Fifteen years ago, long before everyone knew what an “internet meme” was, the first real internet meme was born. It was a flash video that married a bad techno track, robotic text-to-speech voices, and an absolutely terrible English translation of a Japanese video game. I’m referring, of course, to All Your Base Are Belong to Us.
Internet forum jokesters had been making fun of the incomprehensible script for the game Zero Wing — full of clumsy lines like “Somebody set up us the bomb!” and “You have no chance to survive make your time” — since at least the late ‘90s, but the meme didn’t quite take off until late 2000. That’s when posters on the gaming forum site TribalWar seized on a single line — "All Your Base Are Belong to Us" — as hilarious, and started Photoshopping it into virtually any image that had words.
The game spread to SomethingAwful, which was basically the ground zero for internet humor at that time, and the forum goons there created thousands more All Your Base pics. A meme was born.
But it wouldn’t truly explode into the mainstream until February 15, 2001, when Tribalwar poster Bad_CMC released the All Your Base video. It opened with the infamous Zero Wing cut scene, and then the true innovation kicked in — Bad_CMC used a techno track by a SomethingAwful poster, “Invasion of the Gabber Robots,” which sampled the Zero Wing soundtrack and featured a computerized voice speaking the “All Your Base” line. For the visuals, he used all those forum Photoshops.
The video was weird, and it was perfect. Just weeks after its release, Wired reported on the phenomenon in an article called “When Gamer Humor Attacks.”
“The ‘all your base are belong to us’ T-shirts are already available. Chat rooms are buzzing with ‘all your base’ mutations and gossip. Web reporters are frantically searching for an explanation, firing off e-mails to geek gurus, demanding to know what is going on,” wrote Jeffrey Benner.
Even Fox News awkwardly covered it:
Note that, in 2001, we were still trying to frame internet virality in terms of TV: “It’s like people seeing the Budweiser ad and going around saying ‘Wassuuuuuuuup.’”
Only Josh Schachter, who’d been running a weird-links message board called memepool since 1998, described the All Your Base phenomenon in something close to contemporary terms, calling it “a fairly virulent meme.”
Fifteen years later, memes come and go much more quickly and in much greater quantities than the Y2K-era media ever anticipated. “Something weird is happening on the internet” is still a news story, but it’s a given that something weird will happen on the internet every day, and that it will disappear just as rapidly.
Back then, it took All Your Base years to spread and years to die — and it happened in a time before social media, so there were no #brands on the scene to exhume its corpse for advertising purposes. There was no Twitter, so there were no fast-food burger chains tweeting bad “All Your Baes Are Belong to Us” puns.
It was a more innocent time, before somebody set up us the bomb.