TV screens and internet memes

“What happen?” cries the captain, as the viewscreen on the starship’s bridge is filled with explosions.

“Somebody set up us the bomb,” reports the ship’s mechanic.

Moments later, the ship receives a signal. It is a transmission from the sinister CATS, instantly identifiable as a villain. “How are you gentlemen?” he crows. “All your base are belong to us. You are on the way to destruction. You have no chance to survive make your time.”

This bizarre exchange is not a parody: it is, in fact, the opening cutscene from the English-language console version of Zero Wing (SEGA/Toaplan, 1992). Zero Wing is a side-scrolling arcade-style shooter in which the player controls a “Zig” class starfighter, collecting power-ups and destroying waves of enemies in a fairly traditional fashion for the genre. These days, though, Zero Wing is remembered less for its gameplay and more for its truly awful English translation.

The game was largely overlooked after its release — it certainly never achieved the recognition of some of its contemporaries such as Super Mario Kart (Nintendo) or Sonic The Hedgehog 2 (SEGA/Sonic Team), both of which were released on home consoles the same year. Somehow, though, Zero Wing was never entirely forgotten. Several years ago, its opening cutscene was rediscovered by the online gaming community, and has since achieved legendary status. Written on t-shirts, quoted endlessly on forums and in chatrooms, and incorporated into innumerable YouTube videos, almost every line of dialogue from this ninety-second sequence has become a popular internet meme.

For the uninitiated, the word meme  (when used by gamers) usually refers to running jokes that are eternally reused and remixed, often finding a new life quite separate from their original source. Aside from the innate sense of humor behind them — which does, of course, get a little more tired with every repetition — they are also used to affirm membership of the gamer subculture. In other words, making an “all your base” joke online is both an attempt to be funny and a way of telling anyone who sees your message, “I’m a gamer, and if you know what I’m talking about, you’re a gamer too. We’re in the same club.” Like most subcultures, of course, gaming culture changes and evolves rapidly, and as such, referencing Zero Wing doesn’t carry quite the cachet that it would have done a few years ago. Nevertheless, the legend lives on even in its now slightly diminished form: the webcomic XKCD, for example, has a character who pines for the day when these references will be old enough to be considered “retro.”

From a translator’s professional perspective, this level of support for such an apparently terrible piece of writing should really be baffling. The text bears all the classic hallmarks of nonnative-speaker translation: poor grammar, odd turns of phrase, sometimes even entirely incomprehensible passages. (For the record, Clyde Mandelin of reports that CATS’ most cryptic message, “You have no chance to survive make your time,” should be more properly translated as “Treasure what little time you have left to live.”) This is a textbook case of a bad translation. So why has it become such a smash hit?

The quality of the writing definitely qualifies as so bad it’s funny — even though many professional translators would be rightly infuriated by it — but perhaps it’s also about the contrast between the text and everything else that’s going on in the scene. Even though this tiny snippet of a story is full of standard sci-fi clichés, and even though we’re given very little time to understand what’s going on, it’s actually quite an exciting sequence. The two main characters, the captain and CATS, are emotive and direct; the artwork is very good considering the limitations of the hardware; and the music is dramatic and punchy. All in all, it’s a fairly ambitious piece of work considering that it dates back to an era when stories in games were often limited to a few lines of plain text in the game manual or on the start screen. It’s almost possible to enjoy this sequence unironically.

Still, as much as we can admire the unintentional comedy of Zero Wing, there’s no question that the translation is an unprofessional piece of work. We can be glad that the industry has — for the most part — moved on from the times when poor-quality localization was seen as acceptable or irrelevant. For a time, Zero Wing-level translations into English were, if not the norm, then at least not uncommon. Other popular examples include a sequence in Final Fantasy IV (Square, 1991) in which the character Tellah attempts to insult another character by calling them a “spoony bard,” and the NES game Pro Wrestling (Nintendo, 1987) whose end-of-game victory screen simply announced “A WINNER IS YOU.” High-quality translation was simply not considered a priority in the early years of home console gaming, and so English-speaking players were regularly confronted with garbled or inaccurate messages in games.

This state of affairs was driven by a few factors. For most of the 1990s, Japan was the uncontested leader of the video game industry. This had not always been the case: in the early 1980s, the initial dominant companies in gaming were American manufacturers such as Atari, Coleco and Mattel. These companies heavily pushed the idea of home console gaming, bringing games out of the arcades and onto people’s televisions at home.

In 1983, however, the video game industry began to crash due to an excess of supply on the market and a tendency among many developers to rush out poor-quality, overpriced games. For a time, gaming as a hobby faced a risk of dying out entirely. However, the market eventually recovered, and when it did, the Japanese companies SEGA and Nintendo emerged as the new dominant forces.

The consequence of this was that in the late 1980s and early 1990s, many games were being developed and released in Japan first, and only adapted for North America and Europe some time later. With Moore’s Law  in full swing, gaming technology was moving rapidly forward, opening up new potential for storytelling in games — and many of these stories were now initially being written not in English, but in Japanese.

This explains why games needed to be translated for sale in English-speaking markets, but not why the quality of the translation was often so poor. The answer here can again be traced back, in large part, to the previous era of gaming. Although today games are beginning to be recognized as a unique entertainment medium, even an art form capable of standing alongside movies, books, graphic novels and other media, gaming consoles in the 1980s and 1990s were more often seen as children’s toys — as something frivolous, in other words, and not worth taking seriously. Games were (and to some extent still are) perceived by nongamers as a shallow, frivolous pursuit. In such an atmosphere, it was easy to come to the conclusion that games’ stories didn’t really matter, so why bother spending additional time and money on hiring native speakers to translate them? Instead, the original Japanese developers, which were experts in game design rather than localization, would often translate the games themselves. The result — as any professional translator could have warned the publishing companies — was the kind of broken language we see in Zero Wing and many of its contemporaries.

Zero Wing’s translation makes the overall game even more entertaining than it otherwise would be, but we can learn an important lesson from its example. One poor-quality translation can be treated as a comedy, but when they start piling up, they start to look more like a collective tragedy. For games to be taken seriously as an art form, the business of writing for them and translating them needs to be taken seriously as well. Zero Wing is an old game, and the gaming industry as a whole may command more respect than it did when Zero Wing was translated (it’s certainly a lot larger, generating about $46.5 billion worth of sales in 2014 compared with $20.8 billion in 1994) but writing and translation are still seen as second-class disciplines, often frozen out of the development process. These days, although English-language players can generally rely on decent (if not always stellar) writing and voice acting in modern games, players in other languages may not be so lucky — especially in markets that are currently underserved such as those in developing countries. As the global gaming public grows and development studios open in more and more countries, savvy translators may be able to identify new opportunities for business.

Incidentally, if you’re wondering how Zero Wing’s thrilling story concludes, the ending is even stranger than the beginning. Once the players have heroically fought their way through all eight levels and destroyed every enemy in their path, they are rewarded with a final cutscene in which ten bizarre creatures resembling jelly beans with arms and legs perform a short line dance, before one of them floats away into space. The players are then returned to the start of the first level so that they can play the game again from the beginning. The fate of the intrepid starship captain and his crew will, sadly, forever remain unknown.