Collector's Guide to the Bitcorp Gamate Handheld

Bitcorp-Gamate-Collectors-GuideIn 1990 a small company from Taiwan decided to combat the Nintendo Game Boy with their own handheld game system. While their plans didn't quite follow through, what they left behind was an obscure memory of a forgotten handheld collectors can't get enough of. RetroCollect investigates the Gamate.

Entering the handheld gaming market in 1990 to challenge the Nintendo juggernaut seems like a combination of delusion, recklessness and idealism. Lots of companies gave it their best shot, attempting to get a piece of Nintnedo’s action. Oddly, before the big players like Sega, SNK, and Bandai could line up to get a collective kicking by Nintendo, an obscure company from Taiwan (pervious known only for a line of equally obscure games for the Atari 2600) got in line first. Perhaps doomed from the outset, the Bitcorp Gamate, nevertheless remains curiously distinctive, amongst the few collectorshave ever even heard of it.

The Bare Bones of the Gamate

Bitcorp-Gamate-and-Game-CardsThe Gamate was likely designed by reverse engineering the Gameboy. It’s about the same size and weight as a Gameboy and 4 AA batteries will give you 20ish hours just like a Gameboy.

It has comparable graphics (although prone to ghosting and blur) and sound, but to be fair to Nintendo the Gamate’s Mono speaker lacks quality, making headphones a necessity to make the most of the stereo soundtracks. A communication port on the upper left, anticipated a two-player link cable that most likely never saw release.

Unlike the Gameboy, the Gamate features a horizontal orientation and uses card-based media (very similar to NEC’s PC Engine Hu-Cards) instead of cartridges. While the internals are of high quality and professionally assembled (no glob-top circuits, as commonly found with most budget releases) the substandard speaker and blur-prone screen ultimately proved to be a-bridge-too-far for most gamers.

Gamate's Game Library

Reviewers from the period also seized upon the low quality of the system’s games. Many of the Gamate games released are clones of popular titles from other consoles including, Tetris (Cube-Up), Bomberman (BombBlast), and Lode Runner (Treasure Hunter). Some of them play relitavely fine, some would play fine if the screen was less prone to blur, while other releases suggest they only went through about 5 minutes of quality control.

Some of the other Gamate games are familiar classics offering a bit of an added twist; Box Forum (Sokoban, with a circus theme) and Boom! (Super Pang, with an annoying little monster to constantly have to jump over). The rest of the games seem like original concepts, and a great many remain mysterious due to their scarcity. If you need any suggestions as to which games are worth picking up, Snowman Legend, Treasure Hunter, Vindicators, Nightmare of Santa Claus and Devil Castle are all fantastic purchases to be made.

Limited Resources, Good luck and Chaos

Bitcorp-Gamate-Game-Card-BoxesIn spite of having cut a lot of corners, Bitcorp did pretty well considering their limited resources. By forging partnerships with a handful of electronics distributors, Bitcorp managed to get their little upstart system sold around the world on five continents, from Asia, to Argentina. One (inexplicably) strong partnership was with the Italian distributor GIG, who released about 25 games re-branded in Italian packaging (some with unnecessarily redesigned artwork). It seems that Bitcorp got the better end of the deal, as to this day a large amount of dead-stock games continue to flow from Italian eBay. The particular titles released under the GIG label, essentially had two releases (Worldwide and then Italy) and today, are among the easiest to find.

New content continued to be released for the Gamate throughout 1991, pushing the library of titles to nearly 50. Then at some point in early 1992, Bitcorp seemed to appear bankrupt. Only a few games exist with ’92 credentials, and many of them exhibit unusually conspicuous lapses in quality-control (one game from this period even incorrectly spells the name of the console on it’s box as 'Gamath').

At first glance, this period of chaos would seem to herald the end of the road for the Gamate...

Gamate Act II

Bitcorp-Gamate-Game-CardsWhile the exact nature of the relationship remains unclear, Bitcorp seems to have been absorbed by it’s chip supplier UMC. In 1992 UMC started releasing Bitcorp's unfinished games, developed a new logo and package design and began producing additional new games.

What can be said to be true of this period is that UMC games are very much enjoyable, interesting and sustain much higher standards of quality than those credited to Bitcorp. Many of them have special features which Bitcorp seemed content to bypass such as character selection, password features and language options. That’s the good news, and it’s pretty good indeed.

The bad news is that UMC games are incredibly hard to come by, with the majority of Gamate collectors still having trouble locating them. In spite of the fact that most of their releases where from basic genre (platformers, shooters,sports and racing, beat-um-ups) making them understandable worldwide, UMC focused on releases only in the Asian market. Some predict it was perhaps a dry-run in preparation for the impending release of the 16 bit home console, the Super A’Can.

As you might expect, the total number of games developed for the Gamate under UMC is still unknown (at least 19) and the most recent copyright seen so far on a UMC game is documented at 1994.

Gamate? What's a Gamate?

What makes the Gamate so interesting is how little is known about the obscure handheld 20 years later compared to any other handheld from the same time period. No form of emulation exists either meaning the only way to experience these games is to actually own them.

To add to the lack of knowledge, previously unknown games have been popping up rather frequently stumping collectors everytime. Older articles online lacking recent documentation of the system will reference the console’s game library consisting of around 45 games, while the total now appears closer to the 70 mark.

Frequently Asked Gamate Questions

1). Is the Gamate’s LCD too blurry making gaming impossible?

The screen is slightly more blurry than the original Gameboy, but not by much. The blur makes a real difference in some games, often requiring the contrast to be adjusted accordingly. During production of the Gamate, Bitcorp used at least two different LCD’s making some revisions of the hardware less blurry than others. And surprisingly, those units which were well cared for tend to house better working screens. 

2). The Gamate’s speaker is awful, isn't it?!

No argument here, but there are ways round it. If you just plug headphones or extenral speakers into the headphone port, everything will sound much clearer and you'll discover that the game's soundtracks are programmed in stereo. Some are quite subtle and interesting, while some are jarring and inappropriate. As a side note, never use either of the built in music options for Witty Apee! You’ve been warned...

3). Are the games bad?

Like every game console/handheld to date, the system has it's fair share of bad games. It’s true that the Gamate has more than it’s share of poor releases, however there are many titles which balance the ratio that are enjoyable. Each title has a sequential number, so from a collecting stand point, it’s really simple to know what games you own, and which you’re missing.

Screenshots courtesy of NEOFUJI, the web’s most comprehensive source of Gamate knowledge and ephemera.


Last Updated ( 21 March 2011 )  

Comments 

(Link to this comment) suzzopher 2011-03-21 09:37
I am so tempted to pick this up as there is one on ebay
+1 (Link to this comment) TwoHeadedBoy 2011-03-21 11:41
Nice write-up, very nice - have to say I was unaware of the "2nd Wave" until now - and also of the links to the Super A'Can! In general, I'd say the ratio of playable:unplay able games on the Gamate is greater than that of the game.com and the Supervision...
(Link to this comment) 3rdman 2011-03-21 14:03
Quoting TwoHeadedBoy:
Nice write-up, very nice - have to say I was unaware of the "2nd Wave" until now - and also of the links to the Super A'Can! In general, I'd say the ratio of playable:unplay able games on the Gamate is greater than that of the game.com and the Supervision...


I like that logic. I never thought of that
(Link to this comment) jazzfunk 2011-03-21 16:30
I actually have a Gamate with the game Tornado (a vertical Shoot 'em up)

If you want it make me an offer since I want to sell it!
(Link to this comment) 3rdman 2011-03-21 17:48
Tornado was also my first Gamate game, and would be a great title to start out with. I like the pause sound effects of the "engine" powering up and down. :D
(Link to this comment) ManiaC 2011-12-09 16:39
I have one in its original box and with 10 games. For the right price it is for sale.
(Link to this comment) Gamate 2012-06-27 04:51
This is a wonderful guide for the Gamate, probably the most inclusive to date.
I encourage all Gamate fans to join up for the new dedicated Gamate discussion forum linked below. :)

gamate.proboards.com/index.cgi
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