The Sega Pico is a unique beast of a console. Released in 1993, it continued to be sold in stores until 2005, an unusually long lifespan for just about any single piece of technology. Part of its longevity was due to its target market; the Pico is an educational console, like the Leapster. Children do not demand the same quality of graphics that older gamers do, which meant that the same hardware could last longer. The Pico was not even cutting edge when it was released, as it used hardware based off of the Genesis, which was released five years earlier. However, the Pico was unique in its hardware input. In addition to five buttons, the Pico features a large touch pad that comes with a pen stylus. This is utilized extensively in its games, which often feature a doodling section. The games themselves come in a unique format, as well. Rather than a single simple cartridge, Pico games have several panels, or pages, that are flipped to change the action on the screen.
So if this console is so unique, lasted so long, and was made by Sega to boot, why have most people never heard of it? How could it last so long in that case? Well, it turns out to be a regional difference. The Pico did incredibly well in Japan, with more than 300 games released for the system there. However, overseas, it was much less successful. In the US, it was released in 1994, where it was given somewhat bizarre marketing and relatively little support. At the time, Sega was emphasizing its nature as an “edgy” video game maker to contrast itself with Nintendo. However, an edgy image is not helpful when selling a product for young children.
Considering the deep game library in Japan, the poor US sales performance of the Pico is somewhat of a disappointment. As a Sega system, it naturally had a few Sonic games, but it also had such diverse icons as Gundams, Winnie the Pooh, Mickey Mouse, and Pikachu. You read that right – a Pokémon game on a Sega console. Three of them, in fact. Suddenly those Pokémon iOS apps coming out these days don’t look so weird. Bringing Disney’s Pico games to the US would have raised the Pico’s fortunes substantially, but unfortunately the Disney content was never translated. Well done, Sega.
Those who want to experience the Pico’s deep pool of games have somewhat limited options. Due to the Pico’s audience of children, the emulation scene is not very advanced. The code of many Pico games has been extracted from the cartridge (a process known as dumping) due to the heroic efforts of a single group of people, Team Europe. Dumping a game means that the game survives the limitations of the hardware and becomes available to more people. Unfortunately, the number of games dumped is still a fairly limited set. The hardware shared with the Genesis means that some Pico games can be played on Genesis emulators, but there are major incompatibilities, which are different for each game.
Looking back at the Pico, it becomes clear that Sega was ahead of its time. Games for children using touch screens are coming back into vogue with tablets. The resurgence of the genre and the popularity of the Pico in Japan both show that Sega was heading in the right direction…. But, as was often the case, Sega messed up. The real lesson you can learn from this educational system is that contradictory marketing and a lack of translating the right content will sink a platform any time.