Nowadays, the global ratio of male to female gamers is near 1:1, but this ratio doesn't extend to the playable characters in games. Even though recent years have gone a long ways towards closing the gap, games with male characters are in the majority. However, it may surprise some to learn that although they haven't been common, games which feature females as playable characters have been around for decades.

But who was the first female protagonist? If you ask someone that they'll probably answer either "Ms. Pac-Man", or "Samus Aran" (or "Metroid", if they're anything like my mom). One day, I got to wondering if either of those answers were actually correct, and decided to do some research. Surprisingly enough, though those two are definitely the most well-known and influential, they weren't the first, even in their own genres.

Those findings inspired me to do this list, which looks at 10 different genres of games, and the first female protagonist in each of those genres.

The list entries are ordered from newer to older, and are formatted as following:
Character name - Game - Genre

Note:
For the purposes of this list, I considered a female character a protagonist only if they were intended as female by the developer (so no games where the player could pick the gender). I also opted to feature games where female characters were selectable out of a pool, rather than being the only option - this is only relevant to entries #10 and #8, with the honorable mentions being the games where a female protagonist was the only option.

Release Date: February 1995

Landmark: First shooter to have multiple characters with different stats

Note: The release date is for the full release of the game. There was a shareware version that came out in December of 1994.

An early game by Apogee Software, after their massive success publishing Wolfenstein 3D, but before they changed their name to 3D Realms and achieved similarly-if-not-more massive success by developing Duke Nukem 3D, Rise of the Triad: Dark War was largely unsuccessful. Despite this, the game did have some interesting innovations for its time. Multiple playable characters, each with their own statistics, interesting power-ups, multiplayer with up to eleven people, end-of-level bonuses depending on actions taken, and only being able to carry a few weapons at a time, rather than an entire arsenal, helped the game stand out.

The plot follows a five-member elite task force sent to an island off the coast of California to investigate a dangerous cult. There, they discover the cult plots to destroy San Francisco, and go in guns-blazing to eliminate the threat. Initially intended to be a sequel to Wolfenstein 3D, those plans were scrapped late in development, and the project repurposed into a stand-alone title.

Both of the playable females feature the fairly standard trope that women can't take as much damage as men, but make up for it in speed and/or accuracy. Thi Barrett has only average health, but above-average accuracy and is very fast; Lorelei Ni has low health, but is as fast as Thi and even more accurate.

Legacy:
The game and its characters are largely forgotten, but without Rise of the Triad: Dark War to set a precedent, we might never have seen modern-day shooters such as Team Fortress 2 or Overwatch.

Honorable Mention, First-person Shooter Category:
Anne from Trespasser.

Release Date: December 1987

Landmark: First female RPG protagonist

Phantasy Star was a groundbreaking title in many ways. At the time of release, it was among the largest, most ambitious, most graphically-advanced, and innovative titles on the market. In an era where the vast majority of RPGs were strictly rooted in fantasy, Phantasy Star ironically eschewed those traditions and broke out into the universe with many sci-fi elements.

The game follows protagonist Alis Landale as she initially seeks to take revenge for her murdered brother, and then refocuses on attempting to free the entire three-planet Algol System from the oppressive rule of King Lassic. Along the way, she is joined by several companions, each with their own personalities and backstories. This may make some remark, "So what? Every RPG has that." That's true nowadays, but back then, RPGs had characters who were little more than blank slates, designed to serve as a player's vehicle through the world, with no personality of their own.

Yuji Naka was the lead programmer, and Rieko Kodama the character designer. Both of them had worked on previous games that also featured female protagonists (see entries #4 and #3 on this list), but this was the first time they worked together. Yuji Naka would later be the lead programmer on all four Sonic the Hedgehog games on the Sega Genesis, and serve as the producer for the Sonic series for 15 years. Rieko Kodama, who would later be dubbed "The First Lady of RPGs" by Nintendo Power, went on to work on more games in the Phantasy Star series, the Sonic series, and also produced the cult classic Skies of Arcadia for the Dreamcast.

Legacy:
As already stated, Phantasy Star was a groundbreaking title, and according to at least one game developer, was successful enough to allow Sega to release the Genesis and solidify their position as Nintendo's biggest competitor in the early 90's. Alis herself hasn't had as much of an impact, but as the first female RPG protagonist, she paved the way for every character since.

Release Date: October 1987

Landmark: First USA-developed game to feature playable female characters

To my shame, Maniac Mansion is one of the few LucasArts adventure games I have never completed. Despite it being Director/Designer Ron Gilbert's personal favorite, and the adventure game that arguably single-handedly revolutionized the genre, I've never made it past the first few screens. This is largely due to the fact that the only time I've ever played the game was by means of the full copy included as an easter egg in the sequel, Day of the Tentacle, and I wasn't really interested in playing a different game in the middle of a game I was already playing. I still plan on beating it someday... but enough about me.

The plot follows Dave, trying to rescue his girlfriend from Dr. Fred, and the mysterious sentient meteor that brainwashed him. Along the way, you might deal with sentient, disembodied tentacles of various colors (green and purple, specifically), avoid Dr. Fred's similarly-brainwashed family, and microwave a hamster.

Maniac Mansion features seven playable characters. You will always play as protagonist Dave, but he has six friends who are willing to accompany him into the mansion, and the player will choose two of the six to make up your playable party for the duration of the game (barring any unexpected deaths, in which case you recruit a replacement friend from the remainder). Two of these friends - Wendy and Razor - are females. Wendy is an aspiring novelist, and Razor is the lead singer for the punk band, "Razor and the Scummettes."

All of Dave's friends have different skill sets, which enable them to solve different puzzles in the mansion. In this regard, Razor is a virtual palette-swap of another character, unfortunately lowering her value as a character who is both necessary and female.

Legacy:
Wendy and Razor themselves don't have much lasting influence on the industry, but the legacy of Maniac Mansion itself cannot be understated. The game almost single-handedly revolutionized the adventure game genre, and is still counted by many among the best games ever.

Honorable Mention, Point-'n-click Adventure Category:
Rosella from King's Quest IV.

Release Date: July 1986

Landmark: First game where once you rescue the damsel in distress, she turns out to be perfectly capable of handling herself

The sequel to Namco's The Tower of Druaga, The Return of Ishtar takes place immediately after the conclusion of the first game, and is about the characters' escape from the Tower. In the first game, you play as the knight Gilgamesh, who wants to rescue the magical priestess, Ki. In the sequel, though, player one controls Ki, with Gilgamesh being relegated to the sidekick role that player two can optionally fill. I think this is a very interesting plot concept; can you think of any other game series where the first game was about rescuing someone who then becomes the main character in the sequel?

While Ki has powerful magical attacks, she can't take a hit (literally; one hit and she dies). This is in contrast to Gilgamesh, who can't kill enemies as well, but can take several hits before dying. Together, they must make their way through 128 rooms filled with enemies and traps.

Ki also starred in a prequel to the original game, titled The Quest of Ki and released in 1988, although in that game she strangely didn't have access to the magical attacks she does in this entry.

Legacy:
The Tower of Druaga was a massive success, inspiring games such as Ys, The Legend of Zelda, and Dragon Quest. The game series had an anime spin-off in 2008, and more recently, the original game appeared in a Namco Museum compilation on Nintendo Switch. The Tower of Druaga was also referenced in cult classic GameCube RPG Baten Kaitos: Eternal Wings and the Lost Ocean (which was published by Namco) in a level in the mirage land of Mira.

Release Date: December 1985

Landmark: First exploited female character*

Note: I saw at least two references to the title Nunchakun. One site said that this game was known by that title in Japan, while a comment on another site said that this game was a reskinned version of Nunchakun. I don't know whether either of those remarks are true.

This game was hard to research. Not only is there no Wikipedia article about the game, most sites that do have an entry for the game only have a couple of sentences, a paragraph at most. Luckily, YouTube has several gameplay clips, so this entry is largely based off of those.

As far as I can tell, Lady Master of Kung Fu was the first arcade-style beat-'em-up game to feature a female protagonist. Similar to Double Dragon or Final Fight, the titular Lady has to beat up hordes of enemies with jumping kicks and her trusty nunchucks (or nunchaku, if you prefer). The enemies include vaguely-offensive Asian stereotypes, fire-breathing fat men, knife-throwing belly-dancers, and wooden robots. I'm not sure when this game is supposed to be set, but you can collect potentially-trademark-infringing cans of Coke so "YOU CAN GET POWER".

Oddly enough for an arcade game, apparently Taito included some rather explicit fan service. Whenever you beat a level, the picture of Lady (the one you see in the thumbnail there) will remove an article of clothing. So even as far back as 1985, game developers were exploiting their female characters in an attempt to attract more players. Sigh.

*I'm not going to research this to be sure, but I'm guessing there were probably adult video games around this time period. Therefore, when I say Lady was the first exploited female character, I mean she was the first character (as far as I know) to be played up for fanservice in a way completely unrelated to the game's plot or setting.

Legacy:
Non-existent. Heck, Wikipedia doesn't even have an article on the game.

Release Date: July 1985

Landmark: First deliberately-obscured female character

Note: The game was originally called Baraduke in Japan (although it's occasionally stylized as "BaRaDuke", in the original arcade fliers and here on GameFAQs; I'm not sure why this is), and was named Alien Sector when it was exported to the U.S.

Despite having possibly the most sexist nickname I've heard since M*A*S*H*'s character Margaret "Hot Lips" Houlihan, Kissy makes up for it by being a one-woman, alien-killing machine. Think Bill Rizer from Contra, except with a space suit and a jetpack.

I'll admit, I'm fudging the genres a bit with this entry. "Scrolling Shooter" isn't that different from "Run-and-gun", and it's not quite the same as "Metroidvania". However, when I learned of this game, I knew I had to include it no matter what, as you'll see very soon.

The gameplay largely consists of shooting hostile aliens, rescuing Paccets (small, friendly, yellow, one-eyed aliens), and defeating bosses. Your character is a person in a yellow spacesuit, and presumed to be male. After over 40 levels and multiple bosses, when the ending sequences start, your character is revealed to be... a woman! Shocking! Audiences at the time were completely blown away by this unprecedented development!

Sound familiar? No, I didn't accidentally start writing about Metroid. Fact is, Baraduke pulled this off a year before Metroid did. So even if the Metroid developers didn't steal the idea, we can at least thank Baraduke for setting a precedent.

Legacy:
Quite an interesting one. To save myself some writing, I'll just shamelessly reprint what the Wikipedia article on the game says:

"In the Mr. Driller series of games, Kissy Masuyo is a supporting character under the name Toby Masuyo (they refer to "Kissy" as being her nickname). She has married and divorced Taizo Hori (better known as Dig Dug, the protagonist of the 1982 arcade game of the same name) and they have three children, Susumu Hori (who is the main character of Mr. Driller), Ataru Hori, and Taiyo Toby. Kissy is also a playable character in the Japan-only tactical role-playing video game Namco x Capcom, where she is teamed up with Hiromi Tengenji from Burning Force. Because of her divorce, she seems to have a grudge against Taizo Hori, who too appears in this game (a reference to the Mr. Driller series). Tron Bonne, from Capcom's Mega Man Legends game, mistakes her for a boy.

A Paccet (which is a small, round yellow alien with only one eye) appears in the background as a painting in Tales of Destiny. Elle Mel Marta's backpack in Tales of Xillia 2 is also a Paccet, with a small charm shaped like Kissy attached to it. Paccet makes a cameo in Super Smash Bros. for Nintendo 3DS and Wii U as part of Pac-Man's Taunt, "Namco Roulette"."

Honorable Mention, Scrolling Shooter Category:
Samus from Metroid, obviously.

Release Date: March 1985

Landmark: First playable princess

Note: The original arcade version of this game was titled Ninja Princess in Japan, but was changed to Sega Ninja for the English release. Later ports for Sega's SG-1000 and Master System consoles were entitled The Ninja.

Princesses in video games - particularly role-playing games - have a long history of being just as capable as their male counterparts. Peach's hovering ability is invaluable in Super Mario Bros. 2. Marle's powerful healing spells and ice magic make her an essential team member in Chrono Trigger. Two out of three of the playable female characters in Seiken Densetsu 3 - a third of the available characters - are princesses. By the end of Final Fantasy V, three-fourths of your party are princesses.

All of these princesses owe Princess Kurumi for paving the way. When an evil tyrant named Gyokuro seizes power, Kurumi trades in her kimono for a ninja costume, and sets out to restore peace. Armed with an infinite supply of throwing knives/stars and the power of temporary invisibility, Kurumi kicks ass across Edo-era Japan.

Ninja Princess was designed by Rieko Kodama, two years before she would serve as the main artist for Phantasy Star (see above).

Legacy:
None, really. It didn't help Kurumi that the aforementioned home console ports replaced her with a generic, unnamed male ninja.

Release Date: July 1984

Landmark: First human female protagonist

Years before Yuji Naka would be the lead programmer on Sonic the Hedgehog, he created this quirky little title, an early role-reversal of the typical "save the girl" video game plot. Rather than having to save her boyfriend Minto from an evil overlord or a horde of goblins, though, Papri has to "save" him from the charms of her rival in love, Cocco. She accomplishes this by picking him some flowers. Ergo, it's a dating sim. Sorta. That's what we're going with for this list, anyway.

The game plays like an action-adventure, with a few similarities to the first Zelda game (not very strong similarities, but they're there). You have to go about an area, avoiding enemies and picking flowers, and when you get a whole bouquet you can turn them in to complete the round, and also secure Minto's affections. There's a rather clever game mechanic (for 1984, at least) where enemies will ignore you unless you stray too close, after which they will change color and pursue you more aggressively.

Girl's Garden wasn't an amazing game, but it was good enough to impress Naka's boss, jump-starting his career, and ultimately leading to the creation of Sonic the Hedgehog.

Legacy:
Not much of one, but in 2011, Arstechnica mentioned this game as "a significant early dating sim", further validating its inclusion on this list. So there.

Release Date: June 1982

Landmark: First female animal, first mother

Kangaroo is a platformer where you play as a character who ascends ladders in an attempt to rescue someone from a primate. Yeah, like Donkey Kong, except not as good. Well, that's being a little harsh - the original arcade version was rated 8/10 by two separate magazines, a respectable score. However, none of the later ports to three separate Atari consoles were nearly as well-received.

*coughs*

Okay, so I don't have a lot to say about this one. I guess I'll pad this entry out a bit with some natter. There aren't a lot of kangaroos in video games, are there? Ricky in the Zelda Oracle games is the only one I can think of. Ricky wasn't quite as useful as Moosh (the blue bear who had tiny angel wings which he used to fly, and was scared of water... still not the strangest Zelda character), but had a better attack. Hey, wasn't there a kangaroo in some Final Fantasy game? I'm probably remembering that incorrectly.

Legacy:
More of one than you might expect. Katy and her joey, Joey (this is like naming a baby cat "Kitten" *rolls eyes*), appeared in 13 episodes of the animated cartoon Saturday Supercade in 1984. They appeared alongside a Donkey Kong segment six times. Not bad for a fairly shameless rip-off.

Honorable Mention, Platformer Category:
The Great Giana Sisters from the game of the same name.

Release Date: October 1981

Landmark: First female protagonist; possibly first female character, period

Expecting Ms. Pac-Man? So was I, when I thought up this list. But as this list's criteria is specifically release date, despite Ms. Pac-Man being infinitely more popular and influential, Lady Bug takes our #1 spot, representing the puzzle genre. This little pixie (yes, she's a fairy, not an insect) is also the very first female character to appear in a video game, predating Ms. Pac-Man by approximately three months.

Lady Bug's gameplay is very similar to Pac-Man's, being a maze game where you eat things while avoiding enemies. It's not just a palette-swap clone, though, as it contains an interesting gameplay mechanic in the addition of gates that can be opened and closed to bar pathways. The arcade cabinet was not particularly well-received, but the ColecoVision port garnered some praise and awards.

This was the most difficult entry to research, specifically regarding release date. It took some doing to figure out whether Lady Bug or Ms. Pac-Man released earlier. I found numerous sources that placed the release date for Lady Bug at an unspecific "1981", and others that said "October 1981". The official release date on Wikipedia for Ms. Pac-Man was July 1981 - but the introductory paragraph said January 1982! Eventually, I found out that Ms. Pac-Man was copyrighted in 1981, but did not physically release until January 1982. Since, to the best of my knowledge, Lady Bug released in October of 1981, that gave it the spot in the list.

Legacy:
Not much of one. In 2013, Classicgaming called it "the most challenging of the Pac-clones... it was, and still is, one of the best."

Honorable Mention, Arcade/Puzzle Category:
Ms. Pac-Man, naturally.

All of the info in this list was self-researched, and I wouldn't be at all surprised if I've omitted or overlooked something. So rather than voting down the list and leaving a nasty comment, I'd encourage you to come by the top ten list board and let me know of anything I may have missed. I'd love to hear about it! (You may also come by the top ten list board and leave a nasty comment there, if you so desire.)
Also, in case anyone was wondering, I'm a guy.

Honorable Mentions:
I ended up not being able to include many genres of games, like Fighting, Third-person Shooter, Open-world, Puzzle, Simulation, Real-time Strategy, Turn-based Strategy... the list goes on. Here are just a few honorable mentions of early female characters whom I was unable to include in the list for one reason or another:
Reika from Time Gal - thanks to Pako Pako
Yuki from Typhoon Gal; Milky from Onyanko Town - thanks to MatLShini
Peach from Super Mario Bros. 2
Chun-Li from Street Fighter II

Sources:
Wikipedia articles for each game, as well as articles on several developers and companies
Various websites for survey data about the ratio of male to female gamers
GameFAQs itself for some game release data
IGN
Classicgaming
Arstechnica

Thanks to the following contributors:
LoneCourier2281, for the invaluable link to the IGN article
BlueGunstarHero, for help with the intro
A big thanks to everyone who posted in my "Help me with my next top ten list!" thread here on GameFAQs, offering advice and information, and another big thanks to everyone who posted in my "Pester me to work on my list" thread, pestering me to stop procrastinating and just FINISH the darn list, already!


List by The_Mighty_KELP (07/06/2018)

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