Save Our Emulators

Nintendo’s strong-arming of the Switch emulator Yuzu shows how little the company understands its own fan base. Emulators will not die so quietly.

By Ernie Smith

Nearly 30 years ago, in late 1996, I uncovered my first emulator. It was the pre-NESticle days. It barely worked—I want to say it was iNES, which had been limited on Windows machines—but it was so fascinating to me, in part because of what it told me about computers: Simply, that they could have an afterlife.

(Could you imagine a world where 40-year-old arcade machines would be basically lost to the dustbin of history if not for emulators?)

It was an unsanctioned medium, sure, but it was one that carried a lot of potential for the future of video games, in part because it was unsanctioned. Compare it to what happened to public domain content in the early VHS era—out of an officially sanctioned ecosystem, it thrived and became valuable in its own right. People create new things from old things, and everyone benefits.


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This is exactly what happened with emulators, built around old video games whose longstanding commercial value had not been made clear at this time. During this period it was possible to go to flea markets and buy NES or Atari 2600 games for pennies on the dollar. The successful mediums Nintendo and Atari had created just a few years prior had reached its cultural nadir.

Emulators brought these games back to life, but more importantly, kept them alive, in a way going beyond nostalgia. Recently I’ve been taking in the work of Niftski, a dominant Super Mario Bros. speedrunner, barely out of his teens, who has optimized the game at levels that only a few years ago people only thought was possible through the use of automated tools. He plays Mario using an emulator and a keyboard, because that’s what he grew up with. (Yes, he can play on a console with a traditional controller, too.) He cheers and shouts. His blood races. Every journey to the princess is filled with excitement.

As the holder of the most prominent world record in speedrunning—the Super Mario Bros. Any%, which he has broken multiple times—he is one of Mario’s biggest champions, maintaining modern interest in this series as much as any billion-dollar blockbuster film. And he may have never caught onto this without the help of an emulator.

I bring all of this up today because emulation this week suffered a body blow at the hands of Nintendo. The company, worried about its bottom line and the sales it feels entitled to, sued the makers of Yuzu, a popular open-source Nintendo Switch emulator, citing the tool’s use of encryption. And rather than deal with the likely unlimited legal might that Nintendo was likely to throw at them, owners Tropic Haze immediately settled, ensuring that this project would go down for good. (Not only that, but Yuzu’s makers also developed a popular emulator for the 3DS, Citra. That, too, went away, as a result of the settlement.)

The settlement was not cheap, at $2.4 million, but it likely was a lot cheaper than the alternative.

Emulators will not die quite so easily, and I’m convinced this will have a Streisand Effect on emulation in general. Already, replacements for Yuzu, based on the existing open-source code, have started to emerge. But we’re already seeing signs of chilling effects created by this measure. Communities dedicated to running emulation on the Steam Deck have been silenced. Other developers are running scared.

But even with the financial costs, this is a losing battle for Nintendo long-term. They eventually threaten to cross the line of “protecting our brand” into “alienating customers.” With this strong-arm action, this may be the closest they’ve ever gotten to that line. And gamers tend to punish companies that worsen the experience for purely commercial reasons.

Ultimately, Nintendo has severely underestimated the way that emulation has shaped its adult audience, debates about economic harm aside. Yes, there are genuine concerns about piracy, but these concerns exist because Nintendo does not do enough to support its older games, often distributing them in inconsistent or piecemeal fashion and removing online libraries within only a couple of years of a console’s retirement.

Nintendo is not alone here. The thing is, lots of video game manufacturers underestimate the cultural value of their works, a level that goes beyond what they do commercially. They make art, not commerce, and that art often belongs in museums, but we all get lucky enough to put it in our living rooms. It’s art that has commercial value, yes, but the commerce should not overtake the art. Meanwhile, there is a whole technical side to what they create that makes understanding the technical innards of hardware valuable from an engineering perspective. Our next generation of processor engineers probably learned how all this stuff worked by futzing around with emulators.

You can look at Yuzu and agree, OK, maybe developing an emulator that works effectively with video games on a current-gen console is a questionable thing. (And the company’s cavalier approach to Tears of the Kingdom, as highlighted by GamesRadar, most assuredly made this situation far worse.) Maybe Nintendo’s discomfort is ultimately rooted in the fact that its hardware tends to be easier to emulate than competing consoles. (Case in point: The Nintendo consoles emulated by the Dolphin emulator, which is not a part of the Yuzu decision, are direct derivatives of the PowerPC chip used by the original iMac. The Wii U, also well-emulated at this juncture, is based on that same chip. Really.)

But Nintendo owes it to its users, who have invested hundreds or thousands of dollars in its platforms over the past nearly 40 years, to not be the heavy here. To understand that when fans stretch its work beyond the norms it expects, it is out of love, not malice. And it ultimately cannot shape the experience fans have with their work. They have as much invested in Nintendo’s intellectual property as Nintendo does at this point, and the cat’s already out of the bag. They can’t just hide old video games like it’s the Disney of the ’90s, shoving old VHS tapes into the vault for another decade. The internet doesn’t work like that.

Any other industry would love to have people like Niftski in their corner, fans who devote their lives to your company’s work. Nintendo, with its aggressive moves against Yuzu and its highly creative fandoms, has proven that, at least on the business side of things, it does not think that way.

Emulation will not go so quietly. It is no longer underground, the talk of IRC channels and sketchy Geocities sites. It is above ground, and no single legal action will change that.

Nintendo may remain relevant for decades to come, but an emulator will always outlive it. With this action, Nintendo seems to have forgotten that.

Emulated Links

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Oregon just broke Apple’s best tool for controlling the right-to-repair market—software locks that require parts be paired to specific devices. The Oregonian has more.


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Ernie Smith

Your time was just wasted by Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is the editor of Tedium, and an active internet snarker. Between his many internet side projects, he finds time to hang out with his wife Cat, who's funnier than he is.

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