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E3 2004 Handheld Impressions
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posted by: Aaron Stanton
date posted: 12:00 AM Sat May 15th, 2004
last revision: 12:00 AM Sat May 15th, 2004

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E3 2004 has passed, and after a lot of good food, a lot of running around, and a few life and death experiences, it's always fun to sit in the hotel and jot down some first impressions. First on that list - the first look, hmmmmm? list, as I like to call it - has to do with the handheld market, which is obviously a big deal this year. With the Nintendo DS, the Sony PSP, and Nokia's N-Gage QD (not to mention several others that we'll cover in a latter article), all entering the market soon, here is my brief declaration of where I think it's at.


Without realizing it, I've been worried about Nintendo. As a clear underdog in this generation of console wars, I have to admit I've been nervous as we approach the release of the third generation game systems. How, I wondered, was Nintendo going to stand up to a third round of such heavy hitting competition? It gave me shivers to think that the makers of Duck Hunt, Zelda, and Mario might be struggling to stay competitive. Confidence bolstering self-help comments did me little good. I stayed positive: Ha, they've been around for years. They'll be fine.? Maybe, You know, they've got the software titles with name brand recognition. They'll be fine.? Or on the days when I'm really down, when I'm tired and I'm ready for bed, when the dishwasher is broke and I have to wash all the dishes by hand, or the toilet is plugged and I'm out of TP; on those days I just simplify it down. They'll be fine. I'm sure they'll be fine.?

Today, though, after sitting through their press conference (not to mention everyone else's), is the first time that statement is more than just a way to keep my spirits up. I believe it now. From the very first day I heard of it, the concept of the handheld Duel Screen system struck me as sort of a gimmick, right up there with Virtua Boy. It was an interesting concept, but not really a usable one. With the world holding their breath for Sony's PSP stats, I didn't see how having two screens would significantly increase Nintendo's chances. They'll be fine,? I kept repeating, I'm sure they'll be fine.?

But this morning was different. Those thoughts were for yesterday. This morning I woke up, and as I watched the California sunrise through the smog at five in the morning, I found myself thinking a different tune. You know,? I found myself thinking, I think Nintendo's going to do fine. Just fine.? And it was a good thought. And it was a true thought. And I drank my hot chocolate in peace.

What's so extraordinary about the Nintendo DS is not the number of screens it has, though when you see that in action you warm up to it pretty quickly, but really the integration of so many other features in combination with the development power, the we make games that make games worth playing? side of Nintendo. Multi-player Metroid Prime? Nintendo showed off an awesome looking demo. Maybe a little bit of Mario Kart with one player riding shotgun on his screen, the driver taking the curves on the other over Bluetooth wireless and Wi-Fi networks. Now you can play a little multi-player Zelda without having to track down that one person within a block of you that has both the GBA and a Link of their own (not to mention a gaming cord). The touch sensitive screen has the feel of a gaming system with PDA capabilities, complete with a stylus pen and little on screen keyboard.

At the opening of their press conference, Nintendo stood up and said, basically, that in the future graphics won't be the driving force behind system sales. I sort of hymned and hawed. It sounded too much like what you'd expect the guys with the weaker powered system to say. I hadn't been enlightened yet. Then, walking out of the press conference, I realized that it was true. In almost every way, the Nintendo DS falls short of Sony's PSP in terms of media storage and processing power, and I could care less. After comparing the systems, and seeing what they can do, I can honestly say that if all Sony can give me is a system that falls somewhere between the PS1 and the PS2, then they're not going to compete for my dollar. It just doesn't cut it anymore. With the DS slated for launch later this year, the PSP has some time to catch up (it launches in 2005), but even then the DS's out of the box backwards compatibility with GBA games gives Nintendo a huge boost to their starting line-up. Ignoring that, rumors put the DS at the launch price of around $150, while discussions of the PSP have clocked it in as high as $300. So far, the DS has re-affirmed my faith in Nintendo to develop competitive hardware. After showing off the Nintendo DS, they basically stood up and said, We're also building a new home console system, and it's going to be really cool, change the industry.? And now, tapping my foot and humming Mario theme songs, I believe them. For the first time in a while, I believe them.

And that makes me happy.


Another of the players in the hand held market is Nokia. Nokia is like the clumsy little brother, the one that tries really hard and keeps stepping on its own feet. The Nokia press conference is the only one of the bunch that makes me feel like I should offer emotional support to the presenters. Somehow, when the power cuts out on their mike for the tenth time, or the video doesn't quite play right on the overhead display, I always have to fight an urge to pat them on the back afterwards and say, It's ok. We still think you're doing interesting things.?

The original N-Gage, as many people already know, was not well received. Clocking in well below Nokia's hoped for target sells, the first generation of N-Gage barely made a dint, let alone a hole, at the point of the industry that they were targeting. Their latest version, the N-Gage QD, is a redesign that strips a number of features, and streamlines a number of others. Across the board, the change is a good one. Gone is the built in MP3 player and radio, both of which had limited functionality on the original due to memory limitations. Gone is the taco style communication. And gone forever (we hope) is the $300 price tag. Instead, the N-Gage QD clocks in at $199 for the phone alone, with an average of $99 with a contract. The controls and re-design make it a far more comfortable system to play, and an easier phone to talk on, and a little more convenient size. While I still don't see it changing the universe, I do think that the N-Gage QD fills a position in the market, the gamer with a cell phone? market.

Though cell phone technology and the lack of a dedicated control design will make it difficult for cell phones to compete well with any of the dedicated handhelds in the near future, it does now qualify at a low enough price, and good enough functionality, that many gamers will throw down their extra dollars just because? when they next consider getting a new phone. While Nokia positions the N-Gage as a gaming device, I think that most of us consider it to be a phone with gaming capacity, and see no contradiction in owning both a GBA and an N-Gage, as opposed to just one or the other.

What the N-Gage truly has, hands down, against other handhelds is the anywhere connectivity. The ability to integrate games and an anywhere network makes the N-gage quite appealing. Up-coming game releases may very well give Nokia a strong hold with gamers that want to talk and play, and talk and play anywhere.

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