Fighting Game Mysteries – Elecbyte

Casting aside my usual indie fighting game coverage, it’s time to tackle a long running mystery: The history of Elecbyte, the company which created and published M.U.G.E.N.! Who were they? Why have they disappeared? What is the story behind Kung-Fu Man? Buckle up, because we are going down a trip made of indirection, anonymity, twenty-years old servers and rogue lawsuits!

History behind the warrior

If you are reading this article, chances are you are already familiar with M.U.G.E.N., at least by name. If you aren’t, let me give you a quick rundown: M.U.G.E.N. is one of the most famous fighting game making engines, which has spread like wild fire among hobbyists in the late 90s. Contrary to 2D Fighter Maker 2002, which had a practical GUI but no extension for scripting and advanced interactions, M.U.G.E.N. sported a relatively flexible but obnoxious scripting system, which allowed for very complex interactions.

M.U.G.E.N. was originally released as a DOS application by a company that went by the name of Elecbyte in 1999. Its poster boy was Kung Fu Man, who acted as a copyright-friendly sample character and was used to showcase each new feature of the engine, ranging from simple chains of normal moves, to specials, to super moves.

After more than twenty years, one unanswered question remains, though: Who were the people behind Elecbyte?

The men behind the mask

This might sound like a trivial question, but the truth is that the names of the people behind M.U.G.E.N. were and are still a mystery. It was the ’90s, after all: The Internet was ripe with anonymity and nicknames, and using one’s real name was frowned upon and not that common. Thus, what is left of the team that pushed out the first version of M.U.G.E.N. is a list of internet aliases.

What’s known, is that Elecbyte popped up somewhere in 1999, with a website which is now archived—courtesy of the Wayback Machine—where M.U.G.E.N. had a spot of honor. The website featured documentation, downloads and tutorials, plus links to other resources, among which the page of TESTP “a small group of beta testers who put together their M.U.G.E.N. game called UNITED”.

The original version of M.U.G.E.N. would then be updated from its original DOS version, to a short-lived Linux version, only to go on hiatus in the early ’00s, allegedly after a closed beta version of a new Windows version was leaked on the net.

Elecbyte would then suddenly come back in 2008, aiming to release M.U.G.E.N. version 1.0 with a new team and some massive improvements, only to fall into almost complete radio silence again in 2013, after one last post detailing the release of a new v1.1 alpha version to the testers.

Elecbyte disappeared as fast as it came back, but M.U.G.E.N. lived on and thrived for years to come.

Rekindling the fire of curiosity

So, what’s the deal? After all, it’s 2022, more than twenty years have passed since M.U.G.E.N. was first released, yet I’m writing an article on its makers. Well, the reason is pretty simple: I often hang out in the I.K.E.M.E.N. Discord server and Elecbyte became a serendipitous discussion topic all of a sudden.

For those who don’t know it, I.K.E.M.E.N. is the open source, spiritual successor to M.U.G.E.N., and has been used to create some crazy high quality fan games, like TMNTxJL, and original IPs like Knockout! and Battle Craze!!. However, many of the users roaming the server had a history with M.U.G.E.N. in the years prior.

One day, in March 2022, a new user asked if games made with the I.K.E.M.E.N. engine could be sold. This prompted a comparison with the original M.U.G.E.N. engine, whose license didn’t allow for commercial use. From there, the discussion evolved in the direction of re-tracing the origins of M.U.G.E.N., slightly touching on the topic of who made it and citing a blog post from 2021 detailing a chase for the identities behind the developers. The investigation ended with nothing concrete, except debunking a wild rumor that was going around, about Elecbyte being formed by Capcom employees. This was most likely a urban legend, as circumstantial evidence pointed instead to a group of people in Ann Arbor, Michigan, US, with no clear ties to any game companies.

In the light of the ensuing discussion, a user by the nickname of Amidweiz suggested me to “ask Shawn about Elecbyte.”

Discord user Amidweiz sent me on a chase for Elecbyte with one single message.

How to cause a former-physicist-now-game-developer to start investigating a 20 years old mystery: Step one: Pique his interest. Step two: Give him a trail.

Shawn and the Allegro license

But who is “Shawn”? And why should he have known anything about Elecbyte?

Let’s start again, back to square one.

A swapware license is a sort of oddity in the current licensing panorama: It means something like “You can publish your program using my framework, but you need to send me something in turn if you do”. That something might have been as simple as a free copy of the program or anything else, left to the developer’s discretion.

The creator of that framework was Shawn Hargreaves, currently developer lead of the Direct3D division at Microsoft. This piece of information, together with the average time frame and the Facts 1 and 2 outlined above, led to the slim chance that Mr. Hargreaves had received a copy of the M.U.G.E.N. engine by Elecbyte and still had some contacts with them.

To test this hypothesis, I have reached out for him via Twitter, crossing my fingers…

Asking Shawn Hargreaves about the Allegro license and Elecbyte

The Allegro trail going cold. Shawn was an exquisite person, as he answered questions by a random stranger on the internet about something that happened more than 20 years ago. Kudos to him for being so patient and understanding with my inquiry.

… however, almost as expected, he couldn’t recollect any interactions with Elecbyte. That trail went cold, spurring me to pursue different information avenues.

Sending emails into a black hole

Seeing how the Allegro trail went dead, I re-directed my attention to the archived Elecbyte website. Among the pages saved on the Wayback machine, there was also a contacts section with some email addresses. Even if the chances were slim, I decided to try my luck at it and sent an email to the addresses I had found, crossing my fingers.

An email I sent to Elecbyte—or, at least, tried to

I’ve tried to reach for Elecbyte and TESTP, but all old email addresses are gone, lost in the sands of time.

However, not even half an hour later, I got a receipt from my email service, telling me that none of my emails could be delivered. I guess it would have been too easy, otherwise.

A call for help

Seeing how all my attempts were all crashing head first against a wall, I had setup a failsafe to try and gather additional testimonies: I used my Twitter account to ask for leads on the whole Elecbyte story, hoping that someone, somewhere could know anything of use about such a mysterious development team.

This had the effect of putting me in touch with not one but two M.U.G.E.N. veterans: Kamekaze, whom I already had the pleasure to interview for my TMNTxJL article and XGargoyle, member of Team Z2, who’s working on the impressive fan game Hyper Dragon Ball Z.

Those two gentlemen had been my most important source of information, but before reporting their testimonies, I need to talk about one additional step in the direction of finding the truth.

While I was scouring Twitter for additional leads, I had found out that Elecbyte had an official account (!!!), whose last tweet in 2016 was used to promote the Indiegogo campaign of a game called Rotten Core. This was rather unusual, and led me to try one last step to get in touch with the original M.U.G.E.N. developers.

Rotten Core and the anomaly of a commercial license

The Rotten Core trail was an interesting discovery, for more than one reasons: M.U.G.E.N. games couldn’t legally be sold, as the license was very strict in this regard. Moreover, the Elecbyte team members weren’t “all talk, no action”, when it came to defend their intellectual property. In fact, in 2009 they issued a copyright infringement notice to a website called www.brokenmugenhr.com, for trying to monetize the M.U.G.E.N. engine. This document (of which XGargoyle sent me a scanned, redacted copy, courtesy of Discord user Lasombra Demon) also confirmed that the original Elecbyte had its seat in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

 

Part of the legal document sent to Broken Mugen HR

The developers of M.U.G.E.N. struck down some people trying to sell the engine as part of their package, straight back to 2009. Notice that the document confirms a widespread rumor: That Elecbyte originated in Ann Arbor, Michigan, US. The lawsuit was filed from an attorney studio in Malaysia, where it’s rumored one of the original Elecbyte members might have lived in 2009. Document courtesy of XGargoyle, who in turn received it from Lasombra Demon.

Thus, no commercial M.U.G.E.N. game was ever officially released… until, in 2016, Rotten Core approached its Indiegogo campaign by flaunting a commercial license agreed with Elecbyte, making it the only known M.U.G.E.N. game that was ever allowed to be monetized, as of today.

Unfortunately, Rotten Core wasn’t successfully funded, despite the official endorsement by Elecbyte itself.

That 2016 endorsement tweet is the last activity ever shown by the Elecbyte Twitter account, thus framing it as a potential lead for my ongoing investigation.

Elecbyte's last tweet

The last tweet on the Elecbyte profile, advertising Rotten Core after a 4 years hiatus. The comment section is filled by people asking them about either new M.U.G.E.N. features or a commercial license for it. Frankly, by seeing this, I totally understand why they’d like to remain in the shadows outside of the scene.

After the failed Indiegogo campaign, Rotten Core went silent, only to resurface in July 2021, with a cryptic post.

This meant that the account was still alive, somehow. So, deciding not to take any chance, I reached out for the Rotten Core team via Twitter to ask them both about their game and if they could put me in touch with some of the Elecbyte developers.

Unfortunately, it was all for naught: One of the members of Team Aiduzzi replied to me that the game was turned down by a publisher and that they didn’t have any contacts anymore with their old friends at Elecbyte. This trail had gone cold too, to my chagrin, leaving me with nothing concrete.

That’s when I turned back to my primary sources and catalogued their statements.

From the halcyon days of M.U.G.E.N.

Kamekaze and XGargoyle were around the M.U.G.E.N. scene from almost the beginning, together with other developers of the caliber of Andres Borghi, the creator of the amazing The Black Heart. They lived during the forum era and saw the community developing around this fighting game engine.

XGargoyle was extremely thorough in telling me about those times, supplying additional material and archived posts to reinforce his statements. XGargoyle started without beating the bush around and described the situation as follows [emphasis and minor grammar and spelling corrections mine]:

Hello, I see you are interested in knowing Elecbyte’s background history. I may be able to provide some information as I have been involved in the M.U.G.E.N. scene since 1999. There were two different Elecbyte teams, let’s call them OG Elecbyte and New Elecbyte. OG Elecbyte was based on Ann Arbor, Michigan. They were the original creators of M.U.G.E.N. and is generally assumed that they were also T.E.S.T.P in disguise.

TESTP (or T.E.S.T.P.) was a group of early M.U.G.E.N. content creators that made the TESTP pack, a bundle of characters and stages that helped to have some initial content beyond Kung Fu Man [writer’s note: TESTP was officially acknowledged as a sort of beta testing team on Elecbyte’s archived main page].
The assumption is that they were the actual Elecbyte, but under disguise to avoid copyright claims as this pack was made with sprites from original games.

TESTP's home page.

TESTP’s home page, directly from the early ’00s, thanks to the magic of The Wayback Machine. The TESTP character pack included Shinobu Kawasaki from Asuka 120% Burning Fest, Guile from Street Fighter 2, Xia Hou Dun from Sango Fighter 2, Blue Mary from Fatal Fury and a remix of Yuri Sakazaki with some Ansatsuken moves.

This claim seemed quite speculative, but XGargoyle went forward with some additional facts that reinforced it

The key that revealed they were Elecbyte (or at least heavily involved in the engine development) is that this pack contained code and instructions that were fully undocumented. We are talking about 1999—M.U.G.E.N. was still a marginal engine with a small following, so it is strange that a certain group of people had access to undocumented stuff. At that time there were no official docs, other than a few comments on the characters’ code.

Unfortunately, no clear evidence of this statement could be provided, only circumstantial evidence that seems to point into this direction. XGargoyle continued:

TESTP had their own website, called U.N.I.T.E.D.—Again, another hint, with all these acronyms: M.U.G.E.N., U.N.I.T.E.D., T.E.S.T.P….
Anyways, U.N.I.T.E.D.’s website contained a forum hosted on a system called “bravenet”, an early precursor to forums. This bravenet forum was the de facto official M.U.G.E.N. forum, and this is where the original Elecbyte creators interacted with the community. [writer’s note: I have tried to find an archived copy of the forum, but the only surviving page I have retrieved is almost empty. XGargoyle provided a link to an archived version of the bravenet M.U.G.E.N. forum, but most of it is inaccessible].

Both Elecbyte’s and U.N.I.T.E.D.’s websites were hosted in a server/domain called http://motoslave.com. Motoslave was a personal server for some guys who were living in Ann Arbor, Michigan (US) [writer’s note: And here comes again Ann Arbor, as if we needed more confirmation of M.U.G.E.N.’s birthplace!]. The following is my speculation, but I think this server was shared between several classmates at their university, and I believe it also hosted the personal sites for at least one of the Elecbyte developers.

A story of two Elecbytes

XGargoyle mentioned how going through the records of the motoslave server yielded some interesting connections, then he started to explain to me the history behind the two Elecbyte teams.

The old Elecbyte is assumed to be just three guys who were classmates at the university of Ann Arbor. The following names are the “staff” from TESTP, but—as I mentioned—it is very plausible they were the actual engine developers.
In the bravenet forums, the admins were “Akito”, “Geki” and “Admin“. The admin account used the email address of [email protected] [writer’s note: One of the email addresses I tried to reach out to, in vain].
Akito and Geki are Japanese names/nicks. At least one of the Elecbyte developers was fluent in Japanese, due to Japanese comments and concepts found in the original M.U.G.E.N. docs, which just reinforces the foundation that TESTP was, in fact, Elecbyte [writer’s note: With respect to XGargoyle’s conjecture, I’m not convinced by the logical jump from being fluent in Japanese to using a Japanese alias. In the early ’00s, forum dwellers were commonly use Japanese-sounding nicknames just because they sounded cool. However, the conjecture TESTP = Elecbyte has some merit, if anything for the amount of circumstantial evidence behind it].
Regarding Elecbyte’s disappearance, there’s no clear or official explanation. However, from my own research and looking at the personal accounts of the http://motoslave.com users, I believe one of the developers got married after university, and another one left Michigan possibly for real life work.

More about the disappearance of the first Elecbyte:

At that time, Elecbyte website reported that they “hit a snag” and in another update they mentioned something about real life challenges. It is also possible that the “snag” could have been arguments on how to continue with the M.U.G.E.N. project after their college years ended. Some people believe part of the team wanted to sell the engine, though, but it was all just speculation.
Elecbyte asked for donations to purchase a windows compiler for M.U.G.E.N. (previously, it was a DOS application). The people that donated were given a personal beta version of M.U.G.E.N. (commonly known as winmugen).
This beta was highly limited, with nag [sic] screens everywhere, only two characters could be loaded and some game modes were locked.
This beta was eventually leaked and had their restrictions removed, allowing for an almost fully functional winmugen
It is also rumored that once Elecbyte found out the beta was leaked among the donators, they simply decided to quit as a “f*** you” to the community
In any case, there was no clear idea on the real cause for their disappearance, and usually, the rumor mill stated whatever reason was suitable for every case. For example, the donors joked that Elecbyte took their money and escaped to Acapulco. M.U.G.E.N. “elite” content creators instead claimed that the leak was the cause of it all, so they could easily forbid talks or distribution of the leaked beta in M.U.G.E.N. forums, trying to put the blame on the players that were using the hacked beta.

XGargoyle’s recounting of those events lines up nicely with what Kamekaze told me about the topic, though some details do not match completely.

M.U.G.E.N. was a college project for the original team and they went to school in Ann Arbor. After they graduated, they didn’t really have the time or care to maintain it. The belief at the time was they quit because a beta of winmugen was leaked but that was more of a “in addition to”, rather than a direct cause.

The reason M.U.G.E.N. came back at all was because one of the original developers came back with some others he recruited, to attempt to make M.U.G.E.N. a product that could be sold, but the time it would have taken to do that was underestimated and it was abandoned again.

XGargoyle then went on by talking about what happened next, after Elecbyte seemingly vanished from the face of Earth. His recounting of the events and what Kamezake shared with me seem to align on almost all details that matter.

During the long hiatus, there was no activity from Elecbyte. Then, suddenly, a new Elecbyte appeared. This time, the domain was hosted/owned by http://monkey.org [writer’s note: I.K.E.M.E.N. developer Gacel shared a link to a Hacker News discussion about the monkey.org server. The linked discussion shows how monkey.org hosts only websites made by users who have or had connections with the Ann Arbor university, which further confirms the Michigan trail]. At first, the community thought it was a fake or someone trying to claim the domain for ad revenue or SEO but it turned out to be a real Elecbyte, made by a new team who surprisingly had access to the original source code. The belief is that one of the original developers created a new team and resumed the development. The new Elecbyte was formed by “dfw” (I think real name was David), “KFM” (I think he also went by the name R, or perhaps they were 2 different people), “K’Style” and someone claiming to be the art director named “Sal”.

The rest is history: The new Elecbyte went on to release M.U.G.E.N. 1.1, only to disappear in 2013, never to come back or update the engine once more and keeping radio silence until that last, unexpected tweet used to promote Rotten Core.

The Motoslave server

Wanting to uncover more details, XGargoyle shared some intel about motoslave, the domain hosting the Elecbyte website. Apparently, it was a fanzine website named after the bike of Priss Asagiri, one of the protagonists of the anime Bubblegum Crisis.

Motoslave's homepage

The homepage of motoslave.com, a fanzine website that was also hosting Elecbyte’s first website and TESTP’s homepage, now in its unfortunately incomplete version, archived for posterity on the Wayback Machine. Sidenote, but it makes me feel old to see the banners asking me to switch Macromedia Flash on in my web browser.

This website hosted a list of names and users connected to Elecbyte, at the now defunct address http://motoslave.com/users/~elecbyte, which is now completely unreachable. This, together with some additional evidence that one of the M.U.G.E.N. developers might be living in Malaysia now, might have been a good step to get in touch with the original team, but I decided to stop my investigation at this point.

I had reached a moral conundrum: Delve more into the topic and try to find out the real identities of the people behind the engine or be satisfied by the amount of information I have gathered, albeit incomplete and circumstantial?

In the end, I went for the second course of action.

What now?

Thus, this story ends here, for now, as I don’t want to start a witch hunt to find the names of the original M.U.G.E.N. developers. After so much time, most of them probably have gone on with their lives, and it wouldn’t be correct to direct hordes of rabid people asking for engine updates or commercial licenses after them.

However, if any of you Elecbyte members are reading this article, know that I’d be very interested in interviewing you about e.g. the origins of Kung Fu Man and how M.U.G.E.N. started, so—in the unlikely chance this write up of mine reaches you—feel free to contact me via Twitter, Discord or my backup email address schwarzerblitz.game (at) gmail (dot) com, for a chat about the topic. In case you do, I promise I will keep your identities confidential.

But, until then, we’ll live with the image of this group of Michigan friends, working together to build a game engine that would have had immense implications in the years to come, maybe unbeknownst to them.

And smile, thinking how serendipity made this project one of the most important tools that shaped the fate of many, uncountable, small indie fighting game developers.

Special thanks to Discord user Amidweiz, who kickstarted this rabbit chase, XGargoyle and Kamekaze, who flooded me with useful information, Team Aiduzzi and Shawn Hargreaves for kindly replying to my inquiries, Lasombra Demon for providing the scans of the legal documents of the Elecbyte cease and desist, MrMKL for the brainstorming about the topic back in March 2022, Plasmoid Thunder for correcting my incorrect M.U.G.E.N. release timeline, Gacel for supplying additional information about the Ann Arbor “monkey.org” server.

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If you are interested in more coverage about indie fighting games, you can find me on Twitter at @AndreaDProjects

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