The Mystery of Mugen

I’ve never considered myself an investigative journalist. I’m a lore theorist and content creator trying to discover the hidden threads of Street Fighter. However, people have been asking me to cover other games or do more in-depth articles for the FGC in general. Over the past few days, I have been involved in something of an undercover investigation, trying to figure out a mystery that has been pestering one of my followers. Even though it’s out of my normal field, after the research they have done, I felt obligated to at least write something about it, even conducting an interview of my own for more information that, while it hit a dead end, provided enough to allow me to draw a conclusion based on the evidence found.

What possible mystery could warrant this kind of clandestine maneuvering? Something that involves real people. I’ve decided in the process of writing this article that it would be best not to reveal my sources for information or the people involved in the mystery, meaning this article will appear to be incomplete. With the nature of how the internet is, however, I would also like to warn my more ambitious readers not to look too deeply into the topic. You’re dealing with actual human beings whose only crime would be appearing and disappearing at seemingly random intervals.

I was not the primary researcher for this article, who has asked not to be identified. It must be stated, however, that their information hunt was so thorough that they pulled up facts and figures that fell into the TMI category. They are an incredible researcher and is someone I would certainly trust in the future if their assistance is required.

With all of this out of the way, let’s talk about one of the biggest mysteries on the internet: the rise and fall of Mugen.

Created originally for the MS-DOS program, Mugen was launched in beta on July 27, 1999 by an entity calling itself Elecbyte. Created by three programmers, two of whom were from the University of Michigan, Mugen is a freeware 2D fighting game engine that has been used by thousands of programmers, artists, and content creators for creative projects that range from making YouTube videos to creating fighting game characters, real or fictional, that would otherwise wouldn’t be used by triple-A studios. Thousands of fighters have been created by the Mugen community, from celebrities like Chuck Norris and Michael Jackson to some more… infamous spherical fighters for those in the know (and if you know, you KNOW).

In 2003, Elecbyte shut the project down, leaving the community to more or less fend for themselves. After Elecbyte shutdown, however, a private beta version of Mugen, called WinMugen, was leaked to the public. From this, the community made adjustments and updates to this version of Mugen through hacking, including an update in 2007 that allowed support for high-resolution stages. To everyone’s surprise, Elecbyte returned in 2009 to update WinMugen as well as their own website, and remained active until 2011 when they disappeared from the public eye yet again. While updates did continue during this time, Elecbyte’s primary website shut down in 2015, only to come online some six years later in February of 2021.
This ongoing Mugen saga is nothing new for the internet, as online creators disappear and reappear all the time. What makes Mugen so interesting, however, is two-fold. One, the sheer longevity of the Mugen program makes this one of the longest-lived projects in internet history.

Two, there seems to be more at work than just a bunch of college kids growing up and having lives. As it turns out, there are at least two other parties involved that make this mystery even deeper.

Mugen primarily uses something called Allegro, which is an open-source library used by video game developers that “includes support for basic 2D graphics, image manipulation, text output, audio output, MIDI music, input and timers, as well as additional routines for fixed-point and floating-point matrix arithmetic, Unicode strings, file system access, file manipulation, data files, and 3D graphics.” It’s a perfect companion for anyone who needs the basics of fighting game development.

Because Allegro is open source and was released under the terms of the zlib license, it means that literally anyone can use it for free as long as no one misrepresents it. For example, a person could make modifications to a copy of the library and claim that it’s the original; this would be a clear violation of the zlib license.

Interestingly, though, Allegro was not originally supposed to be freeware, but swapware.

As my unnamed researcher highlighted above, the creator of Allegro had one request: to give him something in return for using his software. This would mean that there is a possibility that Allegro’s creator had information that pertains to our investigation and perhaps could provide a few clues to the mystery of Elecbyte. So, I reached out to someone who knew more about the creator of Allegro than I did, and they pointed me to one particular post on the creator’s blog that I found fascinating: a bug in the AI of a certain racing game that ended up causing better gameplay.

While this did not do much for the investigation, it did give me some closure for this part of it: the creator of Allegro likely did not know anything about Mugen. First of all, any information he would have had is likely gone forever – the swapware paragraph seen above was written in 1997. Any information that was swapped has long since been deleted. Second of all, the creator of Allegro was working on bigger projects than Mugen – he would literally have no time for it. This means reaching out to him for an interview for this article would most likely be a dead end considering I’d be asking for information that was over 20 years old and he would most likely have forgotten about it.

However, there is still one other party to consider, and is the only reason this article has merit to be posted on my blog: Capcom.

According to Wikipedia, Elecbyte was a former subsidiary of Capcom, acquiring the company in 2009 before eventually moving under the umbrella of Philips Interactive Media.

There’s a problem with this, though: Philips Interactive Media does not seem to have existed after 1998, the year before Elecbyte first released Mugen. Philips Interactive Media was responsible for one of the most notorious flops in gaming history, the Philips CD-I. First released in 1990, the CD-I was a multimedia console intended “to introduce interactive multimedia content for the general public by combining features of a CD player and game console, but at a lower price than a personal computer with a CD-ROM drive.”

After releasing several models over a long and agonizing eight years, Philips finally discontinued the product in 1998, splintering and selling off their eponymous media branch to other companies, including Infogrames (which would later merge wih Atari to become Atari SA) and Softmachine, who produced the final game and product ever made for the CD-I, The Lost Ride.

This leaves us with an even bigger mystery than before. How could an invisible company join the ranks of a media branch that no longer existed? I suppose anything is possible on the internet, but in this case, it’s clear that Elecbyte never joined anyone to begin with. The individual programmers could have worked on some of Capcom’s and Philips’ products at some point, but it wouldn’t have been under the Elecbyte brand.

So, while some people may say there’s a shady mystery underneath the famous fighting game engine, the truth is it was created by a bunch of college kids who wanted to do something fun and collaborative. While Elecbyte will continue to vanish and reemerge over the years, it’s simply because those former college kids have lives, jobs, and, possibly, families of their own.

In fact, the only mystery is how this became a mystery at all.

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