An unprecedented Nintendo leak turns into a moral dilemma for archivists

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For the past week, Nintendo fans have resembled digital archaeologists. Following a massive leak of source code and other internal documents — appropriately dubbed the gigaleak — previously unknown details from the company’s biggest games have steadily trickled out. Those poring over the code have uncovered a new Animal Crossing villager, early prototypes for games like Pokémon Diamond, cut characters from Star Fox, a very weird Yoshi, and strange titles like a hockey RPG. Perhaps the biggest discovery has been a Luigi character model from Super Mario 64.

From a historical and preservationist perspective, the leak is an incredible find. It’s a rare look into the process and discarded ideas of one of the most influential — and secretive — companies in video games. But for those preservationists digging through the data, that excitement is tainted by a moral dilemma. The origins of the code leak are still largely unknown, but it’s likely that it was obtained illegally. That presents a pertinent question: does the source of the leak tarnish all that historians can learn from it?

“It puts a bad taste in my mouth a bit about the leak to be sure, but perhaps my curiosity about the data is overriding my moral compass somewhat in this case, because I can’t say I’m unhappy to see the data released,” says an archivist who goes by the handle MrTalida. “The volume of new knowledge and understanding that this leak has brought is at times overwhelming.”

So what’s the big deal? While a skinny Yoshi may not seem that important, when you put it all together, the leak is an unprecedented look into video game history. Archivists are still going through the cache, but so far, they’ve already uncovered not only completely unknown games, but also new details about how some of the most influential Nintendo titles were created. Some of those details have since been inserted into builds of the games: you can see what an unused beach area in Ocarina of Time would have looked like or get a glimpse at an enemy that didn’t make it into SM64. MrTalida likens it to art historians using X-ray imaging techniques to see the layers underneath a Leonardo da Vinci painting. Only in this case, we’re able to see the steps designers like Shigeru Miyamoto and Takashi Tezuka took when creating some of their most defining works.

“In more practical terms, leaks can give us important historical and chronological context that we lack from just the final released product,” MrTalida explains. “Every commented out block of code, every early draft of a sprite sheet, every build with less-than-perfect controls and abandoned game mechanics — they all give us incredibly valuable insight into how these games formed and why. In some cases, we can even learn important details about who worked on each aspect of the game, knowledge which is often lost to time.”

Leaks aren’t entirely new territory. In the past, source code or screenshots for canceled games have been unearthed, sometimes from now-defunct game studios and publishers who won’t or can’t fight to secure their intellectual property. But the Nintendo gigaleak is notable both for its scale and the high-profile nature of its content. “To have the full, unfiltered source code to a seminal classic like Super Mario Kart, or to have early sprite work for The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, or to have multiple early builds of Yoshi’s Island, or to have 3D models created by Yoshiaki Koizumi for the earliest Nintendo 64 technology tests — the scope of what has been leaked here exceeds all expectations and precedent, and fulfills many of the wildest fantasies of game history enthusiasts,” says MrTalida.

But there’s more than just fascinating discoveries. The leak also includes internal emails, some with identifying information, raising privacy concerns. This, coupled with the possible unscrupulous origins of the content, makes for a morally complex situation. It’s reminiscent of the Sony Pictures hack from 2014, which revealed all kinds of salacious internal details that were obtained illegally. Fans clearly want to learn more about Nintendo’s games and how they were made, as the countless gigaleak tweets can attest to. But not everyone is happy about how it happened. “To say this makes me feel uncomfortable is an understatement,” says Brian, who runs Mega Man fansite Rockman Corner and has been sharing details from the leak. “And yet there’s a certain allure here. You can’t help but to look. You know it’s wrong, but there it is: Luigi in Mario 64.”

There could also be more practical implications for how Nintendo operates moving forward. The company does occasionally celebrate its history, like when it released the canceled Star Fox 2 on the SNES Classic (and later through Switch Online). But it’s also a company that fiercely protects its intellectual property, frequently shutting down infringing fan projects or YouTube videos. This leak could potentially lead to the company tightening up even more. “Real talk: this Nintendo leak is bad on so many levels,” tweeted Mike Mika, studio head at Digital Eclipse, a developer focused on authentic re-releases of classic games. “It hurts them, it hurts fans, and it turns the topic of preservation into a topic of security and tightening the grip on intellectual property regardless of its historical or educational value to history.”

Nintendo declined to comment, so it’s hard to know exactly how the company will change, if at all. As MrTalida notes, it’s likely any potential operational changes will be internal and done in the service of preventing leaks like this from happening in the first place. “I do imagine their own internal data access policies will change as a result, and I’m sure they will be reexamining what they share with their partners, how that data is made accessible, and for how long. In effect, scoring a huge cache of data like this from a partner is probably going to be much more unlikely in the future.”

That said, the leak does at least appear to show that Nintendo is meticulous when it comes to documenting its own history. Not every studio keeps source code for unfinished or unreleased games dating back several decades. But despite the fervent interest, that history doesn’t appear to be something the company wants to share with the general public.

“In a perfect world, this leak will encourage Nintendo to be more open about their developmental history; to partner with preservationists and archivists to allow the public a means to see and explore all those lovely ‘what-could-have-beens,’” says Brian. “How great would it be if Nintendo, themselves, freely distributed those mythical Mario 64 Luigi assets? Or ‘Super Donkey,’ the primordial, highly experimental Yoshi’s Island precursor? But in my heart of hearts, I know there will be consequences. I foresee Nintendo being less open about what goes on behind the scenes.”

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