Feature: NASU – the first art game

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NASU is an oddity of early gaming, a lost gem in gaming culture. It’s a game that appeared with great fanfare but disappeared soon later. The story of NASU must be told, for I believe that it is important – for it is the first true art game.

NASU was published June 1985 on the Famicom, later localized in December 1987. The game’s creator is somebody that simply goes by KIKIYAMA, whose identity remains unknown to this day. The game was published through Enix, who was anonymously mailed an unofficial cartridge baring the game, along with money and a letter requesting it to be mass-produced. Despite the appearance of the cartridge being sketchy as hell, Enix decided to publish the game since all the work was already done for them. Reportedly, the higher ups at the company thought that this was some yakuza plot and decided to play along in fear of retaliation.

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NASU is a simple arcade-like game where the only goal is to get a high score. You play as a red avian fellow, running back-and-forth a green plain to catch eggplants. Jump and the character opens their maw to devour eggplants, getting 10 points for each one. Occasionally, a bouncing eggplant appears from a side of the screen, which gives 300 points. Somehow catch both at the same time and you get 1000 points.

This is all there is to do. A repetitive loop plays as you catch eggplants, a sense of boredom setting in. There is no progression, no change in environments or objectives. The only change happens when you lose. The moment a normal eggplant hits the ground, the screen flashes red and a sad game over tune plays. You’re then thrust back to the title screen, as you only have one life.

The one-life feature was seen as a cruel step back from its arcade contemporaries, which at least had three lives. Gamers tried many things to see if there were ways to get more lives, seeing if things would happen if the game was left on for a certain amount of time and inputting random button combinations. Surprisingly, one combination actually yielded something – it changed the head of the main character to an eggplant and the drop rates of the bonus eggplants increased. No extra lives though. A Konami employee that knew about this decided to have it implemented in the Famicom/NES port of Gradius, but with the extra lives gamers dreamed for. This code ended up becoming the Konami Code, getting a better association with Konami’s games over its original cosmetic use in NASU.

In the search for more lives, people ended up finding meaning. The one-life system and the lack of progression created a sense of futility in players. It didn’t matter how high your score is, for it will never go anywhere and you’re doomed to eventually fail. Players started seeing themselves in NASU‘s main character, associating with their efforts that ultimately end in failure. Players that worry for the future found comfort in the game, accepting that life will eventually end – so why not make the best of it?

Suddenly, NASU wasn’t being viewed as an average arcade game, but as a game baring a message. “Why do we play games? Is it to get away from our lives, where we’re doomed to return to the dust no matter how far in life we get?” Nintendo Power famously wrote in their re-evaluation of the game, giving a score of 9 over its previous score of 2. The game’s fanbase thought that it wasn’t high enough and the resulting outcry forced the magazine to bump it up to a 10 in the proceeding issue.

NASU‘s implicit narrative was a step up from the “save the damsel” and/or “beat the bad guy” stories that games spouted at the time. Its shaking-up of game narrative caused fans and critics to not just declare it to be a great game, but a great piece of art that challenged the ideas of games. Thus, NASU was considered to be the first art game. KIKIYAMA was suddenly a legend in the growing community of game developers, yet they remained elusive, never responding to attempted contacts.

However, in December 1990, a ceremony was held to honor KIKIYAMA’s achievements for the then-5-year-old NASU, with a desperate plea to KIKIYAMA to attend. They have never been seen in public up to that point, but they agreed to attend the ceremony via a letter written using cut-out kanji sent to Enix’s offices.

KIKIYAMA arrived wearing a long black robe that completely covered their body. They wore a white mask on their face, forming a sinister grin with a slight crack at one of the eyes. The award giver (name withheld for the sake of his family) tried to give a welcoming speech, but KIKIYAMA interrupted it by strolling up to the podium. Not wanting to evoke wrath from the legendary designer, he allowed them the stand.

Their smiling mask went up the mic and declared, “Gaming… is trash.” Game designers and press were rather aghast at this statement.

Some people present at the ceremony believed it to be a lighthearted joke. The award giver was noted to be laughing nervously. “Mx. KIKIYAMA, you’re such a jokester.”

Those were his last words.

KIKIYAMA then pulled out a kitchen knife and stabbed him in the chest with it, executing the man live on-stage. A strange fervor began to overtake the crowd, but it was not fear – it was awe. People stood from their chairs, applauding the act of sudden violence. Reports of the aftermath claim that participants did not know why they did that.

KIKIYAMA then stepped back up the podium, with more declarations. “We are all but creatures of slime, our decayed hands reaching out toward the sky, for a hope that will never come.” The audience cheered. They continued. “I see games in the future. I see something called Danganronpa. It will be bad.” More cheered. “We wish for it all to be better – our lives, video games – but it never will be, for our reality is but a nightmare, our shared experiences tumbling through a dream.”

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To this day, nobody knows what happened in the 28 minutes afterward. The cameras had cut out at the last statement and the memory seemed to have been wiped clean from those that were present. Kazushige Nojima, the scenario writer for some Final Fantasy games who was present at the ceremony, drew upon his experiences at the event for the murder and usurping of President Deling in Final Fantasy VIII.

KIKIYAMA’s statements before the bout of madness caused a fervor in the gaming community. “It’s as if they’re insulting their audience!” GamePro magazine declared. For the crime of insulting gamers, NASU suddenly became a pariah in game history. All known copies of NASU has been destroyed, ashes buried near the pits where the many unsold copies of Atari’s E.T. was thrown into. KIKIYAMA has not been seen since, but for a while they were branded as the “Phil Fish” of pre-2000 gaming to those who choose to remember.

NASU had been stripped of its title of being the first-known art game, its existence buried by gaming culture until the 2010s, where people wised up and decided, “hey yeah, gaming is trash,” and decided to give the game another chance. Thus, I was allowed to write this feature to enlighten you all, whereas before I feared that I would be executed for writing such a thing. If you want to know more about NASU, see here.

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