This is part two of my three-part series on videogame censorship. Part one dealt with the videogame crash, Nintendo of America's early "Seal of Quality" validation process, and the birth of Birdo as a Mario character. Part two deals with the Genesis, Super Nintendo, and Japanese-American cultural differences' impact on game content.
The nineties brought competition: the Sega Genesis, Super Nintendo, and various other consoles were vying for the attention of a now-established market share of gamers. The videogame-playing fan-base had aged since the eighties, and they craved games that appealed to their now-maturing tastes. The rugrat gamers of the NES days now had their own money to spend, and they wanted to spend it on the latest, greatest, most-awesome videogames on the market. Other companies began marketing "mature" games to this growing market; blood, guts, complicated themes, dark protagonists, the whole lot.
Companies still kept a tight lock on what games appeared on their consoles, using lockout chips to keep third parties from producing games without a green light from the console manufacturer. Nintendo still kept a tight rein on content and tried to uphold a "family-friendly" image. However, the now-maturing videogame market combined with competition forced them to loosen the reins of censorship slightly in a bid to compete with the new kids in town.
All companies still took great efforts to make their games culturally "palatable," which meant wiping LGBT characters off the face of American games. Things did not bode well for American gamers, who were subjected to some truly strange and most awkward censorship attempts in the gap between Japanese cultural norms and conservative American censors. Nor did it bode well for LGBT videogame characters, who were either used to dodge criticism or wiped entirely from the face of the games they populated.
It should come to no surprise that our friend Birdo spent a lot of the nineties hidden in obscurity.
Crossing cultural divides with regionalized "rewrites"
One of the least-discussed facets of videogame production is the concept of "regionalization." Development studios were putting out a product for a global market; in that process, games must be translated, edited, and changed to avoid cultural issues or language getting "lost in transration," as was often the case in the NES days. These teams would simultaneously translate game text into a target language as well as regionalize content to conform to cultural norms, making a product that was appropriate for the new region's market. This process allowed for most every game on consoles to be released worldwide.
For the most part the changes were made to make games less confusing to a worldwide audience. Many references in Japanese games would not make sense to an audience not familiar with the culture, and as such were changed to more appropriate references. Difficulty was often toned down (or, in some cases, turned up) to cater to new audiences. Additionally, some regions had specific laws regulating what could and could not be put into media , and these games required tuning to adhere to cultural norms.
The problem is that LGBT "cultural norms" for Japan (a major game production hub) and America (a major game consuming hub) were quite different. Where the Japanese were tolerant of LGBT people - entire industries are dedicated to LGBT characters in Japan - the issue was still a hush-hush issue for American audiences. This led to some interesting deletions and rewrites of settings and characters in Japanese-developed games.
Streets of Rage 3 - playable gay character "Ash" removed
Despite the fact that he's a stereotypical "gay character," Ash inadvertently became the first playable gay character included in an American videogame. I say included instead of available here because Ash was only available by game genie; his sprites had been replaced by the character Shiva.
At the time, Streets of Rage 3 was a wildly popular game with tweens and teens. (I know I rushed to get my copy!) Having a flamboyantly gay character on the roster would have earned the ire of parental advocacy groups; games were routinely picked apart for "objectionable content" in an attempt to get violent or sexually suggestive video games banned. (Interesting side note: Tiny Toon Adventures simultaneously took on these censorship efforts while lampooning Dan Quayle, the episode is one of the more interesting social commentaries on the matter.) Therefore, the localization team decided to replace Ash with Shiva, a cool-looking ninja.
Think about this for a moment and the significance becomes clear. The localization team saw enough value in removing a gay character from the game to hire programmers, artists, and directors to create an _entirely new character_ for the US version of the game. These changes don't come for free, and the sad thing is that this change probably saved the game from a negative US reception. It went on to be a success for Sega.
Final Fight - transsexual character added to appease feminists
I wish I could be making up that headline.
Final Fight, much like Streets of Rage 3, was one among many side-scrolling brawlers made popular in the arcade. The concept is simple: walk from left to right, beating up all the gang members and baddies along the way. One of these baddies, "Poison," was changed into a transsexual early in the development process. The reason, ironically, was American sensibilities: the character was originally intended to be female, but was changed to a male-to-female transsexual because "hitting women was considered rude" in America. Offensive and base? Yes, but such is history!
Even this wasn't enough to save Poison. She was originally replaced with generic male flunkies in the US Super Nintendo port of the arcade game.
When Final Fight was ported to the Super Nintendo Entertainment System, an American playtester working for Capcom reviewed the content during the localization process with one of the Japanese designers, and objected to the protagonist hitting females. Akira Yasuda pointed that the "female" enemies were actually transvestites, and despite his objections, Poison and Roxy were replaced with regular male punks named "Billy" and "Sid" in the English localization.
(Again, I unfortunately can't make videogame history more palatable. Seems that the times said that hitting girls = not okay, unless they're trans. Then it's hilarious!)
In time, however, she became a part of the regular Capcom crew. Her operative status changed between Japan and the US. In Japan, Poison is non-op, while in America she is post-op. This was confirmed by Street Fighter IV's producer Yoshinori Ono, who explained why Poison was not included in the new game:
Let's set the record straight: In North America, Poison is officially a post-op transsexual. But in Japan, she simply tucks her business away to look female." He later emphasized it again when asked about what female characters could be included in the game Street Fighter IV, stating that it would be too confusing to include her due to the region-specific gender.
(On a personal level, the whole "Poison not welcome in new Street Fighter" idea sucks because I totally would have mained her!)
Looking at these two regionalization processes, one thing becomes clear: LGBT people were either wiped clean off the slate or used to avoid gender-specific criticism. Various other cases show gay people being wiped off the face of videogames in this time period as well. Gay men were sometimes replaced with women, sometimes just portrayed as effeminate. Lesbian relationships turned into close siblings. Over all else, however, was the overwhelming assertion that LGBT people simply were not welcome in the videogame world.
So... where's Birdo?
Well, she's right here, silly:
And in Super Mario RPG, too:
One cameo (in an admittedly fantastic Kirby game) and one appearance as a half-hearted miniboss in a Squaresoft RPG. That's it. Despite the fact that the SNES marked the beginning of the "Marioization" of new Nintendo franchises, Birdo's remained in relative obscurity. Considering the time period, this is unsurprising: most game companies focused their efforts on young male gamers, producing plenty of action, adventure, shoot-em-up games (with the occasional token "girly game" thrown in for good measure) that tried to woo a growing crowd of gamers. Reintroducing a gender-nonconforming character - especially one whose gender confusion was written out of manuals shortly after her introduction in the states - would have had a negative effect on the Mario license at that time.
No, Birdo would have to wait a console generation before making her return, once prevailing attitudes about who gamed and who didn't game were made more diverse. We'll cover this change in part three of our discussion, coming soon to a Bilerico page near you.