Image: Nintendo Life

Given that we've covered pretty much every retro console of note in our Hardware Classics series, it was almost inevitable that we'd be forced to investigate systems which could hardly be considered noteworthy from a commercial or critical standpoint. That's certainly the case with Bit Corp Gamate, a handheld console released around the same time as the original Game Boy in a fairly transparent attempt to steal some of that seminal machine's thunder. The Gamate could hardly be deemed a successful console and its impact on Nintendo's market share is negligible, but it nevertheless managed to survive for longer than some of its higher-profile rivals and even saw release outside of its native Taiwan.

We've already covered the history of the console in a previous feature, but since then we've been able to procure one of these fabled machines. Produced by Bit Corp and released as the "Super Boy" in its homeland, the Gamate's made its début in 1990 - the year after the Game Boy - and is heavily inspired by Gunpei Yokoi's famous creation. It has a non-backlit monochrome screen with the same kind of greenish tint, two action buttons and a rather weedy mono speaker, with stereo sound reserved for headphones only.

While the Gamate is a close match for the Game Boy in purely technical terms, it opts for a landscape orientation as opposed to a portrait one, which makes it slightly more comfortable to hold. The buttons and D-Pad are responsive and well-designed, and the case feels solid - for all the complaints one might have about the system, it cannot be accused of being cheap or flimsy. The Gamate is powered by four AA batteries - divided between two compartments on the rear of the console - and games are delivered on credit card-sized slabs of plastic, not entirely dissimilar to those used by the NEC PC Engine / TurboGrafx-16. Just like Nintendo's console, there's a dial for volume and one for adjusting the contrast of the screen. Not that doing so really makes things any more playable, as the blur-heavy display is incredibly difficult to use, as you can see in the excellent Ashens video below.

As you can see, the quality of the Gamate's screen is a lot worse than the one on Nintendo's million-selling portable - and that was pretty blurry to begin with. It suffers from terrible ghosting on fast-moving objects, which makes certain games - such as shooters or titles with small, rapidly-moving objects - almost impossible to play. It is believed that different production runs of the console were equipped with screens from different suppliers, and some are better than others. A rough way to test the display is to turn on the Gamate without a card inserted - the worst variants displays horizontal lines while the better quality screen has a corrupted checkerboard pattern. Other variants are available which give different results, making it even harder to ascertain which screen type a machine has.

Approximately 70 games were released for the console between 1990 and 1995, with many of the later titles never seeing the light of day outside of the Far East. Bit Corp was not a big company but it managed to secure distribution deals with quite a few western firms, including UK joystick maker Cheetah and GIG in Italy. GIG was a massive toy brand in Italy at the time and seemingly put a lot of energy into promoting and marketing the Gamate; at the time of writing the vast majority of Gamate games on eBay are from that part of the world, many of them being brand new "dead stock" which wasn't sold during the console's short time on European store shelves. A great many consoles sold online were originally intended for the Italian market, too.

One of the key reasons that the Gamate has such a poor reputation is simply that its software was terrible; early releases such as Enchanted Bricks, Bomb Blaster and Galaxy Invaders were uniformly poor clones of established hits, and while some original games do exist - the passable Devil Castle and Snowman Legend being notable examples - the general standard is quite low. The console was never going to tempt away third parties from the Game Boy so Bit Corp simply made its own imitations - and it wasn't until much later in the console's life that truly original releases began to appear. Sadly, by that point the machine was all but dead in the west. Bit Corp closed in 1992, and game development appears to have shifted to United Microelectronics Corporation after. These titles are so rare that even hardcore collectors aren't entirely sure how many games actually exist.

In fact, very little is known about the console even today; emulation is sketchy and a great many games haven't been dumped. These reasons combine to make the console something of a curiosity among retro enthusiasts; a platform which is mysterious and unknown is akin to uncharted territory for many collectors. As a result, prices on the secondary market are high and have remained that way for the past decade. Loose examples can fetch at least £100 / $140, with boxed versions going even higher. While the system is perceived by some as being cheap and nasty, the hardware is actually quite robust and as a result second-hand units have stood the test of time quite well - arguably better than the original Game Boy, which has issues with lines appearing on the LCD display as the glue which bonds the ribbon cable to the motherboard begins to fail over time.

If you're for some reason compelled to follow our example and begin your own Gamate collection, be prepared to part with some serious cash. Consoles are incredibly hard to come by, and when they do appear on auction sites they're accompanied by the kind of price tags that require you to sell a kidney - yet they get snapped up astonishingly quickly, as demand often outstrips supply. Due to the large volume of dead stock flowing slowly out of Italy games are thankfully easier to find, but these are usually limited to the very early Bit Corp releases that saw the light of day outside of Taiwan. Later games are insanely tricky to locate and can often fetch hundreds of dollars; because it's still not known exactly how many titles were released, collectors tend to snap up newly-discovered or unknown titles pretty quickly. The poor state of Gamate emulation and lack of ROM availability means that playing on the original hardware is the only way to truly experience Bit Corp's console - a unique situation given how far retro emulation has come over the past few years. This is another reason why the Gamate is so appealing to those who crave the truly obscure side of video gaming.

The Gamate might not be a "classic" console in the strictest sense, but in a period where the internet has seemingly uncovered everything, it stands out as a curious unknown; it's a games system which, despite its obvious flaws, appeals to the hardcore collector and dutiful historian alike. The fact that we're unlikely to see a machine like this again could be seen as an indication that the industry's standards have risen over the past few decades, but it's also a sad reminder that the exciting days of the 1990s - where anything seemed possible - are long gone.