[ In a conversation on Twitter with @KivaBay, she challenged me to write about the representation of fat characters in retro video games. Here is my attempt. ]
Quick: Name the first fat character in a retro video game that you can think of.
For many, this may not be an easy task. When we look to old video games for representation, the result is often a sad landscape of narrow-minded sameness. If finding a relatable player-character is important to you, then hopefully you are a thin young white boy with a kidnapped girlfriend. Or maybe you could be a spaceship.
The first character I could think of that is intentionally portrayed as being Definitely Larger Than The Mainstream Beauty Standard was actually Ursula, the final boss from Capcom’s adaptation of Disney’s The Little Mermaid. Of course, this does not count – the tentacled sea witch does not originate from the gamingverse, much like choosing Wolverine as your favorite video game character hardly has any merit if we are trying to examine the medium with any critical seriousness.
The first real contender I thought of was King Hippo.
And what an interesting entry. In the action boxing thriller Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out! (NES), Hippo is treated as the most obviously out-of-shape boxer, although his actual fightin’ chops outweigh (no pun intended?) many of the lesser match-ups. The key to knocking him down for the count involves a degrading sight gag, complete with dropped shorts and a distended-gut-as-weak-spot routine. The whole style of the match is a bit off-kilter from the norm (granted, the other opponents include teleporters and on-the-nose stereotypes), but at least all of the other boxers have a listed weight – for King Hippo’s profile, his weight is listed as “???”.
Not the most encouraging portrait for a role model, eh?
As we will see, overweight people in classic games tend to be treated as something more akin to sideshow freaks than true flesh-and-blood people of equal value and worth. Although I am not setting out to comprehensively catalogue every single big-boned person that was ever drawn with a few more pixels than the rest, I think any reasonable person would understand that the era we typically associate with “retro video games” was not exactly a fat-friendly culture.
Even when a non-player character was portrayed as helpful, on the side of “good,” we deal with problematic portrayals. Past the crack in the wall of the Pyramid of Power in The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past (SNES) lies someone who grants our hero, Link, some help to defeat the nefarious Ganon.
And what is this helpful character’s name? … well, she is not given a name, but is known as The Fat Fairy. You may hear of a friendlier rendition, The Cursed Fairy. This moniker is explained in her dialogue, “I know I don’t quite have the figure of a faerie. Ganon’s cruel power is to blame!”
Right. Her large figure is written as the result of cruelty. Consider how twisted this is: From a villain so powerful that mass murder is not out of the question, what is his chosen course of wrath? Making someone overweight. This is, apparently, an ultimate evil. After all, “the figure of a faerie,” that of a good and noble, enchanted and elegant persona, must be thin.
When you scour video gaming’s past to find fat-people characters, your brain begins to go to some strange, maybe even regrettable places. You find yourself wondering things, things like: Is Wendy O. Koopa fat? Are Gorons fat? Do we want them to ‘count’ in our tally here? Are we keeping score? Should we?
Here’s a weird one: In Mega Bomberman for the Sega Genesis (it goes by other names for other systems), in multiplayer mode you can select from different bombing characters. One of them is Big Bomber who, in the instruction booklet, has his A.I. personality described: “Rushes to find and grab all the items he can.” He is also depicted holding a knife and fork. In the actual gameplay, such knife and fork cannot be found.
Y’know, I don’t even know about Karnov. Is he short and stocky? Is he tall and muscular? Does he have well-cut abs, or a bit of a paunch? Am I playing as a statuesque figure of the masculine ideal, or some drunken bar-brawling Everyman? Is he a circus strongboy or an emissary of the gods?
One thing I do know: Eventually, video games did go beyond the starfields of ancient space battles and into the realms of player-characters. Pac-Man can be cited as the first recognizable gaming mascot, and thus ushered in an era of increasingly complex characterizations.
Then we even begin to see games explore this idea of physical weight in their characters, an idea of heaviness. Not just in appearance, but even as to how their heft is programmed into the physics rules of the game at hand.
In fighting games, larger combatants like the sumo wrestler E Honda tend to be less agile. In Super Mario Kart, the bigger drivers Donkey Kong and Bowser cause their vehicles to have slower acceleration than the others, although with a higher top speed. However, my favorite implementation of weight in an old-school videogame has to be Ice Hockey.
Ice Hockey is a relatively simple, early sports sim for the NES console. The key to its potential for tactical depth and memorability is that it lets you pick the weight of each member of your four-athlete squad. Each position has three options, described perhaps as Skinny Guy, Medium Guy, and Fat Guy.
Their differences are not merely in appearance, though: The Skinny Guy skates faster and wins more face-offs, but has weak shots. Medium Guy is an all-around average specimen. Then there is the Fat Guy, who moves the slowest, but bowls over those of lesser weight and hits the hardest shots by far. Basically: Fat Guy is the best. My own preference is two Big, one Medium, one Small for my picks.
I considered some other examples of fat characters in retro video games. Helga is a provocative one; she is the sole female entrant in ClayFighter, a Viking operette who quite literally throws her body around as an attacking style.
Then I considered Wario, which quickly led me to realize an example that I will summarize in an image and let readers draw their own conclusions on:
Honorable mentions: Bear Hugger, Big the Cat, Krew, Fatman, Dr. Robotnik, CJ, Snorlax, Chang Koehan, and Heavy Weapons Guy who, interestingly enough, was not really as much of a “fat guy” in the original Team Fortress.
Looking to the past can help inform our future choices. I am no expert in intersectional issues, but I think at least that there is value in opening a dialogue – especially in areas a community has barely handled before. Even if just to think and consider, I would love to see the retro gaming community open up for conversation. Questions like these may be a decent start.
- What are some other examples of fat characters in retro video games that I have missed?
- How important is it to you that your game’s protagonist look like you?
- Does it make you feel uncomfortable to play as a fat character?
- How else has representation played out in gaming’s past?
- What differentiates good representation from bad representation?
- How can you support someone who may feel like their body is labeled negatively by others?
Thanks for reading.