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Nintendo vs. Its Fans

Nintendo’s recent actions go back further than many fans think

If you’ve been paying attention to online discussions around Nintendo lately, chances are you’ve noticed that things haven’t been too friendly after the company issued a cease-and-desist notice against the annual Super Smash Bros. tournament, The Big House, essentially forcing its organisers to cancel the event. Nintendo’s lack of support for Super Smash Bros.’ wildly successful competitive scene has always been a point of frustration for its fans, but this is a major step up in its efforts to actively stifle the competitive scene and fans are not happy. 

The Big House tournament has been running annually since it made its debut back in 2011, so you would be forgiven for finding it strange that Nintendo would only decide to intervene ten years down the line — especially after it sponsored the event for the past five years. The reason for the sudden change is something that’s well within Nintendo’s rights. Due to that pesky pandemic, this year’s Big House was set to be the first one held entirely online, a simple enough task for Super Smash Bros. Ultimate… but not so for 2001’s Super Smash Bros. Melee. To make it a little easier, the tournament’s organisers opted to use a fan-made software called Slippi to play Melee online. Of course, being a GameCube title from 2001, Melee doesn’t support modification out of the box, so The Big House was forced to run Slippi on emulated versions of Super Smash Bros. Melee

That’s where Nintendo has its issue. In an official statement on the matter, Nintendo asserted that because The Big House was planning to use “illegally copied versions of the game” and refused Nintendo’s request that it not do so, the company was forced to “step in to protect its intellectual property and brands.” While everything Nintendo said in that statement is technically correct and well within its rights, it’s hard to say that the company’s ignorance and lack of cooperation in this unique circumstance is anything but absurd: the assumption that a community that single-handedly fostered the Super Smash Bros. Melee competitive scene seeks to pose any risk to the integrity of Nintendo’s intellectual property is simply asinine. 

I’m not trying to reprimand Nintendo’s forced cancellation of the event from a legal standpoint, because the company had every right to do it, but striking down a community built on its own adoration of one of Nintendo’s biggest brands is insulting — both to the Super Smash Bros. community, and to Nintendo’s fanbase in general. 

Continuing to disappoint its fans, Nintendo cancelled its own scheduled Splatoon 2 NA Finals stream after several top teams added permutations of #FreeMelee into their names in solidarity. Nintendo vaguely stated that it cancelled the event due to “unexpected executional challenges”, but the lack of any real elaboration doesn’t make it difficult to conclude that silencing the community’s disapproval of Nintendo’s actions at The Big House was the company’s real motive. 

Making matters worse, it was only days later that content creator Alex “CptnAlex” Blake revealed that Nintendo had issued a cease-and-desist order against his crowd-funded Etikon campaign — a campaign started in honour and remembrance of Desmond “Etika” Amofah, a popular Nintendo content creator who took his own life last year. The Etikons themselves were merely customised shells for the Joy-Con controllers, meaning that anyone who purchased them would still need to own a pair of official Joy-Cons in order to use them. 

Nintendo does have legal precedent to issue the notice, given that the phrase “JoyConBoyz” — a self-appointed title for Etika’s fans — appears on the shells along with the Joy-Con silhouettes, which technically does infringe on the company’s copyright. However, it’s difficult to sympathise with Nintendo’s cause here, since the project aimed to donate 30% of all its proceeds to the JED Foundation for Mental Health and Suicide Prevention Awareness. Once again, Nintendo had every right to take the action it took, but it’s poor form to besmirch one of its biggest and most vocal fans in the process… let alone a loving tribute to someone who meant a lot to its community, or a cause as important as mental health and suicide prevention. 

The whole series of situations has left many Nintendo fans worried about the seemingly-attitudinal changes happening at the company as of late. Unfortunately, these events are only symptomatic of a wider problem that has been affecting the company’s perspective for years, rather than a more recent change like fans have been suspecting. 

One of the most prominent examples of Nintendo’s failure to understand the nature of its fanbase — and the internet as a whole — was the Nintendo Creators Program. Fortunately now a relic of the past, the program offered online content creators a way to sidestep the company’s notoriously ridiculous habit of issuing copyright strikes against any videos that contained footage of any of its games. Ignoring the fact that the program highlights Nintendo’s inability to comprehend the fact that these videos are basically free marketing, the entire partnership was riddled with anti-fanbase sentiment. 

Not only did the program force creators to pay Nintendo 40% of their revenue from their videos, but all creators under the program were required to submit their content into a queue for approval. Exacerbating the issue, the guidelines surrounding monetisation were reportedly extremely restrictive and harsh, allowing little in the way of creativity. I’m repeating myself here, sure, but even though Nintendo did have legal precedent to establish the program the way it did, it showed that the company has little understanding of not only the nature of online content production, but also its fans’ intentions. 

In response to all the recent controversy, a certain quote from the late Nintendo President Satoru Iwata has been making the rounds on social media: “it would not be appropriate if we treated people who did something based on affection for Nintendo, as criminals.” It’s obviously hyperbolic to claim that Nintendo’s recent actions are treating their fans as criminals, but there certainly is some pertinence in Iwata’s statement regarding the affection of its fans. 

Nintendo’s apparent anti-fanbase attitude doesn’t stop there, though: it’s also found its way into the realm of fan games. Fan games and rom-hacks have developed a major foothold within the games industry, and their significance only seems to grow. Rom-hacking scenes for games like Super Mario World pre-date Nintendo’s own level maker, Super Mario Maker, by many years, and the role that rom-hacks have played in fostering the independent game development scene cannot be denied. 

It’s no secret at this point that Toby Fox’s indie darling, Undertale, started its life as a Halloween-themed rom-hack of the Super Nintendo RPG Earthbound, and it’s not the last game to find success after starting life as a Nintendo rom-hack. Having begun as a rom-hack of Nintendo’s Fire Emblem franchise, Path of the Midnight Sun has evolved into a full-fledged release all its own, having amassed more than AU$60,000 through its Kickstarter campaign.

I’m not trying to suggest that every indie title ever released started off as a Nintendo rom-hack or anything like that, but it’s been clearly documented that the indie scene’s rising prominence throughout the past decade and generation owes a lot to fans’ adoration of the industry as a whole and its many treasured developers — including Nintendo. Unfortunately, Nintendo seems to be amongst those developers and publishers who misplace this adoration and homage as a more ill-intended attempt at profiting from imitation and copyright infringement. 

Perhaps it’ll be easier to illustrate Nintendo’s attitude by looking at its responses to the multitude of fan games that have popped up over the years. Pokénet was a fan-made, free-to-play Pokémon MMO released in 2010, which was short-lived because Nintendo issued a cease-and-desist notice against it soon after it released. Six years later, the company took down another fan-made Pokémon title, Pokémon Uranium, as well as A2MR, a fan remake of 1991’s Metroid II: Return of Samus, after it noticed their success. Like Pokénet, both of those titles were also free-to-play, created only out of love for the properties they were based on. I’m repeating myself ad nauseum here, but even though Nintendo had legal precedent to take these actions, it doesn’t excuse the company’s disrespect for the dedication and passion that went into these fan games’ development. 

Maybe it’s unfair to pile on Nintendo here, especially given that it’s not the only company that has taken down harmless fan games in such a manner: fan remakes of games like Metal Gear Solid and Streets of Rage have found themselves taken down in the past as well, proving that Nintendo isn’t alone in its convictions; however, Nintendo’s treatment of fan games in particular is well worth mentioning in light of the Big House controversy. 

There is an argument to be made that Nintendo and other studios are acting in the interest of protecting and maintaining their brands and intellectual properties, and that notion might have more credence if it wasn’t for SEGA: after the company noticed the talents of independent developer Christian Whitehead — who created the popular Sonic the Hedgehog fan game Retro Sonic — it commissioned him to work on mobile ports of Sonic the Hedgehog and Sonic the Hedgehog 2. Whitehead’s involvement culminated in the development and release of 2017’s Sonic Mania, a title primarily developed by programmers known for their work in the fan-game and rom-hacking community but one that critically trounced SEGA’s very own Sonic Forces on its way to becoming one of the most critically praised Sonic the Hedgehog titles of all time. 

Now, of course, just because this approach worked for SEGA doesn’t mean that Nintendo must follow suit, especially since there’s no guarantee that the results will be the same. Like all things, though, the fan-game issue isn’t exactly black and white. I’ve spent an ungodly amount of time complaining about everything Nintendo has done wrong by its fans, but the company has also taken steps in the right direction. Not only has it openly embraced indie and fan-influenced titles like Undertale as of late by representing it in Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, but 2019 was also notable for the release of Brace Yourself Games’ Cadence of Hyrule – Crypt of the Necrodancer, the first indie developed Legend of Zelda title. Unfortunately, these acts of noteworthy praise are often overshadowed by the sheer amount of restrictive and anti-fan actions the company seems to take. 

It’s an unfortunate history that the company’s been carrying for quite a while and, as many fans have pointed out, something clearly needs to change. It’s hard to say what, and unlike what other fans have posited I don’t think this is something to be blamed on a certain higher up or individual in charge. The company has carried these less-than-ideal beliefs under the influence of many great leaders, and ultimately, Nintendo’s supposed tirade against their fans is a byproduct of business as a whole. 

The company’s recent actions against the competitive scene — and its most dedicated fans — have been deplorable at best, but they’re also noteworthy for the feedback they’ve produced. Yes, I’ve been quite critical of Nintendo for the entire length of this article, but at the same time I’ve still been adoring its games and losing my mind over recent announcements like Sephiroth’s descent into Super Smash Bros. Ultimate

I’m not saying you have to hate Nintendo all of a sudden, because I certainly don’t. I’m overly critical, yes, but like the fan developers that Nintendo seems to detest, that’s because I genuinely adore Nintendo. If anything, let this rant be a reminder that Nintendo isn’t immune to the cut-throat-businessman-syndrome that plagues the corporate world. It’s an unfortunate reality, but things aren’t likely to change unless we voice our disappointment as fans. Let’s just hope that 20 years from now we’re looking back at the company’s actions as a product of Nintendo’s dark age, rather than the status quo. 

This article was originally published on Doublejump. If you enjoyed what you’ve read, you can support the site further by following us on social media, becoming a Patron, and/or purchasing some merchandise!