NFTs are terrible. I also hate the fact that when it comes to the existence of NFTs, I… get it?
I believe understanding the drive for NFTs is the source of some self-loathing.
Since my mom occasionally remembers I have a blog, let us define NFTs. At the absolute base level, a non-fungible token (NFT) is a receipt. It is a proof of ownership for a “thing”. In the case of NFTs as they are currently exploding across the internet, this “thing” is traditionally art of some kind. In many cases, the NFT being sold is a unique graphic, and, in much the same way you could purchase a painting from a gallery that also has multiple poster reproductions, the owner of the NFT owns the “original”. And, yes, this ownership is wholly virtual, and you absolutely do need to invest in a color printer if you want something that you could easily display for your grandma. But we have been living in a world with horse armor for over a decade, so spending money in an effort to own a virtual resource is kind of inevitable in today’s society. So what is the problem with owning a Lazy Lion or two?
Well, there is the whole “NFTs are hastening the degradation of our entire planet” thing. The blockchain that powers non-fungible tokens is a wonderous invention that can theoretically be used as 100% proof a transaction has occurred without the involvement of an all-seeing, all-powerful corporate entity being involved. It is commerce sponsored by true anonymity! Unfortunately, maintaining such a database requires a whole lot of computer processing per transaction/verification, and we are not so much talking about “mom ran the vacuum too long” as we are looking at “mom just burned down the entire South American Rainforest”. And never mind that that whole “outlaw capitalism” thing is its own kind of delusion, too, as the blockchains are controlled by companies like publicly traded Etherium. Does this mean Etherium is going to bust down your door with incriminating crypto receipts the minute it becomes slightly financially or ethically profitable? Probably not, but it does mean that there is a company profiting from literally every NFT transaction, which translates to another situation wherein the mere act of buying/selling is a revenue stream unto itself. Etherium wants to be the next Visa, and NFTs are a big part of that plan. Also, there is a significant link between the boom of NFTs and their overt links to white collar crime/money laundering. In much the same way the second largest usage of bitcoin is paying digital ransoms, there is a not insignificant number of NFT transactions that can only be explained by “crime is happening”.
In the end, depending on exactly how you look at NFTs, you could make the claim that they are simply vanity items roughly on par with custom license plates or purchased PSN avatars. If you are being tremendously less generous, you can also claim that NFTs are multi-level marketing schemes for a whole new “tech bro” generation, and anyone getting involved at the moment is firmly at the bottom of the pyramid. But regardless of your feelings on NFTs as a whole, they seem to be sticking around, and services like Twitter and Adobe are making distinct spaces for people to create/peddle/showcase their NFT collections.
And it is a goddamned shame this whole process is so toxic, because the greatest appeal of NFTs is something my generation has been begging for for decades.
Today’s title is Zero Wing. It was initially an arcade jaunt that migrated to various consoles in disparate regions, and is little more than the flavor of the week of the (then extremely popular) shoot ‘em up genre. It scrolls from left to right (like Gradius), features levels that generally start with comfortable generic areas before ramping up to distinctive, gimmicky challenges (like Gradius), and you have a number of options for upgrades earned by destroying distinct opponents (like Gradius). In this case, your powerups can be a sequential graduation of firepower if you stick to the same color-coded pickups, or you can toggle between power lasers to spread blasts if you change lanes/colors. The most unique thing in Zero Wing gameplay is an extra button for a sort of “tractor beam” that allows you to not only collect abilities, but also grab some of your smaller foes and fling them at larger opponents. This creates a very exceptional situation wherein you are almost happy when a boss brings an entourage to a fight, as it means a whole host of fresh projectiles just wandered into your armory. Defeating a big boss by chucking infinite minions really is the most distinctive, remarkable part of Zero Wing.
Well, I mean, that is if you ignore this…
The Sega Mega Drive version of Zero Wing, only released in European regions, has a legendarily “Engrish” introduction cinema. While this European title did not see any success in America for obvious reasons (nobody was scrambling to import a console port of a lesser shoot ‘em up from the late 80s), when the world of emulation got hold of “5,000 Sega Genesis ROMs FREE”, Zero Wing saw a significant resurgence in popularity…
Around 1998, “All your base are belong to us” invaded the internet at large. It started somewhere around Rage Games, migrated over to Zany Video Game Quotes, and from there dragged itself across various forums and chatrooms. By 2000, the meme had been featured in some way or another on every major nerd entertainment site that existed at the time. In 2001, Wired wrote an article on the meme, and it was subsequently covered in the San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian, and USA Today. In 2004, it was hacked into a news/weather broadcast. In 2006, it came part and parcel with a YouTube site update. In 2014, Elon Musk parodied it in a desperate post regarding patents. To this very day, segments from the Zero Wing intro are quoted by people of a certain age, and it likely will be repeated “for great justice” until the end of human civilization. In short, Zero Wing somehow contained a segment of dialogue that is going to be around for at least a generation, a trend that defined the concept of memes before the descriptor was widely used, and a collective template for the masses that populated the “early days” of the internet. Even if it was not deliberate, Zero Wing became an inexorable part of our culture.
And, incidentally, the creators of Zero Wing didn’t see a dime for creating this artistic touchstone.
I saw the credits roll on this (kinda) Sega Genesis game, so I can safely say Zero Wing was forged by, like, twelve people. As a company, it was created by Toaplan Co, founded in 1979, but defunct by 1994. While many people that worked for Toaplan migrated to other, more modern developers like Square Enix and Taito, but the time Toaplan was releasing Snow Bros. 2: With New Elves (you’ve played that, right?), it was pretty much done. The rights to Toaplan games are now in the possession of Tatsujin, and if that was ever a company that wanted to capitalize on the Zero Wing mania of the early 21st Century, they certainly didn’t get off their duffs to do anything about it. So, basically, in the absence of a “Zero Wing Project” to promote, and the fact that you did not have to purchase Zero Wing to participate in that global meme, there was no way that the popularity of Zero Wing would translate into a penny for the people that actually made the thing.
And, on one hand, who cares? They made a videogame, they were compensated for making a videogame, and, end of the day, that should be enough. It became a meme? Well, sure, but so did that one dude scribbling on stone tablets about Ea-nasir, and you don’t see his estate getting a retroactive payout. Companies being paid perpetually for accomplishments from 1928 is exactly what is wrong with copyright law right now. Just be happy Zero Wing made people happy, guys.
But we do live in a capitalist society. We do not measure success by how much happiness you have brought to others, or how content you are with the creations you have produced. We live in a world wherein there is a monthly ranking of who are the richest, most successful people in the country, and we never for a moment consider why we automatically conflate “rich” and “successful”. By this rubric, being responsible for a meme that is shared by millions should be considered “successful”, and thus should translate into untold riches. And, while the exchange rate for how popularity should trade is difficult to define, it would be nice if, ya know, there was at least something tossed at the creators beyond a niche interview titled something like Meme: Origins.
And, in a more personal way, this has been the problem of my entire generation. You produce a cute bit of art, it is copied by a popular online account, and you watch thousands of likes go to your creation that has now, incidentally, been shared without so much as a note that it was authored by a human being. Or you start a blog with your name on it containing articles that people read on a weekly basis, it gets promoted by some random share on Redditt, and the best you get for your troubles is a complaint from your hosting company that too damn many people visited your site this week. Or you get a Patreon going, and then discover that literally every other website available will drop your posts like hot garbage the minute you link to the one place where you may actually receive the tiniest of financial contributions. But don’t worry, Millennials! You can survive without a thousand followers, you just have to know that you are wasting your “brand”, and you might not ever be able to achieve your dreams because you don’t have enough of an online footprint to warrant the ability to afford health insurance. I do not understand why everyone I know is depressed!
This is why I understand the appeal of NFTs. The concept of “minting” your art, meme, or idea is attractive. The fact that you have produced something, it has a set value, and someone will eventually pay that value for said something is amazing as a concept. It may be exactly how commerce has worked since the days of Ea-nasir, but, for a generation that has been told to hustle for exposure for the last twenty years, it seems downright revolutionary. For people that watched a mediocre videogame become a universal meme that still didn’t mean a cent for its actual creators, an NFT can look like salvation. That could happen to you! Without even knowing it is happening, you could create the next Pepe. You could be the next distracted boyfriend meme. And it could change your life… but not change how you still have to report to a job you hate 40 hours a week. Actually monetizing how the internet as we know it “works” would change a lot of lives, and potentially create an artistic revolution.
But NFTs ain’t it. Maybe something like that will be available in the future, but the solution is not in this blockchain. One day, we will have an answer that actually helps individuals and the world as a whole. One day, people will not have to beg for scraps when their faces are used in GIFs distributed by wealthy tech giants. In the meanwhile, NFTs are not a solution to this problem. NFTs are simply… someone setting us up the bomb.
FGC #609 Zero Wing
- System: Arcade initially, and then whatever passes for a Sega Genesis in Japan and Europe. It also saw a PC Engine CD-Rom port in Japan, too.
- Number of players: Oh! It’s two players! I guess that makes it slightly distinctive, too!
- Anything else of note? Yes, the monsters (or whatever) of the piece all seem to lean closer to biological than mechanical. This creates a lovely little Geiger-esque world wherein the final boss being a giant brain in a jar feels positively mundane next to some of the other creatures skulking around.
- So, does that intro actually impact anything in the game: Nope! It was created exclusively for the home game, and does not exist in the original arcade version. I guess we all had to know why we were launching every Zig (or why that one big ship was exploding at the top of the first level). But, sorry, ol’ Cats is barely recognizable as the same cyborg during the finale, so don’t expect any closure for that sad space captain facepalming forever.
- Favorite Weapon: Lasers. Lasers everywhere. Lasers for president of the universe.
- Did you know? According to Tatsuya Uemura, the lead programmer of the arcade and Sega Genesis versions of Zero Wing, the opening crawl was translated by an employee whose English was “really terrible”. You… probably already knew that.
- Would I play again: This was probably a pretty good shoot ‘em up for 1989. It is no great shakes in 2021. I like it! It’s not bad! I am just never going to bother with this ever again. Enjoy your spot in history, though, Zero Wing!
What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… Samurai Shodown! Speaking of games with marginally passable translations, it is time to live by the Bushido code in an effort to impress some dork with a pair of flags. Please look forward to it!