During our growing days, memes didn’t serve centralized services like YouTube or Twitter.
As the Internet started forming into its modern shape one that now arguably sustains society as we know it is its anthropology of common language and contexts matured strangely. However, between the simple initialisms that started in the ’90s like ROFL and the contemporary world’s ecosystem of simply shared multimedia, a jumbled kinship of users and sites had to find out how to build a base of shared references.
In some ways, the Internet actually began on February 16, 2001, 20 years ago today, when a three-word phrase blew up: “All Your Base.” That very day, a robot-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 well-liked Internet videos of the 21st century. Though Flash support has since been abandoned across the entire Web-browsing ecosystem, Newgrounds continues entertaining the original video in a safe Flash emulator, if you’d like to view it as imaginatively built instead of flipping through dozens of YouTube rips.
In an online world where users were earlier drawn to the likes of the Hamster Dance.
Precisely how did this absurdity become one of the Internet’s first bona fide memes?
One possible reason is that the “All Your Base Are Belong To Us” video attracted the initial Internet savvy users as it was sourced from an unpopular ’90s video game. Zero Wing released on the Sega Genesis in 1992 as a qualified “shmup” comparable to arcade classics like Galaga and R-Type, but it flew under the radar in an American market more preoccupied with series like Sonic and Madden. By the late ’90s, though, video game emulation on PCs transformed all that. Across the earliest post-BBS Internet, underappreciated 8-bit and 16-bit games changed hands at a faster rate due to small file sizes and 56K modems. If you were an early Internet user, you were possibly a target audience for activities like emulating a Sega Genesis on a Pentium II-powered PC.
That was the primary move to expose the world to Zero Wing‘s accidentally hilarious text, translated from Japanese to English by a possible amateur. Traditional Japanese games are scattered with crappy translations, and even mega-successful publishers like Nintendo are accused of allowing bad phrases slip into otherwise classic games. But Zero Wing soundly overcame other examples of wacky mistranslations due to its exciting opening sequence pitting the generic “CAPTAIN” versus a half-robot, half-demon monster in a robe named “CATS.”
Its wackiness broadcasted 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 notable weight in terms of weirdly placed clauses and missing punctuation. Initial internet communities ridiculed the sequence by creating and sharing gag images that had the silly text inserted in many ways. But it wasn’t until the February 2001 video, as uploaded by a user “Bad-CRC,” that the meme’s demand started truly exploding. The video presents the actual 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 ends, the video’s background music devolves into a thumping techno track. The real 16-bit visuals fade to black, and a low-resolution image of Planet Earth occupies the screen for some reason. Then the whole thing explodes. “ALL YOUR BASE, BASE, B-BASE, ALL YOUR BASE, ARE BELONG TO US,” the robot-voice screams, as if 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 unquestionably from an era of George W. Bush, Al Gore, and OJ Simpson as they appear in a few, as does a Windows “blue screen of death” rewritten to mostly featuring the game’s text.
The video’s credits comprise around 20 additional usernames that concern 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 created so many silly images for this video for support. Additionally, the video’s complete audio sequence, the robot-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 called The Laziest Men on Mars.
This video’s 20th anniversary will probably 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 simplicity of so many early-Internet pioneers sending up a poorly translated game. In an era where widely disseminated memes so often deteriorate into cruelty or shock value, it’s nice to look back at an age when memes were simply quite stupid.