How Nintendo’s destruction of Yuzu is rocking the emulator world

When Nintendo sued the developers of Yuzu on March 4, it wasn’t just an attack on the leading way to play Nintendo Switch games without a Switch. It was a warning to anyone building a video game emulator.

Seven developers have now abandoned, closed, or left the emulation scene entirely. Of those that remain, many circle the wagons, becoming quieter and more cautious, trying not to paint targets on their backs. Four developers declined to participate in discussions The edge, and said they didn’t want to attract attention. One even tried to delete the answers to my questions after we started, suddenly afraid of drawing press.

  • The Citra emulator for Nintendo 3DS is gone
  • The Pizza Boy emulators for the Nintendo Game Boy Advance and Game Boy Color are gone
  • The Drastic emulator for Nintendo DS is free for now and will be removed
  • The lead developer of Yuzu and Citra has moved away from emulation
  • The lead developer of Strato, a Switch emulator, has moved away from emulation
  • Dynarmic, used to speed up several emulators including Yuzu, has abruptly ended development
  • One employee of Ryujinx, a Switch emulator, has distanced himself from the project
  • AetherSX2, a PS2 emulator, is finally gone (largely unrelated; development was suspended a year ago)

Not everyone is that scared. Four other emulator teams tell me they’re optimistic Nintendo won’t challenge them, that they have a strong legal footing, and that Yuzu may have been an unusually incriminating case. A 10 year veteran tells me that everyone only has a… bit more concerned.

But when I point out that Nintendo didn’t have to prove anything in court, they all admit they don’t have money for lawyers. They say they would probably have to pivot like Yuzu if the Japanese gaming giant came knocking. “I would do what I should do,” the most confident of the four tells me. “I would like to fight it… but at the same time I know we exist because we don’t oppose Nintendo.”

There’s a new meme where Yuzu is the mythical Hydra: cut off one head and two more grow in its place. It’s partly true that several forks of Yuzu (and 3DS emulator Citra) emerged shortly after their predecessors died: Suyu, Sudachi, Lemonade, and Lime are some of the public names. But they’re not giving Nintendo the middle finger: they’re treating Nintendo’s lawsuit as a how-to manual not to piss off the company.

In its legal complaint, Nintendo alleged that Yuzu “enabled piracy on a colossal scale,” by giving users “detailed instructions” on how to “get it working with illegitimate copies of Nintendo Switch games,” among other things. OK, no more manuals, say the Switch emulator developers who spoke to me.

They also say they removed certain parts of Yuzu that made it easier to play pirated games. If Ars Technica According to reports, a forked version called Suyu requires you to remove the firmware, title.keys, and prod.keys from your Switch before you can decode and play Nintendo games. Only one of these was previously technically required. (It doesn’t matter that most people don’t have an easily hackable first-gen Switch and will probably download this stuff from the Internet.)

The developer of another fork tells me he plans to do something similar, allowing users to “take care of themselves” by ensuring the code doesn’t automatically generate keys.

Most developers I spoke to also try to make it clear that they are not profiting at Nintendo’s expense. Someone who initially locked early access builds behind a donation page has stopped doing so and has instead made them publicly available on GitHub. The leader of another project tells me there will never be a paywall, and for now there is also “strictly no donation.” The Dolphin Emulator, which faced a small challenge from Nintendo last year, is now publicly exposing its small non-profit budget for anyone to investigate.

But I don’t know if these steps are enough to prevent Nintendo from throwing its weight around again, especially when it comes to emulating the Nintendo Switch, its main moneymaker. One thing you need to know about this whole situation: the stakes are higher than ever before. Emulators have typically lagged behind new console generations, as it can take a lot of horsepower to digitally replicate a console’s functionality and time to learn its secrets. But that didn’t apply to Switch.

Not only did hackers find an unprecedented vulnerability in the original Switch less than a year after its release, but the emulator scene also managed to develop software that plays Switch games better than the Switch itself within its own lifespan. They took over Nintendo territory by running expertly on Switch-style portables like the Steam Deck, and on some phones. YouTubers posted tutorials on how to emulate Switch games, some of which Nintendo reportedly threatened with copyright claims; Valve even showed off the Yuzu emulator (briefly) in an official Steam Deck video.

But the speed of the technology could also make it easier for Nintendo to challenge emulators, several developers admit. While Nintendo only started introducing encryption on the Wii, the Switch apparently features five different layers of encryption, and Nintendo’s complaint against Yuzu mainly alleged that the emulator encouraged users to bypass them.

That’s an argument that hasn’t yet been tested in court, and there’s at least one major reason to think Nintendo might not win if it tried. Section 1201 of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act do allowing people to narrowly bypass copy protection for “interoperability of an independently created computer program with other programs,” and the Dolphin Emulator team has publicly argued that this would even extend to sharing decryption keys.

But many previous emulators would never have faced those kinds of challenges, and again, no developer has the money to poke around and find out. “We’re fortunate that the systems we use are simpler, they don’t have the advanced encryption techniques,” says a developer focused on early Nintendo consoles.

Another suggests that the safest emulators are for consoles so old or emulated at such a high level that users don’t even need to carry a copyrighted BIOS. For example, Sony PSP emulator PPSSPP can help defend itself by saying that it emulates everything, including the BIOS and operating system, using its own code.

But the longer I talk to them, the clearer it becomes that the loyal emulators are somewhat shocked by Yuzu’s collapse. No one seems completely convinced that Yuzu did it wrong.

First rule of the emulator club: you don’t talk about piracy

“The Yuzu Discord was very careful not to mention piracy – they even scanned the logs of bug reports to check if people were using home-made copies of games,” said a fork contributor.

“They had a metaphorical gun to their head,” says another, calling bullshit on Yuzu’s admission that it was “primarily for bypassing and playing Nintendo Switch games” and thus breaking the law.

None of the developers I spoke to have a huge amount to lose. It is not their livelihood that is at stake, and they have no extra mouths to feed. But they still rely on the good graces of companies like Nintendo.

The big companies sometimes benefit from letting emulation take its course. You can download classic games for the Nintendo Switch and PlayStation 5 Today because of emulators. Nintendo is said to have hired from the scene for its own in-house emulation team, and Sony has certainly done just that, hiring at least one developer from the PlayStation 2 emulator PCSX2 to bring PS2 games to PS4.

Today, his company, Implicit Conversions, is working with Sony to put PS1 and PSP games on PS5, with downloadable Sony games like Twisted metal And Siphon filter quietly powered by emulation. It’s one reason to be optimistic: perhaps Nintendo sees at least some benefit in leaving the rest of the scene alone.

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