Whether you’re doing Barbenheimer this weekend or not, it’s clear Barbie is an icon. As an intellectual property, Barbie was key in convincing publishers that, not only did girls exist, but they might want to play video games, too. Some of the first games to pivot toward anyone who wasn’t a young cis-het were developed with Barbie front-and-center.
Here are some of the best Barbie video games over the years, many of which you can still play on emulators due to some hard-working internet archivers.
#5. Detective Barbie In the Mystery of the Carnival Caper! (1998, Windows 95)
Someone got murdered at a hella creepy circus, and the coolest girl you know is here to solve it. Detective Barbie starts off by asking the player’s name, where they convinced the voice actress to record hundreds of girls’ and boys’ names so that way she could say things like, “Hey, Amanda, I think we’ve been here before!” or “What do you think of this clue?”
With Barbie, players had to discover and manage clues, follow up on leads, and chase suspects on exciting and well-designed first-person POV roller coasters. Detective Barbie was a spooky point-and-click game that required patient investigation and a good memory, which could be hard for a young player. While not perfect, this title was an early stand-out that showcased Barbie excelling in one of her myriad jobs.
On the archive.org profile for Detective Barbie, one user commented in 2022 with five stars, “THANK YOUUUU. me and my sister are so happy to be able to play this again, thank you so much!!”
#4. My Scene (2003, Windows 98)
Okay, not actually Barbie, so it’s a slight cheat. Barbie’s success as a toy inspired dozens of copycat and spin-off brands. My Scene dolls were trendy for a short time period of the early 2000s, even hosting a popular web game featuring interior decorating. The PC game My Scene captured everything I wanted from a Barbie fashion game but had never gotten.*
Players were able to design outfits with dozens of unique fabric swatches, create window-front displays, run small businesses, go to charity events, and be good friends to each other. My Scene showcased how gameplay didn’t have to be just “run there” or “shoot that.” The My Scene girls were cool, cultured, and hard-working. It’s unfortunately hard to find, like many other games from this era, but it’ll always hold a special place in my heart.
*Just when the tech was evolving from the late ’90s, Mattel Interactive dropped off of making fashion-oriented Barbie games, likely in an attempt to meet the culture’s evolution around not pigeon-holing that girl games had to be around clothes. They put Barbie through a ringer of several bad releases with pointed titles like Barbie Super Sports! though that only included snowboarding and rollerblading. Lol.
#3. Secret Agent Barbie: Royal Jewels Mission (2002, Game Boy Advance)
Barbie is back to solving crime in Secret Agent Barbie. The year prior, Barbie had performed in an underwhelming, obviously G-rated clone of Tomb Raider called Explorer on the PS1. This 2002 release came back strong.
The Game Boy Advance exclusive Secret Agent Barbie included significantly more nuanced puzzles, exciting 2D platforming, a clearer plot that took Barbie to several exciting locations around the world, and better color and animation design. She changed into different outfits to blend in with locals in Tokyo and Paris, and she had a robot spy-puppy!
Barbie Secret Agent was so good that in 2002, IGN wrote, “Believe it or not, Barbie: Secret Agent is the best Metal Gear knock-off that the GBA has at the moment.” Mattel later ported the game to PC with 3D graphics and additional missions.
#2. Barbie Horse Adventures: Mystery Ride (2003, Windows XP)
Perhaps no girl-focused game list from the late ’90s/early 2000s would be complete without a horse game. Barbie’s Horse Adventures had four installments and were highlights of the genre. They ranged in settings and allowed for racing, taking care of horses, and managing a stable.
My personal favorite was Barbie Horse Adventures: Mystery Ride. Players searched for their missing friend Teresa (yeah, there’s a lot of drama in these early games…). They looked for clues, explored, and discovered secrets on the island, all while building relationships with their horse. The graphics felt ahead of their time, with rainbows appearing in waterfalls and horses turning at the subtle command of a mouse touch. Music surged with discoveries and settled peacefully with calm rides in the woods. It had a strong amount of replayability as well, which was surprising for the time.
Barbie Horse Adventures: Mystery Ride holds a 4.5-star rating based on 220+ ratings on oldgamesdownload.com, a site that archives and shares the original file for old games.
#1. Barbie Fashion Designer (1996, Windows 95 and Mac OS)
Way before 3D printers and Nintendo Labo, Barbie Fashion Designer utilized video games with tangible maker elements to empower young players to create and print their own designs. Barbie Fashion Designer was sold as a toy where children could print off designs, then basically scan them back into the game. Its success demonstrated that there was indeed a market for games with a bit of pink on the cover. Nicole Carpenter from Polygon wrote an excellent deep dive into the history of how this game got made. She writes of its success:
“Mattel sold more than 1 million copies of Barbie Fashion Designer by 1998, a couple years after its initial release, according to Billboard numbers from 1998. The game topped charts and outsold several games considered to be for boys, like Quake.
Barbie Fashion Designer is openly celebrated now, after all these years, with an induction into the World Video Game Hall of Fame at the Strong National Museum of Play alongside The Last of Us, Wii Sports, and Computer Space. For this honor, it beat out the likes of Quake, Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, and GoldenEye 007. It’s an acknowledgement of the progress that’s led to the modern-day understanding that games can be for girls, but they can also be just games for anyone. After all, Barbie Fashion Designer was absolutely played by boys, and plenty of girls would call Doom their formative gaming experience. The game was a catalyst not only for the games for girls movement, but also for the impact it had — and still has — on the industry.”
You can see an online feature here of Barbie’s place in the World Video Game Hall of Fame at the Strong National Museum of Play. The page features this powerful quote from a 1998 interview with Nancie S. Martin, Executive Producer of Barbie Fashion Designer: “I have this sort of mission, if you will, that I want all those girls who are now six and seven, when they’re twenty-six and thirty-six and forty-six, to still be using computers as a tool, and to remember that it’s all because of Barbie.”
It’s Time for New Barbie Video Games
Hopefully, the already incredible success of Greta Gerwig’s cheeky Barbie (2023) will entice video game developers to bring Barbie and her friends back into the gaming spotlight, perhaps on the family-friendly Switch platform. It’s time for Barbie to make a modern gaming debut. And you know what, there is a dearth of quality horse and fashion games on the Nintendo Switch… because trust me, I’ve looked.