Image: Nintendo Life

Soapbox features enable our individual writers and contributors to voice their opinions on hot topics and random stuff they've been chewing over. Today, it's time to celebrate Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door's Vivian, and Alana does it with Pride.

Nintendo’s track record with LGBTQIA+ characters has been… mixed, to say the least. The Big N hasn’t exactly been the most forward company in making statements, even going as far as to say “we were absolutely not trying to provide social commentary" by not giving the option for same-sex relationships in the 3DS life-simulation game Tomodachi Life back in 2014.

Birdo is the most famous example of queer representation for the company and potentially the first transgender character in a video game. The Super Mario Bros. 2 manual states that “he thinks he’s a girl” and wishes to be called Birdetta, but of course, that never happens. The line has since been removed in all re-releases. Birdo — who's known as Catherine in Japan — is now exclusively referred to as a girl. Not the best start, but it is a start.

EarthBound is a much better example, with creator Shigesato Itoi stating in an interview (translated by EarthBound Central) that, “there’s a gay person in Mother 2…In a normal, real-life society, there are gay children, and I have many gay friends as well.” The character in question is Tony, Jeff’s best friend, and while Tony’s sexuality is never explicitly stated, the subtext is clear. He clings to Jeff, offers to clean his glasses, and frequently checks in on Jeff’s quest to save the world while worrying that he’s overbearing. As Jeremy Signor puts it beautifully, “The key is to write characters so believably queer that they can’t help but represent some aspect of the queer experience.”

In the last few years, it feels like the tide is finally turning in the right direction in terms of queer representation and Nintendo. Monolith Soft and Intelligent Systems, two of Nintendo’s biggest developers, have developed games with multiple queer characters over the years. Fire Emblem: Thracia 776 features Marty and Dagdar; both characters are implied as gay and bisexual, respectively, and Marty’s ending is called “The Man Whom Dadgar Loved” (in both the fan translation and the original Japanese). Radiant Dawn’s Heather is a lesbian who joined the army to seek out cute girls. With Monolith Soft, you have Guillo from Baten Kaitos Origins, who is agender/genderqueer. The blades Roc and Sheba from Xenoblade Chronicles 2 are genderless and lesbian, respectively. And in Xenoblade Chronicles 3, Juniper is non-binary and A is “somewhere in between.”

With Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door’s recent remake, Intelligent Systems reminded us of a character who has always been part of that queer umbrella, ever since the 2004 GameCube original. In the English and German localisations, that wasn't clearly the case. But in 2024, that changes – no matter what language you play in, Vivian, one of Mario’s strongest allies in the turn-based RPG, is transgender.

I honestly didn’t think Nintendo would do it. My biggest fear is that Nintendo would walk back the whole thing – walk back 20 years' worth of slow progress that was at least present in the Japanese version, and omit Vivian’s identity from the remake. But Intelligent Systems and the Big N went one further than that. In 2024, Vivian is unequivocally trans. In Japan, and a handful of European languages, Vivian has always been trans. The new English localisation, along with a brand new line in all languages, just stands to reinforce that. We still have a long way to go, but this is a huge step in the right direction for Nintendo.

Vivian and Prof Frankly
Image: Nintendo Life / Nintendo

Vivian’s whole storyline is something many people can relate to. She’s a victim of bullying, simply for being who she is. That’s not an issue exclusive to members of the LGBTQIA+ community. You can be bullied for anything – heck, while growing up, I was teased for liking things most would associate with boys. Even your physical appearance is something people belittle others over, which is actually what the original 2004 English localisation changed Vivian’s bullying storyline to.

Vivian’s identity is at the heart of her familial issues...She has found her identity, even if her family won’t accept it.

The Cutting Room Floor has translations of the original Japanese text and the English GameCube text, where older sister Bedlam berates Vivian for getting the name of the group wrong. In Japanese, Vivian calls them “The Three Shadow Sisters,” but Bedlam insists on calling the group the “Shadow Trio” and then deliberately misgendering her sibling. In the OG English, Vivian calls the group “The Three Shadow Beauties,” with Beldam instead claiming they’re the “Shadow Sirens” and calling Vivian “Plug-ugly.”

On Switch, this scene (in English) is now much closer to the original Japanese. Vivian tries to call them "Sisters," but Bedlam this time says “It’s just Shadows! The Three SHADOWS.” Vivian apologises, saying, “it makes me really happy when you call me your sister.” Bedlam calls her “sappy” and then promises punishment, but not before taking down Mario: “The might of The Three Shadows–RELATION WITHHELD–will be more than enough to win the day.”

When you call me your sister
Image: Nintendo Life / Nintendo

It’s not explicitly stated here, but it’s pretty clear to anyone that Vivian wants her sisters to recognise her as a sister too. The transphobia is toned down too, particularly in Japanese, where Bedlam refers to Vivian’s “assigned at birth” gender in the GameCube version; now, Bedlam says, “we’re a trio, not three sisters!” Still, Bedlam wants to punish Vivian for trying to call herself a sister, so the game doesn’t go out of its way to paint her in a good light.

Going even further, Vivian’s Tattle log description has been updated. As OatmealDome points out, the Japanese version has removed all mention of Vivian’s gender. Now, when Goombella uses Tattle on Vivian during a boss fight in Chapter 2, instead of pointing out her gender as she does in the GameCube version ("He may look like a girl"), Goombella now refers to Vivian with the correct pronouns and can’t get over how cute Vivian is. And hey, she’s right. It goes a step beyond what I ever expected – not only is it respecting Vivian’s identity, it’s also affirming it.

Vivian eventually breaks away from her sisters, and Chapter 4 is where everything comes to a head. In Chapter 4, about halfway through the story, Mario loses his identity to a thieving ghost. With his friends all thinking the ghost is now Mario, the paper plumber is a literal shadow of himself. Returning to Twilight Town, he bumps into Vivian, who is searching for a bomb that Bedlam lost – Bedlam, of course, blames her.

After you find the bomb hiding neatly behind some grass, a flustered Vivian can’t believe the kindness she receives from the shadowy Mario. She asks for Mario’s name, which he tries to tell her but can’t because his name has been stolen. So Vivian agrees to help Mario take back what is his – his name, and his body. Moved by Mario’s kindness, Vivian agrees to help Mario, and confesses that she isn’t “sure I really want to stay with my sisters anymore…” because it took her time “to realize I was their sister… not their brother.”

Vivian sharing with mario
Image: Nintendo Life / Nintendo

This is a brand new line in the Switch remake, in English and Japanese. In the GameCube original, Vivian cuts straight from not wanting to be with her sisters to saying she should repay Mario’s kindness. In the Japanese Switch version, Vivian says, "The thing is... I… I have a boy's body, but my heart is a cute girl's!" (translation from OatmealDome) and she uses feminine-first pronouns. There’s not really any room for debate here anymore.

Vivian’s identity is at the heart of her familial issues – she is a woman, but her family can’t accept that, and she feels as though their bullying is targeting her gender. She has found her identity, even if her family won’t accept it. Now, she has a chance to help someone find their name and body – two things that most of us would ascribe to our identity. I’m not Alana if I have a different name, and at 30 years old, I feel comfortable in my body. It must feel the same to Mario at that moment.

It’s an incredible moment for Vivian, empowering her and giving her the space to help someone else who is trying to find, or rediscover, their identity. It’s more literal in Mario’s case – the colour, outlines, and even voice, have been physically taken from him, and he can’t even say his name out loud. Think of Spirited Away when Chihiro’s name is taken from her by the witch Ybaba, and she’s given a new name – Sen. She briefly forgets her own name, only for Haku to help her remember and insist that she cling onto a physical memory of that name: a goodbye card.

Image: Nintendo

Your name is crucial to who you are as a person, and your identity is intrinsically linked to it. Mario might’ve been known as Jumpman once upon a time, but he’s Mario. And it’s the same for the youngest member of the Three Shadows – Vivian is Vivian, sister to Beldam and Marilyn.

The boss battle during Chapter 4 also has one of the best gimmicks in the whole game. Earlier, Mario couldn’t do damage to his identity thief because he didn’t know his real name. But after discovering the missing letter from the in-game keyboard and overhearing the parrot naming the ghost, Mario can actually deal Doopliss damage. All of his other allies have been fooled by the ghost, and fight by his side, but when Mario wins and reclaims his identity, the group is shocked.

Surprised that Mario has been working with the enemy, Vivian, they question why he decided to team up with her. Vivian looks hurt, but Mario steps in and sticks up for her, without question. There’s no need to justify anything outside “My friend helped me when I needed it,” is there? That’s what we assume Mario is saying here. And the group accepts Vivian immediately after that. And with that, she “REALLY” joins your party.

Vivian Really Joins
Image: Nintendo Life / Nintendo

Vivian’s identity isn’t addressed much after that, but these three key moments establish her as a beautiful, well-thought-out character with an arc that is universally resonant. Going back to what Jeremy Signor said, her story of accepting her identity will “represent some aspect of the queer experience,” but it will also strike a chord with anyone who’s been bullied simply for being who they are. The queer experience comes from Vivian being a transgender woman. It’s a vital piece of storytelling that we needed in English 20 years ago, but at least we have it now.

Vivian’s gender is also never the butt of any of the party's jokes. She’s the strongest character in-game, and Mario and his friends all seem to respect her. Not once is her identity questioned by Mario and the party, and they let her join the adventure on merit alone. As such, Mario and his friends become Vivian’s new family, in a way. Found family is one of the oldest tropes in the book for RPGs – usually in the form of a bunch of misfits or mismatched characters coming together to save the world – but when you’re queer, there’s that extra layer of acceptance and affirmation. After all, don’t you want to hang out with people who love you for simply being who you are, rather than with those who want you to be something else?

Thousand-Year Door
Image: Nintendo Life / Nintendo

That’s exactly what happens with Vivian – she gets a family who accepts her for who she is. And with the ‘restored’ localisation, and updates to the Japanese text, it gives a transgender character a huge moment to affirm her place in the world. Quite simply, Nintendo needs more characters like Vivian, and I hope this is the first of many more steps to come. Hopefully, more than just Intelligent Systems and Monolith Soft can fly the flag.