So there I was, kicking back, browsing around The Cutting Room Floor, because that is a thing I do. I was looking through the page on the original Final Fantasy, which I’ve almost certanly looked at before, but this time, something new stood out to me. Maybe it was a new edit; maybe I just hadn’t noticed it before.
There is a checksum on the “PROGRAMMED BY NASIR” text, and the game will crash if this text is altered.
Programmed by NASIR.
That phrase struck a chord. I’ll admit it now: I’ve never actually played the first Final Fantasy. I first discovered the series in the SNES days, and though I’ve been meaning to work my way back, as of this writing I haven’t got around to it. But I knew that text from somewhere, and where I knew it from was a game that was beloved to me in the day and remains so now: Secret of Mana.
Funny, how in all the times I’d played that game – lingered on the title screen, even, where the name NASIR hangs so prominently, while the legend of the Holy Sword scrolls by and paradisiacal birds soar against the backdrop of Hiroo Isono’s sublime forest art – I’d never once wondered about that statement. By that time in my life, I knew enough about Japan and its place in the game industry (largely thanks to the inimitable Super Play magazine, which, unlike other publications of the time, wasn’t shy about the connection) to know that Squaresoft was a Japanese company, and Nasir – I knew from growing up in England, a country with a significant population of Arabic descent – was not a Japanese name. I just never thought about it.
But now I wanted to know about this Nasir, who had clearly exerted some significant influence over not just one of my favourite games, Secret of Mana, but the title that had begun one of the world’s most powerful video game franchises. I typed “PROGRAMMED BY NASIR”, with quotes, into Google.
And felt my world expand a little.
Turns out, NASIR is no more and no less than the first name of Nasir Gebelli, an Iranian-American programmer who got his start on the Apple ][. It was nice to put a face to the name, but I never had an Apple ][, and so there was no personal emotion to tie to his (apparently quite illustrious) history. Yet reading on, I still found reasons to be impressed. Apparently he coded every line of his games on the fly, holding the entire code in his memory. Mana was made in the same Apple ][ mini-assembler he used for all his games, and programmed in the same way. Line by line, with nothing to reference, no source code. I literally can’t comprehend what that would take.
But here’s the kicker. The history I feel like I should know, that’s been written out of everything I’ve read up until this point. Nasir wasn’t just a genius programmer: he was in part responsible for the foundation of Square qua Square. He was there at the beginning. He programmed the first three Final Fantasy games essentially singlehandedly. Yes, the games tell you this, in their laconic way, but there’s a difference between seeing a programmer credit (which, like most kid gamers, I glossed over, unless they contained some sort of funny pseudonym) and having a name incorporated into The Legend. Hironobu Sakaguchi, Yoshitaka Amano, Nobuo Uematsu: they’re not just names in the credits. They’ve transcended one-line acknowledgements. They’re part of The Legend, celebrities in their own right, this trifecta of people who came together to craft one of the most enduring and beloved series in gaming.
But they weren’t just a trifecta. There was also Nasir Gebelli, who was to Final Fantasy‘s coding what Uematsu was to its music and Amano to its art: a uniquely talented, imaginative, and basically solo influence. And I never knew.
I guess it’s not really an illustrious job. I can name you plenty of video game producers, plenty of designers, graphic artists and and composers – but off the top of my head, I can’t think of any programmers. (All right: Alexey Pajitnov and Yuji Naka. But they were both designers as well.) They just don’t become household names. But it’s a shame, because video games – well, RPGs less than other genres, I guess, but still, they have to be fun. They have to be playable; a game that’s laggy, or full of bugs, or way too grindy (
I’m looking at you, Final Fantasy XII), won’t hold most people’s attention long enough for them to see the story. And while I can’t say turn-based battle is my favourite way of meting out video game combat, Secret of Mana, at least, is fun. The way the characters move, dodge, swipe, sometimes strike only a glancing blow – it all feels intuitive. Even if I didn’t care for the game’s quite haunting plot, even if the environments weren’t gorgeous and the music wasn’t just short of spiritual, I’d have fun playing it.
So – I want to give credit where credit’s due. To NASIR, whose name rightly belongs on the stone tablet of legend alongside his teammates’; who deserves no less recognition for his work than Uematsu, Amano, Sakaguchi.
And to all programmers: those heroes of gaming that so often go unsung. I realised, writing this post, that I didn’t even know the name of the person responsible for one of the most mechanically fun games in history, Super Mario Bros. Actually, it turns out it’s two people: Toshihiko Nakago and Kazuaki Morita. So there you go.
I think it’s worth taking the time to know, if you’ve got a minute. Go look up the people who programmed your favourite games, and commit them to memory, if you can. They deserve it, too.