Nokia N-Gage

22 Mar 2004

Product: Handheld games console/mobile phone
Price: €229

Nokia has admitted that sales of N-Gage have been slower than expected since its launch last Autumn, but the firm remains committed to a product that scores full marks for innovation.

The hard facts are that it was never going to be easy for a device that made a bold pitch for the ‘yoof market’ with its triple whammy components of games console, mobile phone and audio player. Its very existence raises a big question about what consumers want – myriad devices doing different jobs or a single Jack-of-all-trades?

The problem with ‘Jack’ is that he’s a master of none and N-Gage certainly runs the risk of this accusation. Judging by modest sales and the cool reception from games retailers, N-Gage is yet to ignite the imagination of hardcore gamers.

Nintendo long ago stole a lead in this market with Game Boy, the best selling console in the world that continually reinvents itself to maintain poll position. The current Advanced version sells for €149 and is supported by stacks of games.

Although classics like FIFA and Tony Hawks are available for N-Gage there are only around 11 titles available, costing between €40-€50. The SIM sized cartridges must be inserted when the battery is removed, a clumsy piece of ergonomics that Nokia should sort out for version 2. In its defence, however, the 2in. 176×208-pixel screen delivers blistering graphics, a tad better than Game Boy and in a different league to the usual mobile phone gaming experience. And Nokia adds pseudo 3D capabilities, whereby some characters move in all directions rather than just left to right.

Platform games like Sonic the Hedgehog are the most at home on the format, providing ageing Sega Megadrive enthusiasts with eye-watering nostalgia as they go about collecting those rings all over again, albeit on a console that now fits in the palm of the hand.

Another smart piece of design is the inclusion of Bluetooth for wire-free multiplay with up to six similarly armed opponents. It all adds up to a commendable first strike into a notoriously competitive market, though Nokia will have to stay on its toes to secure any meaningful market share, especially as Sony is launching its own handheld console later in the year.

Other features include MP3, an FM radio and a RealOne Media player. To play your choice of music there’s a slot for 32, 64 or 128Mb memory cards. Nokia’s audio manager software lets you transfer music from a PC via the USB port. You can listen via included headphones or the rather tinny onboard speaker that just about does the job for game soundtracks but struggles with the real thing.

Standard GPRS phone attributes are present and correct and play to Nokia’s core strength, though the actual design isn’t one of its strongest when you’re making a call. You feel like you’re holding a seashell to your ear. The good news is that the actual call quality was well up to scratch. Battery life is business as usual in phone mode, but heavy gaming sucks up the juice and you’ll be lucky to get more than three or four hours out of it.

For Nokia, N-Gage is a hugely significant product taking the mobile giant beyond its core business, which it dominates with nearly a 40pc share of the handset market, into the wider realms of multimedia entertainment. Such is the power of its brand that it has coerced big publishers like Electronics Arts into developing its games for the platform, but there’s a feeling that’s there’s still some work to be done if it wants to win over the gamers themselves.

By Ian Campbell