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Made in Japan

All Your Base Are Belong to Us

By Annalee Newitz

THE FACT IS, you can neither explain nor deny the seductive, satiric power of the Internet phenomenon known as All Your Base Are Belong to Us (AYBABTU for short). To understand it, you must first know the story of a strange console game named Zero Wing (see http://schnell.net/yuorbase.html for more details). Zero Wing is a Japanese import whose "live action" introduction was translated by an over-eager and under-edited non-native English speaker. It features anime-type figures exchanging dialogue like this: "You have no chance to survive make your time!" and "Take off every 'zig'! Move 'zig'! For great justice" (quotes around 'zig' are included in the dialogue itself).

Geeks around the world have turned the language of Zero Wing into art, cultural commentary, obscenity, whatever. On hundreds of chat boards, hacked websites and devious privacy statements, you will find the phrase All Your Base Are Belong To Us. But the most common way you'll find AYBABTU is as a sentence photoshopped into images of George W., McDonalds signs, Budweiser ads, billboards, road signs, mating animals, airplanes, and of course, pictures from The A-Team.

This is high-tech graffiti whose significance goes beyond the urge to deface. There is something distinctly creepy and even symbolic about seeing the words "All your base are belong to us" under the McDonald's logo, or on the metal body of Airforce One.

But what makes AYBABTU so funny? Why is everybody talking about it? It's virtually impossible to explain, but part of it is the absurdity of Zero Wing's incomprehensible dialogue (and punctuation, as when a character exclaims, "What you say!!").

And yet what's going on in Zero Wing's introduction is probably clear to any fan of flying-in-space-shooting-enemies games. A whole bunch of your guys got blown up, your enemy has thumbed his nose at you ("How are you gentlemen!! All your base are belong to us."), and you'd better move your 'zig' or your ass will be blown up too. Even the enigmatic 'zig' seems to hint at meaning: it could be a ship, a weapon, or just a generic dangerous thing. After all, it's not as if games with flawlessly grammatical introductions don't also have moments of utter madness. No gamer would truly be surprised to see an all-American game that said, "Shoot the 'zig' for 100 points." And then you'd see an image of the 'zig'--a pile of pixels in some random bug/spaceship/animal shape. Why do you need to care what it is? All you need to know is, when you see the 'zig,' you kill! Take off every 'zig'!

So I guess part of what makes AYBABTU worth a thousand Internet jokes is that somewhere deep down we know we're idiots for playing games that are so obviously ridiculous, even when translated correctly.

Then again, there's creepy part of AYBABTU I mentioned earlier. Pictures of political leaders saying "All your base are belong to us" strike a possibly-not-so-humorous chord. They're a cynical reminder that we live in a world full of increasingly garbled messages (just take a listen to George W.'s pseudo-literate comments) which all seem to be saying the same thing: we own you; give up; move your damn 'zig' out of the way.

There's also a nationalist undercurrent. Case in point: I showed the Gabber Robots' AYBABTU video to a baby-boomer-age friend, who took in the menacing broken English phrases and immediately wondered, Cold War-style, "Is this Russian?" But most people from my post-boom generation knew immediately that the game was Japanese. We, of course, were raised with fears about economic war with Japan, having figured out that Russian nukes were more likely to fall in movies than in real life. So the military conflict of AYBABTU is in the eye of the beholder: it sparks dark hilarity about some random "hostile foreign force" who has it in for us. Maybe that's why the Salon.com is reporting that the joke is popular with people in the military.

I'm just glad that graffiti is flourishing online. Graffiti is, after all, a time-honored medium of subversive, underground communication. That's why certain hackers scrawl "All your base are belong to us" somewhere in their exploits. And that's why some kid took a picture of the billboard at his middle school and Photoshopped it to read, "Anal Exams. All Your Base Are Belong To Us."


Annalee Newitz (zig@techsploitation.com) is a surly media nerd who writes for great justice!

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From the March 1-7, 2001 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2001 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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