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The greatest video game heroines of all time

Contributed by
Jan 30, 2019

January is a time of fresh starts and new beginnings. The way we kick off a new year informs the months that follow and that's why we're living our best Capricorn-season lives and declaring it the Month of the GOAT, celebrating the Greatests of All Time in genre. From the best Star Trek captains to our favorite strong female characters, we're honoring the greats all month long.

Video games are a medium that has made majorly significant strides over the last few decades, not just in terms of the types of stories that are told but the quality of how they're rendered. Characters are more and more complex now than they've ever been, and sometimes, the best narrative can even bring you to tears with how beautifully it plays out. 

A bunch of us at Team FANGRRLS have been avid gamers for most of our adult lives (some of us since childhood), so we're always on the lookout for new games to try out and kickass female characters to explore exciting worlds with. Over the years, there have been some absolutely legendary ones setting the bar that much higher. They've impacted the way fictional ladies are publicly received by gamers and critics alike, but they've also made a name for themselves as being equally worthy of leading their own titles. We have more playable female protagonists now than ever before, and that's in part thanks to these women below: the greatest video game heroines of all time.

Metroid - Samus Aran

Samus Aran

Samus Aran hasn’t headlined a new game since 2010’s Metroid: The Other M (2017’s Metroid: Samus Returns is a 3DS remake of Metroid II), but her role in video game history is more than secure. In 1986, a time when most female characters in gaming were damsels or side characters in a male-led game, Samus starred in a game so iconic that we still use “Metroidvania” to describe a specific genre of gaming to this day. Metroid co-creator Yoshio Sakamoto cunningly waited until after the audience had spent an entire game inhabiting and bonding with Samus to reveal that she was, in fact, a green-haired, gun-handed space babe. (Her design has changed over the years.) Even in 2019, the presence of women in gaming as creators, fans, and characters remains contested in some circles; knowing that Samus essentially told a generation of gamers “oh, by the way, you are perfectly capable of relating to and identifying with a woman as a person” still feels revolutionary today. Add in the fact that she’s a 6’3” intergalactic ex-military bounty hunter of few words (paging Gwendoline Christie), and it’s no wonder that Nintendo’s first lady of gaming remains as iconic and popular as ever. Here’s hoping Metroid Prime 4 does right by her. - Clare McBride

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Darth Revan

You can choose to play the character of Revan in Knights of the Old Republic as a male or female character. In my mind, Revan is always a woman. Screw canon. She is a former Jedi who left the order to fight in the Mandalorian Wars. She left because the Jedi weren’t doing anything, something they are pretty famous for. Yeah, she becomes a Sith, but if you choose the light side of the Force in your actions, she becomes a hero. In a way, I think it makes her more of a hero, because you had a say in it. The game itself was one of the first conversation tree games to really feel like you had control over what happened. Revan destroys the Star Forge and is honored by the Republic, because of decisions you helped her make. Um, if you replay, don’t give her a ponytail because object permanence wasn’t so great back then and it moves through the pillow when she dreams. That is NOT a Force power! - Jenna Busch

Princess_PEach

Princess Peach Toadstool

Female playable characters are becoming more and more common in games today, though still hardly the norm. In 1988, when Super Mario Bros. 2 was released for the NES, with Peach as an actual playable character, it was almost unheard of. We didn't even know Samus was a girl until we'd almost beat the game, but here was a lady we could pick right on the main screen. No longer was Peach the simple damsel in distress, the prize for beating Bowser that she’d been in the game’s predecessor, she was her own character, and she was just as formidable as those two mustachioed plumbers she buddied up with. Since then, Peach has gone back and forth between her damsel ways and more active protagonist roles, which is frankly the kind of power drama move we should expect from a diva like Peach. What makes Peach a fun character to play as is that she can hold her own, tossing turtle shells in Mario Kart or using throwing down with her parasol without giving up an ounce of her pink princess design. Because sure, it’s great to have tough female characters like many of the others on this list, but it’s great to have one that embraces the power of being a high femme. (Quite literally since, you know, she floats.) - Riley Silverman

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Jade

Jade from Beyond Good and Evil (still one of the best games of all time) is an investigative reporter who happens to kick all the ass with her martial arts skills. Jade is trying to expose an alien conspiracy, which involves puzzles and fights and pictures, but there is more to her than that. She’s not only saving the world in this game, but she helps take care of little orphans whose parents were lost in the war. Oh, and she takes pictures of animals in her spare time to make money. Like the short but amazing game, Jade is pretty much perfect, right down to her green lipstick. - Jenna Busch

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Bayonetta

This smart, sassy, and gorgeous Umbra Witch is a total badass, and she isn't afraid to show it. In games that take cues from the frenetic and fast-paced Devil May Cry series, Bayonetta makes the hack-and-slash genre all her own with a spicy attitude and style that no other character has been able to match. She doesn't need a man to save her, and while she uses her sex appeal as something of a weapon, it doesn't define her. She's confident, hilarious, and isn't afraid to beat you to a pulp if that's what the situation calls for. We only wish we were half the queen Bayonetta is — especially when she's serving Scarborough Fair realness with her gun heels. - Brittany Vincent

Horizon Zero Dawn - Aloy

Aloy

Aloy from Horizon Zero Dawn is one of the most well-realized characters in video game history. You can make choices in the game, but you really don’t have to with Aloy. She’s already incredibly complex. Aloy comes from a rough background and before her more obvious heroism, we see her deal with bullying. It’s pretty heartbreaking, so watching her learn to trust again is really beautiful. Despite the fact that she doesn’t trust people for a large portion of the game, she’ll always stop to help those in need. Aloy feels like a real person and the voice work here is amazing. - Jenna Busch

Jill Valentine

Jill Valentine

Resident Evil's iconic S.T.A.R.S. operative Jill Valentine is synonymous with the series. With a simplistic yet believable and relatable backstory and design, she's "the face" of the survival horror series, and capable of getting any job done just as well as her male companions, like partner Chris Redfield. With an undeniable drive and can-do attitude, she's one of the coolest parts of the zombie-laden series by far, even when she's being mind-controlled by Albert Wesker. Committing evil acts against her control or not, she's still our girl. - Brittany Vincent

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Sheik

In Ocarina of Time, Link is the hero, obviously. However. HOWEVER. Link disappears for five straight years, during which Zelda’s kingdom falls into disrepair and shadow. It’s not like everything’s going to be hunky-dory under Ganondorf’s reign while Link’s asleep, someone’s got to take care of the good folk of Hyrule. And so, we have Sheik. Sheik is the alter ego that Princess Zelda is forced to adopt while in hiding. The character is trained by Impa, Zelda’s Sheika guardian/teacher. By all accounts, Link has Sheik to thank for Hyrulians surviving as much as they can during his absence. And he has Sheik to thank for the many, many clues given to him during his tenure as the hero of time once he finally wakes. My kingdom for a version of Ocarina of Time with a playable Sheik! - Preeti Chhibber

Clementine-TWD

Clementine

Little Clementine started out in Telltale's vision of The Walking Dead afraid, alone, but courageous. Throughout her travels with Lee, she learned to become a strong and independent fighter, so much so that she blossomed into a fierce, indomitable young woman with the strength to push others even when they thought they could no longer go on. She's become a beacon of hope and strength for the rest of the survivors of the zombie apocalypse, and she's a partner anyone would be thrilled to have by their side. Plus, she's so damn adorable we can't stand it. - Brittany Vincent

Sylvanas Windrunner

Blizzard

Sylvanas Windrunner

Lady Sylvanas Windrunner is the leader of the Forsaken, a playable group of undead in World of Warcraft. She was originally a high elf of the Quel’Thalas, but she was killed by Prince Arthas Menethil who made her a banshee. Instead of becoming angry and bemoaning her fate, Sylvanas created Undercity to house those like her, and led her undead troops to battle to help save Azarath. Sylvanas joined the Horde, though she isn’t afraid to speak up when she disagrees with them. Instead of being a tragic figure, Sylvanas took adversity and destruction and turned it into opportunity. Even if you play Alliance, you have to respect the Dark Lady. -  Jenna Busch

Street Fighter - Chun-Li

Chun-Li

The most iconic female fighter in the whole of fighting games, the Street Fighter mainstay character was the first woman to enter the genre, and still one of the coolest. She's been an important part of the series and has appeared in nearly all of the subsequent Street Fighter games, and beyond that? She's an elite martial artist, fluent English and Chinese speaker, and a veritable crime fighter. We hope to never be on the receiving end of a kick from one of her massively powerful legs, either. - Brittany Vincent 

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Ms. Pac-Man

Laugh all you want, but Ms. Pac-Man paved the way for all the upcoming female characters out there. Yeah, she has the bow and lipstick as gender markers, but her game has always been far, far better than that stupid, boring regular Pac-Man. Back in the early 1980s, one estimate said a majority of the players of the game were women, and going by my own neighborhood, that was true. Though there was more marketing of video games to both boys AND girls back then than there is now, the prevailing attitude was that gaming was for boys because they liked all that electronic stuff. This was the first time many of us had seen a female main character at all. Even back then, even with a small yellow, partially-eaten pie that chomped ghosts, seeing a female character on the screen mattered. All hail Ms. Pac-Man! - Jenna Busch

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Chell

Who single-handedly defeated a nefarious computer trying to eliminate her at every turn? This girl. The silent Portal protagonist may not say much, but she knows how to beat GLaDOS at her own game, and despite being a "test subject", she quickly wormed her way into our hearts with intelligence and a can-do attitude, making escaping a murderous artificial intelligence look good even while wearing an orange jumpsuit. Everyone knows Chell, just like everyone knows Portal, and that's a testament to how memorable she was as a protagonist you could really feel as though you were entering the role of. If you ever need to shut down a psychotic computer, she's your girl. - Brittany Vincent

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Lara Croft

This world-famous character has experienced several makeovers throughout the decades, not only in her games but on the big screen too. Devotees of the enduring franchise may not necessarily know that Lara Croft was originally envisioned as a female playable option for a male lead in the first Tomb Raider game, but creator Toby Gard preferred her so much that he decided to scrap the dude version altogether — and the rest is herstory. Thanks to a franchise reimagining kicking off in 2013 with developer Crystal Dynamics, long-time fans got the chance to meet Lara Croft all over again, as a younger incarnation of the character slowly grew and evolved over the course of three new games into the strong, complex, refreshingly vulnerable and ultimately badass Tomb Raider we've all celebrated since 1996. - Carly Lane

Zelda

Princess Zelda

One doesn't make a list of amazing female characters without adding Princess Zelda, the namesake for The Legend of Zelda series! Like Princess Peach, Zelda is an integral part of the Nintendo character stable, and throughout her various incarnations throughout the series, she's proven her grace, courage, strength, and intelligence time and time again. She's an incredibly helpful ally to Link and a fighter herself, even taking on the identity of Sheik (mentioned elsewhere on our list) to accomplish things to help Link and all of Hyrule out. She's always somewhere in each Zelda game, watching and waiting, and sometimes actively participating in Link's quest — she isn't just sitting around depending on anyone to come rescue her. No matter her incarnation, we know she's capable, and that's part of the reason we love her so much. - Brittany Vincent

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