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Engaging with Nokia’s Failed Mid-200s Handheld: The N-Gage

I don’t really know how to start this feature off; so let me do it with a paragraph that I find utterly hilarious in hindsight.

Well, it’s this: you can shove your PSP up your arse. The soul of videogaming needs a shrunken PS2 playing shrunken PS2 games like it needs a nail in its lungs. The future does not lie in spending an entire Aberdeen-to-Penzance rail journey slogging through miserable license tests in Gran Turismo Mobile. It lies in absurdly entertaining five-minute blink-and-you-missed-them bursts of dozens and dozens of breathtakingly different games, all picked up for three or four quid like the glory days of Speccy budget ranges. The future is the past. The future – and who’d ever have thought they’d live to hear anyone say this, folks? – is an N-Gage.

We all know how that turned out, huh.

The previous paragraph was a quote from games journalist, Stuart Campbell, in his personal feature on the Nokia N-Gage, the previous king of the mobile phone manufacturers’ failed attempt at creating an alternative to platforms like the GameBoy Advance and PlayStation Portable, combining portable gaming with a usable mobile phone. Released in October of 2003, the original model was derided for looking like a giant taco you held sideways for the phone functionality, and even with a revised model the next year, the PSP and rapidly advancing smartphone tech ended up with the N-Gage dead and buried by the end of 2005. Nokia tried to carry the name on as a dedicated gaming platform for their phones in 2007 (with no compatibility with the console it was named after), but that was also gone within two years of launching as well.

I’ve always been curious about old school handheld gaming, so the N-Gage was in my sights from the moment I first heard about it, and thanks to a couple of opportunities I managed to get my hands on the updated model, the QD, and I’ve been spending some time playing through the game library on it. The N-Gage’s game library is quite slim, around 50 or so, many of which are either ports or franchise entries from another system. I’d like to take the time to talk about what I’ve managed to play from the list (about two dozen).

I’d be remiss if I didn’t talk about the other functionalities of the N-Gage beforehand though, the problem being that many of them are just unreliable or defunct these days. The N-Gage runs the same operating system as Nokia’s phones did at the time, so you even have the old style grid menu to browse through the functionality. It goes one step further, though; the N-Gage actually checks if you have a SIM card in the slot before you can even use the device! Thankfully it doesn’t look at the actual network it’s running on; as long as you have a SIM card in the slot, it’ll work. Unfortunately, the mobile networks the thing runs on have since been retired in my country, so I wouldn’t have been able to test the mobile functionality even if I wanted to. I just bought the cheapest SIM card I could find at my local department store and never activated it.

Other features included in the software include the usual phone stuff; contacts, SMS messaging, voicemail, and a few other things like web browser (no Wi-Fi means no testing that either), sound recorder (atrocious quality), image and video player, calculator, etc. It might not have been too bad to watch some videos on the 176×208 screen, blocky maybe, but it’s still decent enough to look at. Unfortunately, it’s let down by some speakers that are definitely not the best in the world. They can handle things like speech alright, but get too much going and it’ll devolve into a mess.

Things like the video and music players are let down by something not quite obvious–the memory card problem. See, the N-Gage runs on the predecessor to the SD card format, MultiMedia Card, or MMC. While the SD standard is backwards compatible, merely getting an MMC card that works is the hard part. You can’t get much higher than 512MB to fit in the N-Gage, leaving most videos and a decent collection of music off the table. I resorted to a cheap card from China that barely has enough room for a handful of games on it, a lot of painful back-and-forth in an effort to try all the games I could. The N-Gage has a pitiful handful of megabytes of internal memory which can’t even hold one dedicated N-Gage game; most were distributed on MMC cards themselves which are now expensive as all get-out.

MetalJesusRocks’ collection is pretty impressive.

Thankfully, the piracy scene for the N-Gage was strong during its lifetime and carried on long after, which means I had access to pretty much every game on the device without any major hassles. There were even a couple of games in said collection that never actually released in any official capacity, although after trying them personally it’s very easy to see why they were canned. So I loaded up my MMC card with as many games as I could and got around to trying out as many as possible. I didn’t get to everything that I wanted to thanks to technical difficulties, but I played and watched more than enough to have an idea.

I do need to mention that capturing direct feed video of an N-Gage is kind of impossible. The only proper video out devices that existed for the thing only worked with development kits, and the actual device itself is basically a black box; no-one knows what’s inside or how it works. To my knowledge, the one person we know of that has one refuses to give it up or open it up so someone can find out, so we have to rely on previously uploaded footage. There is direct feed footage of some games for the N-Gage online, and I will link it where relevant; otherwise it will be trailers or off-screen captures of acceptable quality. You can also take screenshots with the N-Gage itself, but I wasn’t actually able to get that app working. No emulators have ever been developed for the Symbian platform, let alone the N-Gage, so that route is also out (which is also why I resorted to getting an N-Gage for this article).

There were two free games available for your N-Gage after your first power on, and strangely enough, one of them, Snakes, was one of the best games available for the thing, a great example of how to properly use the hardware. A 3D recreation of Snake, but with new things like hexagonal grids, multipliers, and pickups, it’s one of the smoothest games on the N-Gage, with stable frame rates and responsive controls. Considering that the game was free to download, it also came with a neat feature: you could transfer the entire game over Bluetooth to other N-Gage units, definitely a game to keep around if you plan on acquiring an N-Gage. (The other game, a sequel to the Space Impact titles on old brick phones, titled Space Impact Evolution X, was such a basic, underwhelming scrolling shooter that I got bored of it in two minutes. At least the Nokia brick version was trying really hard with basically nothing.)

See, the weird thing that’s worth noting about the N-Gage is that, while it did have impressive 3D capabilities for the time, they were simultaneously incredibly underwhelming. You could realistically get very little out of the hardware while maintaining (what we would realistically call) playable frame rates. Most N-Gage developers went for the overkill level of 3D though, resulting in many games that are almost sickening to play today thanks to that really, really tiny screen and atrocious framerate. When I was playing certain 3D titles, I thought it was my unit having some kind of defect; but thankfully I was able to verify that, yes, 3D performance on every N-Gage unit is just the worst if a skilled developer isn’t making good use of it.

Call of Duty, as shown on YouTube. Yeah, it’s that muddy.

Case in point, Call of Duty.

This was before the PSP spinoffs had released and shown people how to really do first person shooters on a handheld device, and I can safely say with no shadow of a doubt that the experience of trying to play this game is miserable. The framerate is so low that it makes it hard to tell what’s going on, which is not helped out by the graphical style being so blocky that even Minecraft looks more rounded. The default controls are so out of whack that I couldn’t figure them out before I had to drop the game. Whenever I tried to shoot anybody, it was about as satisfying as slapping a brick wall. And I died so quickly, even on the easy difficulty; there’s no simple way to pop in and out of cover like you normally would in this series. It’s an absolute mess, and it’s amazing it ever made it to market. This is the absolute worst of the 3D efforts on the system; some just barely summit it, and a choice few overcome it, but not many. Not many.

Let’s draw back a little and talk about the controls on the N-Gage. When you write the controls down on paper, it seems like it could work. On the left, you have a circular D-Pad, somewhat squishy but relatively responsive, a menu button, confirm button, and a couple of phone keys. On the right, the traditional numpad keys that you’d see on any phone of the age, and a couple of extra buttons on the top and bottom to round out the usual stuff. If the game is properly designed around these buttons, it can work; games like Snakes, for example, are well laid out and work decently enough. But in games like Call of Duty, the default mapping can be all over the place, making you move your thumb across the keypad multiple times for simple actions such as turning or looking up and down. A couple of shoulder buttons (already seen in the GameBoy Advance at this point, so they had no excuse) might have worked wonders. Combine that with the small size of the unit, and things can start to cramp up real quick if you need to hold a button or two…

The unit I was using to play the games, in comparison to my Nintendo Switch. Damn thing’s tiny. It’s also about twice as thick.

Perfect example, Glimmerati. Made by the people who bought you FlatOut and Wreckfest, this bird’s-eye view racer is surprisingly enjoyable. Open-world objectives and closed-circuit racing combined with satisfying driving physics give it plenty of variety, and the sixteen included tracks all look good from the high-up viewpoint; a great example of optimizing for the 3D capabilities that the system had. The one major letdown with the game is something that all the racing games I tried on the N-Gage suffer from; the tiny keypad plus needing to hold 5 all the time to accelerate results in hand cramps really quickly, at least in my giant hands. It’s all supplemented by some good 2D art, decent voice acting, and a good range of capabilities, including quick racing and online multiplayer via the N-Gage Arena.

(Quick brief on the N-Gage Arena; it was an online platform akin to Xbox Live, featuring two player online multiplayer in supported games, things like ghosts for racing titles, exclusive cheats and unlockables, online leaderboards, and even walkthroughs & short video clips submitted by users. It was given out for free at launch with an intent to make it a paid service, but I can’t find any proof that they ever charged for it. It was carried over to the second launch on Nokia smartphones, but shut down along with that. You were able to play games over Bluetooth locally either way.)

Decent racing games are actually surprisingly common on the N-Gage. My personal favourite has to be System Rush, a futuristic racer in the vein of Wipeout or F-Zero. Its wireframe techno look is unique on the N-Gage and runs surprisingly well, given the platform. There’s a fair few racetracks; the music is decent, and the slip-slidey handling of the virtual hovership is fun to work with. The game itself gets a bit too easy once your ship is upgraded all the way, but it still manages to be fun on the journey there. There are two more examples of ports of games to the N-Gage that almost come out on the same level of quality, Asphalt Urban GT and Crash Nitro Kart, but both suffer from intense visibility problems (Asphalt being too short sighted, CNK having a field of view that makes first person shooters on consoles blush). At least in Asphalt Urban GT 2 you still get Moby on the title screen.

Of course, there were a couple more attempts to bring first-person shooting to the N-Gage, and they all tend to share the same problems as Call of Duty, if less intense. Poor default controls, horrendous slowdown due to pushing the 3D too hard, and generally unsatisfying gameplay on top of all this are all common complaints about everything from the “ “ “port” ” ” (extra speech marks added for emphasis) of Red Faction to the more original attempts like Ashen. If you think trying to play Peace Walker on PSP was a bad experience with using the face buttons to control the camera, try playing one of these games and see just how well you do. My hand was begging to be released from the hell of trying to play them after just twenty minutes or so. A lot of games do let you customise the controls to something that makes a little more sense, but when you need to use these 12 buttons to do everything from turning, to shooting, to meleeing, to throwing grenades, it eventually becomes an absolute mess because the keypad on the N-Gage has no real key separation, making it easy to hit the wrong button.

The only FPS on the N-Gage I feel that well and truly avoids these complications is Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon: Jungle Storm. If you’ve played the original Ghost Recon games, you know what the score is: tactical combat with high stakes, big maps, dudes with different loadouts you can order around, and objectives to get done with them. Thanks to the gameplay being slower and requiring more strategic actions, the lower  frame rates, shoddy controls (which aren’t actually that bad here) and oddball AI, there’s still problems, but they aren’t huge.

The game has some good presentation; the levels are simple, but well designed, clearly presented, and are easy to look at, and the sound of your troopers capping another bad guy remains really satisfying. The campaign was quite short, but it’s supplemented by multiple challenges per map and some (according to critics) excellent head-to-head/co-op multiplayer (no N-Gage Arena though). It’s the best FPS on the platform by a significant margin.

There’s a few more notable things about the N-Gage I’d like to talk about before I get to the rest of the games. For how many buttons they managed to sneak onto the thing, the notable missing feature is volume buttons; every single game has the ability to change the volume in game, and that’s the only way to change your volume. The thing also doesn’t have an internal file manager; you need to install a third party one if you want to get at your .JAR or .SIS files (more on this later). The screen backlight also turns off incredibly fast, something akin to 15-30 seconds without any button presses – I assume this is to cover for the otherwise unimpressive battery life. You’ll only get a couple of hours of game time out of this thing.

Considering that Japan was more or less dominated by their own smartphone standards at this time that were completely incompatible with the rest of the world, the N-Gage wasn’t able to make an impact at all. There are very few games that spin the way of the traditional RPG. There is a port of Nihon Falcom’s Xanadu Next, but it suffers from the same chronic framerate problems that the other action games do, and considering that Xanadu and Ys rely on their high speed, smooth action to be satisfying, it ends up in the dump. Instead, strategy RPGs and action RPGs from Western developers ruled the roost.

There was of course, one major Western RPG series that made an appearance on the N-Gage, which is The Elder Scrolls Travels: Shadowkey…and after playing it, you’ll wish it hadn’t. Playing Daggerfall suffered two broken legs, Shadowkey sends you around the usual fantasy world, killing enemies, leveling up and completing quests, with basically no worthwhile story or lore, a draw distance that makes the entire world appear to be swallowed in fog and darkness, some of the clunkiest 3D controls on the platform, and relying on the Morrowind soundtrack to try and get any form of sympathy. Skip it harder than Bethesda skips QA.

A handful of more unique titles do exist on the N-Gage, if only any of them were rather notable. Mile High Pinball, a 2D pinball game focused on puzzle rooms, powerups and simple combat, is a neat idea that was roundly trounced by Mario Pinball Land on the GameBoy Advance months before it hit the N-Gage. Operation Shadow, a very simple run-and-shoot things third-person shooter, is almost dead boring to begin with, until they start introducing one-hit-kill enemies and obscure objectives that remove all potential as a casual blast-em-up. (It’s notable for having some of the highest frame rates of a 3D game on the system, mainly because most objects turn into 2D sprites if they’re so much as spitting distance away.)

The most notable name in the SRPG arena is, to my surprise, RedLynx. Yes, the Trials RedLynx. The most notable title from them is High Seize, a pirate-themed take on the Advance Wars kind of strategy with great presentation, land and sea battles, perks, and other neat features that all coalesce really well. It’s a bit tough thanks to units having ammunition and the AI being ruthless, but it’s an impressive effort. They were also responsible for the Pathway to Glory duology, more grounded takes on World War II era strategy, both of which also have great presentation and much more challenging mechanics (everything from line of sight to posture to gun accuracy). It appears to be a crapshoot as to what reviewers preferred Pathway or Seize, but for RedLynx it appears they hit three shots out of three. You’ll still find people commenting about how good these three games were on YouTube to this day. Almost a shame that RedLynx found their footing in the form of Trials

The other major SRPG, from SEGA of all people, definitely has to be Pocket Kingdom. Originally built to be a spiritual successor to Dragon Force, this strategy game revolves around building your armies to protect your kingdoms; units gain XP, you can build equipment for them, and then they go out to fight in battles you can’t interfere with. Notably, this all was available online too with other players, akin to titles like Grand Kingdom. You could lose units, too. It was all (somewhat aggressively) salted with real-world references to leet speak and a plot that admits it’s all just a game. I wasn’t able to get into it, but number crunchers who were willing to go to war back when the servers still existed probably would have had a great time.

There were two ARPGs in the vein of Diablo; Requiem of Hell and The Roots: Gates of Chaos. Both are pretty average in that department, again because both have a bit of over reliance on what the hardware could do, and so aren’t as satisfying to play as your traditional hack and slashers – not helped that both feel relatively generic and don’t try to evolve the gameplay in any meaningful way. There was one notable fighting game…ONE. Yeah, I know, literally named “ONE”. It had some neat features, like being able to swap between three stances during bouts, customizable characters and a story mode, but thanks to the controls being unresponsive enough to make combos not work (and of course, the standard performance problems), it feels like a mess.

Are you starting to see a pattern? Most games that rely on their 3D graphics fall flat due to performance problems and generally uncomfortable controls. Meanwhile, games that stay in two dimensions are usually fine. Even people like Gameloft, who love pushing new systems with shovelware, noticed this early on, with their initial Splinter Cell: Team Stealth Action and Rayman 3 ports being 2D and working generally fine. There was also some ports going on; Sonic N and The King of Fighters Extreme were both GBA ports that worked…okay to bad (although I’m not sure why Sonic N is so straining on the hardware).

Speaking of ports, there are some major ones worth noting. Tomb Raider; an impressive port of the PS1 game, still suffers from the same wack control sluggishness as most of the games here, along with some odd decisions (why on earth does she run even when I’m not holding forward?). It’s noteworthy that they added a sort of head to head time trial mode, which no longer works because N-Gage Arena. There is also Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory, which manages to run even worse than the Nintendo DS version it’s based on, and of course the controls are bad enough to make the game a chore. You’d be better off playing any other version.

But there’s one port that manages to make a big splash, and that is…drumroll please…Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater. Don’t ask me how they managed to pull this one off, folks, but they did. The music is missing, the draw distance is pulled back a little, and it’s nowhere near as smooth as the PS1 version, but it’s still smooth enough. It has all of the characters and levels; the physics are almost identical; it had plenty of multiplayer features; the controls actually didn’t suck, and they even included a few bonus levels from Pro Skater 2. It’s honestly impressive, and I spent more time with it than I expected to. This is the promise they wanted to deliver when they were working on the N-Gage; more like this, and the platform would be much more fondly remembered.

Then again, it really didn’t have much hope to begin with. The N-Gage’s version of Tony Hawk came out in October, 2003. The PSP version of Tony Hawk’s Underground 2: Remix came out a year and a half later on the launch day of the PSP in March of 2005, and the difference between the two is absolutely staggering. It’s no wonder the N-Gage was discontinued later that year; the struggle to launch, the terrible hardware performance, the lackluster library and lack of sales–not to mention being a running joke at the time practically doomed it from the start. (The N-Gage only ever sold 2 million units in two years. The PSP, by the end of 2005, had gone through 10 million.)

It’s a shame, though. As cool as an idea like the N-Gage was, it was a combination of too early and aimed at the wrong market. See, as far back as the N-Gage was released, the Java and Symbian mobile game markets were exploding with quality titles; there are well over 10,000 unique Java games. Nokia, ever the wise man, instead of electing to focus more on a simple device better for playing these games, instead tried to push too hard, too fast, made this damn taco with bad performance they couldn’t upgrade, and left it to die on the pavement. If they had gone more towards a phone with a little more of a push towards the gamer crowd, it might have done way better as a secondary accessory or just a regular phone replacement with a bit more juice (think ASUS ROG Phone or Razer Phone instead of the taco) for when you can’t bring your GBA or PSP. But hindsight is 20/20, I suppose.

My monitor displaying the Dreamcast version of Tony Hawk with my N-Gage in front of it.

I didn’t cover every single title on the N-Gage in this article (there are a couple of turn-based strategy titles, both based on pen-n-paper properties like Warhammer 40k and RIFTS, that I just couldn’t get working to save my life, and a few ports of other franchises that were most likely just okay at best) but I like to think I managed to hit all of the major notable games. And that’s the main problem it had; by the time all the good games were out, the N-Gage was dead in the water. It needed a stronger launch, stronger marketing, a better design for the first generation model that didn’t require you to take the damn batteries out just to swap physical games…

But even after all this time and all the games that I’ve played, I can’t hate the N-Gage. For all of its faults, for all of its laughable qualities, seeing what they were trying to do, seeing some of the developers even succeeding in making this oddball work, and having Nokia been proven thoroughly right in their idea of combining games and smartphones barely half a decade later, makes it impossible to say that they didn’t have an idea, they didn’t try, and that they didn’t at least have some bright spots come from its failure. It’s an interesting failure; those are always the most fun to look at, and imagine what could have been.