Publisher: HiTech Expressions
Released: December 1991
US Cartridge ID: NES-8V-USA
Genre: Action Platform
Supported Peripherals: Controller
ROM Size: 2 megabit
Mapper: MMC1 (128k PRG, 128k CHR)
Wildly popular and highly controversial since her introduction to the American public in 1959, Mattel’s Barbie has provided young girls a fashion savvy, boy crazy friend on whom they could depend to provide countless hours of entertainment. Throughout their lengthy tenure at toy stores domestic and abroad, these iconic fashion model dolls have been exploited to endorse and advertise products in several different marketing sectors – by the 1990s, Barbie’s shiny plastic visage could be seen gazing longingly at consumers from a full range of branded “girl” products, including books, clothes, perfume, and a pink Corvette Power Wheels electric car.
Despite being upheld as a role model for girls ages 3-9, Barbie has committed several presupposed social faux pas over the course of her lengthy shelf life. Having come to be regarded as a prominent thorn in the side of the modern, liberated woman, Barbie has been subjected to intense scrutiny by social crusaders for half a century: her dangerously unhealthy body proportions, alleged anti-feminist agenda, and the willful reinforcement of disempowering stereotypes (courtesy her fixation on shopping and the color pink) have all secured her perpetual placement in the crosshairs of both the media and of advocacy groups. Eager to take up the mantle in Barbie’s fashioning as a social pariah, Hi-Tech Expressions’ NES game Barbie furthers this cause successfully by providing a vehicle through which the unsuspecting preteen girl is fed a thinly veiled, ham-fisted social commentary, fittingly complemented by an utterly banal example of platform gaming.
The somewhat modern, albeit hilariously irrelevant, portrayal of an American teenage girl all begins “once upon a dream.” Late one evening, Barbie relaxes in bed curled up with her favorite book (as is evinced by her comically poignant claim: “I love reading about mermaids!”), thinking about all the things that she has to do the following day. With a packed schedule that includes having lunch, going swimming, buying an outfit, and going to a party with beau Ken, she makes the prudent and responsible decision to turn in for the night.
The instant she closes her eyes, Barbie steps into the most fantastic of dreams. Envisioning the fun she’ll have the next day, Barbie’s imagination carries her through five stages, with each representing a mental projection of the anticipation and excitement she feels. Exploring the mall, the beach, and the soda shop, , Barbie has to overcome deadly obstacles (possibly birthed as manifestations of Barbie’s own sense of self-loathing)to piece together the perfect ensemble for her evening with Ken.
Each stage in Barbie strictly adheres to the dogmatic standards of the side-scrolling platform action genre common to NES games. At the shopping mall, Barbie must take care to avoid being injured by a wide variety of aggressive consumer goods, including sporting equipment, beach balls, possessed tank tops, french fries, and pizza while navigating around sporadically functioning fountains filled with leaping fish. As she narrowly avoids becoming a victim of capitalist greed, Barbie must collect large coins stamped with her trademark “B” logo- if successful, she can make a wish by throwing them into a fountain at the end of the area, thus granting her a visit from a toucan who gifts her with a beautiful ball gown. Once finishing at the mall, Barbie visits the beach, where she fulfills her lifelong dream of becoming a mermaid. Dodging dangerous currents and homogenously assembled legions of ill-tempered seahorses and jellyfish, a flippered Barbie must collect pearls and rescue the king and queen crabs from their kidnapper. Successfully completing the jailbreak, Barbie may return the found pearls to a huge oyster, who will show his appreciation by giving her a gorgeous sparkling tiara. Finally, Barbie hurries toward an Elvis era soda shop, where she must remain on guard from coffee cups, hamburgers, spastically hopping french fries, and a massive ice cream sundae, all while collecting gold records. Upon successfully escaping the soda shop, Barbie can use the records to form a magical stairway leading to a pedestal in the sky where a dazzling pair of glass slippers lie in wait.
As the titular teen princess is asleep for the entire duration of the game, the traditional life gauge is replaced by a row of Zs representing how deep of a sleep Barbie is in. Being accosted by sentient commodities and sea creatures will gradually deplete the Z bar, and when Barbie runs out of Zs, she wakes from her dream, ending the game. This is rarely a concern, however, as all of the enemies have easily recognizable patterns that can be avoided with little effort. Additionally, Z bar refills and invincibility tokens are plentiful in each area, ensuring that each area can be cleared with little skill or practice.
As a girl who abhors violence and loves animals, Barbie has no way of directly attacking any of the obstacles in her path. She skirts this issue with her charm bracelet: she begins with three different charms at her disposal, each allowing her to manipulate the behavior of the animals around her should she need them to do her bidding. By throwing a hair bow charm to one of her animal friends, she’ll make them stop moving around. A diamond charm will cause the friend to begin moving, and is primarily used to provide a platform for Barbie to jump on, though in some instances it will also grant her a way to indirectly attack a boss. The heart charm is used to ask a special request of a friendly creature – for instance, the heart will summon a dolphin to pull Barbie from an underwater current, or cause a soda bottle explode so it can push Barbie over a tall obstacle. Throwing charms accurately is needlessly frustrating, as the counterintuitive controls require the desired trajectory and the strength of the throw to both be taken into account when judging how long to hold the B button. Thankfully, Barbie has an unlimited supply of charms, so it is not possible to get stuck in any particular area without the requisite item
needed to progress.
The graphics in Barbie aren’t awful, but they’re extremely unappealing. Following the grainy digitized photo of a sassily posed Barbie doll on the title screen and the expository plot “cinematic,” the player is greeted by the sight of the impressively large Barbie sprite that will serve as the player’s controllable character. Standing at nearly half the playfield’s height, Barbie towers over her opposition, though the apparent lack of animation frames precludes any sense of fluidity in movement. The level backdrops tend to look barren, lacking any definable detail or personality. As expected, the majority of the in-game graphics are enslaved by a preponderance of pink over all else, and this lack of variety gives many of the stages a muted, monochromatic feel. The music is inoffensive, but the limited selection of tunes becomes repetitive in the later stages.
Though it is not by any means broken or unplayable, Barbie‘s NES debut comes across as a gratuitous and completely unnecessary cash grab. Little girls from the early 1990s would have likely been enticed by the prospect of playing a Barbie videogame. Most, however, would have walked away with a sense of disappointment and frustration upon realizing that a “game for girls” was really a clever misnomer for a “game that kind of sucks because nobody cares enough about girls wants to warrant more effort,” thus granting Barbie another point in the cultural sensitivity contest.
Hi Tech Expressions, 12/1991
Hi Tech Expressions, 1992