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Editorial: Last Rites For The N-Gage

The demise, or rather, the ongoing demise of the Nokia N-Gage is something that needs to be discussed. Yes, the N-Gage. That handheld video game system and cell phone conglomeration. The one where, if you were playing it, you’d probably get laughed at. And then kicked in the groin. The N-Gage is the standard bearer of “what not to do when making a handheld video game system”. So, why bother talkingbout the system in the first place, if it’s such a dismal failure?

It should be talked about becuase the N-Gage shouldn’t have been a dismal failure. Yes, there were many mistakes. And technically, the system’s still out there. Nokia proved how much of a neophyte it was in the video game industry. Yet Nokia got a lot of things right with the system, which Sony should take to heart in regards to their PSP.

To start off, there were problems with the system’s initial design. The first version of the N-Gage was a “taco phone”. That meant that it looked, literally, like a taco,. You had to hold it to your ear in such a way that the phone was basically facing away from you. It was pretty damn cheesy. In order to play the games, you had to switch out drives in the back of the phone- and this was really tedious, and redundant. Nokia tried to tie their cell phone service into the functionality of the video game side of it. That meant that frequently, in order to play games, you’d have to go onto their wi-fi service…..and pay their fees.

So Nokia was saddled with a handheld that had a lot of problems in attracting customers. They then did the smart thing: they redesigned it. Now people often argue that making redesigns is a bad idea. I don’t think so. Nintendo’s done it regularly with their handhelds, and Sony’s going to do that with their PSP as well. It’s just the nature of the market. Their N-Gage redesign fixed a lot of the flaws in their initial version. It was no longer was a taco phone, it looked better, had an improved interface, and you no longer needed to swap out drives. The screen was still considered to be a bit small, but they would maximize its potential. Despite their massive improvements on the N-Gage, it was probably too little too late for the system. It had already gained a reputation as something of a joke.

For those who did get the new N-Gage, it actually had a nice lineup of games. Pathway to Glory, Ghost Recon: Jungle Storm, Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory, King of Fighters: Extreme, X-Men: Legends, Pocket Kingdom, High Seize, and Glimmerati were all top-notch. And honestly, they’re better than virtually anything on the PSP. These titles had great graphics, controls, and interfaces. Some of them (notably Splinter Cell, Pocket Kingdom, and Pathway to Glory) were even great multiplayer additions. The N-Gage’s graphical interface was much easier for developers to make games for than they were and are able to for the PSP, and its graphics were better than the DS’s. Nokia has had great third party support throughout the system's lifespan. They've consistently put out good games.

Yet it failed in spite of having great titles. Nokia still had a chance to succeed with their revamped version, but that didn’t happen because unless you literally were standing next to their lineup of games, you would never know that 90% of them existed. Nokia never got on the ball with their advertising. Their initial ads were interesting, but rarely told you anything about the system, or the games for it. After they did their revamp, there was barely any media push from Nokia or any of the third party developers. Thus, very few knew what the N-Gage truly had to offer. To be fair, the PSP and the DS were coming out at around the same time, and frankly, both Sony and Nintendo have larger marketing budgets than Nokia ever could. Whatever the excuse, Nokia needed to spend money in order to attract consumers, sort of like the way successful sports franchises work. If you spend money, more often than not, the fans will come. It’s practically the Yankees’ economic model, and I don’t think Sony and Nintendo would disagree with it, either.

In the end, Nokia had some great gems on their N-Gage, but they ultimately failed to truly understand the video game market. They never understood what it takes to succeed, and how to spend their money properly. From the very beginning, poor designs and a faulty marketing campaign hampered them. They never recovered.

In order to make great games and systems, developers and publishers need to learn from the failures that are out there. The N-Gage is a pretty good example of what not to do. Yet, it's hard not to root for the underdog. This one had too much going for it to meet such an untimely death. Hopefully, some of these games will find new homes down the line (especially Pocket Kingdom and Pathway of Glory), since they’re just too good to die. And maybe one day, we’ll see another handheld system able to challenge the juggernauts of Sony and Nintendo.