Over the course of three years, an impostor convinced the Smash community — as well as her friends, housemates and girlfriend — that she was a reclusive and revered programmer behind the famous Smash mod, Project M, several sources close to the issue say.
Illustration by Jim Cooke
The supposed impostor, who goes by many names and who we'll call Katy for clarity, denies that she impersonated the Project M luminary, but four people have all told Kotaku the same story, and the details line up. For three years, those people say, Katy convinced western pockets of the Smash community that she had access to Project M's code and development secrets.
Katy even moved into a house full of Smash players who believed that Project M was her baby, and now say they are questioning the real identity of their housemate, who has been missing from the house since these revelations unfolded last week.
Those people say that Katy has spent the past three years masquerading as one of Smash's most private heroes and amassing all the social clout that came with it. When the truth came out, it was a devastating revelation to the community of players who once trusted this stranger and, now, are left wondering just who the hell they let into their lives.
Jace Boostman is an excitable 22-year-old tournament organiser who, in his central Missouri hometown, once ran a weekly Smash event in his local hobby shop. It was 2014, and amid Warhammer figurines and under a wall stacked high with Magic: The Gathering packs, Boostman and about 20 Smash fans competed at the Smash mod Project M. A fan project designed by a secretive team of developers, Project M was the Smash connoisseur's fantasy after 2008's Super Smash Bros. Brawl failed to deliver on the serious competitive potential that its predecessor, Super Smash Bros. Melee, offered.
The mod, which was downloaded over three million times, fuelled a community of players whose tournaments drew in hundreds of entrants, including Smash celebrities like Jason "Mew2King" Zimmerman and Juan "Hungrybox" Debiedma. Project M's murky legal status justified its developers' low profiles.
The Project M Team, credit: the PMT
To create Project M, the Smash fans had to rebuild Nintendo's blockbuster platform fighter from the ground up, calibrating its physics, characters' frame data and stages to their specifications. Its developers stayed secretive, often using only their Smash gamer tags and forum usernames, out of concern about Nintendo's lawyers. Although the developers of Project M gave it out for free, the mod used Nintendo's intellectual property in ways that could certainly merit a cease and desist letter.
Of all the secretive developers on Project M, one remained the most obscure: Magus, the superstar programmer of the crew.
One day, late in 2014, a new player showed up at Boostman's Smash event, selecting the fighter Ganondorf. After a little conversation, Boostman remembers, the player divulged that she was, in fact, the great Project M programmer Magus. As they talked more and got closer over the months that passed, Boostman recalls how this Magus (or, for clarity, Katy) would slip into stream-of-consciousness recitations of the frame-rate or dash-back differences between Project M and 2001's Super Smash Bros Melee.
Sometimes she'd recite Ganondorf chain grab percentages that, online, had been detailed in ancient forum posts by the Project M development team. Boostman, who admits he can't keep a secret, spread word that he'd met Magus, generating buzz across Missouri's Smash community. What made this news surprising, though, was that although Magus's praises had been sung across the country, he was known as a recluse.
The real Magus built his reputation by making and modifying most of Project M's code, producing the engine and several of the game's biggest coding breakthroughs. "The 'M' in 'Project M' should stand for 'Magus,'" said a Project M developer who goes only by the name David. "He was a genius wizard." Although he had no other social media presence, Magus would swoop into the Project M IRC chat channel "whenever someone said something wrong, like there was a Bat Signal," David recalls.
And then, with a flourish of his hand, he'd solve some unsolvable problem. Then, he would disappear again. Nobody on the Project M development team knew who Magus was or how to contact him except for one or two people. His life was a complete enigma. People suspected that he might live in New Jersey or Pennsylvania.
"It's crazy how his life is a mystery to everyone, but he's this god," David said. "He's famous. But he doesn't like social interaction."
In December 2015, Project M shuttered. Its developers say they closed shop because they feared Nintendo's wrath. "We saw them going after Pokemon fan games, Metroid fan games," David said. "It was always a thing in the back of our heads." Players presented alternative theories — had Nintendo threatened legal action? — but nobody found evidence supporting them. The only certain thing was that Project M was dead and, soon, its relevance would soon fizzle out, too.
The Balcony/image courtesy of Jonathan Hale
Boostman eventually left Missouri to move into a Project M house — a sort of Smash frat — in Southern California. That house, referred to as the "Balcony" (because of a college inside joke), was co-run by California State, Fullerton students Alex Wallace and Adrian Nieto, two Project M fanatics who met studying film.
They had just started laying the groundwork for their first major production, an investigation into why Project M was made, how it amassed such a robust following, and what led it to die out. Often, they discussed these questions among friends at home. And it was clear that, to get to the bottom of Project M, they'd have to track down the game's hermetic developers.
"On day one of preproduction, we kept bringing up Magus," Nieto told me. From the next room over, where he was watching anime, Boostman overheard. "Shit. I know Magus," Boostman remembers saying. "She's in Missouri."
Over Facebook, Wallace contacted Katy. She responded quickly but was, at first, reluctant to discuss Project M's development or her role on it. She wanted to be friends first. So, for months, the pair got to know Katy. "We were trying to get her to trust us and vice versa," Nieto said. When Katy mentioned she was moving to SoCal in the summer of 2017, Nieto and Wallace offered her a room in the Balcony. Katy accepted.
The Balcony/image courtesy of Jonathan Hale
For over two months, Katy lived at the Balcony, playing Smash with visitors and travelling with Wallace and Nieto across the country for their documentary. In games, she often chose the Project M fighter Ganondorf, known to be one of Magus's prized creations. Wallace and Nieto remember that Katy's Smash tag was a specific set of Kanji characters — Japanese lettering — seen in the few YouTube videos that exist of the real Magus playing Project M. Katy, however, denied using that Smash tag when contacted by Kotaku.
At home, Wallace and Nieto say that Katy would occasionally show off code she was working on. She'd also advertise other mods she was editing, they said, like a Zelda skin that envisioned the princess covered in blood from head to toe. Although she would not assent to an interview for the documentary quite yet, Katy would divulge specific details about conflicts and breakthroughs in the development of Project M.
She appeared to know about a private, excruciatingly heated IRC debate over how Zelda should be designed. (David, the Project M developer, said he has no idea how Katy had that information.) Katy also, according to Wallace and Nieto, would claim that Nintendo representatives communicated personally with her about the legal status of Project M. Katy also denied that she had done that.
In the tail end of this summer, things started to unravel. Wallace and Nieto travelled often to film Project M players and figureheads for their documentary, which, in July 2017, brought them to New York. In the back room of a New York Smash tournament, Wallace and Nieto sat down with David, who was a real get for their documentary. That's when they mentioned to him that they'd been living with Magus.
"I hadn't talked to Magus in three years, so I had no idea what was going on in his life," David said, "but what they told me was strange." David did not question them, but felt like something was off. "The first red flag was that they said their Magus was outgoing," he said. Also, their Magus lived in SoCal. To his knowledge, the real Magus had never even visited southern California.
Wallace and Nieto didn't think much of it until late August when David, who was still helping with the documentary, shared a picture from a 2012 Smash tournament with the documentarians — a rare shot of the entire Project M team together in real life. Second to the right was a tall, long-faced lanky man with straight, short hair and glasses. 2012's Magus looked nothing like the Magus who was living with Wallace and Nieto. Katy was transgender, while the real Magus was apparently a cis man, according to David and other Project M developers.
Wallace and Nieto got in contact with Project M devs, as well as Katy's Missouri friends and long-distance girlfriend to compare notes. Where was Katy from? What was she doing prior to Jace Boostman's Project M tournaments? Where was she living during Project M's development? What was her legal first name? Furious Googling and fact-checking among Katy and Magus's friends revealed that facts about Katy's life did not line up with what little was known about the real Project M developer.
In the meantime, Wallace and Nieto were attending Los Angeles Smash tournament Gods and Gatekeepers, where they hoped to convene with Jason "Mew2King" Zimmerman, a legendary Smash player. Zimmerman was known to have corresponded with Magus — they both lived in New Jersey — and a few YouTube videos uploaded by a Magus420 account show Zimmerman competing against the Project M developer, who played Ganondorf. (Knowing Zimmerman was something Wallace and Nieto remember Katy occasionally bragging about.) After taking home first prize, Zimmerman went backstage, where Nieto met him with the picture of Magus and a lot of questions.
Nieto said he showed Zimmerman his 2012 photograph of Magus and, then, a photograph of Katy. Zimmerman was certain, according to Nieto, that Katy was not Magus.
"I didn't really have a reason to not believe it," Boostman said. "There was definitely a thought early on, 'Is it really Magus? That's so crazy that Magus is here [in Missouri].' Someone could be making this up, but that sounds stupider, really."
Wallace was the one to confront this stranger who had been living with them for nearly three months. "I exploded," Wallace recalled. "I asked her, 'Dude, who the fuck are you?'" Within minutes, it became clear that the person who they had thought for months was Magus, the key to their documentary and a monumental figure in Smash lore, was actually a completely unknown person.
"I considered this person one of my best friends," Wallace said. "We have no idea who the fuck this person is. . . Everyone in Missouri thought it was Magus. There is things this person knows that would be unreasonable for someone not involved with the development of Project M to know."
Wallace and Nieto
Wallace told Katy to get out. That night, she and Nieto stayed in a hotel, terrified that the friend they'd been sharing meals with, travelling with, and brushing their teeth next to was actually a complete stranger. When they got back to the Balcony, Katy was gone, and although the fake Magus's car is still in their parking lot, Wallace and Nieto do not know where she is.
Katy declined repeated requests to comment for this article, although she was willing to get on the phone for a fact-check, during which she said she was not Magus and insisted that she had not claimed to be a developer on Project M.
But two members of Project M's development team and even the real Magus have confirmed that a fake Magus did infiltrate the Project M community under the guise of the famous developer.
"It wouldn't be too hard to impersonate him," David said, "because nobody really knows anything about him. He's been a ghost this whole time. "The overall reaction to this among the dev team is, 'Who the hell could this be?!'"
While reporting for this piece, I reached out to the real Magus on a Smash forum where he has been posting for over a decade under the handle Magus420, offering minute details about Project M's development. Knowing how quiet and reclusive he was, I didn't expect to hear back from him. After all, if anyone could simply reach out to him by private message, how could an impostor fool everyone for three years? If he was accessible by DMs, why wouldn't someone in the Balcony have contacted him by now?
Then I saw a new private message in my inbox.
"Hadn't heard of it until just this week," said the message, written by Magus420. "Pretty weird I suppose, but nowhere near as unsettling as those directly involved in those scenes I'm sure. Someone pulling that off for as long as they did while looking nothing even remotely like me kind of says something about my presence outside of my region though, lol."