It had of course happened before, Philips, Goldstar, Panasonic, Sanyo had all tried it, everyone and their mum who was an electronics giant had taken a look at what only Sony had accomplished in 1994 and decided that they too could be the next big breakthrough in the videogames industry.
Sony were not the first, they were well down the pecking order in terms of who did what first however unlike everyone else who had tried they were the only non traditional electronics company who had actually managed to wrestle control from the established giants of Sega, Nintendo, Atari and Commodore and boy had they done it in style so wouldn’t others try? Times had changed and handheld gaming was still huge but now mobile phones were becoming more and more powerful so when one of the worlds largest handset makers rolled up their sleeves and entered the battle heads absolutely did turn.
The problem when you try to turn peoples heads is that sometimes you manage it for the wrong reason, this is one of those times. Ladies and gents RGG brings to you the story of a giant who went after the small market but ultimately came up short with a big fat failure. This is the tale of the Nokia N-Gage.
By 2002 Nintendo were in complete control of the handheld sector, a grip they had never really let go from the launch of the original GameBoy in the early 90’s, since the release of said GameBoy it’s bigger sibling the GameBoy Color had also seen great success but now was the turn of the mighty GameBoy Advance and it was selling well, insanely well in fact.During the same period of time mobile phones had evolved from suitcase size to smaller handsets incorporating text messaging and simple black & white games, recently however colour phones had broken through offering greater options and at the front of this field were a company called Nokia, I’m sure you have heard of these guys, at some point everyone reading this of a certain age has held in their hand one of their iconic mobile phones.
Nokia had quite clearly seen consumers demand for gaming devices on the move and huge demand for more powerful multi-functioning mobile phones and so on November 22nd 2002 they announced they would be entering the gaming industry properly. They would give people exactly what they wanted, a mobile phone with all the modern add-ons and a kick ass gaming console, in one fell swoop they would maintain market dominance in one field (phones) and take a huge slice from a new field (gaming) As the world leader in their existing speciality Nokia had the tech, the money and the contacts to make all of this happen, Nintendo were about to get some much needed competition.
As part of their plan they would reach out to the heavyweight publishers of this time so EA, Activision, Sega and Ubisoft were courted and obtained, each publisher committed themselves to the project based purely on seeing the tech itself run. Early reports from trade shows were favourable indeed with magazines of the time expressing Playstation 1 power in a mobile phone, leagues ahead of what the GBA could ever manage in 3D terms.
For a while everything was going great and Nokia were managing to really gain momentum, this of course all changed one fateful day when at the official unveiling of the unit itself an industry veteran (John Romero) famously managed to make an already embarrassing presentation get even more cringe worthy by showing a version of Red Faction and receiving absolutely no applause from the gathered press and crowd. So bad was this entire E3 presentation that certain press people labelled it as the single most embarrassing and disappointing unveil ever, having people break dancing to terrible music whilst trying to play actual N-Gage units will do that for you though I guess.
Nokia had managed to make a 2003 press conference feel like a 1993 episode of some terrible Saturday morning Kids show, think Disney Club but about 400 times worse. It was very clear that although the tech side was great the way they thought gamers were was literally more than a decade out of date. At this point I need to point out that this was not the worst part, oh my god no.
The N-gage and it’s continued failure was rubber stamped at the press conference by the design of the unit itself which as the pictures on this article show looked more like half a Frisbee than either a mobile phone or a games console with no foot in either camp it just looked stupid. As a gaming device the buttons being limited to a phones dialling keypad meant that only 2 buttons were any form of use therefore limiting exactly how complicated and interactive games could be. This of course only mattered once you had actually managed to put the games in the unit in the first place because in their infinite wisdom Nokia had decided that to change games the player had to physically take the back plate of the phone off and remove the battery first, no joke.
As a mobile phone it was just quite frankly a complete disaster of epic proportions, to actually use this the average consumer would have to hold it on it’s edge as that’s where the microphone was positioned so when said person would be out and about making a call to every other person on the street you would look like you were talking into a burrito. So at the first hurdle this thoroughbred fell flat on it’s face, the next failure would end up taking it to the glue factory.
The launch price for the Nokia Burrito was going to be $299.99 instantly pricing it out of the market it was designed for and distancing itself from the Gameboy Advance by a fair distance. It’s also worth noting that at the same E3 exhibition Sony had just released information regarding the PSP, this instantly made the N-Gage look like a spectrum in comparison.
So to sum the 2003 E3 Nokia press conference up this was a product that looked like food, over priced and with a marketing campaign behind it that thought its customers were teenage mutant ninja turtles fans, scratch that not that cool, Gobots. You can pretty much guess what happened next can’t you people? You that’s right, when the N-Gage launched in October 2003 inside it’s first few weeks it was outsold by the Gameboy Advance 100 to 1 meaning that within 3 weeks of it’s release date shops such as Gamestop and Electronics Boutique in North America had already begun offering $100.00 rebates on the handset.
The one thing that the N-gage however did get right were a lot and I do mean A LOT of the games themselves because even though the hardware design wise on the outside is a travesty the workings inside meant that this little ugly sister could perform some real magic, it turned out this was absolutely a handheld PS1 right down to the games that appeared in miniature form, what were these you say? Well get ready for the lo-down. Amongst the initial wave of games were two titles directly ported from their Sony ancestors, Pandemonium and Tomb Raider, each game was not the exact same for example Pandemonium only had 11 of the 18 originals levels however both felt just like the originals in gameplay and control and graphically….WOW, the GBA was getting nowhere near these at all.
Next to this the Red Faction port was very good, hard to play but graphically impressive, other titles such as Rayman 3 was equally fine work and showed that the handset was just like He-Man in that he looked funny but had the power. The stand out title however for this new piece of gaming tech was easily that of a certain blue hedgehog, Sega’s cleverly named Sonic N was quite simply brilliant in every department, sure it felt like the games from the GBA but it was absolutely faster and just fir the system like a glove. Sega also added a few other gems in such as Super Monkeyball but it was Dr Robotnik’s arch enemy that stole the show.
Overall during it’s lifespan the Nokia N-gage would go on to have 58 games in total of which 2 were exclusive to Europe/Australia however it’s the quality to quantity ratio that makes the N-gage quite a curious little beast indeed, of all the games mentioned the very best 2 games have yet to be mentioned until now…..
Pathway to glory and it’s sequel Ikusa Islands by RedLynx which for obvious reasons I shall count as one here are tactical turn based titles to a world war backdrop and both are generally regarded as real cult classics of both the system and the era itself. By allowing players to have battles across the N-gage Arena which was it’s online portal the addictiveness of these titles were the main draws. Having the game play at such a calm speed was perfect for a console with very few buttons and a tiny screen which is why both games received very positive reviews at the time and are much sought after now amongst collectors.
Overall though the very best software title to grace this ill-fated phone/handheld was another Sega offering by the name of Pocket Kingdom: Own the World. Released around the same time as the re-design of the Nokia N-Gage called the QD it piggybacked off of 2 lots of advertising (clever move Sega.) This was a massively multiplayer online game that played along the same lines as one of their previous offerings on the Sega Saturn called Dragon force and had elements of turn based strategy and crafting of items, apparently as many as 50,000 combinations (thanks box cover art.)
A real looker of a title this was very well respected at the time and continues to be today, although it averages review scores of around the 70% mark on the ranking websites real N-Gage fans and fans of this genre have taken it to their heart so expect to find it in many collectors homes. The overall factor that unites many of the comments regarding the software library here is that once you really look into them you will clearly see that a huge amount of the entire software selection were actually perfectly good game experiences, there are very few flat out awful games with Marcel Desailly Soccer being the only real one that springs to mind.
The N-gage had a fantastic selection of RPG games such as Elder Scrolls: Shadowgate and Ashen as well as having so many great turn based or strategic games such as the ones mentioned above and on top of that Splinter Cell to boot.For FPS lovers out there Red Faction is actually perfectly ok, technically stunning in fact as is Call Of Duty and beat em up wise the magnificent King Of Fighters will absolutely keep you coming back for more.Platform games are well catered for with Sonic, Rayman 3, Crash Bandicoot, Pandemonium and sports fans can choose from 2 Fifa titles, baseball, Snowboarding and numerous driving games. Lastly before anyone asks, yes you can get a sims game on it and it isn’t completely rubbish so again this is all a huge plus.
If anyone reading this has read my Atari Jaguar intro and seen how hard I slate that piece of utter turd because of not only the games being almost all filthy bad but the hardware being execute poorly especially the controller then the N-Gage is suddenly put into perspective. Both consoles have similar sized gaming libraries however whilst the Jaguar has at most 5 things worth playing the N-Gage has about 5 examples of terrible games, it’s the complete mirror opposite.
Had Nokia not dropped the ball so badly with it’s first design and got the QD out instead at a price tag of $199.99 this little beast may have had a chance to gain some momentum, it’s yet another classic case of so near yet so utterly far. Nobody can argue with what it could do, to play one and see it push 3D around for a handheld device released in 2003 is astounding even today and some of the games here would have easily sold tons more if released on Nintendo’s platform, Pocket Kingdom on a GBA SP would have sold millions in Japan alone.
It had free online gaming through it’s arena service, most games had some form of multiplayer element attached to it, the sound was pretty good and you could make a telephone call from it, such a huge amount of options from such a small piece of equipment. What a pity it looked like total crap, failed as a phone and was too expensive, all things that could have been remedied at the design stage. A dream team of EA, Activision, Sega, Eidos and Ubisoft couldn’t save this, that’s how bad the initial model’s design was.
As I slowly begin to draw this console intro/history article to a close I want you to think about why we made this website we like to call home and what it is that we most want to achieve, the answer of course is to try our best to pass on the working knowledge we have of the times and the machines themselves of course however it’s the hope that you will go out and give some of these things a try now before they slip into the forgotten basement of retro history. The N-Gage community is mostly that of collectors who pride themselves on sealed versions of the games which in itself is the very opposite of why one should want a game in the first place surely? However there is a small homebrew scene out there still making games and applications now and it is a console you can easily hack to run tons of emulators so for those wanting some cool if weird feeling gaming on the go give it a try, you may be surprised at just how much greatness is hidden here.
Nokia to their credit hung in with the N-gage for many years, trying the newer model and then ultimately pushing for a successor which never properly emerged, instead the tech became obsolete or morphed into firmware for other ranges eventually evolving into the type of android mobile gaming we have now. In fact when you really sit down and think all of this through Nokia were the 3DO of their time in that they were in the right arena but just not at the right time and with a few fundamental and ultimately costly mistakes stopping it from ever being the reality once dreamed of on a design technical drawing board in an office somewhere long long ago.
A shame really, a mis-understood and under appreciated shame for sure. To lock this hybrid gadget away with the Atari Jaguar and Virtual Boy as failures is for this writer the decision of the narrow minded or ill-informed. These are the same people that grew up that to this day buy everything based on how it looks, Some folk know them as COD players or XBOXONE/PS4 fan boys, retro lovers know them by their true name….. Stupid people.
Some of the most fun experiences in the world of retro come from the most unlikeliest places and with distance and some time I have come to look back on this little piece of gaming history from a fresh and more open minded perspective than the same me did 10 years ago. Is it bad? Oh yes it’s bad, for sure it got so many things wrong but as I will repeat one final time it also got a few things right and absolutely helped pioneer games on mobile phones. So before you shake your head at this think of how many copies of Plants V Zombies and Angry Birds sold recently and you will see that before every single huge leap in the games world that final success journey begins with a single step.