The preservation project
As a museum for information technology and video games based in Switzerland, Musée Bolo had access to a Fish Life main unit and the Fish Life Amazon Playful Edition software in quite an unusual way. It was part of one of the most important donations the museum has ever received: the personal collection of Infogrames founder Bruno Bonnell. As far as he remembers, he received all the material (main unit, touch screen and software) from a Sega executive. It was set up in his office until it stopped functioning, before being stored away with the rest of his personal collection.
In 2009, when Bruno Bonnell donated his collection to Musée Bolo, amongst the dozens of machines and hundreds of games, Musée Bolo discovered a Fish Life main unit (without the screen) and the dedicated software was found in the CD tray. The piece was stored until 2017 when, during sorting and inventorying of Bruno Bonnell’s collection, it was rediscovered by members of UNIL Gamelab and a group of independent archivists. This gem of the video gaming world piqued the interest of Musée Bolo’s volunteers and a preservation project was launched in March 2018 to further explore the subject.
Our first objective was to repair the main unit which hadn’t functioned properly in over ten years. After some repairs (notably a 47μF capacitor on the CD controller), we were able to launch the main unit using the Amazon Playful Edition software. So we had a functioning main unit and working software. However, our preservation work was only just beginning. We worked on two separate branches: preserving the main unit and the software.
For the main unit, we documented the hardware by taking photographs and we also had to extract the embedded software. On a Dreamcast’s motherboard, there are two embedded software.
- The system memory stored in a 128kB Flash memory. It is used to store local system parameters such as network settings and stereo/mono sound options, as well as containing the necessary data for launching GD-ROM programs. From here onwards, we will refer to this system memory as Flash, in keeping with the terminology used by the Dreamcast community.
- The BIOS.
As the Fish Life’s main unit is based on a Dreamcast console, our aim was to extract the console’s Flash and BIOS by using the tools which are already used for the Dreamcast. To do this, we prepared a CD-ROM which could be booted using NetBSD, an open-source operating system. This allowed us to launch the main unit in a specific environment, giving us access to the data we were looking for. Using the Fish Life’s standard serial port, we were able to make a copy of both the Flash and the BIOS. The BIOS was discovered to be identical to a Dreamcast BIOS, version US/EU 1.01d. On the other hand, the Flash contained a number of differences to the Flash of a typical Dreamcast.
Regarding the software, we contacted members of the francophone Dreamcast community who helped us to produce a disc image of our software. We were then able to obtain an image in GDI format which would then function using a Dreamcast emulator, solely with the Flash extracted from the main unit. However, current emulators do not seem to be able to emulate the touch or voice interactions. Nevertheless, we hope that the community will be able to make progress in this regard with the help of the results of our preservation work.
Through our collaboration with the Dreamcast community, we discovered that the Amazon software contains a software mechanism which checks the presence of a particular value in the Flash. Although not present in the Flash of a typical Dreamcast, it is found in our extracted Flash. The mechanism is intended to prevent the launch of Fish Life software on a standard Dreamcast.
To give context to our work on the preservation of both hardware and software, we researched extensive documentation and various literature resources to collect, centralise and analyse existing information about the Fish Life.
In order to obtain the necessary permissions to publish this data, we contacted Sega of Europe’s legal department who granted us the rights to use their intellectual property. 🐟