It’s Barbie Week at The Daily Beast’s Obsessed, celebrating the doll’s pop-culture history, our favorite Barbie memories, and a certain major movie. Read all of our coverage here!
Greta Gerwig's Barbie, out later this month, marks the doll’s first live-action incarnation in her 64-year history, but it’s far from the first media interpretation of the timeless toy. There are animated movies, television shows, and even YouTube vlogs. Yet none of them have been as enjoyable as the PC games from the 1990s and 2000s, where players can step into Barbie’s fashionable shoes and go on exciting adventures.
Barbie’s legacy of gaming software technically began in 1984, with Barbie for the Commodore 64 computer, in which Barbie mainly drives her yellow convertible and goes shopping for a date with Ken. But the franchise gained popularity with the 1996 release of Barbie Fashion Designer on PC. As Barbie, players would select from a menu of different clothing styles and accessories based on a certain type of outing. The gameplay was simple, but the possibilities were limitless: Whether you were donning Barbie in an outfit for a dream date or vacation, there were a multitude of colors and patterns to choose from. Wanted Barbie to pair an ascot with athletic leggings? Go ahead! The outfits could be as wild or as chic as players wanted, and my Barbie usually dressed out of the box.
Then, once you were all done picking out her clothes, Barbie would sashay down the runway to model them in 3D. With Barbie Fashion Designer, I—as did many other kids at the time—became a capitalistic #BossBabe. I would print out my designs and hang them on my playroom walls, creating my own store where the finest designs were the most expensive.
In its first two months, the game sold more than 500,000 copies and earned over $14 million—outpacing the popular first-person shooter Doom. It went on to sell more than 1 million copies by 1998. The success of the kid-friendly Barbie Fashion Designer surprised companies that believed that computer games were a male-dominated market, including Barbie-maker Mattel itself. The company was initially against the idea of developing software based on the brand, until it hired designers Andy Rifkin and Nancie S. Martin to create Barbie Fashion Designer. Rifkin was inspired by his daughter E.J. who enjoyed creating custom and tactile clothes for her Barbie dolls. Turns out, millions of other girls did too.
Several of the games that followed were beauty-based games, similar to Fashion Designer. There was Barbie Magic Hair Styler (1997), where you designed Barbie’s hair and makeup for different experiences like slaying a team meeting at the office or attending a costume party. Depending on my mood, her looks would range from refined to wacky. Sometimes I would chop all of Barbie’s hair off, give her blue highlights, and decorate her cheeks with purple blush. Barbie Nail Designer (1998) also had a kaleidoscope of options: sparkling gems, stickers, or your own rainbow polish concoction. While some may argue that these glamour games perpetuate a stereotypical idea of femininity, I found them to be an amazing outlet to experiment with self-expression. As a girl who went to Catholic school with a strict policy of uniforms and no nail polish, makeup, or jewelry, it was liberating to play these games. By giving players endless choices for Barbie—looks that could be edgy, formal, romantic, funky, or sporty—we were able to try new things and curate a sense of style that was entirely your own.
Playing with Barbie in these ways was a perfect form of escapism, and her interactive fairytale adaptations were the most fantastical. Barbie wore her prettiest outfits in these games. In Magic Fairy Tales: Barbie as Rapunzel, from 1997, she donned a flowing hennin, puffy yellow sleeves, and seafoam green ball gown. All the colors were so vivid, especially those of the mythical creatures, like a mommy and baby dragon, sea goddess, and an ogre.
Barbie: Magic Genie Adventure (2000) took players to a magical Arabian kingdom filled with genies, faeries, and snake charmers. Barbie wasn’t just a princess in this game; she was an actual genie on a flying carpet. She soared through ornate palaces covered with glittering jewels, a sandy oasis, and a city nestled in the clouds. Barbie: Magic Genie Adventure was more than a point-and-click adventure—the CD-ROM also came with a really cute, diamond-encrusted genie bottle you had to rub throughout the game IRL to solve the puzzles. Most importantly, like in Magic Fairy Tales, Barbie was not a damsel in distress but the hero of her own story. She taught young players how to face challenges and solve puzzles with courage, quick-thinking, and compassion.
Other Barbie games were more grounded in the real world, showcasing a variety of careers to aspire to—many of which involved caring for animals. Barbie Pet Rescue from 2000 featured Barbie as an intelligent and tender-hearted business owner who rescues lost animals around her community, providing them medical check-ups and cuddles. The game made players feel like they had a valuable impact as Barbie’s assistant, helping her create files for the pets, name them, and update their records. Barbie Pet Rescue allowed us to develop savvy administrative skills while also enjoying adorable furry friends.
Barbie also proved herself to be an accomplished marine biologist with a hot pink scuba suit Adventures with Barbie: Ocean Discovery (1999). The underwater scenes were a dazzling collage of bright coral reefs and playful sea creatures backed by upbeat calypso-style music. I always dreaded running into Captain Barnacle, Barbie’s foe, who was also searching for the hidden treasure. He would try and trap and sell the innocent fish. He had a booming voice and concealed his face with a helmet. The tension between Captain Barnacle and Barbie was palpable, leaving me on the edge of your seat until the awe-inspiring conclusion, where Barbie discovered an underwater Crystal City.
The best game where Barbie spends time with her animal friends is Barbie Riding Club from 1998. There was a girl in my school who had a horse, and playing this game was the only way to curb my seething jealousy. I would live out my equestrian dreams by choosing from a row of white, chestnut, black, or sandy beauties and christening them with names like Buttercup or Duchess. Playing Riding Club was sweet, yet hypnotic; I would really get lost in the simple tasks of feeding your horse from an apple tree, brushing their hair, or listening to their clopping hooves as Barbie wandered the idyllic trails. As serene as Barbie Riding Club was, it also built to an exciting ending, where players would discover a wild horse and her foal on a hidden path.
Even though I dreamed of riding horses, I was painfully inept at physical activity. I avoided participating in gym class as often as possible, but I still loved 1999’s Barbie Super Sports. With options to play sports like snowboarding and rollerblading, Suport Sports was like an arcade game where players earn points for performing different tricks, like smashing into snowmen or gliding up a halfpipe. The quest for points was addicting—and at times frustrating—but it was really fulfilling when Barbie nailed her moves. Barbie Super Sports also awarded you with a medal based on your ranking at the end of each obstacle course. But my favorite part of the game was still customizing Barbie’s outfits.
Hands down, the greatest Barbie video game I played was Detective Barbie: The Mystery of the Carnival Caper (1998). Everything about this game was god-tier: the slinky music, the neon-flared fairground, and the rides you could actually go on, like the Ferris wheel, carousel, and Tunnel of Love. But as much as I loved this game as a kid, I was also terrified by the creepy prowler who skulks around the carnival grounds. He was a shadowy figure who appeared when I least expected it. Detective Barbie 2: Vacation Mystery (1999) was just as fun and scary, taking place at a fancy seaside inn that looks like Disney’s Grand Floridian. As Barbie, I would comb through the beautiful and expansive coastal grounds—including an observatory, greenhouse, and a hedge maze—in search of the inky culprit.
These mystery-solving games emphasized that, despite common misconceptions, Barbie was a brave young woman who used her smarts and athleticism to bring criminals to justice. Without hesitation, she would ride a dirt bike, hop on a jet ski, and even hang glide to capture the suspect in the pulse-pounding finales. Through the process of piecing together clues, questioning characters, and unveiling hidden secrets, the Detective Barbie series empowered players like me with independence and self-assuredness.
While Barbie has been criticized for her unhealthy body image ideals, traditional gender roles, and unattainable perfection, that’s not what I, or countless of other players, saw in the digital Barbie I came to love. In her richly detailed worlds, I could uncover new interests and passions, let my creativity and imagination run wild, and try on different identities. While anyone can enjoy Barbie video games—they still make them, with recent entries including the apps Barbie Color Creations and Barbie Magical Fashion—they are especially uplifting for young girls, teaching that there is more than one definition of femininity. Our desires to hit the slopes, study dolphins, or get married are equally valid. Barbie’s entry into the digital age gave me the tools to discover and embrace my true, unique self. For a kid who was really insecure about her looks and not fitting in, these games were a gift. Barbie helped me see all the amazing different directions my life could take, as long as I had more confidence in myself.