My journey into the world of emulation began during my high school years in the late 90s, sparked by a friend’s tip that I could transform my PC into a gateway to the gaming past. Denied access to consoles like the NES during my childhood due to parental skepticism, discovering emulation was nothing short of a revelation. Suddenly, I had the power to forge personal connections with beloved titles that had been previously confined to the living room TVs of fortunate friends.

Emulation granted me access to iconic characters like Mario and Sonic, whose adventures had eluded me until then. This, I realized, is the transformative magic of emulation: it democratizes the gaming experience, offering a level playing field to those who missed out in their youth or simply yearned to explore gaming history.

Anbernic RG556 with Nintendo Switch

Anbernic RG556 with Nintendo Switch

Recent news of the Yuzu shutdown has sent ripples of concern throughout the emulation community. The Yuzu emulator, lauded for its ability to bring Switch games to alternative platforms with enhanced performance, is gone, seemingly forever. Many fear that this may mark the beginning of the end for Switch emulation, or worse, pose a broader threat to emulation as a whole. However, as an observer of emulation’s trials and triumphs, I find solace in the patterns of history.

This is not the first time modern consoles have faced emulation challenges. Past confrontations between emulator developers and copyright holders have unfolded in a similar fashion, but emulation has endured. The landscape may shift, but the spirit of innovation and the passion of the emulation community remain unwavering. So, as we navigate this latest wave of shutdowns, let us remember: the resilience of emulation transcends individual setbacks. Emulation, with its power to democratize gaming experiences, will continue to thrive, fueled by the passion of its devotees.

Sony v Bleem

Bleem! was a PSX emulator for Windows PCs that appeared in 1999 — right in the meat of the PSX lifecycle. Despite owning the console at the time, I can vividly remember playing around with the early releases of Bleem! when it first appeared. It wasn’t that I didn’t have access to play Playstation titles, it’s just that the idea of doing it on a platform other than the one intended was fascinating. Here, a new console, and I could put the games in my PC CD-ROM drive?

I think I share the feeling with a lot of folks in this hobby, that it isn’t always that emulation offers a better experience, but that it tests what the creators intended to begin with. There’s a certain thrill in getting a piece of hardware or software to operate in a manner other than originally intended. It’s the beating heart of this hobby. Unfortunately, much like today, Sony did not share the enthusiasm for this breakthrough beyond the established walls between PC and console. The same year, they set out to stop Bleem!

Bleem! demo running in Windows 98

A screenshot of Bleem! running in Windows 98

Bleem! offered consumers the ability to play PSX games on their home PC at a higher resolution than could be achieved on the official Sony hardware. It was the first emulator I was aware of that used new PC graphics cards (GPUs were still only a few years old) to enhance outside software. This of course is a nearly identical case to what is happening between Nintendo and Yuzu. It brings me joy to know that 20 years later someone is discovering emulation again in the same way I did when Bleem! first appeared on the scene in 1999. Looking to see if something they already loved can be done elsewhere, and maybe even a little bit better.

Bleem! was different in that it was a commercially available product. At the time, you could walk into your local CompUSA or the like and pick up a boxed retail emulator for a system that could be purchased at the same store. This direct competition to their hardware ecosystem was undoubtedly what caused Sony to take action against Bleem!. They lost their initial lawsuit after a CA court decided that Bleem! had not violated Sony’s copyrights. Sony eventually won by forcing Bleem! to shut down or face being buried in legal expense after accusing the company of using screenshots of their owned software in their advertising.

By 2005, two of the members of the Bleem! team were working directly for Sony………..

The UltraHLE Lawsuit

In the year 2000, Nintendo sued the developer team behind UltraHLE, a Nintendo 64 emulator for the PC. Other attempts at N64 emulation were being made at the time but did not necessarily achieve the accuracy and performance levels that UltraHLE was capable of hitting. Much like the news of today, Nintendo asserted in its lawsuit that UltraHLE circumvented Nintendo copyright protection for its IP by allowing users to access and play games on unofficial hardware. Sound familiar? The outcome might be as well. The team behind the emulator packed things up before the case ever entered a courtroom. Almost overnight, the development and distribution of the best N64 emulator disappeared.

An Anbernic 35XX +H displays the N64 emulation menu

N64 emulation appeared to be in jeopardy around the year 2000

So what happened in the wake of this lawsuit? Well, at first there was a great deal of uncertainty about what this meant for the future of N64 emulation development and emulation as a whole. Would Nintendo go after emulators for its older systems? Was it all over for the hobby?

Of course not. The disappearance of the UltraHLE project left behind a world of understanding about how they were able to achieve what they did, and others picked up where they left off and forged on with their own projects. In the wake of the UltraHLE lawsuit, we saw the birth of Ultra64, Parrallel64, etc. In the end, the community used the knowledge that was gained in the development of UltraHLE to improve emulation development across the board.

Someone Had to Act?

What I think all of these past examples show is that IP holders such as Sony and Nintendo have to draw a line in the sand every so often just to show everyone that they are paying attention if nothing else. Ease of access is something that I think greatly concerns these companies and the rapid development of Yuzu on Android made the platform accessible to a user base that may have not been inclined to explore emulation before and may have only been interested in more nefarious purposes.

Yuzu on Android

Regardless of the reasoning named in the lawsuit, Nintendo is going to act when something is a legitimate threat to its business. I think where these companies have power, is marketplaces. Development for Switch emulation won’t stop, but you may not see future releases listed on the Google Play Store. Users may be left to put their devices in developer mode and load their own emulator APKs. I think it’s feasible that companies will tend to leave communities alone if they’re seen as niche hobbyists, as they have been in the past.

What Does the Future Hold?

As someone who has observed the evolution of emulation over the past two decades, I’ve witnessed its resilience and adaptability firsthand. Emulation, inherently tied to the rapid pace of technological advancement, continues to thrive despite occasional setbacks. When your preferred emulator encounters obstacles in its development, remember that such challenges are merely temporary. The enthusiasm and dedication of the emulation community ensure that progress persists.

Nintedo Switch menu on Batocera

The Nintendo Switch menu in Batocera

While emulation straddles the delicate balance between preservation and piracy, it remains a steadfast pursuit for enthusiasts worldwide. Rather than engaging in debates over ethical considerations, it’s essential to acknowledge that emulation’s trajectory is shaped by myriad factors, including technological innovation and community engagement. Yes, there may always be individuals with malicious intent, but their influence is eclipsed by the collective passion driving emulation forward.

Ultimately, my feeling as a fan is that this type of thing happens. As long as there exists a vibrant community eager to explore the possibilities offered by emulation, development will forge ahead.

What did you think of this article? Let us know in the comments below, and chat with us in our Discord!

This page may contain affiliate links, by purchasing something through a link, Retro Handhelds may earn a small commission on the sale at no additional cost to you.