Nokia N-Gage, the little handheld that never was.

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Nokia N-Gage, the little handheld that never was.

Post by Austin » Sat Jan 09, 2010 2:31 pm

Hey guys, this is a write-up I just posted over at AtariAge. I figured it would make a good addition to the general forums here, since, well... we're all clearly big fans of failed, dead systems. :mrgreen:

The N-Gage launched in 2003 and was poised to take over the portable market with its unique features that weren't available in Nintendo's Game Boy line of units at the time. These capabilities included cell phone capabilities, MP3 and video playback, internet browsing, bluetooth wireless multiplayer, and a 100+ megahertz CPU that was able to provide fully 3D games without much of a hitch. This seemed like an excellent idea on paper, but unfortunately, as we all know, in the end, the plan to dominate the handheld market didn't exactly work out in Nokia's favor.

The system launched for $299. This was reasonable considering it also acted as a cell phone. However, reviews were lukewarm at best and the price point alienated anyone wanting to buy it simply as a portable gaming system. Ports of games people most-likely already owned on their home consoles wasn't enough to entice them into the steep price. The system's poor design choices also quickly spread like wildfire in the gaming world--the misplacement of its speaker, requiring the user to talk in an odd manner, was a major one, and the inconvenience of having to remove the back casing and taking the battery out to put in a new game wasn't looked kindly upon, either. These problems aside, the mix-mashed launch titles also helped give the system a poor reputation. Playstation ports including Tomb Raider and Pandemonium were solid, but they were both lacking their original full motion video and--even worse--their soundtracks, two aspects of these games that really gave them their edge (or in Pandemonium's case, charm). Sega also helped out by supporting the system with Super Monkey Ball and Sonic-N (a port of Sonic's first outing on the GBA), both of which were solid games. Puyo Puyo, however, while as basic as it is, was a so-so port that should have been much more impressive given the hardware it was running on. Unfortunately, the rest of the games on the system were poor excuses for "games" or "ports", none even being as good as "borderline-mediocre"--They were just downright bad, lending the system one of the most inconsistent launch lineups ever, and unfortunately, when it comes to gaming, the bad usually outshines the good, the N-Gage being no exception: Puzzle Bobble VS, a popular 2D puzzler that should have been a flawless port (and even upgraded), shockingly ran at two frames per second, and Nokia's own Baseball game ran so poorly it was unplayable. Tony Hawk's Pro Skater, by far the most "complete" title available, featuring the soundtrack, smooth framerate, full-3D visuals and solid gameplay of its Playstation counterpart, didn't hit stores until a week after launch, at which the console's popularity was already (and very quickly) waning.

Software trickled in slowly through the holidays, with EA pledging support with their solid line of sports games. Decent ports of Game Boy Advance games like Splinter Cell and Rayman 3 were also brought over, to mild fanfare. However, games that could have been the system's "saviors"--Red Faction, a portable-exclusive in The Elder Scrolls series, Sega's popular Virtua Tennis, and lastly, Moto GP, all unfortunately shared the same poor qualities of some of the worst of the launch titles. The solid titles that there were and the inconsistency of the others were not enough to convince people to pay the hefty buy-in price for the unit, and with only one or two titles released in the first few months of 2004, the N-Gage had essentially been deemed a failure by this point by the press at large.

Nokia hadn't given up, though, and eventually got their act together and did what should have been done to begin with--They completely re-vamped the system and fixed its mistakes. An external cartridge slot for easy game swapping was added, the speaker was flipped to the front of the system for "normal" talking, the unit was re-designed to look like a sexy beast, and they dropped the price to at least a less than a hundred dollars than it was before (with some even better deals offered if you signed up for a cell phone plan). With the re-launched N-Gage QD in mid-2004 and and the promise of new, quality, long-overdue titles, Nokia was hoping to penetrate the market in a bigger way than before. With solid unit reviews this time around, it was looking like they might actually do so. Unfortunately, their competition was even stiffer than before with the recently released (and excellent) Nintendo DS on the market and Sony's Playstation Portable just around the corner (If it wasn't already out by then).

Unless you were into sports games, N-Gage titles until the holiday season of 2004 were unfortunately mostly rushed and/or simply average. Bomberman, still a fun game via multiplayer, unfortunately looked like it was first developed as a Java or Symbian 60 game, then quickly slapped into a N-Gage case (Much like the launch titles Puzzle Bobble VS and Puyo Puyo). It couldn't hold a candle next to its counterparts released ten years prior, let alone the excellent GBA version which had already been out years before it. Operation Shadow, a 3D 3rd-person shooter that, despite being an enjoyable game, received mostly horrible reviews. Ashen, another game that was supposed to be a heavy hitter--a fully-3D first person shooter--also received mildly average reviews. Other solid games like Crash Nitro Cart, another fully-3D racer that showed the capabilities of the system, was given lukewarm reviews as well. The N-Gage's most highly-reviewed games up to this point were already available on other platforms (Tomb Raider, Monkey Ball, and The Sims: Bustin' Out). Even with the vastly-enhanced QD available, the platform was essentially dead by the end of 2004. It wasn't uncommon to walk into a game store then and hear associates talking badly about the system, or for one to be given rude comments about it when going to buy a new game for the system. Despite this, Nokia stuck by the system and released titles all the way into early 2006.

Those that stuck by the unit as well were able to experience the best games on the system, and a good reason to own one. Mediocre titles continued to be released up until the system's official demise, but several gems came along the way. In the holiday season of 2004, the N-Gage's "killer-app" had finally arrived in the form of "Pathway to Glory", a deep, realistic turn-based strategy game that even offered online multiplayer. Colin McRae Rally 2004 really showed off the system's 3D capabilities with a fast framerate, smooth visuals, and all-around excellent gameplay. Requiem of Hell was a solid Diablo-esque hack 'n slash that unfortunately went largely unnoticed. Pocket Kingdom, an online-multiplayer game (with a single player function) released by Sega, was another title to show that unique games can be had on the system. It can be best described as a pocket version of "Dragon Force". Lastly, Asphalt: Urban GT was another good reason to own a unit that also played games at the same time--It was an all-around beast of a game when it comes to arcade-style racing, and while not being as smooth as the DS version, it showed off what the system was capable of.

2005 saw a lot more support, and a much greater influx of quality titles: Pathway to Glory received a sequel, "Ikusa Islands;" Asphalt also received a follow-up; Snakes, a remake of the classic computer and cell phone game, was developed exclusively for the platform and released as a free download for N-Gage users, ending up being one of the most-enjoyable and addicting classic-remakes since Tempest 2000; The Roots, another American-style action-RPG with several different character classes and stat upgrades; Both X-Men Legends games, two action-RPGs that received good reviews; Mile High Pinball, a great twist on the pinball genre with colorful graphics, fun gameplay and a nice soundtrack; Glimmerati, a fun, top-down, lap-based arcade racer that meshed its fast framerate and smooth 3D visuals with a unique story; The Atari Masterpieces Collection: Volume I, a collection of near-perfect arcade ports of Atari titles, with a few 2600 games as unlockables; System Rush, a 3D futuristic racer with a smooth framerate and solid gameplay; High Seize, another strategy title created the Pathway to Glory developers; Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory was ported, and it showed that well-done 3D action games could be crafted on the system; The Rifts, a solid role-playing game based on the pen & paper game of the same name; Capcom even supported the system with a single title in "Catan", a board-game-esque title that was also more-recently released on XBOX Live Arcade; Nokia even released an add-on for the QD that replaced the back battery cover, giving users the ability to plug in two games at one time.

Early 2006 saw the final days for the N-Gage platform, with its last games released. These consisted of the Atari Masterpieces: Volume II collection, as well as a port of the popular PC game, Civilization. Since then, Nokia re-launched the N-Gage as a game distribution platform for their recent line of N-series phones. Unfortunately, yet again, it was too little, too late, as Apple's iPhone had already been dominating the market with its cheap, quality games in its ever-popular AppStore.

So, if you managed to make it this far, one thing that got me to write this up was re-discovering my N-Gage unit. I was one of the few that bought it on launch day, and I stuck with it until recently when I finally made the switch to the iPhone. While I love my iPhone as a general multimedia device, despite all the games I have on it, it just doesn't feel the same. I enjoyed playing console-style games with a d-pad an real buttons on my device. With that in mind, I eventually brought the N-Gage back out to bring it to work with me to use it as a game machine. While it was considered a disaster, for those that owned it and stuck around with it, it was a solid gaming platform with a lot of unique capabilities at the time--Java apps could be downloaded, programs and games could be multi-tasked (and closed at-will) like in Windows for easy convenience, and even Game Boy and Atari emulators could run at decent speeds, adding for a lot of capability in the device.

While looking at the newer (and doomed) N-Gage service's website, through a very particular section, I found a somewhat hidden link for an archived version of the original N-Gage.com site. Nokia has stored it here, and it can be visited for nostalgic purposes: http://www.n-gage.co...tgen/index.html . Unfortunately, while there is a full games list there, it looks like screenshots and videos of each game have been taken down..

Lastly, one of the reasons I wanted to post this is because I know there are a lot of collectors and curious gamers here. I thought I should point out some some tips for using the system for anyone curious in picking one up, and some thoughts for you collectors here:

For you curious gamers, you can actually boost performance in certain games (usually the 3D-heavy ones) by booting the system into "offline" mode. This essentially turns off the cell phone capabilities and frees up some resources. In certain games as well, turning off sound frees up resources, like on a PC. You may notice a small performance boost in these cases. With the original N-Gage, you can connect it directly to your PC via USB. If you buy a blank MMC card, you can install emulators and so forth. Standard home consoles don't work well like on a PSP, but if you stick with the Atari 2600, the original Game Boy, and light MAME roms, it works pretty well. The QD requires a bluetooth wireless adaptor on your PC to connect--there's no USB port on the device itself, making configuring PC connectivity a little more difficult (I've never been able to get mine to work properly, but apparently I'm just unlucky). Also, the QD doesn't play MP3s--not right out of the box, anyway. You can download an external Java program that will do it for you though (although there isn't much point these days, with iPods and iPhones out there). If you get a QD, if you get lucky, you may run into the MMC expander. Like I said above, it replaces the battery cover and enables you to house two MMC games in the system at one time. Nokia only had these available via mail-order (at least here in the US), and they don't offer any original n-gage items anymore, so they will be very difficult to come by. One other thing I wanted to note (that I don't think that even the gaming press has noted in the past) is that there are little plastic holders that come bundled in each mini-DVD-esque N-Gage game casing. These can actually house four games, and can then be folded in half. Each case a N-Gage came comes in can house two of these when folded up, allowing you to carry eight games in one case. Also, three games can be held in the clip-tray portion where your came comes brand-new by default. Very convenient if you want to bring a lot of games with you for a trip on the bus or at work, but don't want the annoying carrying cases of other portable platforms. Lastly, you can also change the casing of both systems if you want. There are cheap replacements in various colors on eBay. For the QD, you can also buy replacement rubber rings that wrap around the system, as with heavy use they may get loose or wear out.

For you collectors, I highly recommend keeping an eye out for N-Gage goods, particularly the stuff that was released in 2005 and onward. 2003 and most 2004 releases can be had on the cheap (as in $5 or $6 cheap). However, late '05 releases (and the two releases in '06) have been damn-near impossible to find. They also happen to be some of the best titles on the system. Putting two and two together, this usually equates out to something being pretty collectible down the road. The fact that many of them towards the end were only offered via mail order as well makes me think that Nokia only manufactured a few thousand copies of each, if that. So with that said.. Watch out for those!! I have also never recently seen the MMC expander on the web for sale. Units themselves don't seem to come up as often as you would think, either (Maybe they didn't really sell as many as Nokia claimed, afterall), and they seem to go between $50 and $100, loose, partially because you can still pop in a sim card for say, T-Mobile, and use it as a phone. If anyone wants any pictures uploaded here of add-ons, let me know and I can do so in a response.


Anyways, I hope this little (or big) write-up was interesting. So on an end note, what are everyone's general thoughts on this topic? Has anyone else here owned one of the N-Gage game decks, or am I alone here? Also, what are your thoughts on the current cell-phone/gaming combos? Has the iPhone replaced your PSP, or do you still need that other handheld to get you by? Do you think we will ever see a day where we will have general console-style games playable--comfortably--on phones?

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Post by bitrate » Sat Jan 09, 2010 10:12 pm

Nice write-up. So nice, in fact, that I decided to pull out the old N-Gage for a trip down memory lane. :D


Image


Still had MotoGP in it.

I probably haven't fired this up in 4 or 5 years.
I was given this as a Christmas present back in 2003 and I can remember playing Tomb Raider and MotoGP quite a bit.

I remember liking the idea back then, and liking it even more when they had addressed a few issues with the QD.
Never used them as a phone though.

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Post by tinman » Sat Jan 09, 2010 11:39 pm

The one and only mobile/cell phone I have had is an original N-gage, which I still use to this day. I still have the original "disposable scratch proof" sticker on the screen, which I have never removed. So effectively the screen underneath is pretty much mint. :)

I get suprised looks when people see me using it for reasons other than a phone; playing games, making notes, listening to music etc, however I definitely get strange looks when I use it as a taco phone :oops:

I have a fair amount of the games for the unit, but not the 2006 releases, which I have rarely seen on "that" auction site. I've got one or two items of interest such as a gold edition "One" press kit release (with the mini media disc) and System rush with an accompanying CD soundtrack.
I did pursue trying to get the last offical game for the N-gage "Payload" which was a paid for download off the Nokia website, but by the time I got around to seriously trying to get it, Nokia were onto N-gage 2.0 and not interested in this old game although they did point me towards the developers ,but I didn't even get an acknowledging receipt email from them (maybe it's a game they are not proud about). I think if your that way inclined you can get it off one of those torrent site...not that I'm promoting them, just stating a fact. :shock:

The games are as you'd expected quite limited, but despite this I have only finished a handful of games, Ghost Recon, Ashen, whilst I have many in progress, One, Red Faction, Glimmerati. Playing games on a full battery lasts for about 3 hours or so, before you are prompted to recharge the battery or connect it up to mains power via an adaptor. Control is O.K. on the unit but I can't help thinking the problems I do have with it would be akin to handling those multiple button Jaguar controllers. The original battery lasted for 6 years, and I only had to get a new one last year. The headphones weren't as longlasting and broke about a year or two, basically one of the wires to one of the earpieces broke internally and instead of the stereo sound I've had mono for alot of it's life. Also the PC suite media studio disc that comes with the unit wasn't exactly user friendly, although in all honesty I didn't perservere with understanding its nuances. :?

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Post by Trev » Sun Jan 10, 2010 12:15 am

An enjoyable read.
Most wanted - Eye of Typhoon, 3DO Magazines issues #14 & #15, Pro Stadium, Defcon 5

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Post by Austin » Sun Jan 10, 2010 6:14 am

Thanks for the feedback guys. I wasn't actually expecting any replies, so thank you. :)

Tinman--What other auction site do you use? I haven't had much luck finding the late-release stuff on eBay. I'm missing The Rifts, System Rush (The one I want to play the most), Warhammer, Atari Volume I, X-Men Legends II, High Seize and Civilization.. I'd preferrably like to be looking in the *right* place. ;)

I also didn't know Payload was download-only. I'll be sure to stop looking for that one in that case..

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Post by tinman » Sun Jan 10, 2010 1:26 pm

Austin,
Patience and luck on eBay has only seen my collection grow, but it naturally competes with 3do stuff, as well as Neo Geo Pocket and Dreamcast stuff and my waning interests. :P

FYI I have never seen Civilization on Ebay, or Warhammer 40,000 for that matter. X Men Legends II pops up from time to time, moreso than the rest. The last time I saw High Seize, was when some guy in Poland was trying to sell a gold edition to me after I bought his "One" gold edition. The Rifts, the last time I saw that it was a signed copy by someone intimately associated with that story (you'll have to forgive me I'm not that familiar with the story) Atari Volume I also pops up from time to time. Some guy in France is where I got my System Rush copy, and after I bought it, I noticed he had another one up for sale pretty quick smart. You should be able to find this probably as a buy it now, otherwise keep your eyes peeled. :shock:

I don't know whether it is still active but try typing "Allack" into google or some search engine. It is a mobile and handheld games store in England which used to sell N-gage games. I did buy some off them years ago (about 4 to 5 years ago). I was impressed as I am in Australia, and so I wasn't gipped and received the games about two weeks after I ordered and bought them via Paypal. They were pretty good communicating via email, so maybe check them out.

Payload was developed by a group called Tantalus Interactive who are Australian. They may have changed their name or been taked over by now. If you find a downloadable legitimate copy I would be interested in purchasing it, unless the price was too prohibitive. :roll:

Good Luck

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Post by 3DOKid » Sun Jan 10, 2010 3:18 pm

I enjoyed that, thanks. I might start hunting one down :)

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Post by tinman » Mon Jan 11, 2010 1:01 am

...I might start hunting one down
I like my original version, however I am twisted. :twisted:

Where others regard the requirement of turning off the phone, removing the back plate,removing the battery, sliding out the MMC game card out and replacing it with another, putting the battery back in, sliding back on the back plate turning on the system resetting the time and date and then loading up the game as annoying, frustating and stupid........I regard it as quirky and unique. :roll:

If you can't be bothered with this make sure you get the "hot-swap" QD version. Not that it's a big plus but I don't think the QD has the radio feature. The radio feature on the original is dependant on the headphones being plugged in (as an aerial) anyway, but if they are you can then put the phone on loudspeaker and listen to the radio this way as well

I also checked for Allack online shop, but it appears to have dissolved, so sorry about that red herring. :oops:

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Post by Austin » Wed Jan 13, 2010 7:00 am

I personally liked my original deck. It was comfortable, it was loud, and having my MP3s as ringtones was awesome. Also, when I changed the case on it, it looked pretty bad-ass in the dark because the material was cheap and the light from inside the unit would shine through. :)

If you planned on changing games frequently (or in a moving vehicle), it was a very poor design choice. Other than that it wasn't too bad.. Games could still be swapped fairly quickly when you got good at it ;). Honestly though, the extra work of swapping games unlike your standard system just let me to leaving one game in it for longer periods of time. That actually worked to my advantage though, getting me to focus on a single game.. I usually have the bad habit of playing too many games at one time and I end up never finishing anything. :?

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Post by T.A.P. » Thu Jan 14, 2010 11:41 pm

Between buying a huge collection from some guy in England, raiding a Gamestop near me was that clearing out their stuff, and picking up a few games from the N-Gage store back when they were still up, I'm pretty sure I have a complete collection, outside of that one game that was released as a download only (Payload, I think), and a couple of games that were only available in Spain.

I also made sure to download EVERYTHING off the of the US N-Gage site, and backed up it onto a spare hard drive.

I wish I could find an original model though. All I've ever seen were the QDs.

It is a nice little system, although I haven't played it nearly as much as I'd like to.

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Post by Vance » Fri Feb 19, 2010 7:31 pm

I took this picture at E3 2005:

Image

The N-Gage booth was a smash tepidly received presentation. That booth is lined with N-Gages, but nobody was sitting there. An announcer kept trying to cajole people in over a PA system, but people were just cutting through to get to the bathrooms that this place was parked right next to.

Unrelated, but still amuses me: here's what the crew thought of Microsoft's inability to allow people to see the 360, instead just allowing people to record their own little wannabe hardcore messages to broadcast on the huge overhead screens:

Image

Shoulda just gone in The Pipe and acted kinda deficient, really. Everybody else was.

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