When people bring up Barbie for the NES today, it's usually in regard to its ill-thought-out marketing stunt, where the publisher Hi-Tech Expressions erroneously claimed that it was the first video game designed for girls.
Though, as we recently discovered, this isn't the only interesting thing about the title, with the game's development offering a unique insight into the problems encountered on licensed tie-ins and how publishers and developers struggle to overcome them.
Speaking to Hi-Tech producer Dan Feinstein earlier this year, he told Time Extension that in the early 90s Mattel was still unsure about what a Barbie game could potentially be, beyond simply dressing the iconic character up in various outfits and having her shop. So when Hi-Tech Expressions pitched the idea of an NES platformer to the toy manufacturer, the licensor had a long list of requirements.
Barbie couldn't die, Barbie couldn't have enemies, Barbie couldn't fight, and she certainly couldn't backflip. She also couldn't push blocks or do almost any physical activity of any kind, because it was considered too "unladylike" or unbecoming of the famous character.
"As a boy, with all the Barbies in my friend’s sister’s room and stuff, we used to pull the arms off and put the arms where the legs were and the legs where the arms were, and pop the heads off. So we thought Barbie could do everything. But when we went to Mattel, we couldn’t say that and we had to negotiate. We had to be diplomatic. I had to learn their Barbie product file inside out and I had to work with them to accept certain concepts for video games."
Much of the genre conventions of a platformer had to be rethought in order to satisfy the license holder, and this is where Hi-Tech and the developer Imagineering's creativity shines through. It set the game inside a dream, so instead of dying, Barbie would simply wake up after taking too much damage. As for enemies, there were technically none with Barbie having to battle against accessories and clothing that had magically come to life inside her dream. She also didn't commit any violence herself, instead calling upon a bunch of animal pals to do her bidding.
As Feinstein remembers:
“We used Tennis rackets and she could toss things to her friends who could do certain things. Like her little bunny friends or rabbit friends or doggy friends who could take something and do something with it. There were ways we found around it, but the biggest hurdle was to get them to let her jump through the air and do a tumblesault because it wasn’t ladylike."
Barbie on the NES is by no means a hidden classic. It's an odd, odd game that's the result of a ton of creative compromises between the licensor and the publisher. Nevertheless, hearing about its development has given us a newfound respect for how it came together as well as some closure on why it was so bizarre in the first place.