Saturday, 21 January 2017

Hold on again, I bought two of those!!!

Following on from the Tapwave Zodiac post the other week, it got me thinking about what was possibly my favourite piece of multi-purpose tech from the noughties - the Nokia N-Gage.

Now hold on there before you get pitchforks and flaming torches, hear me out. This was an attempt by the then biggest mobile phone manufacturer to combine said mobile phone tech with a games console, something that still alludes to this day (I am not counting smartphone gaming as  unless the rely upon simple touchscreen/gyro controls, actually playing them is a chore. I believe that physical controls trounce those options pretty much all of the time).

So what was it like? Well, Nokia took their then successful Series 60 software platform and stuck it in this:

The Nokia N-Gage - aka The Taco phone

Now I will be the first to admit that they compromised massively on the design, indeed, one of the key failures was the controls themselves, a phone keypad rather than gaming controller. It actually challenges the Atari Jaguar pad as worst design ever. Still, at the time, it was quite a piece of tech and yes, I bought one on launch day with a copy of Tomb Raider and I loved it. For a while...

Amongst the other compromises brought along on the phone side was the screen, a very (phone sensible) 11:13 ratio vertically orientated display. However, most gaming devices at the time followed the 4:3 ratio that copied televisions of the age. This was awkward and compromised the aesthetics of most of the titles. Another was the game card slot. This was inside, with no access externally. This meant that to change titles, you had to strip the battery out and re-boot the device. To be fair to Nokia, they did improve on a few things with the N-Gage QD but I'll get to that in a moment.

Despite the frankly obvious negatives above, I loved the machine. It allowed me to carry one device instead of several and even if you did look like a complete tool using it for a phone call, it ticked a lot of the boxes for me. Even the battery life wasn't too bad and it took a standard Nokia battery at the time so carrying a pre-charged replacement was easy enough. Plus pretty much everyone had a Nokia charger lying about.

Having said that, a quick check on YouTube shows that time is a harsh mistress and the titles that I remember playing and enjoying have not aged well, either by the technical abilities of the machine or that god-awful screen ratio. I ended up with about ten titles for the N-Gage over the two years I used it and it's follow up, the QD. Alongside Tomb Raider, there were Sonic N, Pandemonium, Super Monkey Ball and Call of Duty that stand out. Not necessarily for the right reasons, but I remember them well.

As per the market at the time, once the 12 month contract was over, I upgraded to the QD, a softer, more sensible re-design that slightly improved the controls, moved the speaker and mic so that you could hold the phone normally and placed the game card slot on the edge of the device. I sold the original which payed for the first five months of the new contract and held onto the QD for pretty much the rest of the following year. It was only when the software releases practically stopped that I turned my attention to newer devices and sold the QD and games off. As a collector, I wish I hadn't done that, but then YouTube is enough to remind me of the games and it's one less thing to clutter the house up.

The N-Gage QD - what the original should have been...

The N-Gage was a bold move by Nokia into the territory then (as now) dominated by Nintendo. That it didn't work, I put down to how the device was sold (this was long before children were given mobile phones as almost a human right - that's a discussion for a much later time) so unless you had deep pockets, a contract was the only way forward, the compromises brought about by trying to be master of all trades and the sheer strength of the competition. It also displayed the first cracks in Nokia's dominance of the mobile market. It failed and it failed badly. The coming of touchscreen smart devices would prove to be an even greater challenge.

The N-Gage was a technological dead end at the time, given that the hardware was probably too underpowered for gaming and the mobile networks were nowhere near capable of supporting the feature rich software we take for granted now, though the time of portable gaming and mobile phone synergy (minus physical controls) was only a few years away the form of Android and iOS devices. Am I please I owned two? Yes, as I said with the Tapwave post, they fitted a need that I had at the time. I do not consider the money spent a waste (what with selling the devices and games on, as well as having the phone contract which I would have had anyway). Would I seek out the hardware again for the sake of familiarising myself with it? No, that ship has sailed, and the rose tinted spectacles can do very strange things.


  1. One of the things I notice about your "older Tech post" is how quickly all this stuff became redundant but how no-one could see this at the time(Well perhaps the producers did but they sold you the crap anyway so they could keep their little house in Mustique or wherever- or am I being a tad cynical? Not that foisting crap on Joe Public is just for the tech freaks but perhaps it is a little more obvious in that arena simply because it all moves so fast. That was then- this is now, mostly makes me rather pleased I never bothered in the first place.

  2. I can't say I disagree with you. At the time I was working in the mobile phone industry and it seemed that the main driver was the annual contract cycle. That changed slightly with the move to 18 month and 2 year contracts, and it's fairly safe to say that the majority of tech from two years ago is perfectly serviceable now, barring battery tech which has a finite lifespan anyway.
    I have become less enamoured with tech as I have gotten older, now it's more a case of does it work and will it keep working, rather than "Ohhh, shiny tech!". That said, I still watch with interest to see if anything truly game changing is around the corner, but not to the degree of a decade ago.