Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Ax Is Not Equal to Battler: What’s the Deal With the Equals Signs in Golden Axe?

A personal challenge for my geekish tendencies: In this post, I will relate an obscure punctuational phenomenon to video games and a luxury hotel. Go!

So back when I was a kid, a staple of pizza party birthdays was Golden Axe, a swords-and-sorcery beat-em-up released by Sega in 1989. (You know which one I’m talking about, people my age. This is the game where you would beat up little gremlins to get magic potions and where you could ride those weird animals with chicken beaks and whiplike tails. Ah, memories.) As with all arcade games, Golden Axe had an “attract mode” that gave the machine something to do when no one was playing. In addition to the typical “Winners Don’t Use Drugs” card, this particular game’s attract mode flashed pictures of the three playable characters and the big bad.

Visual aids, courtesy of Hardcore Gaming 101:

See those weird equals signs between the characters’ first and last names? (Or, rather, what a Japanese person thought should pass for appropriate, Western-sounding first and last names? Though I must admit that I wish my name were Gilius Thunderhead.) What’s the deal? Well, this message thread — a collection of little-known video game facts that I previously linked to sometime back — points out that the symbols are actually double hyphens, a fairly rare punctuation mark used in the following instances:
  • When a nonstylized hyphen simply looks too boring, because you’re fancy like that.
  • On a related note, it’s officially a double hyphen that separates the two parts of the name Waldorf=Astoria.
  • In Merriam-Webster dictionaries, a word that normally would be hyphenated but that is split between two lines gets a double hyphen in order to demonstrate that the word’s internal punctuation should remain at all times, not just when it spans the end of a line.
  • And, finally, in certain contexts, a double hyphen separates first and last names. When writing in katakana characters, an em dash or a regular hyphen normally does this job. However, if this symbol could be mistaken for a prolonged sound mark (ー), the double hyphen does the job. It also sometimes gets to separate multiple foreign names. The example Wikipedia gives for this is the Russel-Einstein Manifesto, which in katakana would look like a bunch of symbols most of you can’t read with what looks like an equals sign in the middle.
So there you go. Though the Japanese usages don’t quite seem to fit the instance seen in Golden Axe, it seems likely that the double hyphens there resulted simply from a designer’s effort to separate first names from last names, Giliuses from Thunderheads. Next time you’re staying at the Waldorf, playing Golden Axe with a bunch of 1990s-era children, or simply struck with the realization that your hyphens look to ordinary, you have options.

A video game-specific follow-up: Those chicken things? With the saddles and the whiptails?

They have a species name, I’ve learned: bizzarians. Or bizarrians, depending on who is typing.

And remember:

… But they do spend all day plunking quarters into a arcade machine slicked over with pizza grease. Thank you, William Sessions.

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