It's easy to tick off a few tropes in Nintendo's core cast of characters. Mario, the everyman hero; Luigi, the trusty, goofy sidekick; Peach, the ever-present damsel in distress; Daisy, the strong, independent woman; Bower, the sociopathic villain; Wario, the crazy, get-rich-quick salesman; Yoshi, the not-a-care-in-the-world companion; the menial koopas, goombas, paratroopas, spinies, bullet bills, and other anthropomorphic creatures eagerly awaiting the footfall of the Mario Brothers' doc martens.
Then, sticking out like a sore, pink thumb. there's the male-to-female Birdo, begging for explanation.
Queer theory doesn't always work in videogames. Thanks to a videogame's original purpose as a test of skill, the limitations of hardware and programming to predict all possible solutions to a problem, and the sometimes abstract nature of arcade games, the videogame was never originally intended as a storytelling venue. It's really hard to get into questions of sexuality while saving stick-figure human beings from being captured by mutant brains and turned into progs. (Bonus points to someone who gets the reference!) However, Birdo's mysterious (and understated) gender change allows us a chance to really explore how LGBT characters fit into the early history of videogames.
This analysis is going to stick with console game markets, as their history is different from PC videogames. This is because PC games didn't have rigorous censorship standards, a family-friendly market message, or a need to maintain a brand image. PC gaming had far fewer gatekeepers keeping content from gamers; anyone with a compiler, spare time, and a connection to a BBS could share their games with the entire dorky gaming world. In fact, some major game companies got their start as a couple guys in a basement, distributing their shareware game on networks.
However, things were much different in the developing console market, as evidenced by Birdo's history.
The Golden Age of the Arcade (and the crash that ended it)
We'll get to Birdo in a bit, but first we have to set the scene for Nintendo's rise to power in the videogame world. Doing this requires us to step into a world flooded in black lights, bleeps, bloops, and really bad 80s-inspired carpets: the 80s arcade. This adolescent-male dominated world featured endless iterations of skill-based games. Due to limitations of the time most games were very abstract: most games released in these early years of the arcade were space shooters, or limited-scope worlds such as "Crystal Castles" or "Qbert." To make this point even clearer, consider that Pac-Man was a smash hit because of his iconic look, unique character design, and its targeting of the female market, three things that didn't often happen in the arcade world at the time.
Based on the popularity of these arcades, Atari created the Atari 2600. It wasn't the first home videogame console but it was the first truly booming success; Atari became a household name. Interestingly, the company ran with a cowboy mentality, allowing pretty much anything to be produced and released for the 2600 console. Games were often programmed by a single programmer, in a matter of weeks, and could be sold at high markups.
This lack of editorial control also meant two things for Atari's console. One, many games released for the Atari were of subpar quality - the first real instance of "shovelware" on a game console. Two, and far more detrimental to the image of the console, were a strange set of pornography games created for the console, marring the family-friendly image of the unit. "Custer's Revenge," widely considered to be one of the worst games ever made, is the most famous example of this attempt at creating adult entertainment games on the 2600. (Let's just say that the Atari platform was not ready for the subtleties of sexuality, and leave it at that.)
Atari's empire - and the entire videogame market - crashed in 1983, hot on the heels of poor administration, bad games, and a lack of innovation.
The Nintendo "Seal of Quality" and in-house censorship.
Understanding Birdo's plight requires us to take a wide-angle look at 1984, the year the NES was released to the American public. The videogame market, recently flooded with a wash of famously sub-par titles, was widely regarded to be on its way to obscurity, just like any other fad toy had the penchant to do. The NES was a huge risk on Nintendo's part: despite the continued success of the Famicom in Japan, American audiences were wary of investing in another video game console that would eventually gather dust on their mantle.
Nintendo had two aces in the hole, however. One came in the form of Miyamoto, a man whose efforts are so influential that my word processor instantly recognized his name. His Mario and Zelda franchises became the backbone upon which the NES fanbase was built, and to this day games in these series consistently earn high praise and generate high sales numbers in the market. Less obvious, however, was a 4-pin addition to the US NES cartridge.
This was the 10NES lockout chip, and it allowed Nintendo to be the sole gatekeeper for content on their console. Games that did not meet Nintendo's exacting, family-friendly standards were not given access to the chip. No game would play on the console without the code to get past the 10NES lockout chip. (Well, there were exceptions to this rule, but that's a different story that's outside the scope of this blog.) The lockout chip allowed Nintendo to put forth exacting standards which included, among other things:
- include sexually suggestive or explicit content including rape and/or nudity
- use profanity or obscenity in any form or incorporate language or gestures that could be offensive by prevailing public standards and tastes
- include subliminal political messages or overt political statements
Remember: this is 1984 we're talking about - far from the most progressive time in recent LGBT history. Nintendo, in a move that ultimately made their console a household name, could put forth a guarantee that all games for the NES were family-friendly, non-offensive, and safe for children. This had not been the case with Atari's system, and it gave Nintendo a great toe-hold in family households. This process made for some significant changes in some ports, most famously in the Nintendo port of Lucasfilm Games's "Maniac Mansion," and the essay on the censorship process is certainly worth a read.
Unfortunately, the prevailing attitudes of the times required LGBT people to be persona non grata in American Nintendo games. This distinction is important to note, as regionalization efforts over the next decade would struggle to port games between the two largest game-playing populations of the era: the Americans and the Japanese.
Which brings us to Birdo
The Mario Brothers came to life in the golden age of the arcade. Shigeru Miyamoto, widely considered one of the best developers of all time, got the Mario franchise moving with "Donkey Kong," a classic game that to this day is still played competitively. However, it wasn't until the Mario character was repurposed for the NES flagship title "Super Mario Brothers" that the Marios became a household name, along with the koopas, and the princess, and Toad, and Bowser, and Fire Flowers, and Piranha Plants, and Bullet Bills... the list goes on and on.
Birdo doesn't really fit into the usual Mario mold because, well, she's not really a Mario character.
See, Super Mario Brothers 2 was not brought over to America after its release in Japan. At the time, people thought that Japanese players were more willing to deal with frustratingly hard games, and a business decision was made to not send out the more-difficult sequel to the smash hit game. (Americans were later treated to the original sequel in "Super Mario All-Stars," which included "The Lost Levels" - trust me, the game is "hard" spelled in fifty-foot tall burning letters!) In the meantime, Nintendo of America still wanted to capitalize on the Mario name, even though the true sequel would be scrapped.
They did what any business-savvy company does: rebrand a Japan-only game and sell it to Americans as Mario. Thus, Doki Doki Panic became the US Super Mario Brothers 2. Birdo originally was a villain in Doki Doki Panic, and was kept in the game when Nintendo of America localized it into Mario's world. Her description in the manual was originally as follows:
Birdo thinks he is a girl and likes to be called Birdetta. He likes to wear a bow on his head and shoot eggs from his mouth.
However, the manual was later reprinted to omit the fact that Birdo was transgender. Birdo's status was not a big deal to Japanese gamers, but Nintendo of America insisted on not raising a stir. Further iterations of Mario games did not include Birdo: other than an appearance in Wario's Woods, she was noticeably absent from Mario games of the NES and Super NES's lifecycles.
These attempts at censorship couldn't put the rainbow crayons back into the box. Birdo - and, to a larger extent, LGBT videogame characters - weren't going anywhere anytime soon. Stay tuned for part 2, where we'll explore censorship, rewrites, and LGBT exclusion in the more competitive 16-bit era, and trace Birdo's almost nonexistent career on the SNES.