The release and preservation of the stolen source code to the iconic 90s NES emulator NESticle reflects a new chapter in a controversial saga with deep roots.
Do the neutral objectives of preservation excuse old wrongs, even as the act of preserving code raises uncomfortable questions?
To some, that answer is “yes.” That’s the somewhat controversial position being taken by a software preservationist regarding the recent addition of the source code of a groundbreaking Nintendo Entertainment System emulator called NESticle to the Internet Archive. The move, announced Wednesday by “togemet2,” a pseudonymous member of the Twitter-centric video game preservation group The Forest of Illusion, touched a nerve involving a sensitive, ancient saga in video game culture.
Even as critical as NESticle is to the history of video games, though, it’s hard to avoid the fact that its source code was stolen.
From a historical standpoint, NESticle’s value checks out: The circa-1997 NES emulator, known for its crude humor (true to its name, its icon was a pair of testicles) and ability to smoothly run many games on the computer hardware of the day, is perhaps one of the most important software emulators ever created. A touchstone of the late 90s for many gamers, it was a bridge between the hacker culture that birthed video game emulation and the cultural phenomenon retro gaming later became.
The problem, though, is that the source code’s release into the wild in the first place is rooted in a decades-old deception, and was too hot to handle in its day. As I wrote in 2017 for Motherboard, the emulator’s source code was stolen after its release in 1997 from the networked drive of its author, programmer Icer Addis of Bloodlust Software, by a well-known hacking scene figure named Donald Moore, also known as “MindRape.” (Moore died in 2016.)
Moore’s April 1997 release of the source code into an IRC channel led Addis to temporarily halt distribution of the popular emulator, though he eventually resumed development of NESticle, as well as and emulators for the Sega Genesis and a Capcom arcade board before leaving the scene entirely in 1998 to become a professional developer for companies such as Electronic Arts and Zynga.
The theft and subsequent release of the source code remains an issue for many of the players in the late-90s emulation scene decades later. Moore’s "gray area" hacking collective, Damaged Cybernetics broke apart, and Moore later lamented “hypocritical pirates or pirates with morals” who were willing to download old games without regard to ownership, but then expressed anger at the theft of Addis’ source code.
“[Addis] was a very private person, and there was no reason to violate that,” Jeremy Chadwick, a member of the Damaged Cybernetics collective, told me in a 2017 interview. (Addis, still a private person, did not take part in my article on NESticle that same year.)
So why kick this hornet’s nest now by archiving the stolen source code? According to togemet2, who didn't want to share his real name because he releases prototypes and similar sensitive historic works, his goal was to keep the code alive and preserve history. He said the file was given to him by someone was on the IRC channel #emu back in 1997 on the day the source code was released. Togemet2 had been sitting on the .zip file containing the code—which also included copies of the source codes for other emulators of the era—for about a year before choosing to pull the trigger.
The reaction from the retro gaming community upon Wednesday’s release, first announced on Twitter, was mixed, with some users suggesting that it shouldn’t go online without Addis’ consent.
“This seems sketchy, even if done for historical reasons,” one Twitter user said.
But togemet2 stood his ground—emphasizing that it fit in The Forest of Illusion’s broader mission to resurface source code and prototypes from old video games.
“Someone commented how it wasn’t moral to release, but as a preservationist, my moral compass is different to others. It’s not about respecting the developer’s wishes,” he told me via Twitter direct message. “It would be the same if I turned it around and said it wasn’t moral to release a NES game that a developer worked on, but I don’t see anyone complaining about that.”
Togemet2, who describes himself as a “lurker” on IRC during the period in question, suggested that the code’s release could allow further development that could lead to a modern Windows version of NESticle, though the mere existence of the code online offers potential research opportunities.
“It’s good for it to be easily accessible,” togemet2 said. “It can be useful for people who are doing research on the subject, for example. So, almost like a museum piece.”
Tied to the release, The Forest of Illusion plans to release a video that discusses the history of the emulator and controversy, though the video is still being planned out.
Some pieces of internet history are more fraught than others—and this one, for now, can be found on the Internet Archive.