For the past week, I’ve been cheating in The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. I don’t mean that I’m running an illegally obtained version of the game on an emulator, or that I’m exploiting the game’s design flaws to skip over parts of the story I’d rather not deal with. Instead, I’m relying on pieces of counterfeit software code to access items in the game that are otherwise hidden behind Nintendo’s elusive amiibo figurines. Whether that constitutes cheating in the true sense of the word is debatable, and there are a lot of factors to consider before coming down on one side or the other.
First, an amiibo primer is in order. These small NFC-equipped toys are collectibles, but they also double as a way to access special content in Nintendo games. In Breath of the Wild, they can be scanned once per day on your Switch or Wii U controller to initiate a drop of items and a treasure chest that has a random chance of containing an item exclusive to one of about a dozen different Zelda amiibo.
The items range from a giant sword and the horse Epona from the N64 classic Ocarina of Time to the tunic Link wears in the artwork for the original NES version of The Legend of Zelda. Here’s a handy chart showing exactly which amiibo grants you which exclusives. If you’re a big Zelda fan, these mostly cosmetic items have a distinct nostalgic value that’s hard to articulate and impossible to ignore. A strong sense of “I need this” bubbled up in me the first moment I saw Link’s iconic Hero’s Shield and Zelda’s limitless Light Bow, which I stumbled on in a Reddit thread just a few weeks ago.
But there are a few issues with the system. Because Nintendo is an unorthodox video game company with seemingly systemic supply constraints, you cannot easily purchase the necessary Zelda amiibo. They’re rare collectible toys the company does not produce in large quantities and, because of this, a majority of them are sold out virtually everywhere. Nintendo also doesn’t make the exclusive items in Breath of the Wild available for purchase in any other way. You can’t buy Ocarina of Time downloadable content or pay $4.99 for that Hero’s Shield. And yet these items exist, baked into the game’s code straight out of the box. There is no patch to download, no software update to install. It’s all there, waiting for you to have the right piece of Nintendo merchandise to access it.
When I looked into what it would take to get these items for myself, I discovered that I’d have to spend perhaps hundreds of dollars on eBay just to own something seemingly created only to reward the most diehard of Zelda fans. I consider myself one of those fans, having played nearly every major and minor installment in the series since I was six years old. My only transgression is not owning any of the available Zelda amiibo. So in a way, I wasn’t the right kind of Zelda fan to access Breath of the Wild’s most coveted and secret treasure. I owned the games, but not the toys.
This is when I fell down the dark and winding rabbit hole that is amiibo hacking, whereby through some mix of hardware and software you can emulate Nintendo’s official toys. After countless YouTube tutorials and some investigation into free software tools, I decided to bite the bullet and see what I could get my hands on. I ultimately spent around $50 plus shipping for what’s known as a RFID toaster and a pile of NFC “power tags,” which are basically data transmission devices. (NFC, or near-field communication, is a high-frequency form of RFID that allows data transmission between two electronic devices using radio waves.)
The toaster uses a free-to-download application to flash the amiibo code onto the poker chip-sized tag, which then tricks my Switch console into thinking I’m holding a genuine figurine when I place it over the controller. How these amiibo codes are obtained, I do not know. (You can download them from a website, as you would ROMs for emulators.) I imagine it’s by mining the game’s code, or scanning the real amiibo onto a device connected to your computer. It is most certainly legally murky. For instance, it allows you to discover in-game items that do not yet have corresponding physical amiibo, like this Majora’s Mask outfit that, as far as we know, may never be obtainable through aboveboard means:
That brings me back to the question of cheating. Is it unethical to use these counterfeit amiibo codes to obtain items that already exist in the game today, and not as future downloadable content? And what if you have no reasonable way of purchasing these digital items, and no way to obtain them without buying secondhand amiibo for five times the sticker price? Nintendo has not announced any plans to open a digital storefront for Zelda goods, or plans to ever make sold-out amiibo figurines more readily available for purchase in the future.
So in a way, it’s the age-old piracy dilemma at work. Digital piracy advocates often claim the moral high ground when defending the downloading of TV shows and movies that are unreasonably difficult to pay for, like Game of Thrones in Australia for instance. If there was an easy way to pay, people wouldn’t pirate. At least that’s the theory. In some cases, that generous reading of intentions doesn’t hold up — some people just want stuff for free. But the growth of Netflix and Spotify suggests a vast majority of consumers are okay with paying money in exchange for convenience. Even with strings attached around when certain media becomes available to stream, making it easier than torrenting to consume content is a proven method to curb piracy.
More than anything, the way Nintendo has structured these Breath of the Wild exclusives speaks to how woefully outdated its digital strategy is. Say what you want about the ethics of using counterfeit codes off the internet, but I think there is an important lesson here for both Nintendo and the greater games industry: consumers enjoy an easy and straightforward way to pay for products they want. In absence of that availability, alternative means will always pop up.
Nintendo could sell these items for $4.99 each and make a fortune. In fact, it’s strange it doesn’t, given the relative success of these kinds of cosmetic DLC packs the company has done in the past for Mario Kart 8 and Super Smash Bros. Nintendo could also produce more amiibo and earn more revenue that way. But the company chooses not to do either.
It appears to be for the same arcane reason that it doesn’t make certain classic games available to download through its Virtual Console platform, or doesn’t produce enough 3DS handhelds to meet demand. This a common theme with Nintendo — ignoring or misreading consumer behavior — except this time a community of Zelda-loving hackers seems to have found a way around the restrictions.
As for the ethical concerns, I’m torn. Occasionally, when playing Breath of the Wild these past few days, I’ve felt a pang of guilt. I think perhaps I’ve exploited some dark, slot-machine mechanism in an otherwise brilliant game, tarnishing an experience I already cherish deeply. But then I mount Epona, don the Hero’s Shield and my Tunic of Time, and set out into Hyrule. I think that this was how my own version of Link was always meant to look and how the game was always meant to be played. If only Nintendo would let more players in on the fun.