Nintendo’s Limited Palette
The NES has a very limited color palette. From Super Mario Bros. to Wario’s Woods, NES games use only 64 colors. 10 of those colors are pure black. Four more are indistinguishable shades of gray. Two more are pure white. Many of the lightest values are indistinguishable on a standard TV. Capcom’s Mega Man became the “Blue Bomber” simply because the NES palette features more shades of blue han any other color. Had the NES used a red-heavy palette, perhaps Mega Man would instead be the Red Rocket1.
Even more limited is the palette of NES heroes. Quick, name three black NES protagonists. Uh…Bo Jackson, Bo Jackson… and… can I say Bo Jackson again? In terms of its heroes, the NES seems to be whites-only.
To be fair, most NES games were programmed in Japan. The cultural sensitivities of American race relations simply didn’t register across the Pacific. Also, home console graphics had only recently advanced to allow differing skin color2. NES gamers didn’t mind the lack of diversity. Most were just happy to have an arcade machine hooked to their living room televisions.
Black retro gamers, when asked for this piece on their thoughts regarding the NES’s relative lack of black heroes, answered with a resounding, “meh.”
The NES’s lack of blackness would be a complete non-issue if there weren’t a fair number of black villains on the console. If I were to now ask, “Quick, name three black NES antagonists,” the answers, though still difficult, would come easier. Mike Tyson, though not a “villain,” per se, is perhaps the most famous. The Double Dragon series heavily features Abobo, the bald-headed brute. Kung Fu, launched along with the NES console in 1987, features a black, bald, wife-beater-wearing thug as one of its level bosses3.
It’s not that the NES felt whites-only. It’s that programmers seemed to use blackness as shorthand for “evil.” Scientific studies have shown time and again that representations of race in popular culture tend to limit children’s ideas of their own race.
This is not to cast dispersion; NES games represent blackness much as other toys of the era did. Think of G.I. Joe, Barbie or Saturday Morning Cartoons. Blacks in 80’s pop culture were often used as tokens or stereotypes.
We also shouldn’t blame game programmers for using blackness to connote a threat. The Clark Doll Experiment, initially done in 1939 and repeated since then, has shown a bias among children–even black children–of equating “blackness” to “badness.” America’s original sin permeates the culture even today, creating ingrained images of blackness and whiteness. Nintendo or film or television, 80’s pop culture used images of skin color much the same as those in the 40’s and 50’s used to smoke, ignorant of the damage done.
Black = Pro Athlete
Given the limited number of black playable characters on NES, it may surprise some to find blackness in a launch title. Soccer (1987) features a Brazilian team composed of entirely black players.
Soccer is doubly appropriate because the vast majority of NES games featuring black playable characters are sports titles. Double Dribble features black basketball players, as does Tecmo Basketball, Jordan vs. Bird, Arch Rivals, All Pro Basketball and others. When Tecmo Bowl saw release in 1989, it was only the fourth title which included black playable characters. Other football titles such as Play Action Football and Touchdown Fever would follow4. Baseball titles such as the Baseball Stars and Bases Loaded series also depict black players.
The first game to not relegate blacks to sports heroes or arch-villans (or both), surprisingly enough, was the Rare/GameTek 1988 game, Jeopardy!. Jeopardy! didn’t just include a just black avatar, it included nine.
Again, we’re not dealing with the march on Selma, here. The black characters (and for that matter, the Latino and Asian characters also included in Jeopardy!) are clunky-looking recolored Caucasians.
On the other hand, Rare deserves recognition. They could have shipped their game with five white avatars and no one would have batted an eye. The fact that black, Latino and Asian palette swaps even exist in Jeopardy! points to Rare’s realization that, yes, everyone plays–and therefore deserves representation–on the NES. And again its worth mention that Rare is a British video game company.
So if you’re ever on an answers-and-questions game show, and the clue, “This NES game was first non-sports title to include black protagonists,” comes up, you know the answer: “What is Jeopardy!?”
Jeopardy!, though, is the exception rather than the rule. Looking at the whole of NES games, it would seem black people can only be 1) villains, or 2) athletes. Only three titles let black people be the hero.
Three Black Heroes
1. Friday the 13th
Horror as a genre isn’t often lauded for its depiction of race. Black characters are often the first to go when a slasher appears on the scene. It is with a certain dose of irony, then, that the first NES title featuring a non-competition black protagonist was Atlus/LJN’s Friday the 13th (1989).
The NES title shares very little with its movie counterpart. The action takes place at Camp Crystal lake where a hockey mask-wearing slasher terrorizes campers, but the characters and action are fabrications. In the game, Paul is identical to the other 5 protagonists in everything save appearance. They all jump, gather items, and throw projectiles, trying to save children from Jason Vorhees. Tedious gameplay aside, its satisfying to turn the slasher flick trope on its head by having the black kid survive the longest.
2. Maniac Mansion
Over a year after Friday the 13th gave us Paul, the NES port of LucasArts’ point and click adventure, Maniac Mansion (1990), gave us Michael. The beauty of Maniac Mansion‘s Michael is that he’s not a black brute like Abobo. He’s not a star athlete like in Double Dribble or Baseball Stars. He’s not even a simple palette swap like Paul in Friday the 13th. Maniac Mansion describes Michael as an “Ace photographer for the college newspaper.” Michael is a fully-formed character, complete with dialogue and nuance, a character decidedly separate from existing tropes for blackness in popular culture.
In today’s parlance, we’d lovingly call Michael a “blerd.” Maniac Mansion‘s Michael is a proto-Donald Glover. In the game’s opening, he compares the gang’s “save the girl” quest to–appropriately enough–a cult slasher flick. Michael, being a photographer, is the only player in the game who can develop film. In one branch of Maniac Mansion‘s knotted plot, Michael’s film expertise is the only way to advance.
Although Maniac Mansion deserves laud for its diverse and rounded cast of characters, it should be noted LucasArts originally developed the game for PC. Only after Maniac Mansion proved a success did LucasArts port it to the NES. One could argue Maniac Mansion isn’t a “true NES” title in the sense of the word, but an alien smuggled onto the console.
3. M.C. Kids
The third and final black NES protagonist appears in a game often derided for being little more than hamburger advertising. The quest in Virgin Games’ M.C. Kids (1992) has two kids–Mick and Mack–adventuring through Ronald McDonald’s magic land, collecting iconic Golden Arches and battling the Hamburglar. It’s a wonderful NES side-scroller, second only to Super Mario 3, dragged down by its overt advertising. A cynic would say Virgin Games included the black, flatop-sporting Mack to maximize market saturation. After all, black and white kids alike eat at McDonalds, right?
Neither Mick nor Mack have any dialogue in M.C. Kids. Both jump and run and throw blocks in the exact same manner. Like Paul from Friday the 13th, M.C. Kids’ Mack is little more than a palette swap given a flat-top haircut. But hey, at least he’s included.
It’s interesting that though most NES games were programmed in Japan, 2 of the 3 titles featuring black protagonists were not. LucasArts made Maniac Mansion entirely on American soil. Virgin Games, programmers of M.C. Kids, were based in Great Britain.
Film crossovers brought two more black protagonists to the NES. Winston Zedimore appears in both Ghostbusters II (USA; 1990) and New Ghostbusters II (PAL/JP; 1990), but curiously not in 1988’s Ghostbusters. Sergeant Roger Murtaugh appears in Lethal Weapon (1992). Of these games, only New Ghostbusters II is even remotely playable.
Like other black NES protagonists, Winston and Murtaugh are recolored sprite tweaks of white characters. Neither offers any specific upgrade or characterization. In Winston’s case, he’s not even black so much as blue5. Those playing Lethal Weapon may not even realize Murtaugh is a playable character. Riggs is the default player one. A player must first lose a life or walk left off screen to tag Murtaugh into the action.
These film adaptions are emblematic the NES’s odd relation to blackness. Of the six non-sports games featuring black playable characters, four are based on films. Of those three, only Friday the 13th presents an original black character. One, Maniac Mansion, is imported from another video game system.
Even sports titles like Double Dribble and Bases Loaded are essentially importing existing black characters. A great number of basketball players are black, so NES programmers knew their sports titles had to include black players. But what does that relationship between representation and games say about the lack of black NES heroes?
Nintendo of America licensed 633 NES games6. Only three–Friday the 13th, Maniac Mansion and M.C. Kids–feature original black heroes that aren’t athletes. Depending on the survey data, blacks account for 10-15 percent of the American population. The numbers here aren’t perfectly representative, but 3 out of 633 is obviously out of whack. That’s only one half of one percent to represent 15 percent of all Americans.
Is Bo the Only Real “Hero?”
There’s a journalism trope that whenever a headline asks a question, the answer must be a resounding “no!” “Has this Whacko Proved the World Coming to an End?” “Have Scientists Finally Found the Cure for Cancer?” Of course not.
But in this case, if we ask “Was Bo Jackson the NES’s only black hero?” the answer has to be yes.
Certainly there are other cases of black protagonists making appearances in NES games. However, in each of the above examples, in Jeopardy! or M.C. Kids or Maniac Mansion, the default player one is white. A player has to go out of their way to choose a black protagonists.
Tecmo Super Bowl took a decidedly different approach. Recent interviews with TSB music maestro Keiji Yamagishi, director Shinichiro Tomie and programmer Akihiko Shimoji have revealed Tecmo’s desire to put Bo Jackson front and center in their games. Bo Jackson wasn’t a “player two.” TSB lead programmer Shimoji says this of Bo Jackson:
“When I first saw [Bo Jackson] play on television, it was quite a big impact. This raised the question, ‘How do I represent that big impact…his uniqueness in [Tecmo Bowl]?”
Shimoji uses words like “impact” and “uniqueness.” From the very start, Shimoji and Tomie wanted to portray Bo Jackson–and indeed the other TSB stars–not as palette swaps, not as meaningless paeans to diversity, but as impactful, well-rounded video game characters. It just so happened that Bo Jackson was black.
In discussing what is a “hero,” we have to discuss cultural impact. Shimoji mentioned “impact” in his desire to make TSB Bo Jackson. Certainly games like Maniac Mansion and M.C. Kids presented black playable characters, but did those characters have any lasting impact? Super Mario‘s eponymous plumber is a “hero” in part due to his lasting impact. Mario, Link and Donkey Kong have permeated popular culture.
Outside of a very select group of retro video game enthusiasts, “Mick” and “Peter” mean absolutely nothing. How do we know? Because the character from Friday the 13th is actually named “Paul.” Only a few column inches removed, we’ve already forgotten his name.
There is no forgetting Bo Jackson. The cultural relevance of Bo’s 8-Bit avatar proves itself time and time again. Bo Jackson’s cameo on a 2016 episode of Family Guy quickly became a viral video sensation. When Nintendo opened voting in 2015 to determine the next DLC character in its Smash Bros. video game franchise, reddit’s /r/NFL started a drive to include Bo. TSB Bo Jackson has become a cultural shorthand on ESPN and on sports talk radio. NFL Broadcasters often describe Wide Receivers as putting up “Video Game numbers.” That original video game was Tecmo Super Bowl. Those numbers belonged to Bo Jackson.
Yes, Bo Jackson isn’t a character original to the NES. Like Winston Zedimore or Maniac Mansion‘s Michael, Bo’s black hero is imported. But on a system that tends to misrepresent blackness as token baddies, Bo Jackson is neither. He stands head and shoulder among his peers. He is not a palette swap or a graphical tweak to satisfy diversity. He is independently black and great. Bo Jackson is the only true black hero the NES has to offer.
1 Y’know, on second thought… Red Rocket probably isn’t the best nickname for a G-rated hero.
2 Atari’s Boxing (1977) is widely regarded as featuring the first black–as in dark skinned and not simply pure black–protagonist.
3 Why Kung Fu‘s programmers didn’t go the extra mile and give their black villain a Colt 40oz. is beyond me.
4 Although it’s interesting to note John Elway’s Quarterback and NFL Football used only white-skinned player sprites.
5 An excellent hack entitled New Ghostbusters II Plus by DarkanX and Em_Tee fixes Winston’s skin color as well as a number of other graphical quirks.
6 Micro Machines (1991) features two black racers: Bonnie and Jethro. However, Micro Machines maker, Code Masters, was not a licensed NES producer.