Nintendo leak: think you can clone it? Think again

22.06.2020

Your princess is in another castle.

 

In case you haven’t heard, earlier this year Nintendo suffered a spectacular leak, with intellectual properties all the way back to prototype Game Boy software surfacing on the Internet, along with Verilog files for systems as recent as the Wii, GameCube and Nintendo 64.

 

The source seems to have been a server breach at BroadOn, a small hardware company contracted by Nintendo to make the iQue Player, a China-only, plug-and-play version of the Nintendo 64.

 

So emulator devs can have a field day with this, right? Wrong.

 

What’s in the Nintendo leak?

 

Even though the files were leaked, they are still copyrighted, and having them on your computer is not strictly legal, so we can’t tell you where to download them. However, this is what other people found when they did.

 

First off, there’s a vast amount of source code for the Nintendo Wii, including the boot0, 1, and 2 bootloaders, and the full source code and SDK for the IOS operating system from the Wii’s ARM9 processor. These all make up some of the basic software that underlies the Wii System Menu.

 

There are also enough Verilog sources for the iQue Player (the Chinese hardware revision of the Nintendo 64) to build the whole thing from scratch, along with planning documents for similar consoles from 2004-2006. While this could be interesting for things like repairing your own system, that’s about all you can legally do with it.

 

Bad news for emulator devs (and it’s not even that new)

 

Naturally, many people jumped to the conclusion that this leak could finally lead to a perfect Nintendo 64 emulation. Not so fast; using these confidential documents to build your own knockoffs of these consoles would be breaking copyright law. Nintendo isn’t known for its relaxed attitude to people emulating their games; if you’re lucky you’ll get a cease-and-desist order, if you’re unlucky you’ll get sued for everything you have.

 

What’s more, a lot of the documents in the leak have been out there for 20 years already. A 1999 leak called “The Oman Archive” already exposed the source files for Project Reality, on which the Nintendo 64 console was based – and devs have been avoiding them for 20 years because of the same legal issues.

 

In general, emulators are seen as legal if they’re completely reverse-engineered without reference to the copyrighted source code – a practice known as the ‘clean room design’. However, even this can cause problems – as with Connectix and Bleem, two companies that were sued by Sony for reverse-engineering the Playstation. Both won their cases, but the legal costs left them bankrupt.

 

So while it’s possible that somebody might find a legal loophole to wriggle through and we might see cloned Nintendo 64s in a few years, developers would be well advised to stay far away from this leak.

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