Emulators have always operated within something of a moral and legal grey area. Most people would agree that paying for the games you play is fair and right, but what if you’re replaying something you legitimately owned years ago, but have since gotten rid of, for old time’s sake? Or a title you already have on another format purely for convenience?
The practice is not easily condoned as regards old SEGA releases, since the company’s past wares are available on pretty much any digital storefront you could care to name, but the fact remains that the use of emulators and ROMs is as widespread as it is totally unpolicable.
Bleem ranks among the most famous emulators of all time, partly because of how publicly it incurred the wrath of Sony’s lawyers. The brainchild of David Herpolsheimer and Randy Linden, Bleem’s (acronymous for Best Little Emulator Ever Made) original incarnation allowed PC gamers to run much of the PlayStation catalogue on their format of choice via commercial retail discs, with the added potential for various graphical enhancements.
Herpolsheimer ominously told IGN in interview back in 1999 that “[Bleem didn’t] expect any legal issues from Sony.” He would prove to be very wrong indeed, as the Japanese electronics giant launched the first of many unsuccessful courtroom challenges two days after preorders went live.
Even with the spectre of protracted legal wranglings looming large, and despite Sony’s attempts to have the Bleem team thrown out of E3 2000, they successfully announced a Dreamcast port of the beleaguered emulator at the show. ‘Bleemcast’, as it was known as internally, would purportedly run PlayStation games on SEGA’s console at increased resolution, and with bilinear filtering and anti-aliasing to boot.
This was a significant development; for PlayStation games to be playable on PCs for the benefit of console agnostics was one thing, but on directly competing hardware? Why, attendees could practically hear Ken Kutaragi’s teeth gnashing over the Hollywood Hills as the news broke.
You might well wonder how such a thing was possible. Well, early Japanese and American Dreamcasts plus all European models include support for MIL-CDs, a format which was originally intended to be vehicle for interactive, Dreamcast-compatible content on music CDs.
You can read an in depth explanation of exactly how the console’s method for reading them was exploited to allow the execution of pirated and homebrew code here, resulting in the notorious Utopia boot disc, which did exactly what its name suggests. Utopia’s creators were arrested in Germany shortly after news of their work went public. The German police would have had little trouble identifying the Utopia team, given that they had rather helpfully plastered pictures of themselves all over their illicit creation. Not exactly Deutschland’s answer to Anonymous, then.
Bleemcast was to take a similar form; a CD that would be inserted into the Dreamcast and then swapped out for an original PlayStation disc once the security checks had completed and the emulator software itself had been loaded into the console’s memory. In an FAQ issued to the press by a Bleem at the time, they conceded that there was no way to stop their creation being used for nefarious purposes, although did make their own feelings on such practices abundantly clear.
The company’s plans were nothing if not ambitious. Originally, they intended to release a series of ‘Bleempaks’, each granting access to around 100 games from the PlayStation’s extensive library. Also on the cards were adapters which allowed PlayStation controllers to connect directly to the Dreamcast, and even Bleem-branded clone pads. Such things were necessitated by the fact that Dreamcast controllers featured fewer buttons than their PlayStation counterparts.
Bleem! Ended up hugely scaling back their plans after encountering far more in the way of technical difficulties than they bargained for. Three discs eventually saw commercial release, but each one only worked with a single game; Tekken 3, Metal Gear Solid or Gran Turismo 2. Also, since the aforementioned Bleem branded hardware failed to materialise, users were stuck using the plain old Dreamcast controller, for better or worse. The workaround mappings therein proved usable, if not ideal.
What little did make it onto store shelves is pretty damn impressive. 32-bit era games often age particularly badly, owing to the crude nature of 3D graphics of the time. It turns out that increasing pixel real-estate four-fold and implementing bilinear filtering and anti-aliasing cleans PlayStation graphics up very nicely indeed, although there’s no tangible performance improvement.
Despite the US legal system largely siding with Bleem and effectively throwing Sony’s each and every point of contention back in their faces, spiraling defence costs eventually sucked Bleem’s coffers dry. It’s pretty galling that the project was eventually killed purely by raw economics, especially considering how dirty Sony had played. They’d even gone as far as to issue subpoenas to retailers demanding information as regards “purchasing, promotion, sales and profits resulting from Bleem! products”, something that the company’s lead attorney, Jon Hangartner, described as “…a pretty transparent attempt by Sony to intimidate the retailers into pulling bleem! from their shelves” in the ensuing press release. It’s hard to construe it any other way, really.
Following the company’s demise, Bleem’s website was reduced to a single image of a tearful Sonic mourning over a gravestone marked ‘Bleem April 1999 – November 2001′. Ironically, Sonic was later removed so as not to incur SEGA’s own legal wrath. Most of the company’s assets, including an enormous, multi-region library of PlayStation games used for testing, found their way onto eBay. Interestingly, both Herpolsheimer and Linden ended up being hired by Sony in the months that followed.
SEGA remained curiously tight-lipped throughout the entire saga. They were hardly likely to leap to Bleem’s defence, of course, but perhaps reasoned (correctly, in my opinion) that even if the project made it to market, it would have no tangible effect on hardware or software sales, for them or Sony.
In 2003, a beta version of Bleemcast leaked onto the Internet. There’s a tonne of footage on YouTube of users attempting to play pretty much any PlayStation game you can imagine. The results are very hit and miss, with graphical errors and gameplay oddities seemingly commonplace. Linden and another programmer, Rob Maher, offered a little background information on the leaked build and answered a few community questions on a forum thread over at DCEmulation at the time, claiming that it was only around 25 percent complete, and actually from before Bleemcast’s E3 reveal.
Even so, this and the eventual scaling back of the Bleemcast project are telling in terms of how much time, money and effort would no doubt have been required to realise the company’s original vision of Bleem on the Dreamcast.