Commentary > Game Over
Nokia's folly
N-Gage might sound great on paper, but it's a disaster in execution.
October 6, 2003: 4:36 PM EDT

NEW YORK (CNN/Money) - On paper, the Nokia N-gage sounds like a wonderful idea. The combination of a mobile gaming device, cell phone, MP3 player and FM radio should be a handy gadget that caters to pretty much everybody.

In reality, though, it fails to deliver on any of its potential. And it may well turn out to be a multi-million dollar blunder for the world's top cell phone maker.

Nokia has a lot pinned on the N-gage's success, as it looks to revive flat cell phone sales and stock prices. (Nokia shares are up just shy of 11 percent year-to-date, compared to a more than 40 percent boost for the Nasdaq.) The company said it expects to sell "several million" N-gage units in 2004, but early reviews haven't been kind -- and the device has absolutely no buzz in gaming circles.

Nokia's N-gage  
Nokia's N-gage

I've had a pair of N-gages in hand for over a month now, testing several games and other features. The experience has been akin to watching a promising child waste his or her potential -- and then ask for an enormous boost in their allowance.

The N-gage will retail for a staggering $299 (versus $99 for the GameBoy Advance). Of course, you also get a high-end cell phone with the purchase but numerous cell phone providers offer free phones with service plans. Even a relatively high-end phone goes for just $150 after rebate.

The screen is vertically oriented, rather than the standard horizontal configuration. Imagine standing your TV on end when playing a video game and you'll get the idea. And while the N-gage does fulfill its promise to offer 3D graphics in a portable device, it hasn't picked anything to truly showcase those graphics. Eidos's "Tomb Raider" -- one of the launch games -- moved sluggishly and seemed overly dark on screen.

Using the N-gage's cell phone is not exactly inconspicuous.  
Using the N-gage's cell phone is not exactly inconspicuous.

Nokia has also touted the N-gage's multiplayer aspect, fueled by Bluetooth communications. It's a nice touch, letting fans play games such as "Tony Hawk's Pro Skater" or "Pandemonium" head to head without having to worry about connecting wires. It was also the device's biggest competitive advantage over the GBA -- at least until late last month, when Nintendo announced an agreement with Motorola to produce an adaptor that would allow up to five GBA owners to compete wirelessly. No U.S. release date has yet been announced, though, giving Nokia the edge for now.

Here's the problem with Bluetooth, though. It's hardly a secure technology -- and turning it off on your N-gage takes a little time and exploration. While you may not keep information any more critical than your address book stored in your cell phone, it's still unnerving to know it can be easily accessed by strangers.

The N-gage's biggest problem is an astonishing design flaw that all but eliminates the machine's functionality as a mobile device. Better put, you can play games on the go -- but should you decide you want to play another game once you're out, good luck.

To play a game (or insert a new memory card with your MP3s), you'll need to

  • turn the N-gage off
  • remove the back cover
  • remove the battery
  • insert the cartridge
  • replace the battery
  • replace the back cover
  • power on the N-gage
  • wait just shy of 30 seconds for the machine to power up
  • load your game

All totaled, it's about a 90 second process. Worse, it's practically impossible to do if you're on some form of public transportation. And because the games are on MMC cards (wafer thin and about one inch long), if you drop one in a crowded environment, recovering it could be tricky. At $30 a game, that's a risky proposition.

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The phone itself is a quality piece of equipment, as you'd probably expect from Nokia. Using it reveals another design flaw, though. While Nokia encourages N-gage owners to use a headset, if you ignore that device and use the phone in a more normal fashion, you have to hold it against your cheek lengthwise. Essentially, it looks like you've had a taco surgically grafted to your head.

The FM radio works great -- as does the MP3 player. The only oddity there is while you can use the N-gage's speakers to listen to your own music, you're forced to use the headset to listen to the radio. Its more a head-scratcher than an annoyance, though.

Game Over
Video Games
Nokia Corporation

Games are the main attraction with the N-gage, though, which is why Nokia is doing most of its advertising in gaming publications. It's curious to note that with less than 24 hours remaining before its launch, the N-gage hasn't launched any sort of national television campaign. It's safe to say that a large percentage of the target market probably doesn't know the N-gage will be available tomorrow.

That's not a good thing when you've got competition that includes Nintendo's dominant GameBoy Advance (which has sold 1.6 million units since March) and Sony's upcoming PSP (which will go on sale in late 2004) -- not to mention the non-mobile, but much cheaper Microsoft (MSFT: Research, Estimates) Xbox and Sony (SNE: Research, Estimates) PlayStation 2.

It's an inauspicious start to the only major platform launch of 2004. While Nokia (NOK: Research, Estimates) knows the elements it needs to introduce a competitive gaming device, it has failed to put those elements into an intuitive and affordable device.  Top of page

Morris is Director of Content Development for CNN/Money. Click here to send him an e-mail.

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