In just over a week, leaked copies of The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom have caused such chaos that even Ganon would have been impressed.
Back in late April, I spoke to Switch emulator developers Yuzu and Ryujinx about the likelihood that their emulators could run Tears of the Kingdom shortly after launch. The forecasts were optimistic. But then the game leaked long before release, putting the developers – and Nintendo too – in a tense and volatile situation.
The emulation teams have banned any discussion of running Tears of the Kingdom on their Discord servers – Yuzu only allows vague discussions about contents game, but requests for help or discussion of performance quickly result in message deletion and a warning or ban. To avoid engaging in pirated material, the developers of the emulator have committed, at least publicly, not to release updates that target Tears of the Kingdom issues. “We are waiting for the game to be released so that each of our team members can legally drop off their own copies of the game,” Yuzu’s lead developer Bunnei told me on Monday.
People pirating The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom two weeks earlier aren’t as patient.
On subreddits like the brazenly titled r/NewYuzuPiracy, new “patches” for the game pop up every few hours claiming to offer better performance or cures for crashes or graphical glitches. There is a “30fps patch”, “60fps patch”, “cloudfix” and others that target specific parts of Tears of the Kingdom that create problems for official versions of emulators. These files are distributed on file-hosting sites like Mediafire and Pixeldrain, and every Reddit post links to virus-scanning sites to “prove” they’re free of Trojans or other nasty malware that started popping up in the first few days after Tears of the Kingdom leaked on pirate sites.
Memes and conspiracy theories are already ubiquitous. Some users got spooked when an alleged fix from a deleted Reddit account appeared to be pinging a remote server in Eastern Europe, triggering a 24-hour cycle of panic threads like “DELETE MODDED EXE!!!”. and joke threads such as “a big Belarusian just walked into my house and fucked my wife.”
It turned out that the Belarusian files were clean. But the defining element of the current Tears of the Kingdom emulation scene is the lack of good answers to pretty much everything.
Because the development of the emulator is usually open source, it’s usually easy to go on Github and see who changes the code. For those of us who aren’t programmers, these changes will mostly look mundane or impenetrable. Here’s an example of a four-day-old Ryujinx code change that guarantees the emulator won’t be kicked over capital letters. But without the emulator development teams working on Tears of the Kingdom, third parties pirated games started modifying the code to fix various issues and uploading their own precompiled emulator builds. With no documentation or code history to draw on, what these “fixes” actually do is as clear as mud, unless you pirated Tears of the Kingdom to test them.
“Yuzu and Ryujinx have a lot to lose, so [making fixes for] TotK pre-release based on reports from clearly pirated copies of the game would be a huge target for them, so there have been forks of emulators from people with little or no connection to the scene trying to hack issues,” says Dolphin emulator co-developer JMC479. (Anyone with a Github account can “fork” another project to duplicate its files, then make their own modifications in a public or private repository.)
“There are also fake forks with malware or paywalls etc,” says JMC479, “making the whole thing a mess when the developers can’t really do anything to stop it.”
With so many people eager to play Tears of the Kingdom, the seedier corners of the emulator community – the kind that shamelessly bundle up with pirated games and use code stolen from other emulators – are attracting much more attention. Over the weekend, the Google News Feed on my phone even singled out one of these emulators, algorithmically oblivious to the sketchiness of what it was promoting.
Nintendo also took action, seemingly filing a DMCA takedown request on Github for a tool called Lockpick, which is used to extract Switch encryption keys needed for game emulation. As a result, the Android-based Switch Skyline emulator decided to end, writing “All Skyline development has been put on hold due to potential legal risks.”
While Nintendo has never pursued Yuzu or Ryujinx, users are understandably concerned. A search for Skyline’s name on Yuzu’s Discord reveals the same creepy questions repeated over and over again. “I can’t believe that every time I look at this chat there is another explosion of this discussion since the weekend lol. Who started it this time?” one user posted on Monday afternoon.
“Ryujinx is not closing,” one Discord moderator Ryujinx posted on the Announcement Channel on Saturday to prevent the same.
Emulation developers only have to weather the storm for a few more days – Tears of the Kingdom launches on Friday, May 12. It remains to be seen if Nintendo will step up its offensive against Lockpick or other emulation tools as its biggest game in the world starts selling in the millions this year.