Games

Nintendo's Secrets Are Continuing to Leak, Revealing Its Unknown History

The "gigaleak" is over, but unreleased video games and answers to questions we didn't even know to ask continue to pile up.
September 11, 2020, 1:00pm
Artwork from the video game Pokemon Picross
Artwork courtesy of Nintendo

In late July, a historic amount of Nintendo secrets—game code, artwork, emails—was unceremoniously dumped onto the Internet. The "gigaleak" was likely stolen, causing a rift between people desperate to learn more about a secretive company and people who fear how aggressively that company protects its secrets. The leaks also haven't stopped. It's another week, another leak, and another chance to piece together more about Nintendo. 

"NEW LEAK HAPPENED THIS IS NO DRIL," wrote one user a few days ago on a Discord called The Super Secret Nintendo Club, dedicated to dissecting the latest Nintendo leaks.

Part of what makes these leaks so interesting is their mystery. Every so often, a random link appears on 4chan, the infamously toxic message board best known for birthing conspiracies like Gamergate and QAnon. Nobody knows if the link is a virus or a trove of historical artifacts until someone downloads it and starts poking around. (People quickly share details about the files that allow you to figure out if you're downloading something compromised.)

At this point, there have been so many leaks people are incapable of preventing themselves. Inevitably, someone takes the leap and it becomes a race to see who can unearth what first.

One of the best Twitter accounts to follow if you want to see what's leaking and try to make sense of it is @NintendoMetro, which is run by old school gaming fan Ryan Langley.

"The stuff I was posting yesterday was me just loading in Random ROMs and seeing what they were," said Langley, "then trying to corroborate if that thing came out or not.”

Nintendo has yet to publicly comment or take any legal action against anyone talking about or sharing the details of these leaks. The company's strategy has been to completely ignore it.

But Langley shared a Google Doc spreadsheet with me that he's using in collaboration with a bunch of other people, categorizing the files and trying to figure out what's interesting.

Because what's leaking out of Nintendo hasn't been properly vetted or organized, people are left with random dumps of files that could quite literally be anything and often not in English. 

The most recent leak is largely made up of various ROMs during the Game Boy era that have entered what's called "lotcheck." Lot Check is an arm of Nintendo that does the final sign off on a game before it can be distributed and sold. Nintendo rarely acknowledges Lot Check's role in the company, and apparently only shows up in a single credits: 1997’s Yoshi's Story.

"It means that they were at least submitted to Nintendo to make sure they're all good to go, not breaking anything etc," said Langley. "So unlike earlier Nintendo leaks where it was a bunch of random files or having to build the ROM together—it's the ROM submitted to Nintendo for testing purposes prior to being released."

What players have found is wild: finished video games that were never released, including an English version of Gargoyle's Quest II for the Game Boy. The game was completely localized, but for whatever reason, Capcom decided to not release the game outside Japan.

"There are some cases of multiple builds sent in of the same thing, but might be minor differences we don't know about yet," said Langley. "It's all quite overwhelming when they [the anonymous leakers] just go 'here are 1,000 Game Boy ROMs, search through them.'"

Some of the differences people have noticed are, in the end, very minor.

There's even an unreleased Nintendo game in the pile, Pokémon Picross, which was set to be released in 1999 for the original Game Boy and was unceremoniously cancelled. The game was even shown off in magazines, and the ROM proves it was absolutely playable.

Even wilder is that this version of Pokémon Picross was developed by a studio called Jupiter Corporation, who would go on to develop a free-to-play game called Pokémon Picross that was released for the 3DS in 2015. More than 15 years later, the concept came full circle!

Langley said this version "seems complete" and has more than 150 puzzles.

The game Langley is most fascinated with is one you're probably never heard of, an oddity called Edd the Duck that was, in essence, a cut-and-paste job by the game's developer.

"Beam Software," said Langley. "They made a game called Baby T-Rex, and then swapped the sprites a million times to make 10 different games for different licenses around the world. In the US this was a We're Back! game, in Australia it was Agro Soar. This was one of them based on a British puppet, but one of the only versions which didn't actually release."

Another cancelled game found in the pile: Lunar Chase, a localization of the Game Boy game X from Star Fox developer Argonaut Software, with some impressive 3D graphics.

And Gimmick Land, an unreleased Game Boy Color RPG from developer AlphaDream, best known for working on the Mario & Luigi games. Gimmick Land was an original idea from AlphaDream and fully developed for the Game Boy Color, before Nintendo asked AlphaDream to revamp the game for its new Game Boy Advance. It would later be released as Tomato Adventure, but these leaks reveal how far along Gimmick Land really was.

One streamer is even translating the game in real-time on Twitch

Something else that came full circle during a leak from a few weeks ago was what's called the Wii Startup Disc. It's a particularly obscure piece of Nintendo history because its only function was to upgrade the firmware of the Wii to reflect the finished operating system for launch. Early Wii hardware sent to retail stores like Best Buy to help sell consumers on the machines were using an early version of the operating system. This disc was just a patch.

But the Internet is full of completionists, and people wanted the damn Wii Startup Disc. There's a hilariously detailed entry about the Wii Startup Disc on Lost Media Wiki, a website dedicated to chronicling what we do and don't know about obscurities, that is worth reading. 

A random disc that updates the firmware of a launch console is by definition an obscurity, and yet, there were cheers when completionists could check a box and say it was found.

Even stranger, there’s more than one Wii Startup Disc—there’s 11.

Perhaps the biggest discovery is an early version of Wii Sports that reveals—prepare yourself—Nintendo had designed their famous Miis with ears. This changes everything.  

All of these details add up and tell a story about Nintendo, or at least Nintendo at a certain point in history from a certain point of view. There are no memos to put these ROMs in context, no emails for us to parse about why a game was or was not cancelled. There are no interviews with developers who worked on these games that, for whatever reason, stalled. 

This lack of information is, ultimately, what fuels a lot of the obsession around things as goofy as the Wii Startup Disc. Nintendo doesn't talk, and so people do the talking for them, one leak at a time. And so far, there's no sign the leaks will be stopping anytime soon.

Follow Patrick on Twitter. His email is patrick.klepek@vice.com, and available privately on Signal (224-707-1561).