Nasir Gebelli (Persian: ناصر جبلی, also Nasser Gebelli, born 1957) is an Iranian-American programmer and video game designer. Gebelli co-founded Sirius Software, created his own company Gebelli Software, and worked for Squaresoft (now Square Enix). He became known in the early 1980s for producing the first fast action games for the Apple II computer, including 3D shooters, launching the Apple II as a gaming machine. This established him as one of the pioneers of computer gaming, and one of the greatest Apple II game designers. From the late 1980s to the early 1990s, he became known for his home console work at Squaresoft, where he programmed the first three Final Fantasy games, the Famicom 3D System titles 3-D WorldRunner and Rad Racer, and Secret of Mana.
Early life and career (1957–1985)
Gebelli was born in Iran, in 1957. He later migrated to the United States, to study computer science. His interest in video games was inspired by golden age arcade games at the time, such as Space Invaders. Gebelli's first project for the Apple II was EasyDraw, a logo and character creation program which he used for his later games. He then began programming video games, in either 1978 or 1979.
As a college student, he demonstrated a slide show program he'd written at a computer store, where he met Jerry Jewell, the store's owner. In 1980, Gebelli founded Sirius Software with Jewell. Gebelli's first game was Both Barrels. He soon became known for programming the first fast action games for the Apple II, which is credited for launching the Apple II as a gaming machine, establishing him as one of the pioneers of computer gaming.
He became known for programming the game code in assembly language, directly from his head, rather than taking down notes. His games were able to replicate the fast performance, scrolling, animations and colorful graphics of arcade games (which had powerful arcade system boards) on the Apple II, a feat previously thought not achievable on the system. He did so by developing advanced programming techniques, most notably page flipping, which eliminated the flickering that was common on early home computers. He used page flipping to improve the performance and double the display resolution, and further experimented with it, believing that page flipping would resolve the quality issues facing home computers at the time. He also believed that, in the future, virtually "everyone" will "have a computer" and that "the school of the future might be a central computer bank with students at home plugging into it via modem."
Within a year of founding Sirius Software, Gebelli had already programmed twelve games. His rapid pace was due to how he programmed, preferring to program directly from his head, rather than taking notes, so he quickly coded a game before he forgot the code. His arcade-style action games were well-received, and he quickly attracted a large following, with his fanbase referred to as "Nasirenes" by Softalk. Three of his games, Phantoms Five, Cyber Strike, and Star Cruiser, appeared on Softalk's Top Thirty software list in March 1981. Six of his games later appeared on Softalk's Top Thirty list in August 1981, with the highest at number three. His best-selling titles were Space Eggs and Gorgon, which were clones of Moon Cresta and Defender, respectively. Electronic Games referred to Gebelli as "ace designer Nasir" and gave Gorgon a positive review. BYTE assured readers that Gorgon would not disappoint "Nasir Gabelli fans". Gorgon sold at least 23,000 copies in a year, making it one of the best-selling computer games through June 1982.
He left Sirius that year to establish his own software company, Gebelli Software, through which he released the 1982 Apple II game Horizon V, which was an early example of a first-person shooter for a home system and featured an early radar mechanic. That same year, he released the Apple II game Zenith, a similar first-person shooter with the addition of allowing the player's ship to be rotated. In October 1982, Arcade Express reviewed Zenith and scored it 9 out of 10, stating "celebrated Nasir proves his reputation" with "this visually striking first-person space piloting and shooting" game. In March 1983, however, Andromeda (fourth place for Atari 8-bit), Russki Duck (tied for sixth for Apple) and Horizon V (tenth place for Apple) received Softline's Dog of the Year awards "for badness in computer games" based on reader submissions. Horizon V sold 5,000 copies during its first few months on sale in 1982.
IBM arranged for Gebelli to produce launch titles for the PCjr, announced in late 1983. Gebelli's company would not prove very successful, and the video game crash of 1983 caused Gebelli Software to close. After Gebelli Software went bankrupt, Gebelli went on a long vacation traveling the world. By the time he had retired from the Apple II scene, he had eight different games appear on Softalk's Apple II best-seller lists through to 1984, more than any other game designer for the platform.
Gebelli resurfaced in 1986 and went to visit his friend Doug Carlston, owner of Brøderbund. Gebelli was interested in developing games again; Carlston told him about the rise of the Nintendo Entertainment System and that Nasir should start programming on it. Gebelli was interested, and so Doug offered to fly to Japan with Nasir and introduce him to his friends at Nintendo and Square. Nasir met with Shigeru Miyamoto at Nintendo and several people at Square. Nintendo was apparently uninterested; the programmers at Square, especially Hironobu Sakaguchi (a long-time fan of Gebelli's work), however, were aware of Nasir's reputation and were excited to have him join. Gebelli arrived at Square around the same time Akitoshi Kawazu and Takashi Tokita became employed there. Along with Sakaguchi, their combined appearance culminated in the separation of the “Square” label from parent software company Denyuusha.
Famicom 3D System
While at Square, Nasir first programmed the game Tobidase Daisakusen for the Famicom Disk System, which released in the U.S. as 3-D WorldRunner for the NES. It was released in early 1987. Using a similar forward-scrolling effect to Sega's 1985 third-person rail shooter Space Harrier, 3-D WorldRunner was an early forward-scrolling pseudo-3D third-person platform-action game where players were free to move in any forward-scrolling direction and had to leap over obstacles and chasms. It was also notable for being one of the first stereoscopic 3-D games. His second Square project was Rad Racer, an early stereoscopic 3-D racing game also designed for the Famicom 3D System in 1987. He also went on to program a sequel, Rad Racer II, released in 1990.
According to Sakaguchi, the main reason that 3-D WorldRunner and Rad Racer were created was to show off the 3D programming techniques of Gebelli. At the time, Gebelli didn't know any Japanese, and there was no translator, so it was initially difficult to communicate between him and Sakaguchi. There were only three staff members working on both games, Gebelli, Sakaguchi, and a female graphic designer, Nordico Shibuya (who later worked on the Frontier games). Both games were commercially successful, selling about 500,000 copies each.
Gebelli then teamed up with Sakaguchi, Nobuo Uematsu and Yoshitaka Amano as part of Square's A-Team to produce Final Fantasy, the first entry in the popular Final Fantasy series. A role-playing video game released for the NES in 1987, it featured several unique features, including an experimental character creation system that allowed the player to create their own parties and assign different character classes to party members; the concept of time travel; side-view battles, with the player characters on the right and the enemies on the left; and the use of transportation for travel by ship, canoe and flying airship.
He went on to program Final Fantasy II, released in 1988, introducing an "emotional story line, morally ambiguous characters, tragic events," and a story to be "emotionally experienced rather than concluded from gameplay and conversations." It also replaced traditional levels and experience points with a new activity-based progression system that required "gradual development of individual statistics through continuous actions of the same kind". Final Fantasy II also featured open-ended exploration, and introduced an innovative dialogue system where keywords or phrases can be memorized and mentioned during conversations with non-player characters.
He then programmed Final Fantasy III, released in 1990, which introduced the classic job system, a character progression engine allowing the player to change the character classes, as well as acquire new and advanced classes and combine class abilities, during the course of the game. Midway through the development of both Final Fantasy II and III, Gebelli was forced to return to Sacramento, California from Japan due to an expired work visa. The rest of the development staff followed him to Sacramento with needed materials and equipment and finished production of the games there.
Secret of Mana
After completing Final Fantasy III, Gebelli took another long vacation and later returned to work on Secret of Mana, the second entry in the Mana series, released in 1993. The game made advances to the action role-playing game genre, including its unique cooperative multiplayer gameplay. The game was created by team members behind the first three Final Fantasy titles: Gebelli, Koichi Ishii, and Hiromichi Tanaka. It was intended to be one of the first CD-ROM RPGs, as a launch title for Sony's SNES CD (PlayStation) add-on, but had to be altered to fit onto a standard SNES game cartridge after the SNES CD project was dropped.
The game received considerable acclaim, for its innovative pausable real-time battle system, stamina bar, the "Ring Command" menu system, its innovative cooperative multiplayer gameplay, where the second or third players could drop in and out of the game at any time rather than players having to join the game at the same time, and the customizable AI settings for computer-controlled allies. Following Secret of Mana, Gebelli has since been succeeded (for the most part) by Ken Narita.
Later life (1994–present)
Following Secret of Mana's completion, Gebelli essentially retired with income from Square royalties and travelled the world. In August 1998, Gebelli attended an Apple II Reunion in Dallas, Texas, at the Ion Storm offices, where he met John Romero, who interviewed him.
Gebelli is considered one of the pioneers of home computer gaming, and one of the greatest Apple II game designers, along with Richard Garriott. John Romero (Wolfenstein 3D, Doom, Quake) credited Gebelli as a major influence on his career as a game designer. He cited Gebelli as his favorite programmer and a major inspiration, citing the influence of his fast action and 3D programming work for Apple II games, such as the shooters Horizon V and Zenith, on id Software. Gebelli also inspired the careers of other developers, such as Mark Turmell (NBA Jam, Smash TV). Jordan Mechner has also credited Gebelli's work on the Apple II as inspiration, and as a major influence on the creation of Karateka and Prince of Persia. Richard Garriott (Ultima) also praised Gebelli's ability to craft games that "were really playable and fun!"
Final Fantasy went on to become a major franchise, and Hironobu Sakaguchi went on to become a major figure in the game industry. Final Fantasy's side-view battles became the norm for numerous console RPGs. Final Fantasy II's activity-based progression system has been used in a number of later RPGs, such as the SaGa and Grandia series, Final Fantasy XIV, and The Elder Scrolls series. Final Fantasy III's job system became a recurring element in the Final Fantasy series. Secret of Mana has also influenced a number of later action RPGs, including modern titles such as The Temple of Elemental Evil and Dungeon Siege III.
List of games
- Both Barrels (1980, Apple II)
- Star Cruiser (1980, Apple II)
- Phantoms Five (1980, Apple II)
- Cyber Strike (1981, Apple II)
- Gorgon (1981, Apple II)
- Space Eggs (1981, Apple II)
- Pulsar II (1981, Apple II)
- Autobahn (1981, Apple II)
- Horizon V (1981, Apple II)
- Firebird (1981, Apple II)
- Russki Duck (1982, Apple II)
- Zenith (1982, Apple II)
- Neptune (1982, Apple II)
- ScubaVenture (1983, IBM PCjr) 
- Mouser (1983, IBM PCjr) 
- 3-D WorldRunner (1987, NES)
- Rad Racer (1987, NES)
- JJ: Tobidase Daisakusen Part 2 (1987, NES)
- Final Fantasy (1987, NES)
- Final Fantasy II (1988, NES)
- Final Fantasy III (1990, NES)
- Rad Racer II (1990, NES)
- Secret of Mana (1993, SNES)
- Final Fantasy Origins (2002, PlayStation)
- Final Fantasy I & II: Dawn of Souls (2004, Game Boy Advance)
- John Romero, Nasir Gebelli at MobyGames
- Barton, Matt (19 April 2016). "Honoring the Code: Conversations with Great Game Designers". CRC Press – via Google Books.
- (February 1999). "Hironobu Sakaguchi: The Man Behind the Fantasies". Next Generation Magazine, vol 50, pages 87-90.
- Gifford, Kevin (2011-12-21). "Hironobu Sakaguchi on Final Fantasy I's Roller-Coaster Development: How a college dropout and an Iranian programmer created the JRPG blockbuster". 1UP.com. Retrieved 23 December 2011.
- Levy, Steven. Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution. O'Reilly Media. p. 263. ISBN 1449393748.
- Robert Koehler (April 1981). "Nasir" (PDF). Softalk. Vol. 1 no. 8. pp. 4–6.
- John Romero, Nasir Gebelli Interview at Ion Storm, 1998, YouTube (February 6, 2017)
- "Nasir Gebelli and the early days of Sirius Software". The Golden Age Arcade Historian.
- "Computer Playland". Electronic Games. Jan 1981. p. 38. Retrieved 28 January 2015.
- Callamaras, Peter V (December 1981). "Gorgon". BYTE. p. 90. Retrieved 19 October 2013.
- "List of Top Sellers". Computer Gaming World. 2 (5): 2. September–October 1982.
- John Romero, Horizon V at MobyGames
- John Romero, Zenith at MobyGames
- "Everybody Doesn't Like Something". Softline. March 1983. pp. 22–23. Retrieved 28 July 2014.
- Wiswell, Phil (1984-01-24). "Coming Soon: Games For The PCjr". PC. pp. 142–145. Retrieved 26 January 2015.
- 3-D WorldRunner at AllGame
- Roschin, Oleg (March 26, 2006). "The World of Asian RPGs". MobyGames. p. "Final Fantasy". Retrieved 2009-09-10.
- Vestal, Andrew (1998-11-02). "The History of Final Fantasy". GameSpot. p. "Final Fantasy". Archived from the original on 2006-07-14. Retrieved 2009-09-11.
- Vestal, Andrew (1998-11-02). "The History of Console RPGs". GameSpot. p. "Final Fantasy". Archived from the original on 2004-04-09. Retrieved 2009-09-10.
- Jeremy Dunham (July 26, 2007). "Final Fantasy II Review". IGN. Retrieved 2011-03-02.
- "Final Fantasy Retrospective: Part II". GameTrailers. 2007-07-23. Retrieved 2008-04-16.
- "Final Fantasy Iii". Na.square-enix.com. Retrieved 2010-09-13.
- Square Enix Co., ed. (1999). Final Fantasy Anthology North American instruction manual. Square Enix Co. pp. 17–18. SLUS-00879GH.
- Mielke, James; Hironobu Sakaguchi. "Interview with Hironobu Sakaguchi". Electronic Gaming Monthly (232).
[...] So for Final Fantasy II and III, our staff actually brought all the equipment, everything that was necessary to finish those games, to Sacramento, because (Gebelli) couldn't come back to Japan. [...] We finished Final Fantasy II and III in Sacramento, California. [Laughs]
- Parish, Jeremy; Frank Cifaldi; Kevin Gifford (December 2003). "Classics Column #1: Desperately Seeking Seiken". Ziff Davis. Retrieved 26 July 2007.
- Secret of Mana hits App Store this month, Eurogamer
- Secret of Mana, RPG Fan
- Secret of Mana, Apple iPhone Apps
- Barton, Matt (2008). Dungeons & Desktops: The History of Computer Role-Playing Games. Wellesley, Massachusetts: A K Peters. ISBN 1568814119.
- Dungeon Siege III Developer Interview, NowGamer.com
- Secret of Mana, Thunderbolt
- on YouTube
- John Romero, February 5, 2017, Twitter
- Jordan Mechner, Tweet, Twitter (January 31, 2017)
- Romancing SaGa, RPG Fan
- Francesca Reyes (November 4, 1999). "Grandia". IGN. Retrieved 2011-03-02.
- No experience, levelling in FFXIV, Eurogamer
- Barton 2008, p. 220
- Barton, Matt (2008). Dungeons & Desktops: The History of Computer Role-Playing Games. A K Peters, Ltd. p. 220. ISBN 1-56881-411-9. Retrieved 2010-09-08.
- "IBM PCjr. Exclusive Games - ScubaVenture & Mouser". Nerdly Pleasures.