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Nokia N-Gage Preview
game: Nokia N-Gage
posted by: Shawn Rider
publisher: Nokia
date posted: 09:10 AM Wed May 21st, 2003
last revision: 07:16 AM Fri Sep 23rd, 2005

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Anyone who has paid even half-hearted attention to the mobile phone market over the past few years can tell you that gaming is going to be huge on cel phones. Unfortunately, it\'s not quite huge yet. There are various reasons for this. Game companies have only really gotten into the market over the past few years, but now companies like THQ are bringing out an armload of original titles as well as ports of older titles for systems ranging from Intellivision to NES. There are also currently a couple of standards in use, and the variety of standards and methods for obtaining software makes gaming an easy thing for many cel phone users to ignore. Did your phone come with snake? Then you\'ll probably play snake until your contract is up.

However, there is more than enough hope for cel phone games. As the phones themselves become more powerful and better suited to gaming with larger, better-looking color screens, removable memory, and whatnot, the games are improving. Several manufacturers are making phones with robust gaming capabilities, but so far it\'s only Nokia who has decided to go all the way. Unveiled last February in London, and fresh from its US coming out party, the Nokia N-Gage is a portable gaming console that blends the worlds of mobile communication and handheld gaming.

Nokia is the largest cel phone maker in the world, and they are leveraging that position to put them in charge of the cellular gaming world. They have made partnerships with some of the most popular game publishers, including Ubi Soft, Activision, and THQ, in order to bring a good number of games to the N-Gage platform. On October 7, 2003, Nokia will release the N-Gage with a supporting lineup of ten titles. They promise 20 titles by the end of the year. So far the software lineup looks satisfying. The titles available next fall include Tony Hawk\'s Pro Skater, Pandemonium, Red Faction, Moto GP, Sonic N, Super Monkey Ball, Tomb Raider, Virtua Tennis, and many more. Ubi Soft promises to deliver Tom Clancy\'s Ghost Recon and Splinter Cell as well. These are not B-grade titles, and from what we\'ve seen of the N-Gage so far, gamers can expect these titles to deliver gaming experience comparable to the original versions.

From what we saw at the various N-Gage events at E3, the games on the N-Gage are going to look something like PSone titles. For example, the GBA does a great job with the Tony Hawk\'s Pro Skater titles, but the lack of a true 3D processor in the GBA means that you\'re stuck with static camera angles, which changes the game. On the N-Gage, THPS looks and plays almost exactly like the original. The camera is dynamic and reliable, just like those brilliant guys at Neversoft intended. Tomb Raider is another example of a game that gives you d?j? vu on the N-Gage-it looks almost exactly like the Tomb Raider we\'re so familiar with from the original PlayStation.

The N-Gage screen is backlit and runs at a resolution of 176x208 pixels. That\'s a bit of a weird aspect ratio-imagine a GBA screen turned on its side. In a world of wide-screen 16:9 fetishism, it\'s interesting that Nokia has decided to go with a vertical rather than horizonal aspect. To be honest, I thought it would be more of a problem than it was. The games were natural to play, and the added height gives a bit more overhead room to dedicate to score, time, etc.

The basic gameplay and the software lineup is impressive. These are the things that will make the N-Gage fly: good user experiences combined with variety to suit all gaming tastes and styles. Certainly Nokia is doing something right in the inter-business negotiations arena, but they\'re not just relying on others. Nokia will create a game called Pathway to Glory which will be (yet another) WWII soldiering title. Nokia plans to publish more games for the N-Gage, too.

But the N-Gage is much more than a simple game deck. It is, obviously, a cel phone. The unit is really designed to work with a headset, which is fine, but it can be used as a phone without one. The speaker and mic are located on the top of the unit, so, when you talk into it, you look distinctly like you\'re holding a high-tech taco sideways to your head. You\'ll also probably get lots of fingerprints on your screen.

In addition to the phone capabilities, N-Gage is also an FM radio and an MP3 player. You can store MP3s on up to 64MB MMC cards (although there\'s a chance that the unit will support larger cards). That can equal about 60 minutes worth of music on a single card, which isn\'t such a bad deal. Unfortunately, because the memory cards used for MP3s and games inhabit the same slot, you cannot listen to your MP3s as you play a game. You can, however, listen to the radio while playing, which means you can keep up on your NPR broadcasts while blowing away fascist mine owners in Red Faction, and that should be enough of a head trip to keep anyone occupied on the commute home.

There are so many really snazzy features of the N-Gage that they\'re hard to list in their entirety. For example, the N-Gage supports Bluetooth multiplayer, which means that if there is an N-Gage in the vicinity playing the game you\'re playing, then you can challenge the other guy to a multiplayer round. This allows for vastly multiplayer gaming supporting dozens of users. If the units become popular enough, then we might see LAN bashing jump out of the dorm lounge and into the subway.

If there isn\'t an N-Gage gamer near you, then you can still keep the multiplayer challenges alive. Most games will allow you to record time trials and high scores which can then be uploaded to ranking servers. You can also email a screenshot or even a record file to your buddies using the N-Gage MMS service. Then, your friend can try to beat your time or record, and why they\'re playing they\'ll see a ghost of your time. This feature is common in racing games on console systems, but it is the first time I know of that you can easily trade these ghost files with friends. It\'s almost like you\'re actually competing against them.

And on top of all of these functions, the N-Gage is a robust cel phone platform ripe for future development. It adheres to the GSM standards and runs the Symbian OS with J2ME support. It also has a WAP enabled XHTML web browser built in, making the N-Gage ready to deal with just about any kind of mobile information connection. This also opens up a world of existing software applications and services to the N-Gage, further broadening its appeal to ultra tech-savvy cel phone users.

The unit is really sweet, and we can\'t wait to get a hold of one to ameliorate our own commutes, but it\'s not all flowers. There are some issues which probably won\'t doom the N-Gage, but will definitely keep us looking forward to version 2.0. The biggest issue is the ease (or lack thereof) with which you can replace the memory cards. To do so you must pull off the back of the unit, remove the battery, and then slip the card in. Games will be distributed on memory cards in order to allow for larger games and better piracy prevention, but that also means that every time you want to switch to a different game you must go through the hassle of disassembling your unit. It\'s not a huge trial, but it could be easier.

It is also ironic that, while the N-Gage was obviously designed with an eye toward the Game Boy Advance design, the GBA SP has reconfigured Nintendo\'s system into a clamshell device that looks much more like a cel phone. As anyone who has owned a GBA knows, screen protection is crucial, and it would have been nice if the N-Gage had been designed with a convenient folding lid to keep that beautiful screen safely tucked away.

The biggest drawback to the N-Gage is the price. The unit is set to retail for $299. That\'s not a bad price for a cel phone of this caliber, but it is incredibly overpriced for a game unit of this caliber. This is the line that Nokia is walking: They\'ve built a unit under the mantra of \"game console\", but they\'ve priced the unit as a cel phone. If I expected that it would actually, in practice, cost $299 to buy an N-Gage, I would predict doom and gloom for Nokia. However, I believe that carrier contracts could absorb most, if not all, of this cost in exchange for a service agreement. After all, when was the last time anyone paid full price for a new cel phone? Nokia was tight-lipped about carrier agreements, and understandably so. All major carriers will most likely offer the N-Gage, and I expect that many of them will subsidize the price of the unit in exchange for a typical service contract. In that case, the N-Gage could do very well.

The Nokia N-Gage is small enough, slick enough, and strong enough to make it work. With support from cellular service providers, this could be the biggest tech toy this holiday season. Two things are for sure: The N-Gage is very cool, and Nokia is very committed to making it work. I think these will be enough to carry the newest handheld game console. So many pieces have already fallen into place that I would be surprised if the last few didn\'t find their niches. Start saving those pennies because this fall the hippest cel phone gamers will N-Gage.