Back in December, I started a highly subjective, personal top-ten list of NES games based on how influential they were to me, one at a time and in no particular order. There are just three left that I haven't written about! Whoa. #8 on my list is Barbie (Hi-Tech Expressions, 1991).
Barbie is a relatively unknown and, I daresay, unpopular platformer released in the second half of the NES's lifespan. I'm not going to link to any of them here, but there are numerous articles, lists, and "funny" YouTube videos documenting the supposed horror of Barbie.
Well, I'm here to dissent. And in the process, I'll share what makes Barbie so special to me.
First, let's talk a little bit about the gameplay of Barbie. The entirety of the platformer takes place inside Barbie's dream. The setup is reminiscent of the device employed in Super Mario Bros. 2, but in the case of Barbie, the player is clued in right from the beginning. To die in Barbie is to simply wake up from the dream, to continue is to simply fall asleep again.
As we learn in the attract-mode cinema, Barbie has a busy day ahead of her. We come to realize that the game is one giant ~stress dream~ in which Barbie mentally plays back all her hopes and fears. (I can relate.) The book she was reading before she fell asleep, her upcoming date with Ken, the errands she needs to take care of, all of them get mashed up into a surreal, playable dreamscape. So, you know, good luck with that!
Barbie features a surreal dreamscape that kind of reminds me of Weird Dreams, the late 1980s surrealist-art PC game that 100% lives up to its name and is just about transversing weird dreams.
The references to Dali in this game (and a pajama set modeled after Picasso harlequin attire, perhaps?) are just... yup. Yup. Good.
Barbie doesn't get that weird, to be sure. The settings and enemies recall everyday places, people, and things. But the scale and motion of everything is disconcerting. Is Barbie life-size, interacting with the real world? Are those high heels are possessed with an evil spirit?
Unlike many platforming protagonists, Barbie is unable to attack enemies outright. Instead, she feeds her animal friends different snacks in exchange for helping her evade or attack enemies. (The snacks are also charms from her charm bracelet, which never made sense to me. Is it like a candy bracelet made out of little snausages?)
Does the tossing-snacks-to-your-pal mechanic remind you of another game? Perhaps A Boy and His Blob, released for NES the year prior to Barbie?
That's not a coincidence, my friend. Both games were developed by Imagineering and shared much of the same development staff, including Jesse Kapili (graphics), Mark Van Hecke (music), and Alex DeMeo (design).
It's easy to hate on both Barbie and Barbie. Game reviewers constantly use Barbie and other video games based on girly IP as an excuse to tell us about how bad and embarassing girly things are. It seems no reviewer can leave those "yucky girl stuff! eww!" stones unturned. Here are a few excerpts from reviews of Barbie for NES:
"The pink, cute label art displaying the classic doll in 90s regalia doesn't stare you down as something with any sort of depth..."
"Even if the Barbie character and all subsequent girly stuff was removed from this game and replaced with, say, beloved Master Higgins, this game would still be phoned-in crap. As it stands, if I was a little girl who played games in the early 90s, I’d be insulted."
Ouch. I'm right here, y'all.
I don't mean to suggest that Barbie is a fantastic game. It's not. In my view, there are some genuinely meh things about it. The controls are weird. The graphics are inconsistent; for example, 2D and faux-3D styles are mixed together with little coherence. The music is... fine.
But you know what? These are issues in a LOT of NES games! There are so many NES platformers with bad controls and too many weirdly-outlined sprites.
I remember coming across internet commentary about Barbie years ago and thinking to myself, "Really? Is no one going to do their homework on a video game just because it's pink? Too lazy? Too embarassed?" Barbie got me thinking about what it means to consider an NES game "good" or "bad" and how those internalized feelings about the inferiority of all things pink or fashion-oriented can unfairly color our view of a video game. Or a music video. Or a real-life human being.These thoughts were what eventually prompted me to start FEMICOM Museum.
Barbie was the inspiration for several of my own NES projects. The most direct influence appeared in my Mega Man 2 ROM hack titled Mega Man 2 (Barbie Dreams Type Hack). This hack simply replaces the font in Mega Man 2 with the font from Barbie in the hopes of showing how 7-by-7-pixel letterforms can contain some hint of gender stereotype and can affect our opinion of the quality of something. I recall someone on twitter calling the hack "the stupidest thing I've ever seen." Success.
Barbie was also an inspiration for the pink high heels in the NES glitch art BAD CHECKSUM/High Heels, which is featured on the cover of Nathan Altice's NES book I AM ERROR.
In summary, Barbie is cute, and it's based on a toy that I absolutely loved as a kid. Playing this NES game is a fun diversion that's given me a lot to think about and inspiration in my own work. It gets a hard-earned spot on my list of most influential NES games.
Bonus: you can fix a lot of Barbie's bad control mechanics in an emulator. The mechanics really aren't all that bad, they're just incredibly slow. The fix? Set the emulation speed to 150%. Enjoy.
Posted January 31 at 5:09 AM while watching Home Movies.