A cryptic message from the Internet is spreading like a virus across the globe.
In the last few months the message has begun appearing on T-shirts and posters, tucked alongside the ads for the upcoming "Tomb Raider" movie and hidden inside new video games. These days, you can't browse a chat room or electronic bulletin board on the Net without someone screaming out the phrase in all capital letters.
"ALL YOUR BASE ARE BELONG TO US!"
Uh . . . what?
"I don't mean to be an idiot, but what the . . . ??" wrote one poster in a bulletin board run by the game company GameSpy Industries Inc. "I don't get it. Where did this come from?"
Leave it to the underground Internet community to dig up an incoherent line from a video game and give it enough geek-hipster cachet to become a real-world hit.
As with its Web-craze predecessors--remember the animated Dancing Baby, which jumped from the screens of cubicle-dwellers to the TV set on "Ally McBeal," and the ridiculous "I Kiss You!" home page of Turkish journalist Mahir?--people are baffled when they first see it.
Everyone has their own interpretation of the nonsensical line, but the consensus is that it is a guttural, in-your-face way of saying, "I own you. I've just beaten the pants off you. Of course, I'm not really sure what I'm talking about, but I sound really hip."
Another possible take is: "You are a total lamer for not understanding what I'm saying, although I'm not really sure what I just said either."
Either way, the "all your base" line is well into its 15 minutes of fame, as even stodgy companies such as Hewlett-Packard are picking up on the trend, including some images from the video game in an advertisement. Several Web sites already are marketing "all your base" product lines.
"We bought a huge stack [of shirts] to give to our Japanese counterparts when they come out here later this year," said Perrin Kaplan, head of communications for Nintendo of America Inc.
"It's so funny."
The buzz around this catch phrase began last year and sprang from deep within the subculture of the computer game community.
The source was a little-known game, "Zero Wing," a coin-operated arcade title released in 1989 by the now-defunct Japanese firm Toaplan and later sold in Europe for Sega console machines.
It was, by all accounts, a simple action-arcade game set in space.
You fly rockets. You shoot the bad guys. Ideally, after you spend enough quarters, you win.
Before you prepare to save the universe, you are treated to an opening animated sequence--a mini-movie that explains why you are blasting your way to fame.
In Japanese, the sequence somberly details the war between your people and the villain, Cats.
When Toaplan decided to ship the game overseas, it, like many game publishers at the time, realized it couldn't afford to translate this text into different languages.
It was the early days of video-game making, when budgets and technological restraints meant that publishers had to focus on the look and feel of the game. The frills, such as the words popping up at the beginning of the game, were easy to skimp on.
With no professional translator, "Zero Wing's" Japanese-to-English shift turned the movie into a grammatically challenged series of animated silliness. While Cats snarls in Japanese, "Thanks to the cooperation of the U.N. forces, we've taken over all of your bases," the enemy's threats in English--"All your base are belong to us"--is a mite less intimidating.
According to Internet lore, the first "all your base" sighting was in 1998, and it began to spread both online and off.
People started to shout the line at one another while playing computer games, and they slapped it down as a flippant goodbye tag to their e-mail.
Fans of "Zero Wing" began talking about the line in electronic bulletin boards, such as the game site TribalWar.com (http://www.tribalwar.com/forums/showthread.php?threadid=24539).
They posted digital photos that had been modified by inserting the "all your base" phrase in random spots.
Hundreds of photos cropped up on the Net, making it seem as if the entire nation--from street signs and restaurant awnings, to presidential billboards for George W. Bush and a mock cover of Time magazine--was buzzing about it.
By early this year, the joke had jumped into the mainstream. Copies of the animated slide show popped up at the "official" fan site, http://www.planetstarsiege.com/allyourbase, and dozens of other locales.
A deejay sampled the quote and layered it over a dance track. Then, a member of TribalWar created the two-minute music video, pairing the techno tune with a selection of the altered photos.
Such cross-cultural phenomena are emblematic of not only the global reach of the online community but also the inherent limitations of an international communication system.
The Net allows users to talk to the world, but that doesn't mean that we really understand each other.