Months ago, Dolphin, the GameCube and Wii emulator, made the surprise announcement that it would be coming to Steam. This was shocking, considering it is meant for emulating Nintendo games, and came out of left field. Unfortunately, about a month later, the store page was taken down and little explanation was given. There was tons of speculation about the reason why, and now, we have a statement directly from the Dolphin team that explains what happened.

Dolphin Emulator

No DMCA Notice

The first thing the statement clarifies is Nintendo DID NOT send any DMCA notice. Valve reached out to Nintendo to get approval for putting Dolphin on Steam and just forwarded their reply to the Dolphin team, which of course was saying to not put it there at all. Valve mentioned that the only way for Dolphin to be on Steam is to come to some agreement with Nintendo first, which as the team notes, would be close to impossible.

Knowing Nintendo's stance on emulation, the thought that they would never agree makes sense, I can't see them agreeing to any kind of compromise in this sense.

The Wii Common Key

So a lot of speculation initially was that the Wii Common Key was the source of the issue and removing that would actually allow Dolphin to continue, but that isn't really the case.

The Wii Common Key is a code that had been hard-coded into every Wii that is used to decrypt games to get them to run in the device. Wii games are encrypted, so they can't be used on other devices, and need this key to get them running. This key was extracted and taken out over 15 years ago for the emulator and is used in Dolphin's codebase, but that doesn't mean it is the actual source of the problems.

The key has been publicly available for years spread across the Internet, but has elicited no legal response from anyone. It is, however, a big part of the letter that Nintendo sent to Valve that states that Dolphin is using proprietary cryptographic keys for tech that is primarily designed for circumventing:

Wii and Nintendo GameCube game files, or ROMs, are encrypted using proprietary cryptographic keys. The Dolphin emulator operates by incorporating these cryptographic keys without Nintendo’s authorization and decrypting the ROMs at or immediately before runtime. Thus, use of the Dolphin emulator unlawfully “circumvent[s] a technological measure that effectively controls access to a work protected under” the Copyright Act. 17 U.S.C. § 1201(a)(1). Distribution of the emulator, whether by the Dolphin developers or other third-party platforms, constitutes unlawful “traffic[king] in a[] technology . . . that . . . is primarily designed or produced for the purpose of circumventing a technological measure . . . .” 17 U.S.C. § 1201(a)(2)(A).3

Nintendo's Letter to Valve

The Dolphin team has noted they have a strong case that the primary function of Dolphin is NOT to circumvent, but to recreate a GameCube/Wii systems and provide an emulated environment. On top of that, Dolphin was independently created and reverse engineered, making it protected under the reverse-engineering exemption and is allowed to keep running. They believe Nintendo is pushing this strongly to promote that Dolphin is not exempt, when US law is in Dolphin's favor.

Moving Forward

The team starts this section saying they don't feel Dolphin is in any legal danger. The case against them would be too thin and there are a lot of protections they have under US law. While the emulator is no longer coming to Steam, we should still see some of the improvements that were being developed for the program, including a Big Picture-like mode all controlled with a controller and some new upcoming features that were originally meant to be Quality of Life improvements for the Steam release.

As much as it is a shame this happened, there is a lot to look forward to and it is nice to be reassured that Dolphin won't be going anywhere. It might not be as easy as downloading from the Steam store, but getting Dolphin set up on the Steam Deck can still be extremely easy with EmuDeck. I look forward to seeing what the team will be doing and how this Big Picture GUI is going to look!

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Noah Kupetsky
A lover of gaming since 4, Noah has grown up with a love and passion for the industry. From there, he started to travel a lot and develop a joy for handheld and PC gaming. When the Steam Deck released, it just all clicked.
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