The forgotten programming savants of yesteryear hold a special place in the hearts of the dedicated, but often become forgotten in the great advances of time. Some heroes go behind the scenes, doing great work which is no longer accredited on the greatest hits of the day. Others find a new career path in life, making dents into new communities where they find a new level of appreciation. Jim Nitchals was all of these things.
James Lawrence Nitchals was born on January 15th, 1962 in the city of San Diego, California to parents Ron and Margaret. He developed his interest from early in life. He was a ham radio enthusiast, as well as a science fiction nut. Technology interested him greatly and he pursued those interests obsessively throughout his life. People around him couldn’t help but remark on what a pure smarts man he was. Jim seemed to understand things at a deeper level than most other people.
Early in high school, Nitchals had discovered computers and became infatuated with programming. He caught on quick to the new movement in video games approaching from all directions, most particularly with influence from the arcade. With his parent’s encouragement, he was given an Apple II to experiment on, quickly to the detriment of his school work. As it turned out, however, he was insanely good at what he did.
As with many programmers of his generation, Nitchals was hooked on arcade games. He particularly loved the vector games from both Atari and Cinematronics. His first major work was the completion of a clone of Asteroids for the Apple II, and it quickly came to mind that there was an emerging market in home computer games which had just started to emerge in 1980. Evaluating the market, Nitchals made the decision to drop out of high school and establish a company. Supported by his father, Jim with two friends Richard Moore and Barry Printz established what they called Cavalier Software – later Cavalier Computer – in Del Mar, California as a label to sell their extremely well produced arcade knockoffs for the home.
The Asteroid Field was an immediate hit in the Apple software world. He followed with other products like Star Thief – patterned after Tim Skelly’s Rip-Off – and Bug Attack – a take on Centipede – each of which also quickly hit the software charts. While his initial partners would never contribute much to Cavalier’s ongoing success, Nitchals made contact with several other young programmers. These included a long time friend Michael Abbott, associate Jay Zimmerman, and fellow prodigy Eric Hammond. Together this team of barely-adults would make up a cadre of young programmer entrepreneurs that the press absolutely loved.
Cavalier was a small shop despite their prominence within the early community, but to have not completed education while netting several thousands of dollars in royalties per game gave these young programmers great motivation. Jim’s father Ron would join the fully incorporated company as a nominal president, but Cavalier only published a few additional titles such as the ambitious team effort Teleport. The company had been distributing its games through SoftSel, a computer software retailer which had been started as a branch of On-Line Systems (Sierra On-Line), through whom they programmed the game Marauder.
The talent drifted away from Cavalier at the end of 1982, including Nitchals. He had come at odds with his father who was brought in as a president of the firm at a time that he was also about to divorce Jim’s mother. Jim took some time to think about how programming had affected his life. He had let code consume him and did feel that he had let his relationships slip as part of his relentless pursuit of perfection. ‘”I have trouble now relating to people on a personal level,” he conceded. “I guess my personal life isn’t what it should be. Maybe I spent too much time at work.”‘ (The Chapel Hill News) These would be troubling signs for the future, but an opportunity landed in his lap that he could not pass up.
At the end of 1982, Nitchals received an offer to create a game for a brand new software publisher called Electronic Arts. The talent which supported the launch of EA was specifically cultivated among immense talent which included Bill Budge and Jon Freeman. As a known quantity in the Apple II software world, he would be brought in to add another leg of programming talent and legitimacy to the operation. Nitchals would also connect the people at EA with his two former associates, Mike Abbott and Eric Hammond, both of whom would play a critical role in the company’s success.
For whatever reason, Nitchals did not end up creating his own game for EA’s launch. In fact, he would never work on an original game ever again. “To create an original game like that is mentally draining.” (The Winnipeg Sun) he commented as a retrospective on his earlier career. He had decided that his role from now on was to be a support programmer for other creative endeavors. Primarily for the launch he assisted with the revised version of Bill Budge’s Pinball Construction Set for EA, just before he found a relatively new calling in the field of music.
At Cavalier, Nitchals had actually been a pioneer of music on limited microcomputers with Teleport being one of the first computer games to have a soundtrack which accompanied the action rather than usurped it. Will Harvey’s Music Construction Set was optimized for use on computers with advanced sound systems, or in the case of the Apple II the expensive Mockingboard addons which expanded the sound capabilities of the system. It required a lot of finesse to funnel three voices through a one audio source speaker, and Jim Nitchals was responsible for that conversion. It would set him on a lifelong path of toying with audio software.
Meanwhile, his programming proteges were creating even more success for the company. Michael Abbott co-authored Hard Hat Mack, the most successful of EA’s six initial games while Eric Hammond created One On One: Dr. J vs. Larry Bird, their next big hit and the first sports game that EA produced. Around the company people spoke of “The University of Nitchals”, (Softline) a wellspring from which only the best came from. Not everybody quite saw the positives though and it was clear that the social moray that worried Nitchals when he spoke to the press continued to drive him away from others.
On the back end, Nitchals continued to be an invaluable actor for Electronic Arts. He created their copy protection for the C64, the Fat Track Loader, said to be so effective that it took over a decade to crack. He also found new passions in the emerging world of graphical user interfaces, particularly on the Macintosh and Atari ST. He converted several EA games to those systems, including launch title Archon: The Light and the Dark. Within that game he had hidden a secret, undocumented edit mode from which users could create their own Archon boards. It was not widely known in the public until several years later and even came with the offer of source code if enterprising hackers contacted him. This was the first of several hints at his encouragement for people to be able to create games using his technical expertise, and that would come to fruition in the middle of his career with EA.
Nitchals was tapped for an important, secret project in 1989 by the management of Electronic Arts. The company had been struggling with the implications of entering the console business, not wanting to pay the royalty fees that came with becoming a Nintendo or Sega licensee. To this end, they would have teams to disassemble and break down the NES and new Genesis systems to see if they could make their own cartridges for each system, bypassing the control of the console publishers. Assigned to the NES “dirty” team would be Nitchals along with programmers Kevin McGrath and Steve Hayes.
Working within strict legal parameters, McGrath and Nitchals went about the process of looking at machine code and working backwards to see what was necessary to get past the Nintendo lockout chip. It was more familiar to them both as Apple programmers, having worked on the 6502 microprocessor for years at this point, but it was not something that every programmer could do. Thankfully, Nitchals was no typical programmer. He and McGrath were able to identify the vital aspects of the NES code without any sort of violation of Nintendo’s copyrights as Tengen had blundered into. They were fully in the clear to make games for the NES.
Working with Nitchals on the Genesis reverse engineering “dirty” team, Mike Schwartz was witness to the fantastic brilliance of Jim Nitchals, who he greatly admired. “No story is complete without a huge tribute to Jim Nitchals.” Schwartz says. “He was a behind the scenes kind of guy, much like me. I don’t know that he ever really got credit for how great he was. He’s among the top 2 or 3 most brilliant people I’ve ever encountered.” The work done by Nitchals on the NES gave some forward progress to the Genesis project, helping it reach its conclusion. Schwartz though did also witness the unfortunate side effects of pressure on Jim’s life. He had slipped down a path of alcoholism which consumed much of his time outside of work.
Unfortunately the NES reverse engineering came to little as EA got a license with Nintendo and made a paltry number of games for the NES. The Genesis deal proved far more important for the company however. Nitchals and Schwartz were able to reverse engineer the Genesis which allowed Electronic Arts to get a favorable deal for publishing on the system. The feature game that they would use to help convince Sega was a ported version of Bullfrog’s Populous, which Nitchals was primarily responsible for putting together within the short time frame.
The console project was the last major task that Nitchals undertook for EA. Having reached a great high in his career, he decided that he was going to follow his passion of creating music drivers for the Apple Macintosh. He teamed up with Maxis sound artist Steve Hales to create a MIDI driver for the Macintosh called MIDI CD released as Freeware. This software was used for a huge number of Macintosh ports including Prince of Persia, Out of this World, and Wolfenstein 3D. It would also serve as the basis for the company Igorlabs co-founded by himself and Hales as well as got him hired into Apple to work on QuickTime. To distribute this software, Nitchals would turn to a new avenue, the world wide web, where the next phase of his legacy would take place.
Very probably the work on console reverse engineering had gotten Nitchals rather interested in the concept of virtual machines, as he would have had to create development environments on home computers to utilize his knowledge. With the era of the Apple II fading into the background, he very much did not want the legacy he had been a part of to be lost. Accordingly, he began to work on one of the first large scale emulation projects – named Stop the Madness – to make the Macintosh play Apple II games. He was even going to the step of contacting his old cohorts in the Apple II scene with the intent of republishing their self-owned games. The emulator would eventually emerge in 1994, but the CD-ROM would not, instead evolving into a different project for a different platform.
Nitchals would help form a group for his final commercial venture. The CyberPuNKS were a group of people with a clunky semi-acronym of which he was the ‘N’. They endeavored on a project to release software for the Atari VCS, specifically that from the Starpath Supercharger addon which they had managed to get the rights to. The CD release would allow games to be loaded onto a real Supercharger and included a few extra addons such as the source code for the Vectrex and a custom drawing tool for the VCS created by Nitchals himself. The release Stella Gets a New Brain! created a new awareness of the games from these libraries, preserving them on CD-ROM as well as unveiling several unreleased games for both the Supercharger and VCS. It was one of the first ever releases of this type, made possible by the connections that Nitchals had made on the world wide web.
Even with all of these accomplishments, the thing which Nitchals became most widely known for was his crusade on the early web against the “spammer” class. Most vocal for his action on the latter days of Usenet in the late 90s, Nitchals set up the website YBecker to give advise to those suffering from spam and tracking the legal reaction to digital bombardment of advertisements from unknown actors.
“If a spammer sends a million pieces of e-mail out for a worthless piece of merchandise, that means a million people are going to have to delete the e-mail of respond to it. Add up the number of seconds, and we’re talking days and months of human suffering and waste of energy and time.”Jim Nitchals, quoted in The Internet (1998) pg 83
While this scuffle might seem quaint in retrospect, the fight would have incredibly steep consequences in the end. Most notably he helped to try and bridge the gap with notorious spam marketer Sanford Wallace, who later served jail time for his activities. He believed that with the passion and conviction he had against this freedom on the internet could convince people not to partake in the practice. He threw himself into everything that he did, remaining active on Usenet up until the end.
Exacerbated by the years of drinking, Nitchals would suffer from painful health issues which frequently disrupted his work. During a routine check up at his doctor’s on June 5th, 1998, Jim Nitchals suffered a cerebral brain hemorrhage. He was 36, having accomplished a great deal and leaving behind him a vast legacy of technological accomplishments and personal impressions which persist well after his death.
Jim and I both lived in Mountain View and it was a reasonably short walk between our homes. He and I really got along well from the very first. The thing that struck me about Jim was his incredible brilliance at engineering and other things (like investing in stock options).Mike Schwartz, 2022
I’m going to miss your irreverent humor. Your coding style and desire to make things as fast as possible. Your absolute belief in creating the best possible relationships from honesty and integrity. Your ability to enjoy conversation. Your business savvy in understanding the big picture. Your gentleness. Your willingness to understand someone else’s way of thinking. Your debates on the latest political issues. Your generosity. Your great mimicking of cartoon voices. Your friendship.Steve Hales, 1998
His ‘voice of reason’ and dealings in several high-profile incidents made him someone to look up to.Unknown, 1998
The tale of Jim Nitchals is one worth remembering in the annals of classic gaming and preservation. As a programmer, he touched nearly every sector of the software world. Freeware, middleware, AAA game development, independent game making, contract programming, demoscene, and more. He applied himself in ways that suited his intellect, shaping the world around his needs and bringing the impossible into software. At heart he was a hacker in the purest sense, driven by the challenge of the effort. to those who knew him, he was a gracious genius who always seemed to be accomplishing more every time he took on a new task.
Though years and swaths of technology have passed since his untimely passing, we cannot forget the mammoth achievements of Jim Nitchals. To David Maynard, he was the man who twice saved EA from financial ruin. To his sister Kathy, he was a loving brother with a deep familial bond between them. To emulation programmers on the Atari 2600 and Vectrex, he’s a god of his craft. Whatever he might be, take this moment to appreciate the memory of Jim Nitchals.
(Edit: Previously the article had said the Stella Gets a New Brain release was accomplished via emulation. This has been amended.)
Apple Computer Info, 1992? STM = Apple II Emulator
Byte, 1981-12 pg 40.
The Chapel Hill News, 1984-01-10 pg 5A.
Computer Gaming World, 1982 pg 21.
Family Computing, 1984-09 pg 62-63.
Hardcore Computist, #28 1986 pg 20-21.
The Internet (1998) pg 83.
Lancaster New Era, 1982-09-21 pg 23.
Microtimes, 1984-09 pg 13.
Mike Schwartz email interview, 2021-02-10 to 2022-01-11.
Newsweek, 1982-08-16 pg 46.
San Diego Union, 1983-01-02 pg D-11. 1983-01-20 pg North County 1, 5.
Softalk, 1981-05 pg 76. 1981-06 pg 84. 1981-09 pg 116. 1981-10 pg 148. 1981-11 pg 108. 1982-01 pg 176. 1982-02 pg 188. 1982-03 pg 188. 1982-04 pg 166. 1983-01 pg 46, 239. 1983-03 pg 196. 1983-12 pg 339.
Softline, 1984-03 pg 55.
Tariland News, 1999-12 pg 96.
TODAY, 1981-11+12 pg 22.
The Winnipeg Sun, 1984-10-30 pg 23.
Winchester Star, 1985-01-31 pg 11B.