A fight in the Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom mod scene has revealed the ugly side of emulation fandom

Link scowling
(Image credit: Nintendo)

In the week since Tears of the Kingdom's release, modders have been working tirelessly to pick apart the game's code and tune up its inner workings. Every day there's seemingly a new iteration of a dynamic framerate mod that brings the dream of a perfect 60 fps a little more within reach. But the ravenous appetite for those improvements has come at the cost of drama in the Switch modding scene, with one of the best-known modders stepping back from creating mods and effectively shutting his Discord.

Modder theboy181 is responsible for a majority of the patches listed on the Yuzu emulator's website, which make a range of enhancements to popular Switch games. Some enable games to render in 21:9 or 32:9 ultrawide, or disable visual features like motion blur. Others—probably the most popular—double 30 fps games to 60 fps. Last November theboy181's 60 fps mod for Pokemon Scarlet went viral on Twitter, racking up 22,000 retweets.

Theboy181 started looking into Tears of the Kingdom's code last Friday, once the game was released—though by then mods created by players who had pirated the game were downloadable with early attempts to conquer the 30 fps cap and other limitations. "My process is, if I like a game, I buy it. And then I want to put it on my PC and make it look as good as possible for my own personal means," theboy181 told me in an interview on Monday. "Doing that in the past, I've shared things publicly after I've had time to play them and know they're quality mods."

This process has worked for theboy181 for a number of mods in the past—but when the game in question is one of the fastest-selling of all time, you're dealing with a different crowd.

Tears of the Kingdom has an impatient contingent of fans hungry for every minor modding breakthrough the second it's available. Remember that while the new Zelda has been on sale for less than a week, it leaked a full two weeks early, meaning it's now been available for some 20 days to players who pirated it. The players most invested in modding, then, had already stolen the game, and didn't take kindly to theboy181's "paywalled" mods.

On theboy181's Discord server, players interested in his mods could donate $1 or more to access private channels for individual games where he posted in-development versions of the mods. The process of modding games for emulation is time-consuming to get right. First, you have to dump the game and decompile its code using a tool like Ghidra, translating impenetrable hex values into more understandable assembly. "Visually it shows you a graph of the code and what it's doing, and that visual representation helps me understand what decisions are being made by the game logic," theboy181 said. "You'll see things like adds, multiplications, division—you're looking for different snippets, like an aspect ratio. It's always one specific value, like 16 divided by 9."

From there, modders start modifying values that pertain to aspects like framerate, but those changes can cause ripple effects and break other aspects of the game. There's a lot of trial-and-error involved. "I'm not a coder—I've started taking some scripting language courses and learning, but basically, I'm pretty good at figuring out how things should work and then testing," theboy181 added. "The secret sauce is being able to spend three days going through 30,000 lines of code without your family disowning or leaving you."

On theboy181's Discord server, supporters weren't technically paying for mods—their donations essentially granted them early access, similar to the Patreon for the Yuzu emulator. After testing and finalizing mods, theboy181 would then post them publicly to Github, but that could take awhile.

Too long, in this case.

On Wednesday, someone using a burner Reddit account named PaywalledModsLMAO created a thread on r/NewYuzuPiracy with a download link to all of theboy181's in-progress Zelda mods. "I'm ashamed to say I paid my mandatory $1 for these," the poster wrote, before including a "mini-exposé" about theboy181's "hacky" modding practices. The main criticism is that theboy181 copied, and then paywalled, the work of Redditor ChucksFeedandSeed, who had been posting framerate-based mods on the NewYuzuPiracy subreddit since well before launch day, and didn't adequately credit his work. There's also a vague accusation of broader plagiarism with older mods.

The criticisms ultimately come off as petty under even a little scrutiny. In his dynamic fps mod, ChucksFeedandSeed had written "if any paid patch devs want to use the info here feel free, I don't mind, just please don't make me wait weeks to try it out myself." Theboy181 publicly posted Chuck's code in his announcement channel with a single modification, writing "Thanks for the unknown modder," and then also uploaded his adjusted version of the dynamic fps mod in the private Tears of the Kingdom channel.

To the Reddit posters this was a smoking gun: proof of poor accreditation and unfair paywalling. But as theboy181 explained to me on Monday, he wasn't initially positive who did the work—and shortly after, he released a new mod explicitly designed to work hand-in-hand with Chuck's.

In our interview, theboy181 told me a user had brought the dynamic fps mod to his attention on a piracy site. "I'm like, oh, so it might not even be the original author's work," he said. "That morning I tested it out, and I was quite impressed. I looked at the code and had a couple of questions on how he determined a couple of offsets he used. I was like, 'this guy has a debugger. I want to meet him, and I want to learn from him. Because that would have taken me a long time to figure out."

Theboy181's slightly modified version of the patch, which didn't credit Chuck by name, was only in that private channel (in addition to the public announcements channel) for about 30 hours; on Tuesday, he removed it and released a new mod that fixed cutscenes playing at double speed at 60 fps, and suggested everyone pair it with a newly updated mod from ChucksFeedandSeed (the dynamic framerate has to be paired with a higher fps mod). Theboy181 also donated to Chuck's Ko-Fi page, where he remains the top contributor.

Hours later the accusatory Reddit post appeared, ignoring the sequence of events that indicated theboy181 clearly had acknowledged Chuck's work, and bending over backwards to justify leaking all of his in-development mods.

When we talked on Monday, theboy181 told me that he used to run a Patreon, which at times earned $500 per month. "It felt good to actually get people to support my creative work," he said. "And then one day someone came along, donated like $5, took all my work and built a program that would distribute it. At that point I closed my Patreon down because it defeated the whole process. It was frustrating, but at the same time it was kind of flattering. Like, wow, I'm getting pirated!"

Theboy181 has had similar experiences since then, which have driven him to dramatically quit the mod scene in frustration, only to return later. After an influx of members to his Discord accusing him of stealing Chuck's work on Wednesday, and then the leak on Reddit, he closed down the server and posted that he's "taking an indefinite break from modding due to feeling undervalued." 

"It's been an honor serving you, but it's time I prioritized my family," he wrote.

Zelda from Tears of the Kingdom

(Image credit: Nintendo)

There's a gloating tone to most of the subsequent responses to this announcement on the NewYuzuPiracy subreddit, with many posters declaring it a win against anyone daring to charge for mods. "Modding SHOULD be a hobby and I will always pirate and leak every fucking 'paywalled' mod I come across," wrote poster Womenaregaylmaolol.

This kind of drama is perhaps inevitable in any fandom intertwined with piracy, but in the end it only makes the emulation scene a worse place for everyone. On Monday, theboy181 spoke excitedly about the sky-high level of interest in Tears of the Kingdom, and how many talented modders that he expected to be better and faster than him would come out of the woodwork. "The only reason I'm any good at this is because of the amount of time I put in and how stubborn I am," he said. "The other half of it, the reason that the public sees anything good, is because of the testers and supporters. They're donating, and then they're going to work. I could not play through this many games, or have this much passion for half these games to be able to detect the issues that need to be fixed." 

That resource is now gone in the Switch scene, at least temporarily. Tears of the Kingdom has no shortage of modders, but smaller Switch games in need of their own 60 fps patches and other challenging mods may not attract the same dedication in the future.

Wes Fenlon
Senior Editor

Wes has been covering games and hardware for more than 10 years, first at tech sites like The Wirecutter and Tested before joining the PC Gamer team in 2014. Wes plays a little bit of everything, but he'll always jump at the chance to cover emulation and Japanese games.

When he's not obsessively optimizing and re-optimizing a tangle of conveyor belts in Satisfactory (it's really becoming a problem), he's probably playing a 20-year-old Final Fantasy or some opaque ASCII roguelike. With a focus on writing and editing features, he seeks out personal stories and in-depth histories from the corners of PC gaming and its niche communities. 50% pizza by volume (deep dish, to be specific).