“My past is not a memory. It’s a force at my back. It pushes and steers. I may not always like where it leads me, but like any story, the past needs resolution. What’s past is prologue. “
This is our list of the top 25 female characters of all-time. This is our selection for No. 1. In the next week, we’ll have a look at our combined list of male/female and some thoughts on how the whole process went down.
1) Samus Aran (Metroid) – 10 votes/628 points
Chris: Samus is our panel’s pick for the best female character of all-time, and she was just one vote away from being the first unanimous selection in any of our top 25s.
There is a lot of discussion below about the merits of this pick, and your mileage may vary. I don’t have a problem with it, because our panel has never had such support for a character (although the second-place finisher, Zelda, was extremely close in both votes and points).
You’ll see quite a few references to certain games in the Metroid series in our panel’s comments on this pick, but I’m going to go off the board and talk about a game that no one mentioned — one that might be the best in the series — Metroid Fusion.
Samus has her share of awesome appearances in other titles. She’s quiet and stoic in the Metroid Prime series as she meanders through some of the most atmospheric experiences in gaming history, and you can learn more about her background by using the scan visor throughout the game. She faces the return of some of her worst nightmares in Super Metroid, squaring off against Ridley and Kraid and Mother Brain all over again and killing everything else on Planet Zebes that dares oppose her.
Prime might be the best offering in the series. Super Metroid will always be my favorite. But I think Samus is the most relatable and understandable in Fusion.
Samus is out doing cool bounty hunter stuff as a bodyguard when things start to go horribly wrong. A strange creature enters her body at one point, but she doesn’t realize it’s a parasitic organism until it forces her into a state of unconsciousness and her ship explodes in an asteroid belt — luckily, her pod ejected her before she was killed.
Long story short, Samus is near-death as a result, and doctors have to remove her power suit because of the infection. They’re only able to save her life by injecting Metroid DNA from the baby she saved in Super Metroid.
You can already sense Samus’s vulnerability without her familiar suit — it leaves her without much in the way of weapons and abilities. But nothing compares to the feeling you (and Samus) get when you encounter the SA-X.
SA-X looks like Samus in her suit. The only difference is the pair of haunting, translucent, pupilless eyes inside the visor. The suit is fully operational, and Samus has an added problem — the Metroid DNA has left her extremely vulnerable to cold, just like the creatures. As you travel through the different parts of the station to fix problems, the SA-X has a habit of showing up abruptly, leaving you no choice but to run away. If you’re caught, ice beam shots lock you in place, missile attacks hurt for entire energy tanks at a time — and your weapons are ineffective.
Playing through Fusion, you vicariously start to feel a sense of panic. Engaging the SA-X means death for Samus, with the added feeling of helplessness as your own weapons are being turned against you. So when your nemesis appears, you find yourself curling into a morph ball and hiding in the corner, hoping desperately not to be spotted.
It’s a straightforward but cool mechanic that allows you to identify with Samus as a character. And it’s just one of many subtle examples of what makes her tick. There are other examples just in Fusion, like her conversations with the ship’s computer, Adam (a neat mechanic that was utterly destroyed by Other M).
In the three decades since her big reveal at the end of the original Metroid, Samus has become a mainstay for all other female characters to follow. Sorry, Zelda and Peach, but you were made to be rescued in the beginning. Tough luck, Lara Croft — someone was kicking ass and taking names 10 years prior. Samus Aran is our No. 1, and a deserving pick at that.
Joseph: Hmmm … hmmm. I don’t know. I’m not sure how I feel about Samus as number one. Yes, she deserves to be in the top 25. But I don’t know if she has enough in her to hold the top spot.
Sure, she massacred an entire race of parasitic aliens. She solves puzzles left behind by ancient aliens trying to hide a five-pack of missiles. She blows up about as many planets as Saiyans do. The case for her is strong, but Other M doesn’t help at all.
Still, she’s one of the greats. Samus, you are an icon to video gaming. You showed us the potential first person shooters could have. You showed us that hammering the shoot button was, at times, much more satisfying than using the upgrades. Sure, we will always question the physics of the morph ball, but somehow you pull it off. You don’t play the damsel in distress. You make the space pirates the damsel, then you put them in distress. You weren’t my number one, but I wouldn’t take the honor from you. You earned it.
Michaela: I really wish Other M didn’t exist. Actually, I’ve learned to disregard it completely, because the Samus I briefly played as in Zero Mission and Prime, while not having a ton of personality, was a strong, determined bounty hunter who could do anything she put her mind to. I had the most fun envisioning her that way, and any other version of her just seems wrong — more specifically, the Other M version.
Cary: Here’s the thing about Samus: she is us. Up until her reveal as female in the first Metroid game, she could have been anything — man, woman, alien, robot, empty suit with a magical brain. It didn’t matter one iota what she was because of how she was presented throughout the game. But I won’t lie, discovering she was, in fact, a human female at the end of Super Metroid did let out my inner “nanny nanny boo boo” to all the boys. HA!
Not only was Samus an ass-kicker extraordinaire, but she was GIRL! It was something that mattered tremendously, and yet it didn’t matter at all…that is…up until Other M. (Or so I’ve read, since I’ve not yet played the game.) I don’t go into a Metroid game with the mindset that I’m playing Samus Aran, female bounty hunter. (Maybe other people do, and that’s their loss.) Rather, Samus is simply the galaxy’s greatest bounty hunter. I’m thinking of the character behind the mask and the choices she must make in the game to survive. I’m thinking of the finesse needed in boss battles, the tools needed to traverse the landscapes, and the mental acuity needed to make split second decisions. It’s a lot to carry during a game. And you know why Samus can do it?
BECAUSE SHE’S A WOMAN! IN YO’ FACE PATRIARCHY!
Jason: So I’m just going to come out and say it, I think Samus is the WORST choice to be number one on the list. You heard me, the WORST. All caps. Yes, I was the one guy who didn’t vote for her; and yes, I have my reasons.
So the thing that makes Samus so great is that Metroid came out, everyone played it, everyone loved it, and then BOOM! Samus is actually a girl! Oh man! Mind blown! Right, cool. And if this was a list of top video game characters, I’d totally toss her on the top of my list. That being said, this is a list of top female characters, and Samus is literally one of the worst examples of a female character in video game history. Don’t believe me? Let’s start with the aforementioned reveal…
Samus is a character who can literally go an entire game and be mistaken for a man. She has zero traits which define her as a female. Heck, as far as we know the suit does all the work and she’s just napping all game. She has no dialogue, no personality and no physical traits that would define her as a female. While that’s certainly a good thing when trying to write a “well balanced” (AKA gender neutral) character, it’s a terrible thing to broadcast as the best kind of female character. Samus is a female in name only.
“But Jason!” you cry. “What about all those time’s she’s talked and when we’ve seen her outside her suit!?”
Oh, you mean when she’s been running around in a bikini or skin-tight space gimp-suit with high-heel rocket shoes complete with a laser-whip? Yeah, that’s high class. Or when they finally gave her dialogue and had her complain and whine about “the baby” for hours? That was definitely a strong showing.
The fact of the matter is that every time Samus steps out of the suit and tries to become a real female character she quickly becomes a walking gender trope in every worst way possible. She is (sadly) at her best when she hides who she is under a man-shaped suit and doesn’t say a dang word. If the first game had revealed that “Samus” was actually a sentient AI robot suit, you’d have never known the difference.
Does Samus kick tons of space pirate ass? You bet she does. Is she an awesome character in general? Yep!
But she is perhaps the worst female character to ever grace our TV screens, and a living example of everything wrong with how companies have tried to incorporate female characters into video games over the years. She does not deserve the number one spot on this list. She does not deserve to even be on this list. Yet here she is. Are there worse offenders of female tropes out there in video games? You bet there are, but you don’t see them being lauded as one of the best female character ever. Which is exactly what makes Samus such a problem…
Shaun: To respond to Jason’s analysis of Samus…well, I do love a good debate. It’s the reason we have panels made up from so many people. It’s a means to get various viewpoints and dissenting opinions in the voting process, which is the lifeblood of these lists, and what makes them entertaining to read.
With that said, I’d like to play a game of “Point-Counterpoint.”
POINT: Samus needs to be judged on criteria that explores her femininity.
At no point did our Best Male Characters list tackle what made these characters great “men.” We never spoke to the masculine psyche, or delved into how Phoenix Wright’s balanced testosterone levels led to him being a fantastic attorney and an all-around great, sympathetic character. We simply said Phoenix Wright is a complex, layered bad-ass. He was a great character that happened to be male, not a character defined by his gender.
So why would we make an exception for Samus, or any female, and judge them off anything but the same criteria? The previous 75 or so ladies that we talked about are on this list because they are fantastic examples of interesting people that we either love, or love to hate.
You’re welcome to give any character points for any reason you’d like. Some characters, I voted simply out of nostalgia. Others, I thought the strength of their inner conflict trumped what actions they may or may not have performed. So if “female characteristics” was in your rubric, then that’s totally great. But to reverse engineer that thinking to state that Samus Aran — she that is a gaming icon and wall breaker for what types of characters can be leads in their own games — and say that she’s the WORST CHOICE for our number one character? Now we’re taking crazy pills.
POINT: Other M and Smash Bros. destroyed her character.
COUNTERPOINT: You may have overlooked one tiny thing…
If we cherry-pick any information that happens to be convenient for our case out of an entire body of work, you can make a reasonable argument for anything on the planet.
No, I’m not going to argue that Other M and Smash Bros. are unfortunate missteps for the portrayal of Samus, and I’m disappointed to see that direction. For 25 years, Samus has been nothing but a complex, interesting character who is driven by the tragedy in her past and is ruthless in her quest for justice. Then again, that’s the point — you’re letting one misfire and a completely non-canon game overwrite 25 years of strong character moments.
On the flip side, Lara Croft from the revamped Tomb Raider is a wonderful instance of a character bucking her 20-year history of being a blatant sex doll for the first time. But it’s the first time. And while it’s a much appreciated, much needed new direction, it’s looking at one deviation and judging an entire history off of it. At that point, we’re unfairly using convenient data to craft an opinion that’s administered different for different characters.
I’m willing to keep an open mind regarding Samus’ future and the way she is handled. That’s fair. But I’m not going to cajole Samus for a deviation from her established legacy, the same way I’m not ready to herald the emergence of Lara Croft until we see more great examples of her growth.
POINT: Samus could be anyone. She could be a guy. She could even be a woman!
The person in the Power Suit could be anyone. It’s gender blindness. Again, we didn’t herald Link for his distinctly male attributes, stereotyped or actual. It wasn’t even in the conversation.
What happens when we say that females need to demonstrate female characteristics to be good female characters is we start skewing the list itself, including previous votes that were made.
For example, Mass Effect’s Shepard, male and female, are written nearly identically to each other in almost every way, save for a few romance options. There’s not really a “male” dialog wheel and a “female” wheel (nor should there be). So then the argument starts to devolve into “female Shepard is distinctive because she has boobs,” and you’re right back where we started.
I get where you’re coming from, though — strong female characters should be judged on their character, and not how good they are at being men. For example, the Aliens “Vasquez” trope would have you believe that females can be cool, too, as long as they’re masculine and kick ass and talk gruff and are basically a man. Acting like what society associates with men should not be the goal. Then again, acting distinctly like a female is also a very different thing. Really, the goal should be to act like a great character would.
Rather than being distinctly male or female, Samus is a completely different role model. There could be anyone in that suit, which is precisely the point — it reinforces that idea that, as a girl/woman, you can become anything. There are no societal categories that you have to fall into. You don’t need to act like what you think a man would act like to succeed, but you also don’t need to demonstrate perceived feminine qualities. Just be you.
In Samus’ case, that means kicking legions of Space Pirate ass and avenging those close to her that have fallen to evil and corruption. it means never giving up, regardless of the obstacles she faces or the odds against her. It means willingly facing the horrors in store for her and diving into hell again and again to protect those who can’t fight back. All these traits are why she truly is the best female character of all time.
Beyond that, nothing else matters.