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Was There a Heroine Before Samus?
by James Pierce
As Metroid fans, we take pride in the fact that Samus Aran bucked the trend of Nintendo heroes in the 80's. Where many games featured great heroes like Mario and Link, the women were more left behind as the damsel in distress, important but passive characters. Certainly, Princess Peach became a playable character in the American Super Mario Bros 2, however it was Samus Aran who showed that even the girls could fight just as well as the guys. However, it has recently come to light that there may have been a Nintendo heroine who predates Samus, and her identity is even more hidden.
A Quick History of Mach Rider
Many people are familiar with Mach Rider as a stand alone game for the NES. This however is not entirely accurate, as the history of Mach Rider dates back all the way to the seventies. Before Nintendo became the video game giant we know them as today, Nintendo was in a wide range of fields from making playing cards (something they still manufacture in Japan), to developing instant noodles. Another one of their ventures was the development of children's toys, all Metroid fans are familiar with Gunpei Yokoi's famous Ultra Hand toy, but many others were developed at the time. Among the toys developed by Nintendo, one of the stand out models was the racing toy known as Mach Rider. This toy was a licensed version of Hasbro's Yellow Tail Funny Car and released in 1972 by Nintendo. Mach Rider was a motorized race car, which moved at incredible speeds for the time. To make playing with friends even more fun, three different cars were sold; a red car, a blue car, and a yellow car.
Fast forward to 1985, and Nintendo would once again revisit the Mach Rider IP as a Famicom game, however this time they would be working with another partner to develop the game. As was common with many Nintendo games at the time, development was shared between Nintendo (in this case it's Nintendo R&D2) and future Kirby developer HAL Laboratories. The game was one of the last titles to be produced by Nintendo for the Famicom, as development was shifting towards the Famicom Disk System, and bigger games such as Metroid and The Legend of Zelda. Together, the two companies created a Mad Max inspired game where the goal was to defeat an alien invasion which had effectively conquered Earth, and to destroy all their Quadrunners patrolling the highways. The game was rather basic, but it gained a cult following for having a track editor available for use. Like most other Famicom games at the time, Mach Rider was also ported to Nintendo's own VS. Arcade system, and this is where things get interesting.
You are Mach Rider
Before each level begins, the game tells the player "You are Mach Rider". This is a device used to help make the player more engrossed in the game, and feel like they are a bad ass on motorcycle, fighting aliens. In the NES version of the game, there is no question of this, because the only time you see Mach Rider, he is all dressed up and hunched over his motorcycle. Outside of that tiny sprite, the appearance of Mach Rider is totally up to the players imagination. The arcade version however, makes everything both clearer and confusing at the same time.
At the start of the game, Mach Rider appears as he does in the above image. Wow! Never has a game protagonist looked so cool! However, as the player makes further progress through the game, a new image creeps onto the screen piece by piece. Soon, where Mach Rider was standing, he's been replaced by a very 80's styled woman, wearing a white leotard and thigh high boots, while brandishing a knife. Wait? Is this the real identity of Mach Rider?
Now, to be fair, we can't actually confirm that this woman is indeed Mach Rider. Some people suggest that she is simply eye candy, meant to reward players who mastered the game. On the other hand, some people say that she is absolutely Mach Rider, and was meant to surprise those who have played the game. If this is indeed the real Mach Rider, that means that she would have made her debut before Metroid was launched on the Famicom Disk System. Again, I stress that no developer from the original game has ever confirmed that this woman is Mach Rider, but it's not like Mach Rider is ever talked about much since the game never had a sequel.
However, true as that might be, I do want to leave you with one last thought. Imagine if Metroid never received a sequel, and all we had to work with was the original game. Would we perhaps be having this same discussion about Samus? After all, Samus Aran may actually be a man, and his girlfriend Justin Bailey just appears for fan service. In the end, it comes down to what you're willing to believe. With such little information available, there is no real right or wrong about the issue.
Mach Rider vs. Samus
So let us assume for minute that Mach Rider really is a woman. Does that diminish Samus's importance in the world of Nintendo and gaming at large? Does being second to Mach Rider make Samus a lesser character?
Absolutely not! After all, even with Mach Rider out of the picture, Samus still is second to Namco's Toby Masuyo, heroine of the arcade game Baraduke. However regardless of Samus being first, second, or third, Samus has stood the test of time. Toby has not starred in her own game since 1988's Baraduke 2. Now, Toby is merely a supporting character in the Mr. Driller series, and has made an appearance in the coveted Namco X Capcom. Yet despite that small comeback, Toby was later cut from the cast of its sequel, Project X Zone in favor of more modern characters. How about Mach Rider? Well, s/he has never starred in a game since 1985. Maybe s/he will appear as a playable character in Super Smash Bros. some day... Or maybe not.
So rest easy friends. Whether or not Samus is the original Nintendo heroine, she is Nintendo's #1 heroine. Since the time of Mach Rider and Metroid, Nintendo has given us plenty of female leads like Celica from Fire Emblem Gaiden, Jill from Drill Dozer, and Ashley Robbins from Trace Memory. All of these are great characters in their own way, but like Mario is to Nintendo at large, Samus is a cut above the rest.
If you want to see how cool VS. Mach Rider is, check out BlueBalloonFighter's video below.
Bibliography: List of Information Sources
 Before Mario
 Toby Masuyo Art