Alis Landale, My First Female Protagonist
It started with a flourish. Having finally escaped Zebes, kids across the world were shocked to discover that “Metroid” (because let’s be honest, that’s what we all called her) was actually a sexy blonde lady! With a flip of her hair she blew our collective minds. The dedicated would go on to beat the game fast enough to catch a glimpse of her pixelated midriff (or just copy the JUSTIN BAILEY code out of Nintendo Power) but the message was the same even then: girls could kick ass in videogames too.
I wasn’t one of those kids. When I finally beat Metroid in the early 90s, I was unimpressed by the shocking revelation of Samus’ gender. Another lady had already stolen my heart, and it didn’t take a sexy pink bikini or hair that would make Christie Brinkley jealous. The heroine at the center of Sega’s answer to Final Fantasy was far more than just a one-note gender-bending spin on the traditionally masculine hero. No, Alis Landale took down an evil empire, defended her friends, and saved the galaxy; and she did it all in pants.
A bit of background before we begin. Phantasy Star, released for the Sega Master System in 1988, was a sprawling RPG epic that took place in the fictional Algol star system. Algol included three major planets: the lush Palma, the arid Motavia, and the harsh tundra of Dezolis. It featured massive first-person dungeons with multiple levels, a great soundtrack, and it even had a battery backup, whose value anybody who played Zillion can attest to. It was the cartridge SMS owners held aloft when our friends and family doubted our vehement devotion to Sega, a shining example of what the console was capable of and why we kept coming back to it.
It told the story of Alis Landale, a young girl suffering under the iron fist of King Lassic, the ruler of the entire Algol star system. Her brother, Nero, was the leader of an underground rebellion but was killed during a failed raid, his final request that she stop Lassic and free the people of Algol.
Within ten minutes, Phantasy Star reverses the “woman in a refrigerator” trope that plagues modern media, instead using Nero as the sacrificial lamb to motivate Alis. While the series would later lean pretty heavily on the death of women as a reason to kill the bad guys, Phantasy Star instead opts to make Alis the focus. As a kid who grew up playing video games where women (often unnamed or known only by the clothes they happened to wear) were little more than fodder for endless kidnapping plots, it was a stunning shift in tone. Alis was no The Princess or The Wife or The Girlfriend, nor was she hidden behind power armor until she bared her breasts; she was the main character from the outset.
It helped a lot that the game presented her as a force to be reckoned with, placing her front and center on both the title screen and the game box. Unlike most female characters of the time, she was fully clothed and ready to kick-ass on both the US and Japanese covers of the game, sword and shield held aloft. Her armor had more to it than the entire female cast of Code of Princess, even including PANTS. I know that sounds silly, but back then a lady wearing pants in a video game was a pretty big deal. I mean, just look at Athena, which, despite having a pretty rocking heroine, still put her in a bikini on the cover.
Alis may be wearing a pink blouse on the title screen, but it’s peeking out from behind a massive breastplate…emphasis on the plate.
Unlike other fantasy RPGs, Alis also escapes the “healer” role that female characters are often thrust into. Starting with the ambiguously gendered White Mage, who we all just kind of assumed was a woman, and continuing throughout the Final Fantasy series in different ways (See: Rosa, Aerith, Yuna), female characters tended towards the support role for the male leads, keeping them alive while standing in the back row. This is far from the case with Alis, who is the most well-balanced character in the entire game, having access to both offensive and defensive magic as well as the strongest weapons. She escapes the labels traditionally applied to RPG characters. She’s not a tank, healer, warrior, or mage. She belongs to an elusive subgroup of characters who fill every role: protagonists. It’s a powerful place to be, one that doesn’t trade narrative weight for mechanical power. Not only is she the focus of the story, she’s also the most useful and statistically well-rounded character in the party.
Interestingly enough, her two male cohorts, Odin and Noah, both find themselves locked into traditionally male roles throughout the game. Odin, who Alis rescues from petrification to help her on her journey, is a burly warrior type who fell victim to the Medusa on his quest for a mystic axe. He’s the brute, big and kind of stupid, willing to solve any problem with his axe. Noah, who is part of an elite caste of wizards known as the Espers, is physically fragile but has access to supremely powerful magic, the complete opposite of Odin. Neither of them are able to do what the other does in quite the same way as Alis, who has access to both powerful weapons and magic. She’s able to cross boundaries with her skillset, unrestricted by arbitrary rules imposed by the game designers. Myau, the third character, is a yellow lynx-like creature called a Musk Cat, who despite using the male pronoun is completely gender neutral as a character.
At the end of the game, with the evil King overthrown and the nefarious force controlling him banished, Alis is given the opportunity to become Queen of Algol. The governor of Motavia, apparently the next in line for succession, straight up asks her if she’s interested in the job. There’s no late-game love interest introduced for her to marry, Odin doesn’t become a puppet king for her to control as Queen, and she doesn’t even have to do it if she doesn’t want to. Unlike many female characters whose fate can be summed up with “men do something to her the entire game,” Alis is given choice. Should she choose to adopt the mantle of Queen, she can do it without a King.
Other games in the Phantasy Star series would feature similarly interesting female characters, but never again in the role of protagonist. Anna, a fearsome bounty hunter in Phantasy Star II, is one of the most physically capable and tenacious characters in the entire game, a counterpoint to the genre standby of Amy, a support character. Phantasy Star IV starts off strong, with the character of Alys serving both as a strong female character and mentor to the actual protagonist, Chaz, but her death in the middle of the game shoves her straight in the refrigerator alongside countless other female characters in videogames. She is replaced with a copycat character, who has many of the same abilities and personality traits, later in the game, but it’s an imperfect solution to a problem most games would rather not even confront.
As for Phantasy Star III, well, we don’t talk about Phantasy Star III around here.
It was Alis Landale, the kickass Laconian sword-swinging heroine of Phantasy Star, who showed me that women in videogames could be far more than the bikini wearing carrot dangled before the manly main character. She was an example of a female character who didn’t need to fall into the arms of the first male character to come her way, who wasn’t just a healer relegated to the back row, devoid of offensive capabilities. She didn’t even need to pull a fast one on me to trick me into ignoring the fact that she was a woman.
She was what she was: a girl on a quest to avenge the death of her brother, overthrow an evil King, and save the galaxy.