|Actually, it's about ethics in ...|
Nintendo (Japanese: 任天堂株式会社, Hepburn: Nintendō Kabushiki-gaisha) is a Japanese multinational video game company, known for its gaming console hardware and their multitude of mascots whom they milk for what they're worth. While they started off in the late 19th century as a publisher of hanafuda and later Western playing cards, they have since diversified and dabbled in industries such as novelty toys and even a taxi service, eventually culminating in their present business as a video game giant, producing seminal works such as Super Mario Bros., The Legend of Zelda and many others.
Because of their status and clout in the video gaming industry, they earned almost universal brand recognition rivalling that of Mickey Mouse, which led to the company being dubbed by some as the "Japanese Disney".[note 1] And like Disney, they are no stranger to controversy either, mainly due to their use of censorship, incessant litigation and poor treatment of their fan base through cease-and-desist orders against fan games and even otherwise innocuous archiving efforts e.g. emulation and the like, business conservatism as well as the cult-like behaviour of their die-hard fans who white-knight the company despite their flagrantly dickish business practices.
A matter of morality
Nintendo is known to pride itself as the more family-friendly company (compared to Sega, and later Microsoft and Sony, whose core audience is the so-called hardcore gamer crowd), most especially in its early years in the Western markets when they revitalised the video gaming industry following the video game crash of 1983. It outlined a series of guidelines with which video game publishers in America had to comply in order to sell games for the Nintendo Entertainment System, including (but is not limited to) the following:
- Religious symbolism, except for antiquarian beliefs such as Greek and Roman mythology, is forbidden. This led to explicit Christian iconography being omitted in the Western releases of Castlevania among others.
- Graphic violence is limited if not outright restricted in action games; scenes of blood and gore had to be toned down significantly as a result.
- References to hate and discrimination are also not allowed, and so are political themes, prompting id Software to strip Wolfenstein 3D of swastikas and portraits of Adolf Hitler having his moustache shaved in the SNES release.
- Pornography is also taboo, but so was in the Japanese Famicom releases, which is understandable so as former Nintendo president Hiroshi Yamauchi felt that it would mar the company's reputation forever.[note 2] There's little they could do about it in Japan where H-games for the Famicom have existed no thanks to the console's lack of lockout mechanism compared to its North American counterpart, however.
- Use and mention of psychoactive substances such as drugs and alcohol are a no-no as well, like with Vodka Drunkenski being bowdlerised as Soda Popkinski both to tone down on national stereotyping (which is part and parcel in the Punch-Out!! series) and on alcohol use.
Past the strict guidelines, some exceptions have occurred: Bionic Commando (though swastikas were eliminated in the US version), Smash TV and Golgo 13: Top Secret Episode contain human violence, the latter also containing implied sexuality and tobacco use; River City Ransom and Taboo: The Sixth Sense contain nudity, and the latter also contains religious images, as do Castlevania II and III. Nintendo's goody-two shoes policy did backfire on them a couple of times, however, most notably with the console releases of Mortal Kombat whose gratuitous portrayal of violence prompted a United States Senate hearing on video games (which also served as a convenient battleground between Nintendo and its erstwhile rival Sega). Both the Super Nintendo Entertainment System and Sega Genesis[note 3] received their conversions of Mortal Kombat, but the Sega Genesis version had a thinly-veiled blood and gore mode[note 4] which could be unlocked with the cheat code "ABACABB" (a nod to the Abacab album by the band Genesis, who shared their name with the North American version of the console), compared to the far tamer sweat spewed out by characters on the SNES version.[note 5] This resulted in the latter version outselling the SNES version by three to one, and when the US Senate hearings resulted in the adoption of an industry-wide self-regulatory system known as the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB), Nintendo eventually abandoned its own version of the Hays Code and allowed graphic violence on games published for their systems. Since then, a glut of mature titles with copious amounts of graphic violence have seen release on a Nintendo console, such as Doom, Conker's Bad Fur Day, Resident Evil, Manhunt and many others. The kiddie toy stigma does remain to this day, however; even Matt Stone and Trey Parker of South Park knew of this and had the then-upcoming tie-in game for the Game Boy Color cancelled out of concern for children who may have ended up getting their hands on a game based on a satirical adult cartoon.
Leap of faith
While Nintendo tried to be non-sectarian especially in the West in an effort to appeal to as broad an audience as possible and avert any criticism that they are favouring one faith over another, some exceptions do slip through the cracks: Link in the original Legend of Zelda bore a shield with a cross on it (not to mention the concept art as shown above where Link is depicted praying in front of a crucifix), and a small company known as Color Dreams eventually saw a loophole in Nintendo's heavy-handed approach against purveyors of unlicensed software for the NES by establishing a subsidiary called Wisdom Tree, whose main output is unoriginal rehashes of their existing shovelware library with a decidedly Christian slant to it, the best known of which is the now-infamous Super 3D Noah's Ark, a reskin of Wolfenstein 3-D loosely based on the Noah's Ark story. Most if not all of Color Dreams's staff, Dan Lawton included, are either atheists or agnostic, and they reportedly started the division mainly out of pragmatism as well as to give Nintendo a holy middle finger, though another account by Wisdom Tree owner Brenda Huff states that one of Color Dreams' employees moonlighted as a Sunday school teacher and proposed the idea as well, not to mention that Huff and the rest of the sales and marketing team's Christian convictions made up for the programmers' irreligion. Because Christian book stores are exempt from Nintendo's bullying of retail outlets who would be pressured into not selling bootleg and unlicensed cartridges, the Wisdom Tree tactic worked, as Nintendo never threatened legal action against them, fearing retribution from the religious right who would certainly tar Nintendo as antichrist or satanic for trampling on a (quasi-) religious organisation.
Think of the children!
In all fairness though, Nintendo did care about children's online safety when they were forced to discontinue online exchange functionality for Swapnote and Flipnote Studio 3D following incidents where pedophiles allegedly shared inappropriate content to youngsters in Japan using the Nintendo 3DS's SpotPass feature.
Stomping goombas through litigation
Much like Christian Louboutin's doggedly proactive stance against those counterfeiting his stilettos and painting red soles on shoes other than his, Nintendo is known for its aggressive campaign against those who use even a scant part of their intellectual property. While it initially stemmed from the original arcade release of Donkey Kong (where a reworked Japan-only release by Falcon called Crazy Kong got exported to the States without Nintendo's blessing), it's a known fact that since the 1980s, Nintendo took a hard line towards bootleggers and unlicensed games. The North American version of the Famicom–rebranded as the Nintendo Entertainment System–utilised a lockout system called the Checking Integrated Circuit (CIC) in an effort to deter pirates and unsanctioned publishers from producing cartridges; the Asian-market Famicom lacked any such restrictions, making it free real estate for bootleg "10000000-in-1" multicarts, pornographic content (e.g. those from Hacker International such as AV Poker and Miss Peach World; also reworked and released by Wisdom Tree as Sunday Funday but with Christian imagery instead of smut) and hacked Mario games. A far simpler deterrent came in the form of the enforcement of the "Nintendo" trademark on both the Game Boy and Famicom Disk System, where bootleggers obfuscate or use different logos on their cartridges in hopes of making Nintendo turn a blind eye towards them. Various methods to circumvent the CIC were devised for the past few decades, ranging from the bonkers such as the negative voltage spike method by Wisdom Tree and many others to the more sensible such as the dongle approach where a player would have to insert a licensed cartridge on top of an unlicensed dongle cart, with the licensed cartridge's CIC chip being co-opted to trick the console's security. Atari Games[note 6] through its Tengen subsidiary used a rather shady tactic of obtaining 10NES/CIC code from the U.S. Patent Office in order to reverse engineer the CIC, falsely claiming that the appropriated code was to be used for potential litigation against Nintendo. A lawsuit ensued which Nintendo won, unsurprisingly. It took over twenty years for the CIC to be finally cracked by the homebrew community, though funnily enough, while the CIC was a tough nut to crack, it was relatively easy to bypass as many owners cut off the CIC reset pin from their console as an essential modification to improve reliability (as even legitimate cartridges may end up not being authenticated), and certain unlicensed developers even handed out instructions on how to do so.
In a recent incident, Nintendo filed civil and criminal suits against members of a company known as Team Xecuter, whose products were commercially-distributed modchips for the Nintendo Switch among others. Canadian national Gary "GaryOPA" Bowser[note 7] and French national Max "MAXiMiLiEN" Louarn were arrested for designing and selling "circumvention devices" for the Switch which allow the installation of pirated games; unlike most hacking groups who primarily consist of hobbyists and computer security professionals, Team Xecuter is driven more by profit from the distribution of warez and thus are more likely to be under the Big N's crosshairs which earned them a polarising reputation in the console modding and homebrew subculture. As if that wasn't enough, Bowser was later ordered to pay up Nintendo in legal damages for the rest of his life; while some most especially Nintendo fans gloated and opined that he truly deserved it, others felt that the lifetime settlement amounted to a cruel and unusual punishment with the punitive intent of deterring would-be bootleggers (or even good-faith homebrew modders for that matter), further opining that the financial damages aren't something that Nintendo actually needs for their bottom line anyway. This is similar to the numerous horror stories of the RIAA ordering (suspected) music pirates to pay up ungodly sums of money for their alleged copyright violations, and is also reflective of Japan's notoriously cruel justice system where the accused are guilty until proven guilty.
Also in 2023 was a DMCA complaint (allegedly) filed by Nintendo against a homebrew tool for the Switch called Locksmith, which extracts the keys required to dump ROM images from cartridges. Said complaints created a chilling effect where some projects such as the Skyline emulator for Android devices have announced that they're ceasing development due to legal fears owing to Nintendo's dogged crackdown on the homebrew community.
Such litigious efforts to assert their copyright are quite understandable and well within their rights, but their dogged efforts against their perceived competition has alienated their fan base and painted a picture of them as scrooges not unlike Apple. A number of ROM trading sites have either been taken down or banned the distribution of Nintendo-published games on their sites; nonetheless, emulation and video game preservation advocates argue that Nintendo's continued aggression caused more harm than good on preserving cultural heritage, with video game historian Frank Cifaldi quoted as saying, “I am completely sympathetic to Nintendo’s need to protect its properties, but where it has crossed the line, is that by shutting down these sites, it’s asking the owners to give up all the ROMs, not just Nintendo ones,” opining that large parts of the NES back catalogue (or the library of any other retro console for that matter) became orphan works and thus are inaccessible by normal means other than expensive used copies. Ditto with fan games and ROM hacks, whom Nintendo also has a grudge with, taking down hundreds upon hundreds of fan-created work based off their IPs. Despite the late Satoru Iwata's assurances that they would not treat their fans like criminals, their Gestapo-ish approach left a sour taste in the mouths of many a gamer, comparing them unfavourably to the likes of Bethesda and Microsoft who laid out guidelines for fans to comply when using their content or with Sega whose relationship towards fan game authors have led to official games developed by community members such as Sonic Mania, and Valve owes a lot of its popularity to the mods it acquired and/or officially sanctioned such as Counter-Strike for the original Half-Life, which led to its own series.
To be fair, many of the fan game projects taken down by Nintendo were monetised in some way, hence why the Dolphin emulator project outright refuses donations of any kind, instead relying on the contributors themselves to shoulder expenses such as server fees and whatnot; this is in contrast to the Wii U emulator Cemu whose developers run a Patreon page and is thus at risk of legal action for competing against Nintendo's offerings. Dolphin was however subject to controversy when their Steam store page was pre-emptively taken down due to objections from the Big N themselves. This was allegedly due to the presence of cryptographic keys in the emulator's source code, though some have viewed the complaint as being petty and litigious especially considering the price of original hardware on the secondary market and Nintendo's inability and/or stubborn unwillingness to make their legacy software easily accessible even to those who are willing to pay for the privilege. The Dolphin developers later clarified in a blog post in July 2023 that there was no DMCA complaint from Nintendo; what actually happened was that Valve sought Nintendo's opinion on the inclusion of Dolphin in the Steam store, but Nintendo unsurprisingly objected, thereby ending the emulator team's hopes of a Steam release. The Dolphin devs also allayed fears about the AES key which they noted as having become common knowledge since its discovery, and that they would not remove it regardless as they argued that the key's presence falls under a fair use exemption allowing for legitimate uses such as interoperability and reverse engineering after having consulted a lawyer.
Perhaps in an ironic twist, while Nintendo could do nothing against emulation projects that reimplement their consoles (c.f. previous legal precedents such as Sony Computer Entertainment, Inc. v. Connectix Corp. and Sony Computer Entertainment America, Inc. v. Bleem), Apple has had more than enough (extra-) legal muscle to deter any and all emulation of their iOS products, which is hypocritical considering they previously endorsed a PlayStation emulator in an effort to expand the Mac's sparse game library. Nintendo previously threatened legal action against UltraHLE, a Nintendo 64 emulator which even garnered a mention on TIME Magazine for its ability to run N64 games at full speed on contemporary hardware,[note 8]  something which understandably earned their ire as it could eat through their profits, but UltraHLE was discontinued shortly after release due to incessant demands placed on the authors and the aforementioned legal threat. Nowadays, the only reason for an emulator project to get taken down by Nintendo is if said project incorporates copyrighted code, hence why it became customary, if not an absolute necessity, to distribute emulators as open source software as a paralegal measure to prove to Nintendo that none of their code was being used, though they did force the likes of Microsoft to take down app listings for emulators on the Xbox Store. Nintendo themselves have used emulation on their re-releases, most famously the Virtual Console and later Nintendo Switch Online services, and ironically enough, the ROM image of the Virtual Console release of Super Mario Bros. is byte-for-byte identical to the ones previously circulating on the web, down to the iNES header used by unofficial emulators; whether this is proof that Nintendo hypocritically benefited from unofficial emulation or not is debatable. Also ironic is the interesting side effect piracy has in further popularising Nintendo's franchises especially in countries where the company has had next to no formal presence, i.e. children who never owned a legitimate Nintendo product in their lives are already familiar with Mario and his adventures thanks to Famiclones and pirated releases of Nintendo software (as well as NES/Famicom games by third parties), case in point the Dendy line of Famiclones by Russia-based Steepler, whose affordability compared to a genuine Famicom[note 9] led to it attaining a level of popularity roughly equal to Nintendo's offerings. Interestingly enough, Nintendo and Steepler came to an agreement where the latter received exclusive rights to distribute the Super Nintendo Entertainment System and Game Boy consoles throughout the Commonwealth of Independent States.
There is however an upshot to this behaviour by the Big N: the distribution rights to the pornographic Mario parodies Super Hornio Brothers and Super Hornio Brothers II were reportedly acquired by Nintendo to dissuade their redistribution; after all, who would want to make sleazy ripoffs of a media franchise catered largely towards children anyway? Nintendo's alleged legal action against now-washed up "rapper" Soulja Boy with his bootleg video game consoles also drew sympathy from those who did not take kindly to Soulja Boy reselling cheap Chinese knockoffs at extortionate prices; not helping matters was when he tried to play the race card even though most of the criticism towards his bootleg consoles have nothing to do with his ethinicity. And while Nintendo has not taken any formal legal action (mainly due to them being transformative parodies which is well within fair use and the First Amendment), they did issue statements voicing their displeasure towards PETA's satirical "parodies" of their properties, such as Mario Kills Tanooki and Pokémon Black & Blue.
Conservatism, Kyoto style
Perhaps much of these dick moves comes down to the Big N's conservative upper management, which is par for the course with most Kyoto-based companies or Japanese companies in general. Anecdotal accounts from gaijin who (used to) work for said companies have noted Japanese geezers holding on to old-school practices such as the use of fax machines and (irrational) concerns over emerging technologies like version control and cloud storage, under the spurious belief that this could leave them vulnerable to cyberattacks. If anything, this is one such evidence of Japan's ageing population, where progress is held back by seniors who are increasingly out of touch with what's new and novel. A former Nintendo employee described Nintendo as paradoxical, making innovative games and hardware but at the same time releasing them with computing capabilities that are light-years behind their contemporaries[note 11] and is also behind the times with social media and community relations especially in Western markets.
In fairness to Nintendo, their version of the blue ocean strategy–termed by game designer Gunpei Yokoi as "Lateral Thinking with Withered Technology" (枯れた技術の水平思考, "Kareta Gijutsu no Suihei Shikō")–did work in their favour such as in the Wii where its innovative motion controls more than made up for its anaemic computing capabilities compared to its contemporaries and managed to outsell them by a large margin (though this is mainly due to casual players, children and their families taking up a chunk of its audience; the Wii did get its share of mature titles but the lack of a Grand Theft Auto game and a glut of questionable shovelware gave the Wii a bit of a stigma amongst the hardcore crowd), and earlier still with the original Game Boy, whose battery life proved to be of significant advantage over its more capable yet power-hungry competitors despite only having a monochrome LCD screen. That being said, their use of underpowered hardware, while advantageous when done right as said with the Game Boy and Wii, also proved to be of equal frustration on both developers and the gaming public, as conversions of games originally developed for higher-end consoles and computers may present a challenge and end up becoming inferior or in some cases be "ported" as a cloud-based game, being rendered remotely from a central server due to limitations presented by the Switch,[note 12] at the cost of not actually owning the game and the risk of being unable to play it in the future if and when the servers running it shut down.
Nintendo's acrimonious relationship towards fans also extends to streamers and internet users: their (now-discontinued) "YouTube Creators Program" proved to be disastrous to content creators as it basically laid out unreasonable rules on what (not) to do with their intellectual property, and their refusal to make their soundtracks available on music streaming services such as Spotify while filing DMCA notices to those unofficially uploading their music on the web made gamers even more leery towards the company, just as when other video game publishers have put up their soundtracks on YouTube for free as they could still profit off ad revenue generated from said uploads.
- Pokémon, the highest grossing media franchise (though they only publish the games)
- Super Mario, another big franchise
- Apple, technology company with similarly cultish following and scummy business practices
- Disney, another family-friendly media and entertainment company obsessed with protecting its intellectual property.
- Not to be confused with cartoonist and manga artist Osamu Tezuka, whose main inspiration was that of Uncle Walt himself.
- Popular belief has it that Nintendo ran a chain of love hotels, but some sources dispute it as an urban legend.
- Released outside of America as the Mega Drive
- The developers hinted at it upon starting up the game, and it did not take long for players to get it; the Genesis conversion did however get an MA-13 rating from Sega's in-house rating board as a result.
- The blood can be reinstated by the Game Genie code BDB4-DD07.
- By that we mean the arcade game company, not the computer firm which were both spun off when Atari was forced to split into separate entities. It's quite confusing, really.
- Get it?
- To be specific, select N64 games, as the high-level emulation method is more of a clever hack than an accurate simulation of the hardware, leading to severe errors with certain games due to poorly-implemented or unimplemented functions; that is if they even boot at all. Even they admitted it on their website, stating "The goal of UltraHLE is not to run as many titles as possible. It is to run the best titles as well as possible."
- Especially considering the rather bleak economic situation in post-Soviet Russia in the 1990s, back when a McDonalds meal there was more of a luxury.
- Home console in that it can be inserted in a docking station connected to a TV for play as if it were a traditional console; the Switch can also act as a portable system, and a cut-down variant of it called the Switch Lite is designed solely for portable play.
- For example, the Nintendo Switch ran on an Nvidia Tegra X1, a smart device system-on-chip which was state of the art back in 2015 but has been woefully ancient since almost as soon as it was released.
- To put it another way, it is basically a fancy, Internet-age version of the old TV Powww game show format where TV viewers control a video game remotely, broadcast lag included.
- Random: '70s Photo Reminds Us That Once Upon A Time, Nintendo Ran A Taxi Firm
- Nintendo Content Policy
- Kent, Steven L. (2000). The First Quarter: A 25-year History of Video Games. BWD Press. p. 372. ISBN 978-0-9704755-0-3. "Acclaim sold approximately 6.5 million Mortal Kombat cartridges. The Genesis version, which included the original arcade fatality moves, outsold the edited-down Super NES version by nearly three-to-one"
- "South Park GBC - Cancelled - Unseen64" (in en-US). 2008-04-05.
- Super 3D Noah's Ark - Bad Game Hall of Fame
- Why Nintendo never sued Color Dreams? (Wisdom Tree)
- "Accused Child Predator Allegedly Used Nintendo's Swapnote Service". Kotaku. Retrieved 5 October 2022.
- 10 Donkey Kong Clones From The Early 1980s
- go go logo
- The Infamous Lockout Chip
- Secrets of the Nintendo CIC Chip - Early Cartridge Anti-Piracy
- Wally Bear and the NO! Gang instruction manual (PDF)
- Orland, Kyle (October 8, 2020). "Console hackers are shocked after DOJ arrests prominent mod-chip makers". Ars Technica. Retrieved April 25, 2023.
- Roth, Emma (April 18, 2023). "Bowser has been freed from prison". The Verge. Retrieved April 25, 2023.
- Henley, Stacey (April 19, 2023). "Why Is Everyone On Nintendo's Side Over The Bowser Hacker Case?". TheGamer. Retrieved April 25, 2023.
- Skyline is dead
- All that's wrong with Nintendo's heavy-handed ROM crackdown
- Despite the certainty of takedowns, fan developers still pursue Nintendo’s works
- Sega Takes Potshots At DMCA-Happy Nintendo While Being Cool About Fan Games
- Nintendo fights another fan game in Mario Royale, but Capcom and Sega prove you can have it both ways
- Team Cemu is creating emulation software
- Nintendo is threatening legal emulation...and it doesn't look good
- Dolphin emulator gives up on Steam — but won't remove Wii decryption key
- What Happened to Dolphin on Steam?
- Steve Jobs Announcing a PlayStation Emulator for the Mac (Macworld 1999)
- Video Games Get Trashed - TIME
- Maclachlan, Malcolm (February 2, 1999). "Nintendo May Sue Emulator Makers". techweb.com. Archived from the original on May 2, 1999. Retrieved January 26, 2018.
- Nintendo makes Xbox Ban Emulators and more...
- Did Nintendo actually download roms for their Virtual Console service?
- Barnes, Matt, et al. Region Locked. United Kingdom, Unbound.
- Pichugin, Igor (1 November 1994). "Соглашение Steepler и Nintendo" [Steepler and Nintendo Agreement]. Коммерсантъ (in Russian). Retrieved 12 February 2022.
- Frank, Allegra (December 5, 2018). "Soulja Boy is selling a console that's basically an overpriced emulator". Polygon. Retrieved December 6, 2018.
- Soulja Boy's emulator consoles meet their inevitable end
- Nintendo Responds to PETA About Super Mario 3D Land
- Nintendo Responds to PETA's Pokémon Game
- Conservative, stuffy old Nintendo and its weird habit of wild radicalism
- O'Gorman, Patricio (2008). "Wii: Creating a blue ocean the Nintendo way". Palermo Business Review. 2: 97–108.
- It's Not Easy Porting Games To The Nintendo Switch — But Developers Do It Anyhow
- Nintendo's foolishness has bitten back hard but what does the future hold for the fallen king of consoles?
- Nintendo Switch's cloud-based games have profound issues
- Nintendo Creators Program no longer allows YouTubers to live stream
- Nintendo’s refusal to put its music on streaming services is really frustrating