It started out innocently enough. A bipedal lizard that shot eggs out of his mouth wanted nothing more than to be a girl, so he wore a bow on top of his head.
According to the instruction book for Super Mario Bros. 2, released in 1988, the mini-boss Birdo “thinks he is a girl and spits eggs from his mouth. He’d rather be called ‘Birdetta.'” It seems like a harmless distinction, but this simple act of cross-dressing was soon erased from the history books. In all subsequent Mario releases, Birdo is referred to as a female, completely ignoring his gender confused roots.
Birdo isn’t alone, though. He’s just one of a long line of Japanese videogame characters forced to hide their true sexual identity when their games are localized for a North American audience. While Japanese gamers have been exposed to characters of various sexual orientations, the practice is only just starting to catch on in the West. In the past, games have been changed or censored if they contained such content. Some were never released in America at all.
That’s largely due to the way the two different cultures view sexuality. North American viewers tend to be bombarded with violent imagery, while depictions of sexuality – especially involving lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT) people – raises more eyebrows than anything else. A poll conducted by family gaming site What They Play in April 2008 offers further evidence of this aversion to homosexuality in media: When shown a series of provocative pictures, respondents were more offended by the image of two men kissing then that of a severed head.
Meanwhile, in Japan, many of these taboo issues are commonplace in popular media. In fact, there’s an entire sub-genre of anime and manga called “yaoi” that focuses on homoerotic male relationships. These books and shows, also commonly referred to as “boy’s love,” are generally created by female authors for female readers, while “bara,” or “men’s love,” is written by gay men for a gay audience. While many Americans would rather witness a decapitation than see boys kissing, Japanese bookshelves are full of this sort of material.
So it shouldn’t be all that surprising that early games like SMB2 were subject to such censorship. If parents in North America felt squeamish about homosexuality in 2008, imagine what it was like two decades earlier. Publishers had no qualms changing characters, halting games from release and generally doing as much as they could to keep the American youth from witnessing any girl-on-girl or boy-on-boy action.
Take, for instance, the character Ash from Streets of Rage 3, which hit the Sega Genesis back in 1994. You may not remember this flamboyant mini-boss, and that’s understandable – after all, he was never actually featured in the North American version of the game. Instead, Ash – who was clad in purple and green, pranced about the screen effeminately and wore a gold chain with the female symbol around his neck – was cut from the game entirely, only available to Europeans or those in the U.S. who were crafty enough with a Game Genie to unlock him as a playable character.
Probably the most infamous example of homoeroticism in games, however, is the Cho Aniki series. Debuting in 1992 and spawning numerous sequels, Cho Aniki is not entirely unlike most 2-D, side-scrolling shooters: You control one of several different characters and fly around the environment blasting enemies and collecting power-ups. Screen-filling bosses punctuate each stage, and a semblance of a plot holds everything together. What has garnered this series such a cult-following, though, is that it is absolutely inundated with homosexual imagery.
The Cho Aniki series fits very neatly into the “bara” category of Japanese entertainment. All of the male characters are oiled, buff and wearing next to nothing, while phallic imagery is plentiful. But while the series has been around for quite some time, having seen entries on the PC, Super Famicom, Sega Saturn, PlayStation, PlayStation 2 and Wonderswan, the games aren’t all that good. In fact, they are often lumped into the category known in Japanese culture as “kuso-ge,” which literally means “shitty game.”
When you combine the fact that the Cho Aniki series is made up of titles that feature oiled up men fighting penis monsters with the games’ generally low quality, it’s not surprising that publishers aren’t lining up to localize them for Western tastes. Even in an age when ESRB ratings help to shield children from such sexually explicit content, not everything is going to appeal to American gamers.
But despite the diligence of localization teams, some rare gems have slipped through the censors and continue to live on in internet infamy. Guilty Gear‘s Bridget may have both the name and the look of a female, but is in fact a young cross-dressing boy. The same goes for Poison from the Final Fight series, who is actually a transvestite rather than the beautiful lady he appears to be. These facts aren’t made explicit by the developers, but they’re well known within certain circles of hardcore gamers.
Unfortunately, the few Japanese games with LGBT characters that actually make it to Western shores rarely explore them in a meaningful way. Their sexual orientation is either a secret that doesn’t really affect the game (as with Bridget and Poison) or an elaborate joke that exploits the issue purely for comedic value (as in Cho Aniki). This is even visible in the revered roleplaying epic Final Fantasy VII. Though protagonist Cloud is clearly heterosexual – given that he’s stuck in a love triangle with the two female leads – he’s forced at one point in the game to dress in drag in order to infiltrate a brothel, seduce a pimp and rescue his friend.
The scene elicits giggles from a number of characters and provides the basis for quite a few awkward and questionable scenes. While looking for a wig to complete his disguise, Cloud is told “You know the gym? You’ll find a lot of people like you there. Go talk to them.” Cloud must then acquire a blonde wig from a group of weightlifters who ask if he’s the one who “wants to look cute.” Aside from a near kiss with a mob boss, Final Fantasy VII contains no actual homosexual activity, but the message is pretty clear: Men who dress up like women – and men who like men – are more than a little ridiculous.
More recent titles have treated the subject with greater respect, most notably the PlayStation 2 RPG Persona 4. Unlike most depictions of homosexuality in games, we don’t immediately know that Kanji Tatsumi, one of the game’s main characters, is gay. He’s a bad-ass, take-nothing-from-nobody kind of guy, far from the stereotype of the effeminate gay man. This approach is refreshing in its honesty: Kanji isn’t just some boy-crazy kid who is laughed at by all the other students, and he doesn’t necessarily come to grips with his feelings right away. Instead, his realization of his sexuality is messy and difficult, which is a much more nuanced depiction of homosexuality than, say, a pair of near-nude muscle men fighting a giant penis-shaped monster.
But this sort of look at the issue is exceedingly rare, especially in the realm of videogames. And while it’s nice to think that things will continue to improve and that one day LGBT references won’t have to be removed or edited from Japanese games localized for other markets, it doesn’t seem like it will happen any day soon. After all, Persona 4 is a fairly niche title, and just one title in a sea of games that are content to paint homosexuality in broad strokes or whitewash the subject altogether.
Meanwhile, nearly two decades after Birdo first tried to pass as a woman, Nintendo is still up to its old tricks. In 2006 it released a spin-off of The Legend of Zelda series starring everyone’s favorite fairy wannabe, Tingle. But while Freshly-Picked Tingle’s Rosy Rupeeland only features a few campy sequences that imply he might be gay – such as a brawny construction worker whistling as he passes – Nintendo still deemed it unfit for North American release. Tingle may be out in Europe and Japan, but it seems America would rather gay videogame characters stay in the closet.
Andrew Webster is still holding out hope that one day Cho Aniki will be localized for an English audience. Find more of his work at www.awebster.wordpress.com.