Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Nasir Gebelli: Programming God

Nasir Gebelli; programming God
There is never much talk of programmers these days - instead, gamers tend to bring up topics concerning industry giants like Shigeru Miyamoto, Hideo Kojima, or even Hironobu Sakaguchi. Today, I would like to go over a brief history of someone who is considered a programming legend in the video game world: Nasir Gebelli. Nasir? To you Final Fantasy fans, does it ring a bell? Take a look at the picture below and then you will know how Gebelli is a part of Final Fantasy history.

 Nasir Gebelli is an Iranian-American programmer who began his career in the era of the Apple II, and eventually went on to program a handful of games for SquareSoft. Gebelli is legendary because his games were fun, unique, and tended to push the graphics of a system's hardware. Gebelli could be considered much like a Michelangelo of games; able to paint games with such artistry while being limited by present technology.

 Gebelli began his career down the programming path when he moved to the United States to study computer science. After receiving his education, he started a game programming company called Sirius Software in 1980. As co-founder alongside Jerry Jewell, Gebelli began producing games at a fast pace - with one year yielding twelve games! Gebelli was known for his rapid production probably due to his method of programming - anything he planned for a game he would memorize in his head, so Gebelli would have to finish his work as fast as possible. During his time at Sirius, Gebelli programmed games such as Space Eggs and Gorgon, the latter becoming the best selling Apple II computer game at the time. It was also during his time at Sirius that Gebelli founded Gebelli Software, although this company closed its doors in 1984. It was shortly after this that Gebelli took a break from his work and travelled around the world.

Gebelli's 'Gorgon' proved to be one of the most popular Apple II games.

 In 1986, Gebelli returned from his vacation and visited a friend of his: Doug Carlston, owner of Broderbund. Gebelli was interested in working again as a programmer and asked Carlston where he should begin. Carlston pointed Gebelli in the direction of Japan - specifically at two video game companies, Nintendo and SquareSoft. Then, Gebelli flew to Japan with Carlston and he was introduced to both Nintendo and the development team at SquareSoft. Although Nintendo did not show much interest in him, Sakaguchi knew of Gebelli's work and it was then that Gebelli was added to Square. Nasir Gebelli was now a part of the Square A-Team, which also consisted of Hironobu Sakaguchi, Nobuo Uematsu, and Yoshitaka Amano.

Rad Racer
 In the early days of Square, Gebelli programmed both 3D World Runner and Rad Racer. Although 3D World Runner was considered a flop, Rad Racer did show some success in North America on the NES. Even Square translator Ted Woolsey recognized Gebelli's work in Rad Racer, with its beautiful graphics and "disappearing horizon-lines". But when Square was experiencing financial troubles, Sakaguchi came up with the idea of a role-playing video game to feed on Dragon Quest's success: Final Fantasy. Although Final Fantasy is one of the most popular video games on the NES, programming an RPG proved somewhat difficult for Nasir. According to Sakaguchi, "it was the first time he had programmed anything like an RPG". Gebelli did not fully understand what an RPG was and how the battle system for such a game should work. I believe that Final Fantasy may have suffered from so many bugs and glitches due to Gebelli's understanding of RPGs. Nevertheless, Final Fantasy is still a fantastic game and Gebelli did not cease to amaze. Players were in awe at the battle system that Nasir programmed; being able to use four characters at once, the turn-based combat, and especially the spells and their glorious 8-bit animations.

An RPG proved difficult for Nasir to program.
 After the success of Final Fantasy, Square proceeded to work on both Final Fantasy II and Final Fantasy III. The programming was even better in these sequels, especially since Final Fantasy III added 'auto-targeting'. However, there were some hiccups during the development of these games. Gebelli's work visa for Japan expired and he was forced to move back to Sacramento, California. Despite that, Square proved their diligence by moving the development staff temporarily to California with Gebelli, where both Final Fantasy games had their programming completed. After Final Fantasy III, Gebelli began working on a new project with Square which was to be a title for the supposed CD based add-on for the Super Nintendo. The game, Secret of Mana, proved to be one of the most legendary RPGs on the system, meaning that Gebelli had done it once again.

 After his work with Square, Gebelli retired with Square royalties to travel the world. It was at this time that Gebelli was finished with the world of programming. It wasn't until August 8, 1998 that Gebelli re-surfaced again, this time at John Romero's Apple II Reunion Party. Romero had an interview with Gebelli, as they recounted on their early days of programming. Gebelli proved not only to be quite humorous, but very humble as well.

 Nasir Gebelli currently lives in California and both he and Sakaguchi remain good friends.

Nasir Gebelli interview at Apple II Reunion Party
Interview snippit: Nasir and Secret of Mana
Nasir Gebelli on MobyGames
Nasir Gebelli article on Moofgroup
Wikipedia article on Nasir Gebelli


  1. This was an amazing piece of information

  2. I never knew this but I know I've seen his name. FF and LOM, wow. This was a great article. We need more stories like this.