How engaging was the Nokia N-Gage? – Odd Phone Mondays5
The Sony PlayStation Portable (PSP) hadn't come out yet, and mobile gaming was hardly a thing, unless you count playing Snake on your Nokia 3310 as gaming. Which technically, it is, of course.
But a well-known Finnish company would attempt to bring mobile gaming to the increasing number of cell phone users in early October of 2003... In this "episode" of Odd Phone Mondays we'll take a look back at the fascinating gaming console phone that was the Nokia N-Gage.
Previous Odd Phone Mondays:
- This Toshiba MP3 player phone comes with a light show
- Would you "flipout" if you had to use this smartphone today?
- This PlayStation Phone was ahead of its time
- The million-dollar tilde-shaped dumb phone
A gaming console and a phone in 2003, how good was it?
The story goes that in early 2000 Nokia noticed that younger cell phone users often also carried a portable gaming console like the Nintendo Game Boy Color. Seeing an opportunity to take over two fairly fresh markets at once, Nokia looked into developing one device that can do both phone calls and play console-quality games.
And Nokia made it. In late 2003 the Nokia N-Gage was released, with a 2.1-inch display that was in portrait orientation like a phone instead of landscape like a console game would require, and with not very comfortable, mushy phone buttons as opposed to the ones you get on gamepads. Needless to say – it wasn't ideal, and had too much "phone" in its design, and not enough "portable gaming console".
Even something as simple as putting a game "cartridge" inside was a hassle for the user. Remove the back cover, remove the battery, and then you can access the cartridge slot. You better be sure you're willing to go through all this every time you want to play a new game.
And of course, the "phone" part of the N-Gage was also negatively impacted by its unique design. Taking calls on the N-Gage meant holding the side of this bulky taco-shaped phone to your face, as that's where the microphone and speaker were. It wasn't a good look. You didn't see many stuffy businessmen types using this phone and looking cool and down to business.
PS1 gaming on the go? Amazing!
Design aside, what about the software? After all, it's (almost) all about the games, right? Symbian OS was the then-widely popular mobile operating system that also ran on the N-Gage.
It was a good operating system that allowed users to do more than just take calls, send texts and play games. You could organize your life on it with what I would call an early Google Calendar-like app, play your MP3 songs, listen to the radio, jot down notes with the N-Gage's glorious T9 keypad and so on.
But on to the games the N-Gage was so heavily focused on. I distinctly remember the one that made me want the N-Gage back when I was a kid – Tony Hawk's Pro Skater. This was an impressive 3D game at the time, that you needed a PlayStation or another TV console in order to play, but now it runs on this little device? Yes please!
Indeed, the N-Gage was quite capable of running 3D games from around the PS1 days. Call of Duty, Colin McRae Rally, FIFA, Tomb Raider, but it also had some great 2D games like SonicN (a Sonic Advance port) and Worms World Party. The library of games available wasn't huge, at about 56, but there were many heavy hitters in there. Enough to attract any type of gamers to the N-Gage.
Problem is, as mentioned earlier, the N-Gage had mushy phone buttons and a portrait display. Playing your games didn't feel particularly great, nor did it look great, as you didn't have much in terms of a horizontal view to work with.
And there was another, perhaps more significant roadblock between willing gamers and the N-Gage – its price. Buying both a cell phone and a Nintendo Game Boy was actually cheaper in 2003 than buying just the N-Gage itself.
A $299 N-Gage or a $99 Game Boy Advance?
Unlike today, back in 2003 gamers were almost exclusively children, and children don't usually have money, nor the linguistic ability to convince their parents why they need a $300 phone.
Parents just had to look at the Game Boy Advance and its $99 price tag, then compare it to the N-Gage and its $299 asking price (equivalent to $441 in 2021). And it's obvious which one little Timmy got for Christmas.
In fact, the Game Boy Advance (GBA) outsold the N-Gage many times over just in its first weeks after release, an unsurprising but still brutal difference. Ultimately, the original N-Gage sold only about 2 million units, while the GBA sold over 81 million.
The N-Gage held on for a while
In 2004 Nokia released the N-Gage QD, which was a slimmer and lighter redesign of the original N-Gage, and with a much cheaper $179 price tag. It made the N-Gage and its game library more accessible, but by that time the Sony PSP was just around the corner and the Game Boy Advance SP was already out.
Despite having the extra phone functionality unlike those two, Nokia's N-Gage couldn't compete with their superior game libraries and in the case of the PSP – its performance and nearly PS2-grade graphics.
People weren't ready to use one device for both gaming and as a phone, and Nokia wasn't quite ready to deliver the ideal experience anyway.
But in any case, the Nokia N-Gage was a fascinating and ambitious product. It turned eyes back in its day, made most of us want it, and showed us that one day, perhaps shortly after, many of us might indeed be able to rely on only one device for most of our needs. The technology just had to get better.