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Nintendo vs. Dolphin on Steam (and what the hell is the DMCA anyway?)
Nintendo sent a letter to Valve, but was it a DMCA takedown request? Plus: some fun retro handhelds and a fully voiced fan dub.
As I write this intro I’ve still got 93 minutes of Sunday remaining, so this issue of ROM is still technically arriving on time! We’re coming in late on Sunday with some fresh legal eagle analysis of Nintendo’s letter to Valve on Friday. But first, a little fun. Let’s start this issue with a little choose your own adventure dialogue option:
A) Wow, what a two weeks it’s been. I can’t believe how much has happened with Tears of the Kingdom emulation!
B) Wow, what a two days it’s been. I can’t believe Nintendo bullied Dolphin off Steam!
C) I like turtles (I get it, Sunday brain is a thing)
I trust you all to vote responsibly and properly reflect this moment in time we’re all sharing.
But yeah — bit of a pivot this weekend for one of our Big Two stories! I was going to do a beefier roundup of Tears of the Kingdom progress, but the Nintendo-Dolphin-Steam situation came in with a royal flush to steal the spot. Still, I piled some TotK updates into Patch Notes, so we’re still On Top ‘O Things. The mod scene also continues to develop at a wild pace, so next issue for real we’ll take stock of the 60 fps sitch.
Before hopping into the big stuff, I wanted to highlight an eclectic bunch of projects I’ve seen floating around the last two weeks that are emulation-adjacent. This edge enhancer add—in board for 2-chip SNES models looks so sharp you could slice someone’s head off with the pixels on Mario’s tail. If you want to get the best picture possible out of one of those early Super Nintendos, this board from Voultar looks like it might soon be essential. RetroRGB also highlighted a trio of new optical drive emulators with some console firsts, including the Sega CD and Philips CD-i (lol).
Sonik-br wanted to play Densha de Go Final (PC) but only had the Densha de Go controller for PS2, so they soldered up a connector and tossed the instructions on Github. The PC version has a complete English translation as of late last year! Choo choo.
A new Zelda-esque adventure for the original Game Boy, called Kudzu, is fully funded on Kickstarter and will be available as a ROM ($15 backers) or as an actual Game Boy cart! ($30 or more). The devs say they’ve tested it on old GB hardware as well as the Analogue Pocket. I hope it hits its $65,000 stretch goal to get ~colors~.
Finally, retro YouTuber Video Game Esoterica has released several videos in the last week about Castlevania The Arcade, a 2009 motion control lightwhip game that ran on Konami’s XP PC arcade system. The exciting news is that a member of their Discord dumped the game and made it available on Archive.org, and after much fiddling it’s now playable on PC with mouse controls or a Wiimote or whatever you want to configure. Super cool.
When I last checked in on the Discord, they’d gotten the game to work properly, including music and sound effects, on an actual XP rig, but sound doesn’t work properly on modern Windows just yet. Finding a fix for that is an ongoing process.
The Big Two
1. Nintendo DMCAs Dolphin on Steam (or did they?)
I thought I was going to spend my Friday working ahead on emails and planning for next week, perhaps taking regular sips of a beverage and sighing “ahh, that’s the stuff.” But no, Friday afternoon was much more of a spit take kind of day: I learned that Valve’s legal department had received a letter from Nintendo concerning Dolphin, claiming it violated their intellectual property rights, and removed the emulator from the store.
In the two decades Dolphin’s been around it’s never run afoul of Nintendo — the company hasn’t gone after its Github or website. No threats, ever. This is an incredibly scary moment for any emulator team: though Dolphin does have some funds at its disposal, even the possibility of a legal battle with Nintendo makes you imagine what a years-long lawsuit could cost in both time and money. Nobody wants it.
But is that really a possibility here? And is Nintendo going after Dolphin now a sign that it’s really ramping up an attack on hobbyist emulation?
I think it’s at least fair to say that Nintendo emulation has never been more high profile than it is right now with Tears of the Kingdom. While the company hasn’t gone after Yuzu or Ryujinx, it did issue a DMCA takedown over Lockpick_RCM, the tool used to copy the encryption keys needed for Switch games. With Dolphin, Nintendo cited the same relevant clause of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act in its letter to Valve, claiming Dolphin “‘circumvent[s] a technological measure that effectively controls access to a work protected under’ the Copyright Act.” Nintendo’s claim is that the Wii and GameCube use “proprietary cryptographic keys” to encrypt games, and Dolphin being able to decrypt those is a violation of the DMCA.
This has been interpreted by former Dolphin contributor Delroth, as well as others, to be a reference to the Wii AES-128 Common Key which is included within Dolphin. Some commenters have immediately pointed to this being an obvious and idiotic blunder from the emulator devs, but that’s ignoring two things:
The Common Key has been included for over a decade and Nintendo has never gone after Dolphin until now.
US copyright law is incredibly unspecific around these matters and what counts as circumventing encryption would have to be determined in court.
As Delroth tooted (or whatever the heck you call a Mastodon post) in a follow-up:
“People can't fathom that *nobody* has a clue whether emulators for 7th gen consoles might be infringing DMCA anti-circumvention clauses. Lawyers, courts, emulation developers, Nintendo — no-one. Everyone who cares does know that it operates (and has always operated) in a gray area though.”
My (extremely Not a Lawyer) take is that if this went to court, Nintendo would lose based on its claims in this brief letter. One of its statements strikes me as a reach: it claims Dolphin is in violation of DMCA clause a(2)(A):
No person shall manufacture, import, offer to the public, provide, or otherwise traffic in any technology, product, service, device, component, or part thereof, that—
(A) is primarily designed or produced for the purpose of circumventing a technological measure that effectively controls access to a work protected under this title
I think the Wii Common Key is not likely to be considered reaching the threshold of “circumvention” that would cause the court to side with Nintendo here. In general I’d say copyright law is very much on the corporation’s side, and Nintendo has won related cases in the past: in Canada (so, granted, totally different laws here) Nintendo successfully sued the maker of some game copier / modchip devices in 2017. But obviously Dolphin’s primary function is not circumvention, it’s running games. And as far as encryption goes, a lawyer could probably make a pretty good argument that the Common Key ain’t exactly high quality ICE. I don’t think a case against Dolphin would be a slam dunk win for Nintendo, but it sure makes for an easy threat.
Of course, that letter is also not a full legal argument, so we’re back to Delroth’s point: We just Do. Not. Know how this would play out in an actual court case. Personally I’d love to see the restrictive anti-circumvention aspects of the DMCA massively curtailed, but it’s gonna take a major new law or a case setting a strong precedent for that to happen.
In my PC Gamer news story on the situation I called this a DMCA takedown, but I’ve now amended that article with input from a lawyer:
"I would characterize this NOT as a DMCA take down notice and instead as a warning shot that the software, Dolphin, if released on Steam would (in Nintendo’s view) violate the DMCA," says attorney Kellen Voyer of Voyer Law, which specializes in intellectual property and technology law.
"Here, there is no allegation that Valve is currently hosting anything that infringes Nintendo’s copyright or, more broadly, violates the DMCA. Rather, Nintendo is sending clear notice to Valve that it considers Dolphin to violate the DMCA and should it be released on Steam, Nintendo will likely take further action. Given that Valve controls what is available on its store, it made the decision not to wade into any dispute between the Dolphin developers and Nintendo and, instead, followed Nintendo’s preemptive request and took down the Steam page."
It is clear from the letter’s introduction, which states “Thank you for bringing the announced offering of the Dolphin emulator on Valve’s Steam store to Nintendo’s attention,” that Valve had already had some form of discussion with Nintendo about Dolphin. My imagined version of this:
Valve: Yo Nintendo, u see this thing? This cool?
Nintendo: Super not cool, and also like, hella illegal.
Nintendo lawyers: (Thanks for the billable hours.)
So where does this leave Dolphin? As I understand it, because this was not a DMCA takedown, there’s no official legal mechanism for the emulator devs to file a counterclaim. All they can do is discuss with Valve the possibility of getting back onto the store, if that’s a discussion Valve is even willing to entertain. Unfortunately the Dolphin team has no leverage here.
On the positive side, the fact that it was not a DMCA takedown is in a way a relief, and opens up an interesting question: would Nintendo actually issue a takedown if Dolphin were to launch on Steam? Right now Nintendo can bluster and gesture at the DMCA and has zero need to back anything up. Obviously it remains really scary to go up against Nintendo, but there’s a real chance here that if Valve did allow Dolphin to launch on Steam, Nintendo would actually do absolutely nothing about it.
Valve has no reason to throw its support behind Dolphin here… but as a company that’s historically been very open to fan use of its intellectual property, supportive of modding, etc. it sure would be cool as hell if they did.
2. A mini retro handheld roundup
These things seem to pop up like weeds in Animal Crossing — ignore them for a few days and suddenly there’s a whole crop of new ones underfoot. If you’re unfamiliar, there are a number of Chinese brands like Anbernic, Miyoo and GoRetroid that sell cheap handheld gaming systems, usually running some version of Android, that are geared towards emulation.
Generally they’re not going to compare to the experience on, say, an Analogue Pocket or a Steam Deck, but: Cheap! I’ve seen a few unfamiliar models recently, so it felt like a good time to see what’s actually new in this hardware scene. Here’s 5 from just the last few months.
Retroid Pocket Flip ($164) - A clamshell with a 16:9 4.7” screen, Hall effect slider pads reminiscent of the 3DS, and a pair of ARM Cortex A75 cores to do the bulk of its processing alongside some efficiency cores, and a Mali G52 GPU. That’s a 2017 CPU and a 2018 GPU, so not exactly cutting edge (again, cheap!). I have to say, I think it’s kind of an ugly little bugger. According to Retro Dodo it can emulate systems up through the Dreamcast and PSP effectively, but it’s too pricey to be in impulse buy territory for me, and not nice-looking enough to be the kind of system I’d really be excited to play games on.
Anbernic RG405M ($178) - Now this is a classier piece of kit; it kinda looks like a fusion of a PSP and a Game Boy Advance, but with a metal body and a 4:3 4” display. The body and sticks look nice, but the body and 640x480 panel less so. Power wise it’s packing the exact same CPU/GPU as above. It’s almost like these things are so cheap because they use a lot of off-the-shelf parts… 🤔
Miyoo Mini Plus ($70) - This cutie I would actually buy if I didn’t have an Analogue Pocket and a couple Game Boys I modded with purdy backlit screens. (Oh, and a Playdate on order, hopefully arriving sometime before 2025! I might have A Problem.) Ahem, so the Miyoo Mini Plus: it’s tiny, with a 3.5”, 640x480 screen and a stubby design meant to be slipped in a pocket. Somewhat unbelievably, they were selling an even smaller version of this thing last year. The bottom half of the back of the system has a ridged design evocative of the original Game Boy. It can run up to PS1-era games via emulation, though you’ll have to steer clear of anything that needed a DualShock.
Most folks grabbing these things are eager to install OnionOS, an open source project with a lot of optimization work done to improve the emulation experience. An excuse to play with a specialized open source OS is always a good time IMO.
Data Frog SF2000 ($26) - A Super Nintendo controller with a speakers and a screen? This thing feels like the current emulation scene’s equivalent of those weirdass hotel N64s or the neverending stream of game devices that are actually just bizarro NES hardware. (Frank Cifaldi has a great thread on those; check it out.) Definitely a piece of crap, but such a cheap one that you could definitely give it to someone as a gag.
KT-R1 ($170-$280) - The most interesting retro handheld to debut lately, this long-in-the-works system is from a retro handheld enthusiast who couldn’t find exactly what they wanted and so went and built it. It’s kind of a Switch Lite Lite, with a 4.5” 3:2 1080p screen, customizable RAM options and 2x Cortex A76 CPU cores. The customization is the big appeal here: you can choose a plastic or metal body and whether you want a D-pad up top or an analog stick. The screen aspect ratio is a nice compromise for both 16:9 and 4:3 games. It’s not powerful enough for slam-dunk GameCube or PS2 emulation.
Retro Game Corps has a good in-depth video on it that makes the KT-R1 out to be a bit disappointing on the whole, but a sign of what to expect from this scene moving forward. While devices like the Steam Deck and Asus ROG Ally are going to own the high performance end of handheld emulation, I think we’re going to see a lot more of these smaller systems with gradually more impressive capabilities.
Yuzu polishes its Kingdom - It’s been a busy two weeks of patches for Yuzu, largely focused on issues affecting Tears of the Kingdom. Broad strokes, a lot of stuff’s better, but here are two really significant changes to touch on:
ASTC texture recompression - TotK as well as a couple other games like Bayonetta 3 make heavy use of this compression method, which Yuzu lead dev Bunnei told me the emulator converts to the uncompressed RGBA8. This works well if you have enough VRAM, but 4GB cards were getting slammed, so they added two recompression options to save loads of memory. Texture quality suffers, but low-end cards can actually play the game now.
Good gloom - Yuzu’s devs fixed one of the major nagging rendering issues, bringing TotK a step closer to looking just as it should. You can now explore the depths in Yuzu without any emulator-added funkiness.
Dolphin for Android updates - The latest Dolphin Progress Report highlights a slew of Android additions, including:
Making file modifications easier with file manager support for modding etc.
The same control input core as desktop, with some quality of life improvements that have been a “multiyear endeavor.” You can now change controls while emulation’s running, it can tap into more device sensors, and lots of old bumpy functions have been smoothed out.
PPSSPPolish - The definitive PSP emulator recently had a bit 1.15 release, handling shaders more efficiently to reduce shader comp stutter and improving user-replaceable textures, among other things. The release had plenty of bugs and some performance regressions to deal with, but as of the most recent patch 1.15.4 those have mostly been cleaned up. Good version to update to.
Two Toaplan shmups get their core - CoinOp Collection just released a core for the vertical scrolling shmups Same! Same! Same! and Vimana
MiSTer N64 inches along - Still far from complete, but developer Robert Peip has now moved from building a new N64 emulator from scratch to actually having it running on the MiSTer. It’s a huge step! So far it only boots simple homebrew, but based on the speed of progress so far, I wouldn’t be surprised to see it running actual games in a month or two.
Stellar dub - Every fan translation is a herculean effort, but here’s an unusual one: Stellar Assault SS for the Saturn had English text but tons of Japanese voice, sans subtitles. So a group on the Sega Xtreme forums has fully redubbed it into English, with a patch that came out last week. The acting has a polished ‘90s dub amateurish sound to it, and I fully mean that as a compliment — nothing else would fit an early 3D-era Japanese game.
The translation patch also adds mission stick support to what sounds like a rad 3D flight sim (with co-op, no less!).
Keeping the vibes thematically on point this week by acknowledging the helpful existence of the Super Evil Mario mod on Gamebanana.