It's time to dis N-Gage

Device: An updated version of Nokia's handheld game system/cell phone is a step in the right direction, but it still comes with fatal flaws.

July 08, 2004|By Victor Godinez | Victor Godinez,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

Give Nokia points for persistence.

The company's N-Gage handheld game system/cell phone was a fantastic flop when it debuted last year, thanks mostly to incredibly bad ergonomic design.

The taco-shaped device had to be held sideways against your face, rather than flat, a look so embarrassing it gave rise to a Web site - www.sidetalking.com - dedicated to mocking the look.

In addition, you had to turn the phone off and remove the battery to insert a new game cartridge, a process so absurd that it's hard to believe Nokia implemented it.

Finally, the vertically oriented screen, while suitable for scrolling though contact lists or calendar items, was jarring for gamers used to square or wide screens.

Well, Nokia has managed to fix two out of those three blunders with its N-Gage QD (www.n-gage.com/qd), scheduled for U.S. release July 27.

I got to play with a QD handset recently, and although Nokia has fixed the worst failures of the original N-Gage, the QD still isn't ready for prime time.

First off, no more sidetalkin'. You can hold the QD - smaller and more stylish than the original N-Gage - flat against your cheek like a regular phone, so you won't be ashamed to answer a call.

Second, there's a separate cartridge slot, and you can swap cartridges while the phone is on, although the rubber flap over the slot is tough to peel back.

Technologically, the QD is identical to its predecessor, and unfortunately, that includes the screen.

The small vertical screen probably had to be preserved to keep the original N-Gage games compatible with the QD, but it should have been junked. Side-scrolling games such as "Spider-Man 2" and "Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell" need that extra space on the sides to display the game action. Nokia seems to be trying to get around that problem by making more of its games first-person shooters or racing games with 3D graphics that don't require a specific screen orientation. But the QD screen is so small that the impressive 3D graphics are extremely hard to see.

A cell phone mated with an expansive widescreen such as the one on Zodiac's Tapwave handheld - or, more to the point, Sony's upcoming PSP - would be ideal, but Nokia would have to admit defeat and start from scratch.

A more puzzling flaw is the lack of a mini-joystick, such as the one on Nokia's high-end 6600 phone.

With a control pad on the left of the screen and a mini-joystick on the right, controlling first-person games would be easier, because you could use one controller to move and the other to look around. In pricing, the QD ($199 without a cellular contract and $99 with a contract) is more affordable than the original ($299).

The QD is a step in a right direction, and if Nokia had introduced this as its first-generation N-Gage system, it might have had a shot at winning over cynical gamers. But the ridicule associated with the original N-Gage, and the less egregious flaws in the QD, will likely doom this platform.

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