Fans Take Videogame Damsels Out of Distress, Put Them in Charge

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By Ian Sherr

Playing “Donkey Kong” this spring, Mike Mika’s 3-year-old daughter Ellis asked him why it is always the mustached Mario who saves Pauline, the damsel in a pink dress who gets kidnapped by a gorilla.

The game has no option for the girl to save the boy. It just works like that, the dad told his daughter. “She was bummed out,” he says.

So Mr. Mika, a 39-year-old videogame developer in Emeryville, Calif., hacked the classic game’s software to make the damsel into a heroine who saves the plumber Mario. He published his version, dubbed “Donkey Kong: Pauline Edition,” online, where it has been downloaded more than 11,000 times since it was posted in March.

Many videogames have long followed the same guy-centered theme: Girl gets in trouble; boy goes on a quest to save girl. Since few of those titles have broken that story mold, a niche of gamers with programming skills makes it their mission to write their own.

ZeldaWith a few redrawn pixels and well-placed lines of computer code, the women crying out for rescue have become the ones who save the day. One gamer turned the namesake character from “The Legend of Zelda,” a princess saved by a guy named Link, into a sword-bearing warrior. (The game’s creator called it “Zelda Starring Zelda.”)

Another made Princess Peach, a different kidnapped friend of Mario, throw her own fireballs as she fights her way through a Mushroom Kingdom to save the plumber.

Even the lipstick-lined Ms. Pac-Man started as a hack of the popular arcade game about her male counterpart.

The hackers do the gender switch by tapping into code from the games. They tend to focus on older titles because the programming and graphics are simpler than modern ones.

There is some debate about how far the hackers should take their artistic license. Some change a lot throughout the game, adding pink color schemes, feminine fonts and even new mystical capabilities, such as the ability to turn into a mermaid for underwater fights. One remade “Super Mario Bros.” into “Hello Kitty Land.”

 

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(Published July 3, 2013, on A1 of The Wall Street Journal.)