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Rare Dreamcast-powered SEGA Fish Life preserved and released by Musée Bolo

SEGA Fish Life is a bonafide oddity of the early 2000s SEGA pantheon, and one that we've covered a couple of times in the past here at the Junkyard. It's also one of the rarest, most expensive, and most bizarre variations of the Dreamcast hardware. And by 'variations,' I mean: it's a virtual aquarium which runs on Dreamcast hardware that was intended to be placed in hotel lobbies, restaurants etc.; but which was only sold in small quantities and is barely known about outside of its native Japan.
How the SEGA Fish Life was marketed to businesses (Source)
The whole unit consists of a base (which contains the derivative Dreamcast hardware), along with a touch screen and a microphone. When used in conjunction, those with a passing interest in the serene aquatic panorama playing out on the screen could interact with the various fish by either tapping on them to reveal an info panel, or by speaking into a microphone embedded in the screen.
The unit in its final form with the screen (Source)
Both the software and the hardware that run SEGA Fish Life are amongst the rarest in the whole of the Dreamcast story. But now, thanks to the hard work and dedication of volunteers at the Swiss computer and games museum Musée Bolo, you can experience it yourself for (possibly) the first time.
Tranquility is the name of the game
Before we get the to the meat and potatoes (or should that be cod and chips?) of the SEGA Fish Life unit itself, it's probably worth me reiterating just how big of a deal this whole story is for both the Dreamcast and wider games preservation communities. The various SEGA Fish Life software iterations have never been dumped online, and are considered something of a Holy Grail for fans of esoteric, Japanese oddities - me included. The Dreamcast-derived hardware on which the software runs is even harder to come by, which makes the following story even more incredible...

An image of the permanent Musée Bolo installation at EPFL
As with any good yarn, first we must set the scene. And this particular tale starts at the Musée Bolo. As previously alluded to, Musée Bolo is a computer and video game museum based at The École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL), a science and technology institute and university based in Lausanne, Switzerland. Musée Bolo began in 1995 and opened the doors to its permanent public exhibition in 2002; and now boasts a collection spanning over 5,000 computers and consoles, 10,000 games and pieces of software and around 15,000 books and magazines.
"We're gonna need a bigger boat..."
In 2009, Bruno Bonnell (yes, founder of Infogrames Bruno Bonnell) donated a large collection of over 2,000 items of videogame hardware and software to Musée Bolo, and during the inventory process the SEGA Fish Life unit was discovered. The unit was just the base, minus the touch screen that would originally have been used to display the virtual aquarium, and it was only identified by a private collector who happened to be visiting the museum (more in our interview below).
The SEGA Fish Life base unit (Source)
Upon learning what the innocuous grey box actually was, a passionate crusade ensued, and eventually the team at Musée Bolo, lead by preservation project coordinator Robin François, resurrected the SEGA Fish Life. The whole endeavour was aided by eminent names from the Dreamcast community (take a bow japanese_cake, Laurent C., SiZiOUS, FamilyGuy, DCCOMP et al), along with other impassioned collectors and experts, and the fruits of the labours to get the SEGA Fish Life unit back in a working state are now ready to be laid bare and feasted upon.
More from the promotional leaflet (Source)
In summary then, Musée Bolo has resurrected what was considered a dead SEGA Fish Life unit, which was donated by Bruno Bonnell. With the help of the Dreamcast community and a hoard of passionate volunteers. And now, after gaining permission from SEGA itself, have done the unthinkable and finally released the Sega Fish Life GDI file, Flash and BIOS files to the internet.
This is the software running in lxdream on a MacBook Pro
This Herculean endeavour is documented perfectly in a new dedicated microsite, which explores the history of the SEGA Fish Life, how it was discovered, the restoration process and ultimately the release of the software files themselves. It's a truly remarkable story and just another feather in the cap for the persistence of the fan community. Props also go to SEGA for green-lighting the release of the files for public consumption.
Volunteers working on the damaged SEGA Fish Life unit at Musée Bolo (Source)
SEGA Fish Life can only be experienced in a Dreamcast emulator for the time being, and obviously this omits the touch screen and speech recognition functionality of the original hardware, but that we fans can experience a long-lost entry in the Dreamcast's library of post-mortem utilities is staggering.
Red Sea and Amazon variations of the Fish Life software, courtesy of @DCCOMP
We caught up with Robin Françios, the project coordinator at Musée Bolo to ask a few questions about the SEGA Fish Life preservation project:

DCJY: Robin, congratulations on the success of this remarkable preservation project, and thank you for speaking with us here at The Dreamcast Junkyard. Could you tell us about the donation from Bruno Bonnell? He is a very well known figure in gaming, could you give us more information on the size and scope of his donation?

Robin François: The donation from Bruno Bonnell dates from 2009, after he personally met Yves Bolognini, founder of the Musée Bolo of Lausanne, at the Lift conference in Geneva. Members of the Musée Bolo went to his vacation house in the countryside to bring back this material – mostly software (games) and hardware (video game consoles), but also some development disks or CD-ROMs, and promotional movies on VHS. We have compiled an inventory and our teams of benevolent have counted about 2000 games and other software, but also various game consoles, VHS and equipment.

Wow - sounds like he was quite the hoarder! On the topic of the SEGA Fish Life itself, did you know anything about it beforehand?

No one from the Musée Bolo knew about the Fish Life before the project started. It was identified as an exotic Sega platform by a private collector during a visit. Due to the Bruno Bonnell's donation being so large and diverse, we were not able to dedicate much time to that object at first.
The view changes if you leave the aquarium running, zooming in on particular species
What were your thoughts when you discovered how rare and unusual the SEGA Fish Life was?

I (Robin François) will speak for myself. My personal first thoughts were that it was some kind of development kit for Dreamcast as it was found in the same cardboard box as development kits for other consoles (they are next in line!). Quick searches online revealed that it was a very rare unit and that little was known about it. We also figured out that almost no preservation work had been done for that machine by the community.

Can you give us any details on how you went about restoring and releasing the software? A lot of Dreamcast fans will be interested to know how the software and hardware is similar to actual Dreamcast hardware and software.

You will get more details on the release website but basically, we found a main unit and one of the software (Amazon Playful Edition), but we did not have the screen. The main unit was not working and we had to fix it (we changed one capacitor). After that small repair, we booted the Amazon software and were relieved that both hardware and software were still working.

By examining the hardware, we figured out that it was a Dreamcast with very minor hardware changes: mainly added inputs and outputs such as a serial port or an audio in for the microphone in the screen. As the hardware is very close to a Dreamcast, we decided to try to boot the NetBSD open-source OS to help with extraction of the Flash and BIOS.

It was relatively straightforward to dump those. The BIOS is identical to a Dreamcast BIOS and the Flash is a bit different, but also very similar to a Dreamcast Flash.

For preserving the software, private collectors in Switzerland helped us and used the same techniques as for software on a regular GD-ROM.

Truly fascinating stuff. Can you describe how the internal hardware relates to the retail release of the Dreamcast?

You will get more details on the release website but basically, the SEGA Fish Life is very close to a Dreamcast, except for the adaptation to the new form factor: the optical disk driver at the back, additional peripherals, no visible controller ports.
SEGA Fish Life presented at AUO2000 (Source)
How do you like the SEGA Fish Life? Do you enjoy using it, regardless of it's historical importance? Do you find it a worthwhile and enjoyable experience?

The Fish Life is an impressive piece of hardware for 2000: touch and vocal controls, sleek design, powerful CPU.

Even though the software is a virtual aquarium and the gameplay is limited, it is still a very impressive marine life simulation by today's standards.

From my point of view, it is a testimony of SEGA's technical mastery in 2000 and I like to consider it as the swan song of SEGA's in the home consumer hardware market.
All of the places you could expect to see a SEGA Fish Life (Source)
Thanks for taking the time to answer our questions on the preservation project, Robin. Is there anything else you'd like to us about Musée Bolo and your involvement?

I want to thank SEGA Europe, the staff we have spoken with have been very benevolent and receptive to the historical importance of this project for SEGA fans.

All this work has been possible thanks to the volunteers of the Musée Bolo and our partners, people wanting to help preserve the history of SEGA. This is only the first phase and we plan on continuing this preservation project, for example by obtaining and saving the rest of the Fish Life software. If anyone wants to help and share information or data with us, we would be very happy. We can guarantee anonymity.

As any non-profit organisation, we are facing funding issues, so if you liked our work, please make a donation to the Musée Bolo or to your local computer history museum. You will support preservation projects along with the long-term sustainability of these organisations. Thank you!
So there we have it. The SEGA Fish Life lives again and the preservation project continues with the next step being the release of the other software / aquarium variants. Over at the dedicated SEGA Fish Life website set up by Musee Bolo, you'll find highly detailed articles about the software, hardware, promotional materials, restoration, technical specifications and the history of virtual aquariums in general. It's a fantastic resource and well worth a visit - not least because you can download the software and run it in an emulator and see if for yourself.

Here's a video Musée Bolo put together:


Personally, I used lxdream on my MacBook Pro as it allows you to set the Flash and BIOS files with relative ease. You can access a menu (in Japanese, naturally) that lets you tinker with the options (I think) and you can sit back and watch a plethora of virtual fish swim around the tropical underwater scene. There's not a great deal you can do without the touch screen or microphone controls - as stated  earlier, the original idea was that you would tap the individual fish and an information box would pop up - but it is still very cool to see the software in action. According to Musée Bolo's fabulous microsite, the SEGA Fish Life hardware did see other uses too (as a McDonald's touch screen display, no less), but for more information on that you should probably just head over there and have a read.
lxdream in all its glory...
Sadly lxdream can't emulate a touch screen from a decades old virtual aquarium. Bah!
Also worth mentioning is that the other images from the Fish Life in this article are taken from lxdream
Thanks once again go to Robin François, Musée Bolo, Bruno Bonnell and SEGA Europe. Permission was sought to use all of the images in this post - please cite your source if you choose to reproduce any of them. Oh, and be sure to visit the Musee Bolo main website, follow on Twitter, and if you can spare a small donation, I'm sure they'd be very grateful.

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8 comments:

  1. This is such an amazing piece of Dreamcast history that I am so happy to see finally released! Guessing it would be impossible to get working on a real Dreamcast, but really cool nonetheless.

    Thanks for this awesome news post Tom!

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    1. No worries and thanks for reading. The real kudos goes to Robin and the team at Musee Bolo though :)

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  2. Awesome to see this preserved and finally released to the community!

    Between SEGA Fish Life and Seaman, is the Dreamcast the ultimate fish simulator console? :D

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  3. I wish I would have had some credits for being the one who cracked the soft to run on any regular dreamcast! Nice article anyway!

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    1. Hey man, of course - I had no idea, just going from what I read on the site and from Robin. Great job :)

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  4. Sorry, I misread, the project is about the preservation of the game, its hardware and its history rather than just a patched gdi file. I just like to grumble from time to time :)

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