Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom's leak has turned into one giant mess for the emulation community

Link and Zelda crying in Breath of the Wild
(Image credit: Nintendo)

In just over a week, leaked copies of The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom have caused a degree of chaos that even Ganon would be impressed with.

In late April, I spoke with developers behind the Switch emulators Yuzu and Ryujinx about the likelihood of their emulators being able to run Tears of the Kingdom shortly after launch. The prognosis was optimistic. But then the game leaked well ahead of launch, putting the developers—as well as Nintendo—in a tense and volatile situation.

The emulation teams have forbidden all discussion of running Tears of the Kingdom from their Discord servers—Yuzu only allows vague discussion of the contents of the game, but requests for help or discussion of performance quickly earns chatters a deleted message and a warning or ban. To avoid being involved with pirated material, the emulator developers have vowed, at least publicly, not to release updates targeting issues with Tears of the Kingdom. "We are waiting for the game to release, so that members of our team can each legally dump their own copies of the game," Yuzu lead developer Bunnei told me on Monday. 

The people pirating The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom two weeks early aren't so patient.

On subreddits like the brazenly titled r/NewYuzuPiracy, new "fixes" for the game seem to pop up every few hours, claiming to offer improved performance or cures for crashes or graphical glitches. There's a "30 fps patch," a "60 fps patch," the "cloudfix" and others targeting specific bits of Tears of the Kingdom that pose issues for the official versions of the emulators. These files are distributed across file hosting sites like Mediafire and Pixeldrain, with each Reddit post linking to virus scanning sites to "prove" they're clean of trojans or other nasty malware that started popping up in the first few days after Tears of the Kingdom's leak on piracy sites.

Memes and conspiracy theories are already rampant. Some users freaked out when a purported fix from a now-deleted Reddit account seemed to be pinging a remote server in Eastern Europe, prompting a 24 hour cycle of panic threads like "DELETE THE MODDED EXE!!!" and joke threads like "a large belarusian man just walked into my house and fucked my wife."

The Belarus files, it turned out, were clean. But the defining element of the current Tears of the Kingdom emulation scene is the lack of good answers about, well, basically everything.

Because emulator development is usually open source, it's typically easy to go onto Github and see who's changing code. To those of us who aren't programmers, these changes are mostly going to look mundane or impenetrable. Here's a Ryujinx code change from four days ago, for example, that ensures the emulator doesn't get thrown off by capital letters. But without the emulator dev teams working on Tears of the Kingdom yet, third parties who have pirated the game have started modifying code to fix various issues and uploading their own precompiled builds of the emulators. With no documentation or code history to go off of, what these "fixes" are actually doing is about as clear as mud unless you've pirated Tears of the Kingdom in order to test them.

"Yuzu and Ryujinx have a lot to lose, so [making fixes for] TotK before it releases based on reports from obviously pirated copies of the game would be a huge target on them, so forks of the emulators from people with little/no connection to the scene trying to hack around the issues have popped up," says Dolphin emulator contributor JMC479. (Anyone with a Github account can "fork" another project to duplicate its files and then make their own modifications in a public or private repository.) 

"And then fake forks with malware, or paywalls, etc. also exist," says JMC479, "making the whole thing a mess all while the devs can't really do anything to stop it."

With so many people eager to play Tears of the Kingdom, the seedier corners of the emulation community—the kinds that shamelessly link to pirated games and use code stolen from other emulators—are getting a lot more attention. Over the weekend, the Google news feed on my phone even highlighted one of these emulators for me, algorithmically oblivious to the sketchiness of what it was promoting. 

Nintendo has also taken action, seemingly filing a DMCA takedown request with Github over a tool called Lockpick, which is used to extract the Switch encryption keys needed to emulate games. As a result, the Android-based Switch emulator Skyline decided to call it quits, writing: "All development on Skyline has been ceased due to the potential legal risks involved."

While Nintendo has never gone after Yuzu or Ryujinx, users are understandably worried. A search for Skyline's name in Yuzu's Discord reveals the same fearful questions repeated over and over. "Can't believe every time I look at this chat since the weekend has been another explosion of this discussion lol. Who started it this time?" one user posted Monday afternoon.

"Ryujinx is not shutting down," one of Ryujinx's Discord moderators posted to the announcement channel on Saturday to head off the same thing.

Those emulation developers only have to weather the storm for a few more days—Tears of the Kingdom releases on Friday, May 12. What remains to be seen is whether Nintendo will escalate its offensive against Lockpick or other emulation tools as its biggest game of the year starts selling by the millions.

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).