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Nintendo is keeping close tabs on Mario

(YouTube)

If you go to the YouTube video in which someone finally beat “Item Abuse 3,” a hacked “Super Mario World” regarded as insanely difficult, you’re met not with an exciting sequence of video game action, but rather with a sad face and a note: “This video is no longer available due to a copyright claim by Nintendo.”

As Kotaku reported recently, Nintendo has been pulling these sorts of videos down from YouTube left and right. At issue is the fact that they are recordings of so-called “tool-assisted speedruns” — that is, performances in which Mario’s actions are guided not by the player’s real-time input, but rather by movements programmed beforehand. (I reached out to Nintendo for comment by means of the company’s website form, but didn’t hear back.)

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Tool-assisted speedruns require the use of ROMs, digital backup files of the original game that can be freely passed from computer to computer, or downloaded from well-known websites. Therefore, Nintendo reasons — and YouTube is clearly sympathetic to this reasoning — there are copyright issues at play, since players aren’t using the (ancient) original game cartridges, or newer copies sold directly online by Nintendo. Nintendo states flatly on its website that “it is illegal to download and play a Nintendo ROM from the Internet,” that Internet rumors about the legality of “backup copies” for people who do own the originals are misunderstood by the public.

Two pieces of context are necessary to make sense of this: The first is that these games were released decades ago and have made the company countless millions since then. This doesn’t generally change the legality of these copyright questions, but it does change the optics of Nintendo’s crackdown. The second is that Nintendo recently released “Super Mario Maker,” which allows players to design their own levels in the styles of a bunch of classic (and more recent) “Mario” games.

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Nintendo seems to be closing ranks around its intellectual property, in other words. But there could be a cost.

“I think it is stupid of them to go after TAS videos, but then again they have every right to do so,” said Alex Losego, a leading speedrunner, in an e-mail. “And yes, I think this has everything to do with ‘Super Mario Maker’ being released recently. Seeing how the game is a great hit, my guess is that they don’t want people to stumble upon videos that cross the fuzzy legal line (TASes, hacks, etc.) when they search for the new game. I wouldn’t be surprised if this ‘attack’ is only temporary — take down videos in between the game’s release and this holiday season (the time where most copies of Super Mario Maker will be sold).”

Temporary or no, it’s hard not to wonder whether Nintendo is being overzealous here. These speedrunners and hackers have helped keep classic games alive and bring them to entirely new generations that might not have discovered them otherwise. As old as it makes me feel, there are now avid gamers who were born 15 years after the original “Super Mario Bros.” came out. As I’ve written previously, there is huge interest in certain online communities in exploring these games’ every nook and cranny, in breaking and rewiring them in interesting ways. Watching them do so is fascinating, and Nintendo is striking out against a vibrant form of hobbyism.

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In certain ways it’s a classic case of corporate culture versus Internet culture. Internet cult+re, to oversimplify, believes that people should be allowed to engage in this sort of hacking and experimentation. Corporate culture doesn’t. Some video game companies actively encourage the sorts of experimentation Nintendo is seeking and destroying. Sure, Nintendo can argue that it is encouraging player creativity with “Super Mario Maker.” But this is a carefully controlled, curated sort of creativity, and it’s hard to see how the existence of videos that generate excitement for Nintendo titles harms the company. Instead, this crackdown comes off as petty, as a company that should know better not really getting it.


Jesse Singal can be reached at jesse.r.singal@gmail.com.