People love their Switches. Some people love them so much they want to break them open and make them do things they’re not supposed to. That means Nintendo has to respond. The back-and-forth between Nintendo and hackers reached fever pitch this week.
First, some background: In April, Switch hackers found a way to jailbreak Switch hardware that they said Nintendo would have no way of patching. The bug being exploited was at the hardware level, meaning it could apparently only be fixed as new consoles were manufactured, not through updates to firmware.
At the end of May, a number of Switch hackers found that their accounts had been banned from Nintendo’s online service. That means no more online play, the eShop, orother Switch features. Users believed the bannings might have had something to do with them violating the terms of Nintendo’s content distribution network to download Switch updates to PC for reverse-engineering and research purposes. It recalled a ban wave that hit 3DS hackers last year around the same time for similar activities. This shows that Nintendo, which has yet to publicly comment on Switch hacking, was still paying attention in certain cases.
On June 18, one of the recent banned hackers, a prominent one named SciresM, detailed in a Reddit post how Nintendo was using a new, sophisticated system to detect pirated games. According to his research, Nintendo uses unique certifications for every individual Switch cartridge and copy of a digital game, then checks to see whether those match up with the account that first played them. As a result, pirated games will get flagged because of the mismatch, leading Nintendo to easily detect and ban the offending consoles from accessing its online service.
“tl;dr: Don’t pirate games,” SciresM wrote. “These are extremely strong anti-piracy measures — Nintendo did a great job, here. … In the digital game case, Nintendo actually perfectly prevents online piracy.”
Later in the week, there were reports that Switch hackers named Scionae and Pragma had found a way to run the system’s developer software, called DevMenu, on standard, non-developer Switch units. Images of DevMenu, used by developers to create and optimize games for the Switch, have been widely circulated for a while, but this is the first time there have been widespread reports of the software running on normal commercial units. The upshot of this is that people would, among other things, be able to directly load games onto SD cards or create custom avatars for their user profiles.
Console hacker Reisyukaku was able to change their avatar to a character from JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure, something a fellow hacker was able to replicate, sharing it on Twitter with a photograph of their own. Switch owners can only choose from a preset library of different avatars for their profile, and being able to upload any old image would be a truly groundbreaking thing for a platform as feature-limited and tightly controlled as the Nintendo Switch. In response to the thread, one user tweeted “Next step: adding NSFW images and watch out for the big N hammer”—that is, for the inevitable smackdown from Nintendo’s tech team.
On June 22, someone wrote a now-deleted post on on the Switch subreddit talking about their child finding pornographic content in Super Mario Odyssey’s Balloon World mode thanks to the avatar hack. In Balloon World, players can go online to hunt for balloons hidden across levels by other people. The balloons have the avatar of the player who placed it on them, meaning that if someone could hack their avatar to make it a picture of [insert human body part here] it could theoretically appear in other people’s games.
A second post, widely reported on by different gaming news sites, alleged something similar, including links to two blurry images as proof. However, when I tried to reach out to the user behind the second post through Reddit, I was immediately contacted by several other members of a homebrew Discord group saying the context of the post was fake. While the images themselves might be legitimate, they said, they weren’t discovered by someone’s child or being shared by an angry parent. According to them, and screenshots of the discussion in the Discord, the Reddit user in question was just trolling.
A number of Switch users have in fact managed to switch their avatars to something explicit, one of the Discord users told Kotaku, and some of them had popped up in Mario Odyssey—but how widespread it is, and Nintendo’s means for dealing with it, remains far from clear. Nintendo did not return a request by Kotaku to for comment on the matter.
It’s clear from this week’s goings-on that Switch hacking is going to be an endless game of Mario Tennis between hackers and Nintendo, with each side aggressively attempting to shatter the other’s racket on every volley. The big question is, will hackers force Nintendo’s hand and get it to officially support the sorts of features that players want to add? Something like custom avatars, a feature the Xbox One has, might not seem like that big a deal. But they, like voice chat, speak to how robust the Switch’s overall user experience is or could be—and how various hackers’ insistence to make it happen, whether Nintendo wants it or not, could affect how the company decides to improve, refine, and grow its online community in the future.
[Update - 1:25pm, 6/27/18]: A spokesperson for Nintendo sent Kotaku the following statement today regarding the recent activity of hackers on the Switch platform:
“A very small number of consumers have been using modified Nintendo Switch systems to display inappropriate or unauthorized material in certain online games. Nintendo always strives to provide a positive experience for all consumers and this includes continuously monitoring all threats to its products’ security and taking swift and strong action to prevent them. Modified Nintendo Switch systems have been banned.”