The 16-bit era came and the 16-bit era left. As gamers, we moved on to the Next Big Thing in gaming: 3d graphics. The next generation of console games were coming to market, and with them came a new segment of players. Videogames were no longer seen exclusively as kid's toys, as many of the people who grew up playing in the arcades and in their childhood bedrooms had now become game-playing adults, complete with adult budgets and adult spending power.
Families began playing games together. A new genre of games - the party game - was invented to service this newer, more casual market. Gaming companies discovered that women enjoyed videogames, even when they weren't covered in pink glitter and about domestic chores. The videogame console moved from the teen boy's bedroom to the family living room, and development practices needed to change to match the new market.
With the groundwork set, we can dig into Birdo's resurgence as a character. While it's far from a perfectly inclusive story, her reintroduction to Mario games does make her the first successful transgender character in videogame history.
The Marioization of sports and party games
Nintendo's new console, the Nintendo 64, was made to be a family console. It had four controller ports - revolutionary at the time - and featured a nigh indestructible cartridge system that stood in contrast to the delicate CD media used by its competitors. It's no surprise that Nintendo's internal development teams catered their games to a family audience, both male and female, and designed games with fun multiplayer experiences in mind. This was, however, a unique concept in the world of videogames at the time, and they needed strong brand recognition to sell the concept to weary gamers.
The answer was Mario. Seems anymore you can find a Mario game for every genre: party games, microgames, soccer, basketball, tennis, golf, kart racing... you name it, there's probably a Mario game for it. The Mario universe already had recognizable characters to farm for sports games requiring many characters; add to this the fact that Mario is one of the most recognized faces in marketing history and it would be stupid not to use Mario to sell casual games to families.
However, a tiny change needed to be made to the way character lineups were made: namely, guys weren't the only people at the gaming party anymore. Almost every Mario character now has an opposite-gender counterpart of some sort. Peach has Mario, Daisy has Luigi, Toadette has Toad. This pattern even holds true for Yoshi, who needed his own female counterpart for this new crop of Mario-themed games.
Mario Tennis - Birdo returns after a retcon
Mario Tennis is the first game which featured Birdo as a playable character. A few things about her design are interesting to note:
Her slot on the roster indicates that she is to Yoshi's what Peach is to Mario: a partner.
She wears a diamond ring on her left hand, suggesting an engagement to Yoshi. This is never specifically stated, but not specifically denied.
She is exactly that: she. Not "wanting to be," not "trying to be," not "indeterminate." Just she.
In resurging as a character in the Nintendo universe, Birdo's history was retroactively changed to maintain continuity. This retccon erased her status as a transgender person. To put it another way, Birdo appears in most sports titles in complete stealth. This is unsurprising, considering Nintendo's chokehold on potentially objectionable content. A trans character would be considered unsettling for family-based gamers; however, Birdo's image is memorable, and few people actually remember her male status, let alone read the manual to Super Mario Brothers 2 - that is, if they got a copy that still had the information in it.
Birdo continued to be a run-of-the-mill girl until her status was resurrected, at least historically, in future titles.
Nintendo owns up, then plays potty plots
Super Smash Brothers Brawl had a trophy for Birdo that specifically stated she was of "indeterminate gender." This was the first time in 20 years that Birdo's trans status was even officially hinted at. It should be noted that these trophies are hard to find, let alone collect, and that few casual gamers would have ever seen this specific screen. There is a good chance that those who did see it would already have known the trivia about Birdo's gender status.
However, the Japanese-exclusive game "Captain Rainbow" goes even further, painting Birdo as a transgender woman involved in - you guessed it! - imprisonment over potty politics.
In the game, Birdo is wrongly imprisoned for using the female bathroom, as the robot jailer did not believe her when she insists she is a girl. She gets quite upset about this, and asks Nick to go to her Cute Home and find something that will prove she is not lying. Nick finds a mysterious object under Birdo's pillow, and while it is never revealed exactly what the object is, it serves its purpose and Birdo is released. Birdo develops a crush on Nick, and calls him her "boyfriend". Nick accompanies her in her walks near her Cute Home, and she helps him carry a fallen Star to the altar on the top of Mimin Island. If Nick lets Birdo's wish be granted, she flies into the sky with the Star and disappears.
And, in the "video or it didn't happen" category...
There was a brief period in which "Captain Rainbow" was in line for regionalization and a US release. It's too bad, too: to my knowledge, this scene is the first time in videogame history where a conflict revolved around a trans-specific issue.
Looking forward, we still have a long way to go before characters like Birdo can step out of obscurity and be a part of the gaming world. By and large, the gaming population is still homophobic, transphobic, and misogynistic, and are unwilling to take on the roles of characters that aren't at least straight. The pervasiveness of this issue is so strong that companies are taking action to create safe spaces on their networks, however misguided their action may be. (As an example, Microsoft bans players who either use "gay" in their name, or reference their sexual orientation in their profile - for their own safety and comfort, of course!)
However, with companies such as Bioware creating games that allow players to choose same-sex relationships, and the growing evidence showing that people are willing to engage in cross-gender roleplay in gaming, maybe we're heading in the right direction after all.
If this kind of discussion interests you, be sure to check out the Border House Blog. Their work on the subject is always fascinating! Also, my friend over at Vorpal Bunny Ranch is definately worth checking out.