early 90's regalia

It would be pretty easy to dismiss as a standard girl game but for one thing:  this game is not terribly easy. Barbie is only a girl game because it is themed in accordance with the Barbie doll franchise. Underneath the veil of pink emblems, charm bracelets and shopping malls, it's really just a standard platform-er, with all the usual trappings.

Barbie takes us on a trip through Barbie's dreams, most of which center on her plans for the next day. While she's not exactly planning to turn the world upside down with her daily errands, they seem like pretty reasonable errands for a teen-age doll in Southern California. She needs to go to the mall and buy a new outfit, go swimming, have lunch at the soda shop, and then meet Ken at a party. Barbie recounts all this to us as she nods off to sleep reading a book about mermaids.

She may be a vapid blond doll, but at least she's reading a book. Enjoying it, even!

As previously stated, the game works as a standard platform-type. You play as Barbie (who is very obviously a pixelated doll) in the game. Her sprite is very tall and thin, and is always depicted in different outfits appropriate to the venue. For example, in the first level, she's wearing a plain athletic top and pants, but after the first mall level, she picks up a new ensemble (the one from the title screen). During the soda shop level, she wears a poodle skirt and sweater. And so on. Complaints about this should probably be directed to the doll line rather than the game about the doll line--after all, Barbie is a fashion doll. Why wouldn't she have lots of clothes in a game?

More after the jump!

Barbie has zero offensive capabilities in this game. Her main defense is the jump, and the device she uses to manipulate her environment? A charm bracelet. By throwing different charms (although, I usually only threw one kind, with very limited quantities of a second) at animals and other interactive elements, Barbie solves puzzles and defeats rather unconventional bosses. She can collect new, temporary charms, although I only saw one additional variety of charm. In case you're playing the game for points, there are little extras to pick up, like perfume bottles and cat-eye glasses, which will net you a 100 point bonus. Also in each level, you'll find small treasures which add Z's to your meter--basically, your hit points. When you lose all your Z's, Barbie wakes up. After being wakened three times, Barbie will be unable to go back to sleep and continue her "dreams".

Barbie's dog friend helps her avoid being hit by a tennis ball.

I suppose since this is presented to us as a dream, it's not particularly odd that most of the objects in the mall and coffee shop fly around independently. In the later mall stage, which consists almost entirely of avoiding water features in the galleria, Barbie must carefully time her steps to avoid being hit by long-jumping fish. In another part, she must defeat some kind of bizarre ready-to-wear poltergeist by throwing charms at it. At one point, Barbie deposits coins in a large fountain and a toucan brings her a beautiful new ball gown.

While none of the puzzles are particularly difficult, one of the most interesting features of the games is giving charms to the various allies to see what they will do. In the ocean level (you play as a mermaid!) a dolphin will help you through part of the stage. In the soda shop, throwing a charm at an anthropomorphic hamburger will shut off the giant soda fountain so you can pass. Just like real life!

The game isn't hard, but it isn't easy, either. You only get three lives, total--one per continue. Barbie isn't the best jumper, and as stated earlier, she has no firepower at all. You must avoid nearly every obstacle personally, because there are few ways to circumvent the games "enemies" and pitfalls. I have not personally finished it as of this writing, although Stan managed to get through it after a half-dozen tries. As added incentive not to fail, waking causes you to endure Barbie's creepy alien eyes:

Now, as a game, I don't think Barbie is bad at all. Reviews I've read over the years dismissed the game as terrible or unplayable, which I must say has to be bias against its feminine bent. The game is very playable if a little stiff. It is solid on graphics and sound, and it is themed perfectly to be the ultimate early-90s Barbie game. I can safely tell you that if I had had this game as a child, I would have enjoyed it highly, but it would have taken me weeks to get through it. This is not an easy "girl game" made for girls that don't know how to play games.

It does have all the usual gender-role reinforcement we've come to expect from Barbie; the rewards for completing the quests are items like shoes, jewelry and dresses. At the completion of the game, Barbie meets Ken for their date. I don't think the game invented this--it is after all, Barbie-themed. What would be more appropriate? A business suit and a hand gun? Chances are good, if a girl even wanted this game, she would have already been acquainted with Barbie's materialistic ways--no need to worry about the game reinforcing what was already taught through years of playtime and TV commercials.

Something that sets the game apart, though, is the format. A side-scrolling platform game is a very traditional style. Most of the girl games I've encountered are something akin to paper dolls, or the giant fashion head that girls are supposed to style up. This game doesn't even have a little of that--there is no mini-game where you put eyeshadow on the doll's face or design a new outfit.

In fact, Barbie subtly shows the player (if the player were young and impressionable) the power of imagination, the allure of reading, and alternative, non-violent solutions to obstacles and bosses. She may be out dress shopping in her dreams, but she's also spending her nights reading about a subject that interests her.

In the end, I really don't think Barbie is or was ever warping the minds of young girls. Perhaps the doll series requires greater scrutiny--and I'm sure it does--but this game seems pretty harmless to me. It's just a girly, regular game. I guess if you're worried about girls expecting to have life handed to them by a toucan, this game isn't going to help, but otherwise, it was actually a rather fun ride, one that I would have heartily endorsed as a young girl. It's no more damaging than any other game, just a whole lot pinker.