Fear of Nintendo's wrath is keeping emulators off of the App Store

Posted:
in iOS edited April 16

Despite Apple's recent rule change, it has been a bumpy few days for emulators on the App Store as small developers fear the wrath of Nintendo and others.

An image taken from 'Super Smash Brothers.' Donkey Kong is grappling an iPhone, waiting to pummel the NES emulator displayed on screen.
Nintendo may be waiting in the shadows to smash any emulator out of existence



Software emulation has been around for decades and is perfectly legal, at least the technology is. The implementation of emulators, business models, and how users obtain games live in this unchallenged legal gray area that developers are scared to test.

The Google Play Store doesn't restrict developers from submitting emulators either, and plenty of popular versions exist. So, since Apple now allows emulators on the App Store, the world has been standing by waiting for a flood of software built to play old video games -- yet it hasn't arrived.

The latest emulator, called Bimmy, came and went in a matter of hours. It was capable of running NES games with the applicable ROMs.

Bimmy was pulled by the developer Tom Salvo without any action from Nintendo or Apple. According to a MacRumors forum post, he pulled it out of fear of reprisal.

Tom Salvo's is clear about why he pulled the emulator.

Pulled by me, just out of fear. No one pressured me to, but I got more nervous about it as the day went on. Very sorry to get everyone's hopes up, but hopefully hopefully there will be other more brave devs than me in the future.



The latest removal comes only two days after another public mishap where a developer accidentally violated a license for open source code. The Gameboy emulator was quickly removed after the developer was accused of publishing shovelware filled with ads.

Apple's emulator guidelines don't say much about legality, but it appears to lay the blame at the developer's feet if any legal action is sought. Again, emulators are legal if implemented correctly -- it's the ROMs that live in a legal gray area.

The legality of emulators and ROMs



A ROM is simply the data file found on a game disc or cartridge, the Read Only Memory which can be legally obtained if removed from original hardware. Users are expected to obtain ROMs legally, though finding them on the web isn't difficult.

A screenshot of an NES emulator showing a retro game
Bimmy was taken down out of fear of reprisal from Nintendo



The ease at which old software can be pirated is a problem for game companies. It removes a potential revenue stream (one these companies seem to have no intention of pursing anyway), but like when people pirated music in the 2000s, it's difficult to enforce and pursue in court.

Instead, companies like Nintendo try to use laws like the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, or DMCA, to take down emulators. Nintendo successfully took down Yuzu, a Switch emulator, because it cracked the console's encryption, thus violating the DMCA.

Other emulators don't need such sophisticated methods to run classic software. Therefore, without the DMCA, there isn't a legal basis to pursue most of these emulators core software -- at least not yet, anyway.

Developers like Tom Salvo are worried about becoming a legal precedent. If Nintendo decided to try its luck against an emulator published in Apple's App Store, it could be successful.

For whatever reason, the same level of scrutiny hasn't been brought to Google's Play Store, where emulators exist by the bucketload. Perhaps the legal gray area protects these emulators, and Apple's App Store will soon be filled with them.

The only way to find out is if a high-profile emulator succeeds at being published to the App Store and remains without a challenge. The problem is finding a developer willing to risk a showdown with Nintendo or Sony.

Still waiting on a high-profile emulator for iOS



All eyes are on Riley Testut and his handful of emulators. He created GBA4iOS to emulate Gameboy games, and then he followed up that project with Delta, which can run everything from NES to N64.

Two screenshots from Delta emulator. One is a Zelda Gameboy game and the other is a Zelda N64 game
Delta emulator is able to run several classic console games



However, Testut has remained quiet about his intentions to bring Delta or GBA4iOS to Apple's App Store. It could prove a conflict of interest as he brings AltStore online as an alternative app marketplace in the EU.

Some speculate Apple's purpose for allowing emulators now, after fighting against the idea since the conception of the App Store, is to undercut Testut's efforts to implement AltStore in the EU. The timing of Apple's guideline update suggests as much.

Many questions still remain about emulation on iOS and Apple's other platforms. While Apple seems ready to approve Gameboy and NES emulators, we've yet to see emulators that require system BIOS files like PlayStation One.

There's no reason why even Nintendo Gamecube or Wii can't run on an iPhone or iPad beyond legal issues. We'll just have to wait and see who is willing to take the gamble between App Store success and lawsuit hell.



Read on AppleInsider

wonkothesane

Comments

  • Reply 1 of 13
    robjnrobjn Posts: 283member
    The article comments “ It removes a potential revenue stream (one these companies seem to have no intention of pursing anyway)”

    I for one pay a subscription to Nintendo just to be able to play all the old games. Software piracy costs Nintendo. It’s a crime, plain and simple.
     
    williamlondonwatto_cobra
  • Reply 2 of 13
    Wesley HilliardWesley Hilliard Posts: 216member, administrator, moderator, editor
    robjn said:
    The article comments “ It removes a potential revenue stream (one these companies seem to have no intention of pursing anyway)”

    I for one pay a subscription to Nintendo just to be able to play all the old games. Software piracy costs Nintendo. It’s a crime, plain and simple.
     
    It's a complicated topic. Yes, Nintendo has a small library of old titles available via a subscription. Sony and Xbox have similar efforts. But these are but a subset of the available games on the market. Of the 393 N64 games that were released, only a paltry dozen or so are on Nintendo's online services.

    Emulators are about more than piracy, they are about preserving gaming history. These companies could place a financial interest in actually preserving this history rather than throwing their hands up at silly copyright battles. There's nothing stopping Sony and Nintendo from building their own emulators for iPhone and charging for the emulator and optimized versions of ROMs while keeping the door open for user-provided ROMs.

    Yet they've proven to have no interest in such a formula. They've chosen a path where it is increasingly impossible to play these games without emulators and ROMs. So they should help fix it, not fight against it.
    timpetusOferbloggerblog9secondkox2watto_cobraJapheyAlex1N
  • Reply 3 of 13
    9secondkox29secondkox2 Posts: 2,904member
    Nintendo has a right to not allowing their IP to be pirated. 

    If Nintendo doesn’t want their old games available, that’s literally their prerogative, as much as it’s annoying for enthusiasts. Maybe they want to bring them to the future in a quality way. Maybe they want pent up nostalgia to produce demand for a new game based on old ip. Whatever it is, even if it’s just “we don’t want them available,” they have that perogative and the right to not be pushed around because someone wants something. 

    Next, we will have the EU force Nintendo to allow others to profit from their hard work, with the DOJ to follow. Heck, they’ll probably make Nintendo host the pirated files on their servers. 
    edited April 16 wonkothesaneteejay2012watto_cobra
  • Reply 4 of 13
    robjn said:
    The article comments “ It removes a potential revenue stream (one these companies seem to have no intention of pursing anyway)”

    I for one pay a subscription to Nintendo just to be able to play all the old games. Software piracy costs Nintendo. It’s a crime, plain and simple.
     
    It's a complicated topic. Yes, Nintendo has a small library of old titles available via a subscription. Sony and Xbox have similar efforts. But these are but a subset of the available games on the market. Of the 393 N64 games that were released, only a paltry dozen or so are on Nintendo's online services.
    https://www.gameinformer.com/feature/2024/01/12/nintendo-switch-online-every-nes-snes-game-boy-n64-sega-genesis-and-gba-game

    Looks more like they've got close to 30 N64 titles at this point. 101 NES titles. 78 SNES titles. 21 Game Boy. 15 GBA. Even 45 Sega Genesis games. So I don't really think you can say Nintendo's "proven they have no interest in such a formula". 
    9secondkox2watto_cobraAlex1N
  • Reply 5 of 13
    Wesley HilliardWesley Hilliard Posts: 216member, administrator, moderator, editor
    Nintendo has a right to not allowing their IP to be pirated. 
    I agree from this perspective, but it still doesn't address the issue that emulation is totally legal. What users decide to do with the emulator and how it affects copyright law is totally outside of Apple's or the developer's control.

    I don't think people should be out here pirating things. But what I do think is that we learned something important from the 2000s and music piracy. Make something readily available and people will be less likely to pirate it. The iPod and $0.99 songs was huge for the music industry until Spotify commoditized it to the brink of being a fraction of what it used to be.

    Make these games available for a price and people will pay. Hiding them in a secret vault like Disney and people will resort to piracy. Not because they are thieves, but because they want to play their beloved games.

    It's a problem our legal system isn't equipped to handle, but Nintendo and Sony are also not doing much to fight against the problem either.

    I'd happily pay for an official Nintendo emulator on iPhone and pay per game or a subscription for access. But that option doesn't exist and likely won't.

    Nintendo has a right to protect its IP like with the Nintendo Switch case, but there should be a point where software becomes public IP. And due to the speed at which technology develops, it should be a hell of a lot sooner than the system that allowed Mickey Mouse from Steamboat Willy to become public domain just last year.

    The whole system needs fixing. And no, I don't think the EU should regulate others to profit from Nintendo's work nor the DOJ. That's an incredibly obtuse takeaway from what I've said.
    timpetusmuthuk_vanalingamOferStrangeDayswatto_cobraAlex1N
  • Reply 6 of 13
    Wesley HilliardWesley Hilliard Posts: 216member, administrator, moderator, editor
    robjn said:
    The article comments “ It removes a potential revenue stream (one these companies seem to have no intention of pursing anyway)”

    I for one pay a subscription to Nintendo just to be able to play all the old games. Software piracy costs Nintendo. It’s a crime, plain and simple.
     
    It's a complicated topic. Yes, Nintendo has a small library of old titles available via a subscription. Sony and Xbox have similar efforts. But these are but a subset of the available games on the market. Of the 393 N64 games that were released, only a paltry dozen or so are on Nintendo's online services.
    https://www.gameinformer.com/feature/2024/01/12/nintendo-switch-online-every-nes-snes-game-boy-n64-sega-genesis-and-gba-game

    Looks more like they've got close to 30 N64 titles at this point. 101 NES titles. 78 SNES titles. 21 Game Boy. 15 GBA. Even 45 Sega Genesis games. So I don't really think you can say Nintendo's "proven they have no interest in such a formula". 
    It's crumbs compared to what's available. I appreciate that they've made these titles available via a subscription I also pay for, but it is indicative of the problem I'm talking about. Beyond what Nintendo deigns to allow it's user base to access, there's tons of IP that will never be allowed to exist on Nintendo's online service because of how copyright transferred between entities over the past decades of the game industry.

    This is a good start by Nintendo but not nearly enough. Thankfully companies like Analogue are doing what Nintendo hasn't and built modern hardware for the old cartridges. Again, there's nothing stopping Nintendo from selling their own custom emulator for old consoles on iOS, but they're not interested in that. Even though that would be the best case scenario for Nintendo, users, historians, and legal action.
    timpetusOferwatto_cobraAlex1N
  • Reply 7 of 13
    Wesley HilliardWesley Hilliard Posts: 216member, administrator, moderator, editor
    Emulation is a complicated topic. It isn't as simple as piracy versus history. There's lots of legal gray areas. If you're interested in learning more there is an entire foundation dedicated to preserving video game history. They've even discovered that 87% of classic video games have become inaccessible to all but the most ardent collectors. It's actually quite a big problem and there's a reason why I said game companies seem uninterested in tackling the issue. They've gone to court and proven via the DMCA that they're doing enough to preserve video game history despite data showing otherwise.

    It's like we're letting the library of Congress slowly sink into the ocean and we're doing nothing about it.


    Sure, Nintendo have set up an online subscription service so people can play classic Mario games. Those aren't the games in danger of disappearing forever. But Nintendo and Sony are happy as long as their interests are covered.
    timpetusOfer9secondkox2watto_cobraAlex1N
  • Reply 8 of 13
    It would be great if Nintendo actually put in some effort in bringing their franchises to iOS. Their attempts so far have been very, very limited. Mario Kart is the best of the lot but Mario Run gets repetitive quickly. Animal Crossing is okay but gets old. I understand they’re still in the console business and don’t want to lose that but the Switch has suffered from quality control issues from launch. Their Joy-Cons are junk that often need to be repaired or replaced due to the dreaded Joy-Con drift issue. Nintendo always needs to be dragged into new opportunities. 
    watto_cobraAlex1N
  • Reply 9 of 13

    If Nintendo doesn’t want their old games available, that’s literally their prerogative, as much as it’s annoying for enthusiasts.

    Yes and no.

    They absolutely have the right to stop selling their old games, and to stop the pirating of those games by people who haven't bought them.

    Whether or not they have the right to stop existing owners of those games from employing an emulator to continue playing those games on another device is a different question entirely.

    As with movies and music, it's completely legal to make a backup of the media for one's own use.  Nintendo has worked especially hard to make the making of those backups difficult, for which I condemn them even if they are fully within their legal rights to do so.
    9secondkox2williamlondonwatto_cobraAlex1N
  • Reply 10 of 13
    This is like ripping old DVD movies 'you own' to your NAS to stream at home. While not legal, it has always been in a grey area and is tolerated because it is beyond control.  However companies really do not like when you go beyond personal use and share movies on the web. Try it if you don't believe me. Emulators are legal, but unless you own proprietary system and game ROMs, running these on your phone is illegal. Plain and simple.  It is not an argument that you are preserving and archiving nostalgic games,  like preventing the pyramids being lost. [insert face palm here]. I would love to see the judge's face if that was your defence in court. A general observation and question about how emulators even made it on iOS. There are people that think that because they want something, they should just get it. The recent EU and DOJ actions are partly in response to this sort of attitude, and from what I would guess to be a minority of iOS users and developers in the world. It will be of interest to see where the dust settles after the current 'Whac-A-Mole' saga for emulators ends. . 
    9secondkox2danoxwatto_cobraAlex1N
  • Reply 11 of 13
    danoxdanox Posts: 3,098member
    Nintendo and Sony will sue Apple and the little pirates and they will also petition the Japanese government for help they are not going to sit by and do nothing and the same applies to Microsoft some time down the road in the USA.
    watto_cobra
  • Reply 12 of 13
    9secondkox29secondkox2 Posts: 2,904member
    Nintendo has a right to not allowing their IP to be pirated. 
    I agree from this perspective, but it still doesn't address the issue that emulation is totally legal. What users decide to do with the emulator and how it affects copyright law is totally outside of Apple's or the developer's control.

    I don't think people should be out here pirating things. But what I do think is that we learned something important from the 2000s and music piracy. Make something readily available and people will be less likely to pirate it. The iPod and $0.99 songs was huge for the music industry until Spotify commoditized it to the brink of being a fraction of what it used to be.

    Make these games available for a price and people will pay. Hiding them in a secret vault like Disney and people will resort to piracy. Not because they are thieves, but because they want to play their beloved games.

    It's a problem our legal system isn't equipped to handle, but Nintendo and Sony are also not doing much to fight against the problem either.

    I'd happily pay for an official Nintendo emulator on iPhone and pay per game or a subscription for access. But that option doesn't exist and likely won't.

    Nintendo has a right to protect its IP like with the Nintendo Switch case, but there should be a point where software becomes public IP. And due to the speed at which technology develops, it should be a hell of a lot sooner than the system that allowed Mickey Mouse from Steamboat Willy to become public domain just last year.

    The whole system needs fixing. And no, I don't think the EU should regulate others to profit from Nintendo's work nor the DOJ. That's an incredibly obtuse takeaway from what I've said.
    The idea of emulation being legal is one thing. The ROMs are another.  If you already own the game, then you should be able to do this. So there is that. 

    But we all know that it’s incredibly easy to just download and pirate a game ROM these days. And has been for a very long time. Most of the people who do so never owned the games - especially when so many of the gamers weren’t even born when certain consoles existed and when the cartridges, etc. we’re available widely on the market. 

    The idea of emulation may be legal technically. But without any kind of ownership verification, the execution gets shady very quickly. There is zero accountability. 

    Theft is not ok any way you slice it. The ROMs are IP owned by a company. If you bought the game, you have the right to play it. If you didn’t, you don’t. 

    Nintendo isn’t on the hook to defend easy pirate systems. Pirates are on the hook for theft. 

    Apple being an ethical company and one who has fought there share of piracy battles, quality control, and seeing their own app platform attacked not only by shady individuals and companies, but entire governments as well. So it’s no doubt they sympathize with Nintendo’s situation. If there is a vehicle enabling rampant theft, blow the tires. And that’s what they did. Good on ‘em. 
    watto_cobra
  • Reply 13 of 13
    Update: Delta emulator is now available on Apple’s App Store!
    https://apps.apple.com/us/app/delta-game-emulator/id1048524688

    The developer’s AltStore is also live today in EU featuring the Delta app. 
    lolliverwilliamlondonwatto_cobraAlex1N
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