Saturday, June 22, 2013

How the Bassmate Computer came to be

In the previous post, we introduced the Bassmate Computer; a pocket electronic databank from 1984, targeted at bass fishers. The Bassmate was manufactured by Nintendo and co-designed by the Game & Watch team from Gunpei Yokoi's R&D1 department.

Bassmate Computer by Telko / Probe 2000 / KMV (1984)

American engineer Bill Olliges was the inventor of the Bassmate. He conceived it together with his business partner Ed Miller, who took care of the marketing through his company Telko.

In an earlier stage of his career, Bill was involved in the American arcade business, as was Ed. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, they both worked as executives for the American devision of Taito and later for Florida based Centuri inc.

During its heyday, Centuri was one of the top US suppliers of video arcade games. Many of their machines where licensed from Japanese companies, in particular Konami. The list of games they manufactured and distributed includes hits like Phoenix, Vanguard, Track & Field, Time Pilot and Gyruss.

After the demise of the video arcade industry in the mid 1980s, Bill started an engineering firm called Proton Engineering, which he is still involved in today.

Bill Olliges holding a WalleyeMate II, one of the products
that was created after the success of the Bassmate

Bill explains where the idea for a fishing computer came from and how Nintendo got involved.

Bill Olliges: "After my relocation to Florida around 1980, I became interested in bass fishing, and noticed that most pro’s used a diary to log the bait or lure type, environmental conditions, and other information when they caught notable fish. The thought occurred to me that an electronic 'lookup' might be more user friendly and possibly a viable product."

"With the help of a few pro’s to assemble and organize their diary’s, I created a program that, dependent on the existing condition, would display the specific lure to use for those conditions."


Bill Olliges: "At this time Nintendo had just recently released their Game & Watch handheld range, and it looked like a good platform for this product."

"We knew several executives from Nintendo through Mike Kogen’s Taito company in Japan. We approached Nintendo with the project, and they seemed interested in a 'sporting' type product that was not a game machine. Nintendo saw it as an investigating into a new segment of the market ."

The Bassmate set came with a thermometer and protection pouch

For the project, Nintendo took on a role as OEM (original equipment manufacturer), which meant that they would produce it on behalf of the commissioning company, Telko in this case.

The Nintendo side of the story is told by Satoru Okada (岡田 智) and Yoshihiro Taki (義弘瀧), who both worked at Nintendo R&D1 at that time.


Okada-san: "After the boss of the American company saw a Game & Watch in the US, they got the idea of contacting Nintendo. They got in direct contact with Gunpei Yokoi. Yokoi-san though it was a fun project and he gave the OK to develop it as OEM project."

According to Okada-san, the project was handled for Nintendo by two other key members of the Game & Watch development team: Takehiro Izushi (出石武宏) did the project management and the design was handled by Hiroji Kiyotake (清武 博二). Both men are currently still employed by Nintendo and have a long list of high-profile projects behind their names.


During the design and pre-production stage, Bill worked directly with the Nintendo team of engineers, programmers and designers in Kyoto.

Bill Olliges: "We communicated via 'Telex' in those days, and I also made many trips to Japan. It was definitely a collaboration of product ideas; I provided the program detail and a rough prototype of what we envisioned, and Nintendo provided most of the integration into the handheld platform. The Nintendo group had excellent ideas as to the look and feel of the product."

Okada-san: "The computer data that we received from the US company was so big that it was really hard to put it all in the small Game & Watch IC (integrated circuit). We asked a great programmer at Sharp for help with this problem, and he helped us a lot. We were very thankful to Sharp for this."

Eight different conditions can be entered, ranging from season and time of day
to wind speed and water temperature (measured with the provided thermometer)

Although the Bassmate is very similar in format to a Game & Watch Multi Screen, it has its own unique casing.

Taki-san: "I remember that we created a special metal mold for the mass production of it. The button positions and the rounding of the corners was different from the original Game & Watch design."

Bill Olliges: "As the design evolved, the LCD display required a somewhat larger case to be legible, and the general opinion was to keep the apperance different from Nintendo's game products."

The fishing conditions are entered with the eight buttons on the right
(also notice the standard Game & Watch type 'ACL' and 'ALARM' buttons)

Bill Olliges: "The Nintendo folks were very bright and helpful during the product's pre-production phase, and their product quality was - as usual - perfect. I was very satisfied with the end product and such great detail the Nintendo group provided."

The bottom screen shows the selected conditions

The Bassmate Computer was primarily sold in the US and was fairly successful.

Bill Olliges: "The Bassmate was widely sold by Sears at the time, as well as through mail order catalogues and other sports oriented distributors. I do not recall production numbers, but believe it was in the area of one hundred thousand. The retail price started at about $80 and eventually declined to about $39."

Okada-san: "I don't remember how much were sold, but I do remember it was much more than first expected."

After entering the appropriate conditions the "compute" button is selected.
The best lure type for these conditions is than displayed in the top screen.

The Bassmate was sold by Telko under its own name as well as under a number of different labels related to various companies that got involved in marketing it, like KMV and Probe 2000.

Bill Olliges: "Some of Telko’s marketing efforts were supported financially by John Woolard of KMV in Chicago, and the 'Probe 2000' version was aimed at catalog sales."

Multiple Fishing Computer models followed the Bassmate

After the success of the Bassmate Computer, more models were created by Bill: Bassmate II, WalleyMate and Troutmate. However, Nintendo was not involved in the production of these.

The newer models were no longer produced by Nintendo,
but by Chinese manufacturers

Bill Olliges: "Nintendo became too busy with the game business and declined additional models. The later models were produced in China."

Bassmate II is similar in function to the original Bassmate,
but the screen readability has been improved

So there it is. The story of the Bassmate Computer and Nintendo's brief period as handheld OEM.

After the first Bassmate post, I read a number of reactions appear on various game forums. Some people noted that it should not be called as part of the Game & Watch family.

These folks are right about a number of things. For starters, the Bassmate is not a game. It was also not conceived by Nintendo and not sold under their name.

However, it was co-designed and manufactured by Nintendo, developed on the Game & Watch technology platform, with direct involvement of key members from the Game & Watch team.

So I propose we call it a cousin of the Game & Watches.

Game & Watch and his cousin Fish & Watch

I saw someone using the term 'Fish & Watch', and I think that is very fitting: the Bassmate is a Fish & Watch, cousin of Game & Watch!

Special thanks to Sander Slootweg for informing me about the existence of this interesting piece of Nintendo history, to Erik van der Neut who helped acquire one, to Florent Gorges for research support, to Ray Stefanski for additional images and information. And last but certainly not least to Bill Olliges, Satoru Okada and Yoshihiro Taki for kindly sharing their Bassmate memories with us.

8 comments:

  1. I do have a faint memory of seeing these in catalogs myself back in those days, interesting Nintendo was involved in it.

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    1. Hi Chris. Funny that you remember it from so long ago. Was it because of the similarity to a Game & Watch that it caught your eye back then?

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  2. Great story Erik! Good to see you got to interview Bill Olliges. Must be nice experience to develop a handheld alongside Yokoi!

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    1. Thanks. Yes, this is a great little piece of history that Bill was involved in. But don't forget that he also worked for Taito and Centuri. So lots more video game history he was a part of.

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  3. What a great story! Surprisingly, as of this writing, there are two items listed on eBay for dirt cheap:

    http://bit.ly/1ccG2qF - $20
    http://bit.ly/Hc0jm4 - $40

    I' like to point out a striking artwork resemblance to the Wii version of Sega Bass Fishing for the Wii... A coincidence???

    http://bit.ly/1aOTQ8g

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    1. It was a good commercial success, so there are quite a few around in the US. I have found that most of these sellers do not ship internationally, though. So it can still be hard to acquire one outside the US.

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  4. Oh, btw, does Mr. Olliges know who designed the artwork for it? I know it seems strange, but I'm always interested in the artist behind it?

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    1. The design work for the Bassmate was handled by Hiroji Kiyotake. Or do you mean the box art? That I don't know.

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