Sunday, 1 July 2012

SOOG: Sega Pico

Something new, something fresh. Something with fewer images because ImageShack keeps deleting them.

Because I'm not entirely sure whether the whole "Squirrel reviews a game you're not aware of" format always works, I figured it was time to try something different. So I present to you a potentially short-lived column: Squirrel's Opinions on Gaming. Or SOOG.

I also thought I'd start on something more positive (I use this term very loosely) before this degrades into rants about trivial features of the industry. My adventures with the Sega Pico - the Sega console nobody talks about. It'll be educational for all sorts of reasons.

Two-and-a-bit years ago I took on the role of active contributor to the hilariously ambitious Sega Retro project. I mention this frequently, because with no fangaming websites to drain my soul, Sega Retro has become almost a day job. I am spurred on by the lessons I am forced to learn while researching forgotten Dreamcast games of yesteryear - it's fascinating - do help us in our quest if you can.

But the history of Sega is not a limitless pool of knowledge, and finding work that needs to be done becomes gradually harder over time. Every Sega game you could think of has its own page at Sega Retro, and we're now reduced to the titles you didn't remember, most of those being games you were happy to forget. So though I once sat by the screen and promised myself never to tackle the Sega Pico, I've let myself down and made pages anyway because I had nothing better to do.

The Sega Pico was Sega's foray into the world of educational video game machine type things, much like your VTechs and LeapFrogs of today. It's a cartridge based system which doubles up as a book, a tablet, and a traditional controller, populated by educational games for the kids. It's a tool for learning, but don't expect it to help you get your doctorate.

The problem with the Pico is you can't toss it aside as some obscure, niche item, because it wasn't. In Japan these things were manufactured for twelve years in various forms, with hundreds of presently undocumented software entertaining several generations of toddlers. Out of the 200-300 releases for the thing, three are Pokémon games and two Sonic games. There's also that timeless classic where Hello Kitty goes out and gets a job at a McDonald's fast food outlet, for the parents with little confidence in their children.

Pico cartridges are unique for their design, each sporting "pages", where turning the pages acts as another form of input. This also acts as a massive blockade for those wishing to emulate the system - suddenly you need to get a scanner involved, and that can be tricky. This is worsened by the Japanese games which rely on huge chunks of plastic to simulate kitchens - the Pico is as much as a children's toy as it is a computer, and it's happy to remind you about this whenever it can.

From the brief experience I've had with the Sega Pico it seems to be a console for unappealing shovelware. Though once populated by unique IPs, the Pico became dominated with licensed tat by the late 90s. Logic seems to state that if it wasn't paired with a television show, it wasn't worth putting on the Pico, so though it's a point of interest for Ultraman and Doraemon fans, anyone wanting to see something unique and original from Sega will be mostly disappointed.

The hardware is comparable to a watered down Sega Mega Drive... because it is exactly that. Differences include big, clunky, kid-friendly 90s tablets and colourful buttons, and of course it was designed to be reasonably sturdy for hopefully obvious reasons, but otherwise is very similar, so much so that Pico games can boot in many Mega Drive emulators. It's big and colourful device, and surprisingly saw a worldwide release, even though most of the world dropped support by 1996.

I dislike the Pico for various reasons - the vast majority of these games were intended for the under-5s and thus offer little gaming value at all. In fact, as far as I'm aware there are only a small handful of hardcore Pico enthusiasts on the internet, to the point where I can actually name them off the top of my head. There's the strapped-for-cash Team Europe, who recently took on the task of dumping what games they could get ahold of (well done). There's Kiddo Cabbusses, who, while not on a quest to save the Satellaview (an equally valid cause) seems to share an interest in these matters, and then there's people like me. And I'm only here for the politics.

You see, I'm a big fan of software preservation, and cartridges designed to be within reach of young, Japanese children are less likely to have survived the last twenty years than the big hitters on the Mega Drive and SNES. It's at a state where chunks of the Pico's library will never be preserved at the current rate before bit rot takes over, as in nineteen years less than a quarter of the Pico's library has been dumped, all due to a lack of interest from the gaming community. Worse still is the fate of its successor, the Advanced Pico Beena, a Japanese-only console from 2006 which has never even been photographed adequately, never mind seen its game library preserved and emulated for future generations.

Preservation is of massive importance to anyone who considers themselves a "retro gamer". Unfortunately the Pico is seen as a system that is not seen to be worth the effort, and though it's true that most Pico games won't appeal to average man, it doesn't seem right to let a console die like this. Yes we have arcade games to save so maybe the funds can be diverted elsewhere, but it's the fact that nobody even bothered to make a concrete list of games until fairly recently that irks me. Writing things down should hardly put a strain on your wallet.

And even with the information we have, we're clueless as to when some games were released or who actually made them. Again, this isn't some super-obscure system we have on our hands; it's just that only a few people are willing to make the effort to save it. Then again, perhaps the lack of interest now is a sign that nobody will care when these things start to die in the wild.

But I suppose these aren't rules which just apply to the Pico. People (quite rightly) don't think to preserve educational games because as long as we're still breeding, newer versions will come to take their place. Still, a shame to see a Sega console with a larger library than the Master System be hung out to dry, even if it is a bit crap.


  1. One pedantic note about bit rot - it generally doesn't happen to mask ROMs as the bits are physically present inside the die. EPROMs are at the biggest risk for bit rot. I have no idea what the breakdown is for Pico games that use mask ROMS or EPROMs (or even if any Pico games use EPROMs at all).

    Also, a note regarding something from the Dark Castle article - I read your blog, at least semi regularly :)

  2. Bitrot is used here, I believe, to mean the rate at which information is plain lost for whatever reason. Things that people don't believe worth saving don't just lie around forever, they tend to migrate to landfills and other places where they rapidly become unrecoverable.