Several months ago, mobile phone giant Nokia slipped out something of a bombshell when it announced its new range of phones for 2003. Nestled among the various futuristic looking handsets was one that looked radically different from the rest of its kin; a peculiar little device called N-Gage which was clearly designed from the ground up as a merging of mobile phone and handheld games console. Nokia had officially declared war on Nintendo - game on.
Big N vs. Bigger N
Fast forward to the present and it's finally time for Nokia to show the world how it plans to take on the company that has ruled handheld gaming without any serious challengers for over a decade. Few people expect Nokia to actually beat Nintendo at its own game - for a start, Nokia doesn't sell phones at all in Nintendo's heartland, Japan - but if N-Gage can't make a decent showing, it may put a question mark over the entire future of the mobile phone gaming sector, which many operators and content companies are currently betting the farm on. There are a lot of eggs in this basket.
With this no doubt in mind, Nokia arranged one of the flashiest launches possible for the device, gathering journalists from all across the media in a plush riverboat on the Thames in London for a press conference before letting them loose on the N-Gage hardware and games in the rotating cabins of the massive London Eye ferris wheel. Obviously keen to see how the device stacks up against the GBA - and perhaps more importantly, the soon to be released and significantly sleeker GBA SP - we went along to put the new machine through its paces.
First, the essentials
Actually, much as we'd love to bring you up to date on the essentials, we can't - because Nokia had precious little to offer in terms of hard facts about the launch of the system. What we do know is that it's still almost nine months off; the company plans to ship it in time for Christmas in all GSM-enabled areas around the world, significantly later than most of us had expected. As for price, the company completely refused to be drawn on that thorny issue, stating only that the price of the games would be competitive with existing software. It was even more elusive over hardware pricing, saying only that the system would cost less than 500 euro (it would bloody well want to!) but making ominous references to Nokia's corporate policy of never subsidising its hardware.
This is a bad start. The games industry works on the basis of a "razors and razorblades" business model, where companies sell consoles at a loss on the basis that they'll make the cash back from sales of first-party software and licensing fees on third-party software. Nokia seems to want to ignore this model by charging the consumer full price for the console - which will make N-Gage attractive to publishers by removing the license fee, but will equally make it hugely unattractive to consumers because the basic cost of the thing may be as over twice the price of a full-power home console like the Xbox or PS2.
But what about the hardware itself? First impressions count, and N-Gage is certainly a desirable piece of kit. It's very obvious that this is a slice of technology designed by a company which has vast experience of creating consumer electronics that consumers really want; the unit is sleek, shiny, bristling with light-up buttons and sculpted with smooth metallic curves. It's surprisingly small and feels very light in your hand, and on the whole it makes the GBA look like a heavy, blocky lump of plastic.
The screen - which has a strange aspect ratio, taller vertically than it is wide (perfect for arcade vertical shooters!) is brightly backlit and colourful, although it's got a very poor viewing angle - you have to be looking at it head-on to be able to make out any details. Nokia has also shoved in some other desirable features - the phone has a built in speakerphone, an FM radio and an MP3 player, as well as some basic web browsing and email functions which will be familiar to anyone who owns another Nokia Series 60 mobile.
Equally, however, it's painfully apparent that this is a unit designed by a company with precisely zero experience of building game systems. For a start, the number of buttons on the front of the unit is ludicrous, and it's extremely easy to brush the wrong button while playing a game and find that you've inadvertently managed to quit out or bring up a pause menu; but despite the millions of fascia buttons, Nokia hasn't seen fit to include any shoulder buttons. Doh!
It gets worse, too; games are distributed on postage-stamp sized MMC memory cards, which is a bad choice in itself as MMC memory is flimsy and expensive (expect to have to store your games in plastic cases for protection outside the unit, a far cry from the near-indestructible robustness of GBA cartridges), but worse again than this is the fact that the act of slipping in a new game involves removing the back of the unit, taking out the battery and sliding the game home into a SIM card style slot. This, needless to say, is a stunningly bad piece of design and the need to juggle about five separate bits of kit in order to play a new game isn't going to win the unit any fans.
Content Is King
Obviously, a game platform isn't much without some games (however difficult they may be to actually put into the console), and Nokia is promising a lot on the software front. Obviously the N-Gage has capabilities other platforms don't - it's capable of playing local multiplayer games over wireless Bluetooth links, and more wide-ranging multiplayer options are available over GPRS or GSM mobile networks. The system also has 3D capabilities, something other mobile platforms lack - although Nokia's claim that it is on a par with current consoles is rather a long way off the mark.
The company is obviously keen to encourage the development of new content for the device, and as well as the obvious tactic of developing first party games and signing up big name publishers - Sega, Taito, Activision, THQ and Eidos have all committed their support to the platform already - Nokia is attempting to engage (sorry) the wider development community as well by offering a free SDK and development support for the platform on its developer website, Forum Nokia.
One serious concern here is that by providing a free SDK and giving the ability to develop for the console to all and sundry, Nokia will open up the device to all manner of rubbish software. Existing consoles have basic quality checks in the form of TRCs (Technical Requirements Checklists) which ensure that buggy games or games which can crash or damage your hardware don't get released; the N-Gage appears to lack this, providing instead an open platform which could be susceptible to viruses, malicious programs or - more likely - downright badly written games.
Start me up
Like most other actually tricky details, Nokia refused to be drawn on what software will be available for launch - the hardest facts they'd offer being that there would be "as much as possible" and that the quantity would be "sufficient". Thanks, guys! However, Sega has pledged a Sonic title (Sonic N, which appears to be a remake of old Sonic 2D games) for the launch, Eidos is promising a port of Tomb Raider, and THQ will release a version of Moto GP for the console with online multiplayer abilities.
In terms of the software we actually got a chance to play with, there were early versions of Sonic, Tomb Raider, Super Monkey Ball and a simplistic multiplayer title called Kart Racer on offer. Of the games, Sonic is certainly the most polished at this early stage, and its 2D gameplay remains as addictive as ever - but realistically, this is no way to sell a brand new console, even if Sonic Advance does continue to be one of the GBA's biggest sellers, and it's hardly a demonstration of the allegedly awesome power of the N-Gage.
Eidos' Tomb Raider is obviously a port of the PocketPC version of Tomb Raider which surfaced some time ago, and although it's certainly impressive to see the PlayStation-era graphics on a handheld device, the framerate of the game is currently terrible and the strange aspect ratio of the screen makes it quite difficult to see what you're doing - it's like a bad case of tunnel vision. However, it does prove that on a technical level, the N-Gage is capable of giving the GBA quite a kicking; however, as Nintendo know only too well, the most technologically advanced product isn't always the one that consumers go for.
Super Monkey Ball appeared to be in early alpha, and was a poor choice of title to show to the press, since the current code is significantly inferior to Super Monkey Ball Junior on the GBA - with framerates in single figures on even some quite simple levels. It's certainly nice that the N-Gage will have a port of the game, and the prospect of downloadable extra levels for it is a superb one, but for now, the title seemed to be showing off little more than the disappointing 3D performance of the unit.
The final title on display, Kart Racer, was graphically as simple as they come - a pseudo-3D racing game in the style of Burnin' Rubber. The key feature, however, was Bluetooth multiplayer - and what can we say, it works. You start a game, the other player joins, and you race against each other. The prospect of wireless multiplayer gaming is certainly an attractive one - and Bluetooth is an infinitely better solution to this problem than infra-red is - but it'll be up to the developers to create compelling content that uses the feature. Worryingly, the main thing we can think of people wanting to use this feature for is, er, Pokemon.
In summary, we're a bit underwhelmed by Nokia's effort. The company seems to be making some basic and potentially fatal mistakes, both with its hardware and with its business model, and the existing software for the device - even taking into account that it's in a pre-Alpha state - isn't shockingly impressive. Super Monkey Ball and Tomb Raider would probably be more stunning if they weren't already available in handheld form on the GBA and PocketPC respectively.
Nokia promises that more software will be shown and more publisher deals announced over the coming months, and we certainly hope that these new announcements will pique our interest. Most importantly of all, though, we want to see pricing details. The company's reticence when talking about price, and its schizophrenic approach to whether the device will be priced like a games platform (cheap, subsidised by the manufacturer, paid for by software licensing) or like a mobile phone (bloody expensive unless a network subsidises it and pays for it by signing you up to an annual tariff) makes us worry very deeply that Nokia will price itself out of the market completely.
Either way, there'll be a new handheld console available to buy at your local videogame store or mobile phone shop next Christmas, and it's fairly certain to be a hot toy for the festive season. Whether it'll ever be anything more than a curiosity, and whether it'll meet Nokia's vague sales target of "many millions of units", is entirely down to what Nokia do with it between now and October.