The question, “Who would win in a fight?” is the root of many fierce debates throughout the history of pop culture. The notion of pitting characters from different properties and different media against one another is exciting to discuss. And when it comes to letting fans live out these arguments, few are better outlets than fighting games.
Even within a genre known for character-merging crossovers, there’s one two-decade-old game that reigns supreme when it comes to pitting a wide variety of characters against one another. That program is MUGEN, derived from the Japanese word for “infinite,” which is an appropriate name for a program that provides near limitless potential for players to create new fighting games and characters.
MUGEN began life just before the turn of the century as a PC-based side-scrolling shoot-’em-up title, created by a small company called Elecbyte. The team was originally experimenting with creating an engine to handle the rigors of so-called shmup games but found that it just wasn’t living up to what they had hoped to create. Taking inspiration from a PC Korean Street Fighter 2 hack known as SFIBM, Elecbyte decided to change course from a shooter to a 2D fighting game engine.
The first public MS-DOS beta release of MUGEN came on July 27, 1999. This early release differed from most fighting games, though, by offering the only “official” character, Kung Fu Man, and a single stage. Everything else, from additional characters to even title-screen art, would have to be supplied by the users themselves, most often through files shared via Internet communities. For the first time, fans of fighting games weren’t just allowed but expected to create their own fighters and matchups.
Building a game-building community
Though you don’t need programming knowledge to create a MUGEN character, the process can still be time-intensive, especially if you’re creating your custom art. Over the years, fighter-creation software like 2005’s Fighter Factory has popped up to help facilitate this process. These third-party programs allow creators to import either their own hand-drawn sprites or images ripped from existing sprite-based games (making good use of the various sprite sheets that littered the Internet even since the late ’90s). With art in hand, Fighter Factory let users tweak values, line up the sprites for animations, and make everything feel just right before exporting the generated files to create fully animated MUGEN characters.
Players have also tasked themselves with MUGEN’s core logic and gameplay. In the early years, the AI for MUGEN‘s computer-controlled opponents was rather simple, akin to a new player just button-mashing different commands at random without any coherent strategy. In the decades since the game’s launch, the community has dived deeper into the program’s potential, programming more robust and intricate behaviors for the AI and leading to far more exciting and difficult matches with the computer.
As MUGEN became more stable and as word of mouth spread farther, communities continued to expand around the game, bringing creators and players together across the Internet. Many coders and artists interested in the game gathered at The Mugen Fighters Guild, a forum that continues to this day.
Creating polished and professional-level fighters in MUGEN takes a lot of effort and time, and these communities have proven instrumental in facilitating these projects. Hyper Dragonball Z is one particularly polished example of a MUGEN project, packed with expertly done custom sprites and stages that faithfully capture the characters and fights of the show. What started as an April Fool’s Day joke from three creators is now on its fifth version with upwards of 20 characters and tons of custom code work.
Iced, one of the creators of Hyper DBZ and an admin at MugenGuild, said that “games like HDBZ and The Black Heart (another popular MUGEN fan project) push the limits of the engine itself… At the same time you can download some kid’s original character made in MSPaint that took him two days to make. And that’s important as well, as that kid that made a random MSPaint character can get a taste for pixel art and keep working on it, maybe one day making his own full game.”
At this point, MUGEN creators spend a good deal of time fighting with old technology, troubleshooting and coding their way around limitations of an aging engine that’s no longer receiving official updates. For example, one of HDBZ’s standout features, the extravagant finisher cut scenes, were not originally intended to be a part of MUGEN.
“Broke and bent”
“We broke and bent the throw system to make it happen, changing the original toolset designed to code short throws so that they are doing things like Goku doing his genkidama, or Frieza summoning his army to beat up the opponent before throwing a giant death ball and erasing them,” he said. “Those types of coding moves are pretty complex, and sometimes we break them or they bug out unexpectedly, so they took a ton of work… We had a lot of issues making sure that other characters can’t break out of these.”
Felipe Xavier de Freitas (aka FXFreitas), the main sprite artist on the fan project Mega Man X: Fighting Arena, explained just how difficult building a MUGEN character can be. “The most complex [aspect] in my opinion is that almost every piece of content in the game has to be made from scratch, he said. “The source game is a 2D shooting-platform game, so we have to convert everything into a fighting-game style, making custom sprites, looking for good references or even making our own playstyle for some characters and deal with the limitations of the engine.”
Even using characters from existing games sometimes doesn’t save much effort, Xavier said. Mega Man X4 character Iris, for example, has a limited number of “official” sprites to be pulled from the original game. To fill in the animations for a standard fighting-game character’s set of unique moves and attacks, a project artist has to create additional sprites from scratch.
Making sure that these new assets fit in with the art style of the original sprites, and can transition smoothly into and out of previously existing sprites, is not a simple process. Even with a character like Zero, who has a vast trove of official sprites, MUGEN creators still make a point to create brand new moves and sprites unique to their project.