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An illustration shows a woman playing Style Savvy while scenes from the game play out in the background Illustration: Christine Lee for Polygon

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Style Savvy shows ‘games for girls’ can be as ruthless as their male-targeted counterparts

Nintendo’s dress-up series has never been just about fashion

It took me years to realize I was a gamer. Not because I felt any issue with the term, and not because I didn’t play games — in fact, I’d been playing games for as long as I could remember. But I never connected the dots between the games I grew up on and the newest Mario or Pokémon titles my friends played, because my games of choice revolved around fashion. It wasn’t until years later that I realized the games I grew up on had just as much merit as anything else on the market, and one franchise in particular had imprinted itself onto my psyche forever by inadvertently teaching a crash course on the capitalist underbelly of the fashion industry.

This all started with Syn Sophia’s Style Savvy (also known as Nintendo Presents: Style Boutique in Europe and Wagamama Fashion: Girls Mode in Japan), which launched in Japan in 2008 before coming to America in November 2009 — just in time for my 10th birthday. The time I spent playing Style Savvy blew my young mind by fusing a standard dress-up game with a business simulator that never let me forget that fashion was a means to make as much money as possible, and players old and new saw that lesson play out over three sequel games (2012’s Style Savvy: Trendsetters, 2015’s Style Savvy: Fashion Forward, and 2017’s Style Savvy: Styling Star).

In each of the Style Savvy games, you play as a young woman embarking on a career as a stylist at a trendy boutique. Unlike the hordes of fashion games for girls with mechanics focused on fulfilling creative briefs or endlessly designing clothes, Style Savvy games center on the player’s ability to sell as many articles of clothing as possible to as many NPCs as possible. While you can tailor your boutique offerings in terms of decor and stock to your preferred style, this doesn’t stop you from getting daily visits from people across the fashion spectrum, forcing you to quickly familiarize yourself with a range of styles and spot their influence on NPCs so that you can tailor recommendations to their specific tastes. As your business grows, you also keep your store stocked by heading to a wholesale clothing marketplace and investing in a range of items from different brands as your stock runs out. The game also comes with built-in definitions of what style looks like, in the form of a long tutorial in the first game and a handy fashion dictionary from the second game onward. True style, according to the game’s handbook, manifests in head-to-toe looks with a balance of elements like colors, patterns, and shapes, without too many clashing pieces or unnecessary add-ons. Most importantly, the game emphasizes the importance of honoring a customer’s preferred style, and never straying far from their aesthetic.

Plot plays a minimal role in each of the games, and it revolves primarily around your efforts to become a renowned stylist, with occasional detours based around side characters that you help on their journeys by using your styling skills. Because of how addictive and high-stakes the base gameplay felt to me as a kid, I vividly remember that Style Savvy marked the first time I ever felt downright annoyed whenever a plot event popped up, like time spent receiving reassurance from your clients-turned-friends was time that should’ve been spent beefing up your supply of preppy skirts or punky jackets.

In stark contrast to the legions of fashion games that lean on straightforward dress-up and fashion design mechanics, the tension in Style Savvy between looking good and making money never fully vanishes, which is what made the game stand out so strongly to me when I first played it. That same tension extends even to how you engage with customer requests, where efforts to find what they’re willing to wear crash up against your ability to take advantage of their request so that you can make more money. Think of it this way: A customer might come in asking for a professional outfit she can wear to her office job. Now, you could satisfy this request with just two pieces if you put her in a dress and pair of shoes, and she’ll leave happy with your suggestion. But, if you put her in the dress and then layer a coat on top of it, and pair her shoes with a pair of stockings and a handbag, you’re making more money than you would’ve by matching the brief. That’s all well and good, but if you’re still a few hundred dollars below her budget, you might be inclined to throw in a layer below her dress, more accessories in the form of a hat and jewelry, and — oh, is that a pair of pants you haven’t been able to get rid of? Why not put it underneath her dress and act like nothing is wrong, and let her leave the store serving mid-aughts Ashley Tisdale realness, so long as it lines your pockets that much more?

In cases like these, the further you go to make a profit, the harder it becomes to keep the end result in accordance with the game’s definition of style. I have vivid memories of putting customers in clunky, visually unbalanced outfits, and committing the cardinal sin of sneaking pieces into their looks that violated their style preference. What shocked me as a kid was that I never received so much as a slap on the wrist for putting NPCs in these atrocities, and when I realized that there was no programming to keep these greedy impulses in check, all bets were off. I probably first experimented with this technique when I was a new player struggling to make ends meet so that I could make any progress, but once you pick up on it, it’s incredibly difficult to put clients in an outfit without seeing how much money you’re missing out on while not maximizing your earnings.

While you technically could play Style Savvy with a style-first approach, the game is designed so it’s incredibly hard to make any real progress without putting customers in hideous outfits. And this holds true across every game and every iteration of gameplay; the first game of the series has the most constraints for players in terms of inventory space and limits the flexibility of customer budgets more than any other entry in the franchise, with customers point-blank rejecting any suggested item or outfit that goes as little as $9 over their given budget. While both inventory space and budget flexibility would beef up in successive games, these later entries to the franchise introduced a mechanic that would make gameplay even more challenging: a ban on selling customers the same item more than once. Mechanics like these incentivize players to stock up on new styles more frequently, but they also encourage an emphasis on selling out their supply of one style before moving on to another — which means that selling at higher cost is the smoothest path to new story beats, game features, and new styles in clothes and furniture.

With all of these restrictions at play, I managed to justify the mishmashes of overpriced clothes I threw at customers to myself over and over again. Any lingering misgivings I had about flying in the face of the game’s rules of style melted when I managed to free up space in my inventory or unlock a new facet of gameplay. Every time I sent someone out of my store in a jumbled mess of faux fur and tutus and leg warmers, I only felt satisfaction at hitting just under the roof of their budget, which meant I lived to style another day.

Ultimately, these mechanics coalesced into a level of difficulty that I had never seen before in a fashion game, and also shattered the vaguely glamorized ideas about fashion that I’d absorbed as a baby fashionista. I had a hard time looking at fashion in the same way after seeing how deeply entwined fashion and commerce were through the lens of a fantastical game about one corner of the fashion industry, and I think of the time I spent playing it as a crucial step in becoming a little bit wiser about the world that had captivated me for my entire life.

That isn’t to say that it left me with nothing but cynicism, though. Even as it served as my Capitalism 101 class, Style Savvy produced what I think of as my first genuinely fun, challenging gameplay experience. As women and young girls continue seeking a seat at the table when it comes to discussions of gaming culture, fashion simulations like Style Savvy serve as examples of the ways that “games for girls” could be every bit as enlightening, absorbing, and downright ruthless as their male-targeted counterparts. Now that I’ve shrugged off my hangups about thinking of the fashion games I enjoyed as a valid part of gaming culture, I wear the hundreds of hours and millions of dollars I made with my little boutique like a badge of honor. It’s a good thing playing Style Savvy and dominating the real fashion industry are mutually exclusive, because if my skills translated to the real world? I’d be forcing you into the most expensive mess you’ve ever seen.

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