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It’s A Sad Day For Emulators

One Nintendo lawsuit has brought down two of the most popular emulators out there


Just a week after it was first reported, the court case between Nintendo and the creators of the Yuzu emulator is over. And it's not great news for Yuzu, or fans of emulation in general.

Nintendo brought the case against Yuzu, a popular emulator that allowed users to play Switch games on a PC or Android phone, seeking "damages for unlawful circumvention of copyright protection systems…and unlawful trafficking in circumvention technology".

As The Verge report, earlier today a settlement was reached whereby Tropic Haze, the developers of Yuzu, not only agreed to pay Nintendo $2.4 million, but also take it down, nuke their sites and admit that the emulator was "primarily designed to circumvent and play Nintendo Switch games".

In even worse news for the emulation scene, not only is Yuzu gone but, perhaps even more importantly, the popular 3DS emulator Citra is now dead as well, since it had been led by the same developers and ended up embroiled in the same case.

Ahh, this sucks. It just sucks. Emulation has always survived in a legal sense because it could walk a succession of very thin tightropes; it was usually not the emulator itself that allowed users to play games, it was a BIOS, something that was never included alongside them. And it wasn't pirated games that were the focus; it was, as Yuzu's own (now deleted) documentation stated, supposed to be used with your own games.

Let's be real here though. For all the preservation benefits the emulation scene has, and for all the people using them 100% legally, they're also a magnet for pirates. A huge number of people are using them to essentially play pirated games. In the vast majority of cases that involves older games on older systems, and it's clear from a lack of previous legal action that most platform holders and publishers--even Nintendo to this point--have been cool with that.

Yuzu was different. Yuzu was emulating a current system. The same one Nintendo was selling in stores, the one with games that are sitting on shelves right now. And what's more, Yuzu wasn't some ambitious community project like most emulators; it had a Patreon that was reportedly pulling in almost $30,000 a month.

A statement from Yuzu reads:

Hello yuz-ers and Citra fans: We write today to inform you that yuzu and yuzu’s support of Citra are being discontinued, effective immediately.

yuzu and its team have always been against piracy. We started the projects in good faith, out of passion for Nintendo and its consoles and games, and were not intending to cause harm. But we see now that because our projects can circumvent Nintendo’s technological protection measures and allow users to play games outside of authorized hardware, they have led to extensive piracy. In particular, we have been deeply disappointed when users have used our software to leak game content prior to its release and ruin the experience for legitimate purchasers and fans.

We have come to the decision that we cannot continue to allow this to occur. Piracy was never our intention, and we believe that piracy of video games and on video game consoles should end. Effective today, we will be pulling our code repositories offline, discontinuing our Patreon accounts and Discord servers, and, soon, shutting down our websites. We hope our actions will be a small step toward ending piracy of all creators’ works.

Thank you for your years of support and for understanding our decision.

I joked after the case was first announced that:

Seeing them mention in this settlement--with strong "Mario pointing a gun at me off screen" vibes--how emulators and pirated games could "ruin the experience for legitimate purchasers and fans" is...not funny at all. It's slightly chilling to be honest.

What makes this an especially terrible day for emulation, though, is the news that Citra, a 3DS emulator made by the same team, is also dead. Citra is great, was emulating a dead platform and, what's more, was doing this great work for a system that between its dual screens, touch input and stereoscopic visuals must have been an absolute nightmare to put together.

While neither project is truly dead--they're out there, and there's nothing stopping people downloading existing versions or even forking new editions on Github--there's a real danger here that Nintendo hasn't just shut down a couple of emulators, but might have fired the first shots in a longer struggle against emulation in general.

As Fast Company point out, of particular concern is this passage from the proposed final judgement (which a judge has yet to sign off on), which reads:

Developing or distributing software, including Yuzu, that in its ordinary course functions only when cryptographic keys are integrated without authorization, violates the Digital Millennium Copyright Act’s prohibition on trafficking in devices that circumvent effective technological measures because the software is primarily designed for the purpose of circumventing technological measures

In other words, it would try and find that Yuzu violated copyright laws even though it didn't ship with any Switch code in it, because the whole point of Yuzu was to run games using that Switch BIOS. Any future ruling around that--and if Nintendo are trying it here, it suggests the company could definitely try it elsewhere--wouldn't just threaten the legal status of Nintendo emulators, but all emulators. 

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