As the Internet began crystallizing into its modern form—one that now arguably buttresses society as we know it—its anthropology of common language and references matured at a strange rate. But between the simple initialisms that emerged by the ’90s (ROFL!) and the modern world’s ecosystem of easily shared multimedia, a patchwork connection of users and sites had to figure out how to establish a base of shared references.
In some ways, the Internet as we know it really began on February 16, 2001, 20 years ago today, when a three-word phrase blew up: “All Your Base.”
On that day, a robo-voiced music video went live at Newgrounds.com, one of the Internet’s earliest and longest-lasting dumping grounds of Flash multimedia content, and went on to become one of the most beloved Internet videos of the 21st century. Though Flash support has since been scrapped across the entire Web-browsing ecosystem, Newgrounds continues to host the original video in a safe Flash emulator, if you’d like to see it as originally built instead of flipping through dozens of YouTube rips.
In an online world where users were previously drawn to the likes of the Hamster Dance, exactly how the heck did this absurdity become one of the Internet’s first bona fide memes?
TAKE OFF EVERY ‘ZIG’!!
One possible reason is that the “All Your Base Are Belong To Us” video appealed to the early Internet’s savviest users, since it was sourced from an unpopular ’90s video game. Zero Wing launched on the Sega Genesis in 1992 as a competent “shmup” comparable to arcade classics like Galaga and R-Type, but it flew under the radar in an American market more obsessed with series like Sonic and Madden. By the late ’90s, however, video game emulation on PCs changed all that. Across the earliest post-BBS Internet, underappreciated 8-bit and 16-bit games changed hands at a crazy rate thanks to small file sizes and 56K modems—and if you were an early Internet user, you were likely a target audience for activities like emulating a Sega Genesis on a Pentium II-powered PC.
That was the first step to exposing the world to Zero Wing‘s inadvertently hilarious text, translated from Japanese to English by an apparent amateur. Classic Japanese games are littered with crappy translations, and even mega-successful publishers like Nintendo are guilty of letting bad phrases slip into otherwise classic games. But Zero Wing soundly trounced other examples of wacky mistranslations thanks to its dramatic opening sequence pitting the generic “CAPTAIN” against a half-robot, half-demon creature in a robe named “CATS.”
Its wackiness circulated on the early Internet as a tiny GIF, with each of its silly phrases (“How are you gentlemen!!”, “Somebody set up us the bomb”) pulling significant weight in terms of weirdly placed clauses and missing punctuation. Early Internet communities poked fun at the sequence by creating and sharing gag images that had the silly text inserted in various ways. But it wasn’t until the February 2001 video, as uploaded by a user who went by “Bad-CRC,” that the meme’s appeal began to truly explode. The video presents the original Sega Genesis graphics, dubbed over with monotone, machine-generated speech reading each phrase. “You are on your way to destruction” in this voice is delightfully silly stuff.
After this 30-second sequence concludes (admittedly lopping off some of the original, silly text), the video’s background music devolves into a thumping techno track. The original 16-bit visuals fade to black, and a low-resolution image of Planet Earth consumes the screen for some reason. Then the whole thing explodes. “ALL YOUR BASE, BASE, B-BASE, ALL YOUR BASE, ARE BELONG TO US,” the robo-voice screams, like it’s become a member of The Prodigy, while the Flash animation turns into a Photoshop frenzy of real-life images newly emblazoned with Zero Wing‘s various mistranslated phrases. These remixed images are certainly of an era; George W. Bush, Al Gore, and OJ Simpson appear in a few, as does a Windows “blue screen of death” rewritten to mostly contain the game’s text.
WE GET SIGNAL.
The video’s credits include about 20 additional usernames that reek of the year 2001, including DrMeithos, The Yellow Yell, and Generic Superhero, thus giving credit to the “shitposting” community that toyed with the “All Your Base” phenomenon in smaller online circles and generated so many silly images for this video to leverage. What’s more, the video’s entire audio sequence—the robo-voiced intro, sequenced perfectly with the Genesis game, and then its devolution into thumping techno—was made by someone else, a group of anonymous Internet users who went by The Laziest Men on Mars.
Bad-CRC may be memorialized as the video’s original uploader, but The Laziest Men on Mars helped establish a significant trend in online meme sharing: a reliance on crowdsourcing and remixing. The meme wouldn’t exist without Zero Wing‘s original content, yet dozens of people pulled and twisted that original vision like so much Internet taffy, to the point where neither the game’s creators nor any single meme contributor could take credit for the phenomenon.
It wasn’t until the Flash video appeared, synthesizing a community’s furious efforts as spread across forums and file-trading services, that the rest of the Internet world could actually find and digest this smorgasbord of WTF. Newgrounds was one of many dumping grounds for Flash animations, making it easier for friends to share links not only to videos but also free online games—usually in ways that school computer labs didn’t necessarily block, which led kids to devour and share their favorites when teachers weren’t carefully watching students’ screens. And in the case of “All Your Base,” its general lack of vulgarity made it easier to reach kids without drawing parental ire. This wasn’t like the early ’90s Congressional hearings against violent and sexual video games. It was just… weird.
And, gosh, it still is. Yes, this video’s 20th anniversary will likely make you feel old as dirt, but that doesn’t mean the video itself aged badly. There’s still something timeless about both the wackiness and innocence of so many early-Internet pioneers sending up a badly translated game. And in an age where widely disseminated memes so often descend into cruelty or shock value, it’s nice to look back at an age when memes were merely quite stupid.