How an online community took over the Legend of Zelda

I have no first memory of The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time because it’s been in my life for as long as I can remember. Before I had the coordination to play the game myself, I watched my older brothers play it for hours. When I finally got to play it myself, I felt like I was flying.

I chase that dopamine hit once a year or two playing through Ocarina of time, which normally requires dusting off my old GameCube and hoping the disc isn’t too scratched to read. But for several months I haven’t played Ocarina of time on a Nintendo console at all. Instead, I played it on something called Harkinian Ship: an unofficial port of Ocarina of time for PC which a few years ago would have been unimaginable.

For decades, Nintendo has graciously given in to my love – and that of other gamers – for Ocarina of time by re-releasing the very famous game on each of their home consoles since the Nintendo 64. In a way, these official ports allowed the game to grow with me. But not all ports are created equal. Ocarina of Time’s The most recent re-release as part of the Nintendo Switch Online collection was, in a word, abysmal.

Finding ways to play the game elsewhere was risky at best. Before Boat, running the game on a PC required using an emulator to emulate the hardware of a Nintendo console. Emulators are notoriously finicky, sometimes significantly affecting gameplay. But building a non-emulated native port would require access to Ocarina of Time’s source code – the human-readable code written by the developers who created it.

This poses a serious problem because Ocarina of Time’s the source code is strictly kept between God and Nintendo. For mere mortals, the only glimpse into the inner workings of Ocarina of time is the almost unintelligible binary compiled from the source code and loaded onto the game cartridge. This is where what is called decompilation comes in.

Decompilation is a form of reverse engineering in software. Like starting at the end of a maze and working backwards, a decompiler enthusiast writes new code based on the compiled binary of the program he is trying to match. Instead of making assumptions about how the original source code looks, all they have to do is make sure the new code compiles into the same binary. Once they’ve accomplished this, their new code – which probably looks very different from the original – can be treated as source code, open to tweaks, improvements, and recompilation.

This can be an incredibly arduous and time-consuming process, especially for a large program like a video game. But Ocarina of Time’s the fanbase is dedicated, and in 2020 a group of such fans by the name Zelda Reverse Engineering Team (ZeldaRET for short) announced plans to decompile the entire game, along with several other franchise entries. For the first time in over two decades, a fan-made PC port seemed within reach, but ZeldaRET had no such plans. The all-volunteer group is made up mostly of speedrunners and modders who have no intention of porting the games they successfully decompile (a fact they repeatedly make explicit on their website).

And who can blame them? While reverse-engineering software enjoys marginal legal protection, porting games developed by someone else is a contentious minefield, and Nintendo is notoriously hawkish when it comes to defending its ownership. intellectual. Additionally, ZeldaRET’s stated goal is to enhance the understanding and preservation of classic games, the need for which is becoming increasingly evident in the gaming industry, and which does not require a risky porting effort. .

But unlike Nintendo, all of ZeldaRET’s code is open-source. A publicly available codebase and a deeply dedicated fandom made porting attempts, legally risky or not, almost inevitable.

Die-hard Zelda fans Jack Walker and Kenix rose to the challenge. In June 2020, with the decompilation project only 17% complete, the two began brainstorming ideas for a port based on the growing code base. In November 2021, after accumulating a team of volunteer developers, the first real port construction was launched. And in March of this year, four months after a successful decompilation and 23 years after the initial release of Ocarina of Time, the OoT PC port — now called Harkinian Ship in reference to the ill-conceived and often memorized idea CD i games Zelda — has been made available to the public.

So can someone carry on Harkinian Ship Discord and download the full game? No, that would be piracy, and BoatThe developers of are strictly anti-piracy. What you’ll find on their download page instead is a sort of shell of the game, with all the game mechanics and logic decompiled out of the box, but none of the copyrighted assets like game models. characters, level maps or music that make the game playable.

When downloading, the user must “build” the port by powering Boat an original game-specific ROM file—essentially a copy of the binary found on the game’s cartridge or disc—from which the port extracts these assets. That means the only legitimate way to run Harkinian Ship requires having a version of Ocarina of time and have the tools and know-how to interface it with a program running on your PC. It’s not an easy task, but it’s worth it, because the end product is beautiful.

Once built, the opening Harkinian Ship gives a scene familiar to Zelda fans: a lonely hillside lit by a setting moon and rendered in nostalgically primitive 3D graphics. Sentimental chords are struck on a surprisingly faithful sampled piano; a familiar character rides a familiar horse across the screen.

This title screen is exactly what you would see on an official release of the game. In fact, the experience from now on is exactly what you would expect from the original game, but with native high definition output, widescreen compatibility, complete stability and incredibly tiny input lag.

But to really dig Harkinian Ship, you need to dive into the settings bar. Here you will find cosmetic options, gameplay improvements, tips and dozens of other features lovingly created by an active and talented volunteer development team.

When I play, the game runs at 60 frames per second, which is three times the choppy frame rate of the original. Link’s tunic is light blue to match his updated palette of breath of the wild. Block climbing and pushing speed is increased to smooth out the game’s more tedious puzzle mechanics, and I can use the extra buttons on my gamepad to equip more items, cutting down on time spent making breaks and resume equipment exchanges. There are dozens of other small changes and updates that make the aging game pleasantly snappy again, and there’s even more to look forward to with future releases.

But what about Nintendo’s sleeping bear? It could only be a matter of time before the entire project is forced underground by a single memo from their prodigious legal team. Under modern copyright law, rights holders can exercise almost unlimited power over their work; the mere perception of copyright infringement is enough to trigger a battery of suffocating legal threats. But the fact that Boat has lasted this long without news from Kyoto is a reason for tentative optimism. Perhaps the community’s dedication to self-policing copyright infringement, aggressively stamping out any attempt or advocacy of piracy within its ranks, will pay off.

As long as Nintendo is content to offer alarmingly good versions of its classic games at outrageously high prices, Harkinian Ship is proof that the unofficial option is sometimes the best option. In a perfect world, Boat would provide paid work for its dedicated developers whose efforts could be celebrated widely and openly. In the real world, its developers are unpaid and their labor of love is quietly appreciated, always worried about the future. They keep doing it because they love the game. It’s a love that I understand.

Derek Hill is a freelance writer and designer. In his spare time, he enjoys working with wood and visiting modern architecture.

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