The first time I saw M.U.G.E.N., I didn’t know it was M.U.G.E.N. I simply saw Michael Jackson fighting Ronald McDonald.

It was likely a video on Newgrounds, where I spent a lot of my early days online. When I wasn’t busy coming up with the newest take on my masterpiece version of an AIM profile color scheme and font combo, I was always playing games and looking for something new and weird on Newgrounds. At some point, I remember a string of videos or animations that were reminiscent of M.U.G.E.N., especially looking back now. My memory is only able to reproduce a few images, but I definitely remember a lot of Dragon Ball characters and a lot of sprites from games when I was a kid popping up on this 2D fighting plane. Along with, of course, Michael Jackson and Ronald McDonald.

The characters on the screen would fight, much like Street Fighter or Mortal Kombat, throwing attacks until the opponent’s health was depleted. These were always short videos, and they always included characters that would likely never actually appear in a game together, much less in a game at all. Due to the nature of the videos as videos, there was never any real interaction with the characters on screen. It led me to believe that it was simply just some folks having fun with video editing and old game sprites from licensed games like Moonwalker and McDonald’s Treasure Land Adventure. It wasn’t until later when I realized that what I was seeing was the ultimate fighting game.

M.U.G.E.N. is a fighting game engine developed by Elecbyte. The engine was created and released as freeware, a type of software made available for anyone to use. In most cases of freeware releases, the community is what takes the tools and finds ways to bring them to their fullest potential. Such has been the case for M.U.G.E.N.

The idea behind the distribution of M.U.G.E.N. is that no two versions of the game are the same. Creators and hobbyists could download the engine and truly make the game their own. The engine supports seven buttons: three punches, three kicks, and a taunt, along with directional pad inputs. It’s very much a standard design for a fighting game, but with the added bonus that content creators could do what they want. In the early days of release, it was common to see reused sprites from other fighting games thrown together in this engine. At long last, the fighting game community could see what would happen if Ryu had the chance to fight Scorpion.

It wasn’t long then, that creators were ripping sprites from other classic games and throwing them into the game’s engine. They weren’t always very polished, and many sprites weren’t designed to be used in a fighting game. You’d end up with untouchable characters due to weird hitbox placement or you’d have weird animations that appeared to be missing frames because they were indeed missing frames. What could have ended as a silly experiment to see Michael Jackson versus Ronald McDonald turned into something much more.

Now, the better part of two decades since its original release, M.U.G.E.N. maintains a powerful following. The community consists of a series of authors, who each contribute to the larger project in varied ways. Some are dedicated to transforming existing sprites from other games into workable and playable characters. This can include the author creating new animations for existing characters and extensive testing to make sure that it feels like a proper fighting game character, even if it is a character who never appeared in a fighting game. Others are creating their own characters. Perhaps its based on their own ideas or creating sprites from properties that have never been made into a video game. More, there are others who work on backgrounds and stages, as well as costumes for existing fighters.

There are many different fansites dedicated to the preservation of the game as well as the distribution of its assets. When Elecbyte’s site went down, the original host for the game engine, mirror links and alternate sources were already in place to make sure that the engine lives on. Within different sites, you’ll find forums filled with hundreds of different projects that are actively worked on. There are of course, plenty more that have been lost to time and likely abandoned forever. A lot of the sites that once were home to an author’s release and updates to game projects are now dead links or garbage ad sites. For every ten lost projects, there’s one that is still being tooled away at- some as recent as minutes ago at the time of this writing. It’s fascinating that there’s still such a strong and vibrant community working together to create new things in something released so long ago.

One of my favorite projects to come out of M.U.G.E.N. is Salty Bet. After years of work on the game, the community has developed a lot of content. Salty Bet, short for Salty’s Dream Cast Casino, is a Twitch channel that aggregates this work and lets the AI fight against itself. What you end up with is a lot of random characters fighting each other, and all in usually ridiculous matchups. You end up with Superman fighting Goku. Or Ryu fighting Goku. Or Goku fighting Sonic. Or Simon Belmont fighting Goku. Or Goku fighting Goku.

There’s a lot of Dragon Ball Z.

There is a lot of balance to the roster as well, and since its first beginnings as a channel, a lot of care has gone into making sure that it remains entertaining to watch. Anyone can jump in on the stream and just watch two random characters go at it. Visiting the website however, grants you the ability to bet fake money on these matches and feel the thrill of gambling without the risk of gambling. There’s an entire meta game that takes place behind the veil, where viewers study the tiers of characters and over time have learned which characters are sure bets and which to avoid (never vote on Dragon Ball. Ever.).

Watching Salty Bet is usually filled with strangers yelling in the chat, using phrases and terms you’ve never heard of but quickly find yourself understanding. It’s then a matter of which side to vote on. If it’s a character you love, you’re inclined to vote for them, but you may soon learn that there’s always reason to go against your gut. There’s a lot of time to be lost watching the outcome of two AI fighters, even if it ends in weird glitches that break the stream for a while.

What makes M.U.G.E.N. so interesting to me is the fact that for the most part, a sea of faceless participants have come together to create something. There’s something about this community that isn’t easily replicated in any other medium. There are stories of bands who have recorded albums by way of the internet and no actual interaction, and the nature of M.U.G.E.N. plays right into that mentality. It’s a group of dedicated people who defy boundaries and limitations to create art together. People who spend their spare time creating something, simply to give it away for free so that a community can grow and become better than it was before they had entered it.

It’s the ultimate crossover game, even if it will obviously never see a commercial release or any support by any company whose properties fill up the roster of over a thousand characters. In different forms, the game can be downloaded and played, and it isn’t too difficult to find and use new assets that the community has created. It’s a weird thing in games and something that will likely never be replicated. There’s something enticing about seeing characters from anything you can possibly think of fighting one another. It’s why we love crossovers in the first place, and the open nature of M.U.G.E.N. makes it one of the most attractive crossovers.

Posted by Joe Dix

Joe is the creator of The Free Cheese. He eats a lot of pizza and takes thousands of pictures of his pugs Oswald and Earl every day.

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