Forgotten Legends of the Games Console Industry
The Story of Taiwan’s Bit Corp.
Retro Game Time: Issue #2 Sept/Oct 2017
Original author 神楽坂雯麗
Translated by Dave Flynn
Header photo by Dave Flynn
What comes to mind when you think of “Taiwan’s first video games console”? Maybe one of the countless Atari 2600 or Nintendo Famicom clones? Or possibly the unfortunate and short-lived, embarrassment that was the Super A’Can? During the Pong era of the late 70s it’s difficult to pin down exactly who made what, and when. According to the information we have though, Bit Corp was the first Taiwanese console developer to break away from developing purely clones and bootleg consoles and make its own hardware. Bit Corp was also the first Taiwanese games company to develop original console games and market them worldwide.
The Atari 2600 Years
Bit Corp was established in 1980 and got its start in the same way as many other Taiwanese electronics manufacturers of the time – by cloning European and American home computers and games consoles such as the Atari 2600. After the release of its first console, the “Bingo” （an Atari 2600 clone), Bit Corp released two cartridge based home computers, the BIT-60 and the BIT-90. Although these machines were popular in Taiwan, the main market for them was always abroad. Even to this day you can find talk of these home computer consoles on European and American internet discussions forums.
The BIT-60 and the BIT-90 are home computers that also have games console functionality. With the BIT-60 using Atari as a foundation and the BIT-90 being a clone of the ColecoVision, another American console. Like other home computers of the time both machines had an integrated keyboard and connected to a TV for use as a display. They also had expansion ports or future use.
The BIT-60 later lost the integrated keyboard and became the Creator30 (創造者30), a console which followed more closely the design of Nintendo’s Famicom. This was the start of the Creator line of consoles that had such a heavy influence on Taiwanese gamers. The BIT-90, on the other hand, is one of the very few Taiwanese manufactured ColecoVision clones. ColecoVision was not a popular gaming platform in Taiwan, so the Bit 90 serves as an interesting footnote of gaming history.
A Diversified Product Line
In a move that differentiated it from other clone manufacturers, in 1980 Bit Corporation invested in developing original Atari 2600 games. Some of the most well known being Open Sesame! and Bobby is Going Home. Followed in 1983 with Mr Postman and 8 other games. When sold abroad these games had a clear copyright notice on the labels stating they were original works by Bit Corp. Completely made in Taiwan, these game carts were packed into containers and sent far and wide, reaching American and Europe and leaving a mark on foreign game players. This influence can be seen by the number of translations of Bit Corp’s Wikipedia page which lists English, German, Spanish and Italian among the available languages.
At the same time, back in the Taiwanese market, Bit Corporation was unabashedly reproducing famous American and European games and creating switched multi-carts to give away for free with its consoles. From today’s standards this kind of practice is hard to understand, but in the wild west that was the 80s console market this growth strategy is somewhat understandable. In Taiwan it was common to release cheap multi-carts into the market, while sending the more expensive single-game carts abroad. This was hinted at during a media interview with a Bit Corporation employee.
During the time before the release of Nintendo’s Famicom, Bit Corp. managed to clone nearly all of the most well known American and Japanese consoles. Following the BIT-30 was a combination of the Sega SG-1000 and ColecoVision known as the Creator 50 – An unprecedented Japanese/American 2-in-1 hybrid console. Compared to the majority of Taiwanese clone makers who were still swarming around the Atari 2600 Bit Corporation was one of a kind, especially given its early start at developing in-house games. The Creator 50, also known as the Dina 2-in-One in foreign markets, has caught the attention of European and American retro gamers in recent years due to it being one of the only ColecoVision clones.
The Arrival of the Famicom
When Nintendo’s Famicom arrived in Taiwan it swept across the market. Naturally, such a well received and powerful next-generation console also attracted the attention of Bit Corp. However, it wasn’t until 1987, quite late in the world of Famiclones, that Bit Corp released their own clone of Nintendo’s console, the Creator 70.
The Creator 70 is reminiscent of a slightly smaller Sega Master System, with a controller design borrowed from the Sega Mark 3. This is an important console to myself as it was my first console. At the time, though, having a “Nintendo” console that looked different to what my friends owned caused me some confusion.
Looking back, the Creator 70 is actually a good effort in terms of design (aside from the nonfunctional player 2 controller-microphone). Even so, for their next console, the Creator 100, Bit Corp adopted a design that more closely followed the Famicom, in favor of creating a more unique design. According to an early media interview with a Bit Corp employee this was due to consumers’ familiarity with the iconic Nintendo design. But represented a major step backward from the previously risk taking Bit Corp designs of earlier times. The Creator 100, with its more standard Famicom design, became Bit Corps final home games console.
Bit Corp then decided to repeat what it had done with the Atari 2600 and start developing original games for the Famicom. Unlike the Atari 2600, however, for which anyone could develop for, Nintendo had a strict licensing structure. Of course, Bit Corp didn’t abide by these “restrictions” and released a series of unlicensed Famicom games in high quality cart cases to differentiate them from the cheap bootlegs that had already flooded the market.
After releasing its Famiclone clone, Bit Corp also started producing switched multi-carts. Due to the quality of these muti-carts being higher than other bootlegs of the time, they have become prized items of retro gaming collectors who appreciate Taiwanese software and hardware.
By the time Nintendo opened the market for handheld gaming with the Game Boy, Bit Corp was already a veteran with the Famicom and wanted to try their hand at original hardware. Their first, and last, attempt at in-house console development would not be a home console, but instead a challenger in the handheld space – the ill-fated Gamate.
While the Game Boy used a portrait oriented design, for the Gamate, Bit Corp opted for a landscape orientation more similar to Sega’s Game Gear. Storage media was also different, and more closely resembled the thin design of the HuCards used by NEC’s PC Engine.
Bit Corp pushed Gamate hard, doing interviews and taking out multiple ads in popular gaming magazines of the time such as TV Game Report and Astro TV Games Magazine. It was all in vain, however, as following the console’s release the shortcomings were all too evident.
Looking at the Gamate’s ads it’s clear to see that Bit Corp put a lot of effort in. Like Nintendo’s Game Boy, and other similar handhelds, Bit Corp also planned a wide range of accessories and games, but in the end these promises proved too difficult to fulfil.
Influenced by an ad I saw in TV Game Magazine I bought a Gamate for myself. But after getting it in my hands I felt really disappointed and not long after returned to Game Boy. This disappointment came from a few factors, one of which is that while Gamate games mirrored their Japanese counterparts, they did not control as well and there was a clear quality disparity. Also, the screen used in the Gamate could not compare to other mainstream handhelds, in particular the Game Boy.
Possibly the strain of developing a new console and games, while at the same time heavily marketing the console, was too much for Bit Corp to bear. In addition, the mainstream consoles at this time, Super Famicom and Mega Drive, were not easy to clone cheaply. Leaving Bit Corp without much room to move.
In the end Bit Corp was unable to continue and transferred all Gamate rights to Funtech (Dunhuang Technology) before disappearing completely from the Taiwanese gaming market. Referring to the Gamate serial numbers we can infer that Funtech continued development of Gamate for a further year before ending production in 1993.
Until 1992, Bit Corp was Taiwan’s most innovative gaming company, and possibly the first Taiwanese company to develop original gaming hardware and games and market them internationally. But gamers were too occupied playing Mega Drive and Super Famicom, and looking forward to the upcoming 32bit generation, to even notice that Bit Corp had exited the industry. After a 12 year rise and fall, a company that once held such an important place in the Taiwanese gaming industry, quickly faded from memory.
Difficult to Overlook
The regretful part of this story is that the problems that Bit Corp faced were the same problems that most US and Japanese gaming companies also faced at the time. Bit Corp might even have had a better start than Nintendo and other competitors. For example, while Nintendo was still blundering about manufacturing “Color TV Game” and low grade pong-like consoles, Bit Corp already had the ability to clone the Atari 2600 and Colecovision, the hottest consoles from the US market. Also, Bit Corp had already created its own original games for the Atari 2600 before Nintendo had even ported its arcade games to the Famicom. It’s for this reason Bit Corp might be the best example of a Taiwanese “world class” video game hardware and software company of that era.
However, while Nintendo quickly found success with the Famicom, Bit Corp on the other hand, quickly found the limits of its abilities during a crucial time in its development. After it stopped cloning foreign consoles and attempted to manufacture original hardware and games, Bit Corp found it was unable to pull it off.
It’s a shame how things worked out, but even so, Bit Corp is one of the few Taiwanese gaming companies to develop original hardware and games and market them worldwide. In the future if someone tries to further document the history of Taiwanese video games, Bit Corp will inevitably be a name that is difficult to overlook.