Bunny Girls Interrupted

The Playboy bunny girl costume is an unavoidable fixture of sexist pop culture—and a persistent one in video games. Showing women in rabbit ears and scant corsets isn’t just for pandering fighting games like Dead or Alive and Variable Geo; the practices arises in Emerald Dragon, Lunar: Eternal Blue, Super Robot Wars Original Generation, several Dragon Quests, and so forth. And in that warren of rabbit-girl getups there’s an equally varied history of how publishers censored them. 

One example lies in Heavyweight Championship Boxing, an early Game Boy outing from Tonkin House and the furtively prolific developer Tose. It’s an ambitious but clumsy game with only a few dabs of personality; there’s a nice soundtrack to bounce everything along, and I salute the Tose graphic designer who put extra effort into making the obligatory ring girl a vision of ‘80s anime style.

There’s even a hint of Haruhiko Mikimoto about her, as though Minmay from Macross is working boxing matches after her experimental prog-industrial album failed to chart or to pacify a fleet of grouchy alien giants.

The original Japanese game, titled Boxing with the refreshing directness of an early Game Boy release, had a few more details. The ring girl sports rabbit ears and stand-alone shirt cuffs, and there’s a bonus code that lets players confirm that she’s also wearing the fishnets typical of a woman promoting Playboy-brand objectification. Activision took these details out of the game’s North American release, presumably for the same precautions that led the publishers to rename characters like “Mai Taison.”

Most North American game publishers of the era, however, were not so skittish. If some games removed bunny girl depictions they were expunged entirely, presumably more for their suggestive nature than legal concerns. Other games showed no concern. For example, the waitresses of Casino Kid still sport their bunny ears, albeit only in portraits that would draw neither lawyers nor complaints of risqué content.

Barker Bill’s Trick Shooting, a light-game from Nintendo themselves, goes further when depicting shooting-gallery hostess Trixie in a bunny girl outfit throughout the game. This wasn’t a case of the Japanese release’s design choices slipping through, either, since Barker Bill was released only in North America and Europe.

Then there’s the most prominent bunny girl in video games: Rami from the Keio Flying Squadron series. She goes through two games thwarting the monstrous forces of a tanuki despot (a raccoon if you’re playing the localized Sega CD game), all while wearing a distinct Playboy bunny outfit.

JVC changed nothing about Rami’s outfit for Keio Flying Squadron’s North American release. Indeed, magazine spots even play it up, encouraging the reader to “strap on your bunny ears and save the world.” The Sega Saturn sequel skipped the Western hemisphere, but the European version of Keio Flying Squadron 2 features Rami and her bunny attire on the cover, as though in open defiance of any Playboy attorneys who might spot it.

It seems that bunny girl outfits aren’t much of a legal hurdle after all. They appear in anime from FLCL to The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya to something called Rascal Does Not Dream of Bunny Girl Senpai, and no one seems to mind in the international market. Gainax’s original Daicon IV convention promo has a famous depiction of a bunny girl heroine who flies through undisguised depictions of everything from Golden Bat villains to Star Wars ships. And there she’s probably the least of the short film’s gleeful copyright infringements.

Playboy-style bunny costumes, as far as they appear in Japanese media, are such a cliché that any legal challenges would be closing the barn door well after the cows left. Or shutting the pen after the rabbits hopped out. Or changing Playboy club standards after the waitresses all quit in protest over the outfits they had to wear.

Yet Activision and Tose might not have been entirely overcautious in excising the ring girl’s bunny garb in Heavyweight Championship Boxing. In 2020 Playboy sued costume manufacturer Fashion Nova for “disregarding trademark protections” with a line of bunny outfits. One can only hope they won’t go after Nintendo, or else we might never see a revival of Barker Bill’s Trick Shooting.

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