Nintendo's popular 3DS video game system may have a new piracy problem.
A video posted on YouTube on Friday, which you can see above, shows off a new cartridge that, when inserted into the 3DS handheld, lets you play illegally downloaded games with the touch of a button. It's called the Sky3DS, and it's the latest so-called "flashcard" that lets gamers play pirated games without paying a cent. It’s expected to hit the market in one to two weeks, and it's child's play to set up.
Here's why Nintendo should worry: The 3DS was the top-selling console in America last year, with more than 11.5 million units sold since its 2011 release. In total, the 3DS has sold more than 44 million units worldwide (PDF). It's considerably more successful than Nintendo's Wii U system, which is struggling to find a place in the market. The Sky3DS, though a niche product that needs to be ordered online, could cut into game sales that last year alone amounted to more than 16 million games globally. Games cost anywhere from $29.99 to $49.99 in the United States.
Most worrisome is the device's simplicity. According to the video, you pop a MicroSD memory card loaded with games into the Sky3DS cartridge, power the 3DS on, and open your software. It’s that easy, and the flashcard reportedly works on any 3DS unit, including the newer, budget-priced 2DS and forthcoming “New 3DS” consoles. Here's how it works: First, one has to find a site that hosts ROM files—game data ripped from a cartridge and uploaded to a computer—to download and put on a MicroSD card. The rest is easy:
1. Insert the MicroSD card loaded with games into the flashcard.
2. Pop the flashcard into your 3DS and power on.
3. Select your game and open it.
The process is practically the same as booting up a legally purchased 3DS game.
Flashcards — also called flash carts — have long been a thorn in Nintendo’s side. They’re available for the old Nintendo DS handhelds, which officially became obsolete when Nintendo shut down their online services earlier this year. They're also available for the even-more-retro Game Boy Advance. In each iteration, the premise is the same: Download a bunch of games for free onto one cartridge and go nuts with all the Mario Kart and Pokemon you can stomach.
Nintendo until now skirted the issue on the 3DS with regular system updates. Though flashcards have popped up before, the Japanese game company whack-a-moled them with a system update that rendered them mostly useless. Essentially, Nintendo's overhaul of the system's settings interfered with software that previous flashcards needed to run.
The Sky3DS, on the other hand, says it supports the newest version of Nintendo's hardware, which means any game released up until now will work on the flashcard as long as the user can find the files online. Plus, it doesn't appear to require any software hacks, unlike other such devices: The Sky3DS reportedly works after simply slotting it into the 3DS like a game. That could make it harder for Nintendo to combat.
To put Nintendo's problem in perspective, illegal downloads of last year’s popular Pokemon X and Y games have exceeded 527,000 on a popular ROM site, according to publicly available stats. For a thought experiment, imagine if each of those downloads represented a unique user who could have bought the games for $39.99 a pop: That’s a potential (if exaggerated) loss of $21,074,730 in revenue from two games alone.
Nintendo and Sky3DS did not immediately respond to requests for comment.