The makers of Dolphin announced the GameCube and Wii emulator will come to Steam Early Access later this year. It promises to let users play classics like The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker and Super Mario Galaxy with improved graphics and better performance than the original consoles offered. I’m sure Nintendo’s lawyers are thrilled.
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“We are pleased to announce our great experiment—Dolphin is coming to Steam!” the creators wrote on Tuesday (viaNintendo Life). “We’re pleased to finally tell the world of our experiment. This has been the product of many months of work, and we look forward to getting it into users’ hands soon!” While Dolphin’s Steam page is already live, the emulator won’t officially be available through Valve’s storefront until sometime in the next few months.
The open-source emulator, which has been in ongoing development for two decades, will be free to download and will support 4K displays as well as modern controllers. It also has built-in netplay for online multiplayer, as well as support for community mods, randomizers, and custom level packs. Other perks include playing with save states, slow motion, and rapid fire.
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The emulator’s makers are quick to point out that Dolphin doesn’t actually come with any games, something they note repeatedly on the Steam page. “This software is built to run legally acquired games,” one of the notices reads. “Dolphin Emulator does not come with games. We do not condone piracy in any shape or form.”
While players can take their existing game collections, rip them to PC, and then use those disc images on the emulator, there’s also no shortage of ways to download pirated copies of console games, which is one of the reasons Nintendo has historically treated emulation and all amateur development for its locked-down platforms with contempt.
Steam Deck users in particular have had a field day recently with using emulators to access their old game collections on the go, and often with better performance. Valve even accidentally included the icon for a Switch emulator called Yuzu in one of its trailers for the PC gaming handheld, before quickly deleting the reference.
In lieu of robust “Virtual Console” features on the Switch, emulators like Dolphin are a boon to retro gaming enthusiasts and preservationists alike. Just this week, Nintendo turned the Wii U and 3DS eShops’ lights off for good, making it impossible to digitally purchase a ton of amazing games. Homebrew projects like Dolphin are one way for the community to try and keep those games alive.
Valve removed the Steam listing for Dolphin, a popular emulator for the GameCube and Wii, after it received a cease and desist from Nintendo, developers behind the project claim. The company behind MarioandZelda accuses the emulator of illegally circumventing its protections, and says it’s merely protecting the “hard work and creativity of video game engineers and developers.”
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A listing for Dolphin on Valve’s digital storefront first appeared back in March. “We are pleased to announce our great experiment—Dolphin is coming to Steam!” the creators wrote at the time. While the open-source project has been available online for years, interest in retro emulators has increased since the release of the Steam Deck, and an official store page would make the tool even easier to access.
On May 27, however, Dolphin’s developers announced the Steam port would be “indefinitely postponed” after Valve removed the listing following discussions with Nintendo. “It is with much disappointment that we have to announce that the Dolphin on Steam release has been indefinitely postponed,” the emulator team wrote in an update on the project’s blog. “We were notified by Valve that Nintendo has issued a cease and desist citing the DMCA against Dolphin’s Steam page, and have removed Dolphin from Steam until the matter is settled. We are currently investigating our options and will have a more in-depth response in the near future.”
According to a copy of the legal notice reviewed by PC Gamer, Nintendo accuses Dolphin of using “cryptographic keys without Nintendo’s authorization and decrypting the ROMs at or immediately before runtime.” While emulation is itself legal, providing users with ways to bypass protections on individual game ROMs could potentially violate Nintendo’s intellectual property rights. It’s an issue that would have to be hashed out in court, though the power imbalance between large corporations and homebrew projects like Dolphin means that rarely actually occurs.
“Nintendo is committed to protecting the hard work and creativity of video game engineers and developers,” a spokesperson for Nintendo told Kotaku in an email. “This emulator illegally circumvents Nintendo’s protection measures and runs illegal copies of games. Using illegal emulators or illegal copies of games harms development and ultimately stifles innovation. Nintendo respects the intellectual property rights of other companies, and in turn expects others to do the same.”
While the company has rarely looked the other way when it comes to piracy of its games and the tools that could facilitate it (like mod chips sold online), Nintendo has been particularly aggressive lately in clamping down on leaks and what it believes to be illegal misuses of its games and technology. In February it subpoenaed Discord for the personal information of someone suspected of leaking the official The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom art book. In April it issued multiple copyright strikes against dozens of popular Breath of the Wild gameplay videos on YouTube that relied on modded versions of the game. And in May it seemingly had a Switch emulation tool, Lotpick, removed from Github after illicit copies of Tears of the Kingdom began spreading like wildfire online prior to the game’s official release.
It’s not yet clear how Dolphin’s current developers will respond, or how willing Valve will be to bring the store page back unless the matter is resolved in court, which could take years. Last year, Valve accidentally included the Switch emulator Yuzu in its YouTube trailer for the Steam Deck. The video was later edited and re-uploaded to remove the reference. The company did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
While Nintendo loves a lawsuit and emulation is often a contentious issue for publishers, few situations have been quite as high-profile as the recent attempt to launch GameCube and Wii emulator Dolphin on Steam. The 20-year-old emu engine has long been available online, but this attempt to become more “mainstream” ended pretty predictably. But now, after a few months of silence, the emu’s creators have spoken up and claim Nintendo’s suggestions that their software breaks the law are completely false.
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Back in March, it was revealed that the well-loved emulator Dolphin would receive a surprise release on Steam. The software, used to run both GameCube and Wii games on modern hardware, had a store page on Valve’s PC gaming store, giving the unlikely impression that the decades-old emulator was going mainstream. Inevitably, this caused consternation, with initial reports saying Nintendo issued demands to Valve that the page be removed and the software not distributed on Steam.
It was later revealed that, in fact, it was Valve that went running to Nintendo to tattle on the project, with a Nintendo of America lawyer then requesting it be removed, using the DMCA as its rationale. Dolphin, claimed Nintendo, “unlawfully circumvents” its cryptographic keys, and so distributing the software “constitutes unlawful traffic” of their rights. Incredibly, Valve then approached the developers behind the emulator, Dolphin Emulator Project (DEP), saying they needed to negotiate whether the software could release on Steam with Nintendo.
Which is some shit.
As a result of this, and consultation with lawyers, DEP has decided to abandon its attempt to release the project on Steam entirely. The situation Valve has created, it says, is an impossible one: to be required to seek Nintendo’s permission to release a product on Valve’s store isn’t a thing, can’t be done, and so “that’s that.”
However, DEP wasn’t done there. The group has been seeking legal advice and says it’s pretty certain Nintendo’s claims about unlawful circumvention are completely wrong and strongly believes that Delphin is legal.
Why Dolphin is likely not illegal
Emulation has always been a thorny area in gaming, with its moral quagmire of preservation versus piracy, and copyright versus copies available. Add to that the fact that building an emulator in itself is not an illegal act. For the vast majority of aged games, emulation is the only way available to play them on modern machines. However, for the IP owners, it’s often viewed as a threat to their profits, especially for companies like Nintendo that like to endlessly regurgitate their classic games on their latest consoles at modern prices.
Projects like Dolphin are seemingly not illegal, given they can be used to run homebrew games and applications, developed by fans of an abandoned console. And the emulators themselves most often contain no pirated material or illegal software. That most people use them to run pirated ROMs of classic games is, technically, not on the emulator developers.
In this instance, however, things became more complicated over claims that Dolphin had broken Nintendo’s encryption for the Wii, using something called the Wii Common Key. This Wii Common Key was part of the original console, used to decrypt the games on the discs, all as part of anti-piracy measures built into the system. This was a rudimentary block for pirates and was overcome with a pair of tweezers.
The release of the key occurred a couple of decades ago and went on to be freely shared across the internet and became part of Dolphin’s open-source code in 2009. No one, including Nintendo, has ever tried to prevent this, nor made any noise indicating they care. However, Nintendo’s response to Valve mentioned the key in its attempts to justify why Dolphin was a problem to the publisher.
The Dolphin emulator operates by incorporating these cryptographic keys without Nintendo’s authorization and decrypting the ROMs at or immediately before runtime. Thus, use of the Dolphin emulator unlawfully “circumvent[s] a technological measure that effectively controls access to a work protected under” the Copyright Act. 17 U.S.C. Distribution of the emulator, whether by the Dolphin developers or other third-party platforms, constitutes unlawful “traffic[king] in a technology…that…is primarily designed or produced for the purpose of circumventing a technological measure.
Dolphin is certainly not “primarily designed…for the purpose of circumventing a technological measure,” says DEP, but rather designed to emulate a piece of hardware as software so others can interact with the recreated environment as they wish. DEP describes circumvention as, “only a small fraction of what we do,” and lays out a series of arguments for why the software fits neatly within exemptions in the DMCA. It includes the reverse engineering exemption, which states,
…a person may develop and employ technological means to circumvent a technological measure, or to circumvent protection afforded by a technological measure, in order to enable the identification and analysis under paragraph (1), or for the purpose of enabling interoperability of an independently created computer program with other programs, if such means are necessary to achieve such interoperability, to the extent that doing so does not constitute infringement under this title.
DEP goes on to express its disappointment that so many in the wider community demanded that the developers remove the encryption key from Dolphin, given its conviction that it was not in violation of any laws, and indeed that Nintendo’s own letter didn’t make the claim that including the key violated U.S. copyright, because “a short string of entirely random letters and numbers generated by a machineis not copyrightable under current US copyright law. If that ever changes, the world will be far too busy to think about emulation.”
Nintendo has never taken an emulator to court, and given the company’s propensity to drag absolutely everyone they can through the legal system in the most brutal ways imaginable, that’s something of note. It strongly suggests Nintendo doesn’t think it would win if it tried. It’s incredibly murky territory, with the legality untested, and the results of doing so very likely to end badly for those who create hardware. It’s very likely in the strong interests of console manufacturers to never actually let this matter reach the courts.
Despite this, Dolphin will not come to Steam, seemingly primarily due to the actions of Valve rather than Nintendo. Kotaku contacted both companies regarding these claims to ask why certain decisions were made and based on what rules. In the meantime, Dolphin remains widely available, and often the only way to play vast libraries of abandoned games without the original, no-longer-produced hardware. Whether this is morally or legally acceptable or not is up to you.
Some wonderful maniac is developing an emulator that will one day let people play Zeebo games. And…oh wait, you might be asking “What’s a Zeebo?” Fair question! Well, it’s a fairly obscure digital-only console released outside of the United States in 2009 in just two countries. And while it’s not a great console with a library of beloved classics, it’s still nice to see that someone is working hard to preserve this odd piece of gaming history.
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The Zeebo launched in Brazil in June 2009, and later that year came out in Mexico. (And by 2011 it was all over.) The budget console was basically a phone with a controller that connected to your TV. Games and apps on the Zeebo were built using BREW, the same software that powered many early flip-phone games, though the specs inside the Zeebo were a bit more powerful than your average non-smartphone. Still, it wasn’t a powerhouse of a console, and that was kind of the point: to provide people in parts of the world who might not be able to afford expensive, imported consoles with a way to play video games and surf the web via 3G. It was also digital-only to circumvent piracy, forcing players to buy games through its online store. And now, someone is building a PC-based emulator for this strange, nearly-forgotten machine.
As spotted by GamesRadar, on August 1 developer Tuxality uploaded a video of themselves fiddling around with their made-from-scratch Zeebo emulator. While only a few games will boot in the emulator—and they don’t work very well yet—it’s still impressive to even see this much work being put into a device that most folks haven’t even heard of.
In the video, we see Tuxality boot up Zeebo Family Fun Pack and Crash Bandicoot Nitro Kart 3D. While Family Fun Pack loads up fine, Crash Nitro Kart 3D displays some intense graphical issues. Still, progress is progress. And yes, big publishers and studios including Activision, Capcom, EA, Disney Interactive Studios, and id Software saw their games released on the Zeebo.
Tuxality calls their emulator Infuse, and says it’s a “high-level” Zeebo emulator that’s been written entirely from scratch based on “clean reverse engineering attempts.” The developer also says that Infuse supports macOS and Linux and could (in the future) be easily ported to the Nintendo 3DS as a fully native application.
As for when you’ll be able to play the Zeebo edition of Resident Evil 4, aka the worst way to play that game, Tuxality doesn’t say. It’s likely at least a year or more away from being fully released to the public.
While some might post the very overused Ryan Reynolds “Why?” gif in response to someone making a Zeebo emulator, I’m excited that fan developers and modders out there are continuing to do the work that game companies won’t do to preserve video game history. Yes, even the weird and less-than-great parts of game history need to be preserved. If anything, those are the bits that will disappear first, and that would be even worse than playing Crash Bandicoot on a flip phone console from 2009.