I was there. I was there and I remember. It was 2003 and handheld gaming consisted of exactly one name: Game Boy Advance. If you didn’t have a Game Boy Advance and you were most people, you could play arcade-style diversions on cell phones or your friend’s calculator. If you didn’t have a Game Boy Advance and you knew what newsgroups were, smoked cigarettes and weren’t afraid to order a product from South Korea, you could get the GamePark 32, a glorified emulator box. That was it. That was the handheld market of 2003. That’s what Nokia was getting into.
I worked the late shift at a rural community college and I had a lot of time to kill and I remember. I remember Adam Sessler yelling at us from the French windows of, presumably, his Hollywood Hills mansion: “It looks like a taco!” he’d roar, towering above us on his TechTV bully pulpit. “Like the box lunch of a sickly robot!”
Or something like that.
Those were troublesome waters in 2003. There was simply no precedent for having a major handheld gaming platform with an advertising budget if you weren’t Nintendo. The PSP was still two years off. Backlighting was a brand new invention (frontlighting in the case of the SP), unless you were adventurous enough to install an Afterburner in your Game Boy Advance. And that was a major intrusive operation that required latex gloves and a Dremel Moto-Tool. Suffice to say that innovation took place entirely on Nintendo’s time table.
And here was Nokia, wanting to make a competitive gaming system and a competitive cell phone. The N-Gage was doomed from the first pitch meeting, and when it launched, it was beaten in the town square. An instant joke. A meme. Something to scorn. And its reputation as an internet punchline has outlived it by a good 9 years.
But did the poor N-Gage deserve that? Did it deserve to be humiliated like Tone-Lōc at the end of Blank Check, trapped in a batting cage, assaulted by a child with an endless reserve of baseballs? Well, in retrospect, of course not. It wasn’t all Nokia’s fault. They were trying to do something that nobody had done yet: create a viable gaming-oriented cell phone in a market where innovation seemed futile.
Even in a vacuum though, the N-Gage still failed. It was shockingly unnatural as a phone. You had to hold it on its side to talk, which was such bad design that it became the phone’s only legacy. And it was shockingly unnatural as a game device too. While the form factor was comfortable – it cradled well in your hands and felt like something you could play a game on – there were certain road blocks that made it feel inaccessible.
First there’s the screen. While backlit, which was still something to be quietly thankful for at the time, it was vertically oriented and the size of a stock cell phone screen, probably because of operating system limitations. It took up very little real estate on the system, and that made the whole thing look almost fraudulent, the 2003 equivalent of those fake iPhones sold by street vendors in Asia. It was all wrong the second you laid eyes on it.
Then there were the buttons, which were rock hard and unresponsive. You had to adapt to those buttons, break them in. And even when you did, the peculiar, ambiguous symbols on them were confusing. There was a learning curve just to get around on an N-Gage, which should never happen with a grab-it-and-go gaming system.
The final barrier to entry was the games themselves. You literally had to remove the battery to swap out the game cards. That was the final nail in the coffin. If you have to remove a battery to play a game, you don’t have a consumer-ready product on your hands. You have a prototype. Something that needs 6 months of arduous QA testing and a couple redesigns before you even start thinking about the promotional materials. The N-Gage was a $300 device. This was unacceptable.
Nokia knew it was doomed right away, but they tried to save face by re-launching as fast as possible. Only 9 months after the N-Gage was made available for international ridicule, the N-Gage QD was released. A total redesign. Smaller. Better button layout. Proper cartridge slot. Rubber bumpers. Felt unbreakable too, like you could throw it at a wall for kicks. It fixed most of the issues Nokia had, barring the screen, which it was too late to go back on.
But it was already too late, of course. The brand was a pariah. And that’s when I got interested. The N-Gage QD was dirt cheap, dead in the water and doomed. I have a soft spot for doomed gaming devices. Some developers must have put their heart and soul into a project for that system, and who was gonna find out? The narrative had already been sealed, side talking taco, and there was no room for errant good software in that narrative.
Besides, I was in the exact market they wanted. I was night shift at that community college. I spent enormous amounts of time sitting down in empty unloving halls and portable buildings. It was time to get a cell phone and I needed some escapism at the same time, so why not kill two birds with one stone? The price was right anyway, and nobody was gonna pass me by and make fun of me for owning it, which was a legitimate concern.
It was a bit intimidating, which I liked. The N-Gage QD was possibly the last of those wayward gaming systems before iPhones, social media, touch pads, and console-quality graphics. It had strange games with boxes that didn’t jump out at you or pander to you, unmarketable games with unrevealing titles. It’s a bit reminiscent of the CD-i: such an interesting failure that its few games take on the allure of being lost artifacts. They were meant to be played at one time, but good luck finding another person who’s been there and come back.
So figuring out what games were fun was the equivalent of record collector crate digging: you had to buy games that weren’t seriously engaged by reviewers, and you had to do it based on aesthetic hunches. You had to look at low-resolution screenshots and guess if the console ports were competent. And that made owning it exciting in a low-key way. You had to work to enjoy it, and there’s a strange sense of accomplishment in making a product fun through tyranny of will. You feel better than those other, weaker consumers.
And what if the best handheld game ever made was released on the N-Gage? Who would even tell you? Nobody was paying attention anymore. It could be your secret. Like finding a PSP with the right motherboard for firmware downgrades (TA-081, and boy do I wish I didn’t remember that).
That didn’t happen, of course. Somebody would have found out. There were only 58 games on the thing. At least one collector would have made the discovery and alerted his message board to it. But there were two games that stood out, at least to me.
The first was Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory. It wasn’t innovative, but it was the game that delivered on the promise of the N-Gage hardware: it was a faithful scaling down of a console game, full stop. Well-rendered, sophisticated 3D stealth-action, which the Game Boy Advance could never do. For about a year, the N-Gage was the only handheld capable of delivering that experience.
The other was Ashen, an unsung victory from Torus Games. This is the only reason to get a secondhand N-Gage. Most people probably know Torus as a prolific developer of licensed games, usually licenses nobody else would touch, like Scooby Doo or Gumby. But for awhile they had a great niche: they were a wildly overachieving developer of handheld first-person shooters. They made Duke Nukem Advance and Ice Nine for the Game Boy Advance, and both made you completely reevaluate the capabilities of the system.
And Ashen was their classic. It was one of those first-person shooters that’s not quite a horror game, so you call it a supernatural thriller. It was moody and desolate. The art direction was beyond inspired – it took place in the haunted ruins of some European city. Bloody sunsets, strong and dynamic contrast between light and shadow, the ethereal haze of magic hour. The ambiance of that game is so effective and fully realized that you can have fun just being in its world, walking around, without even shooting anything.
Ashen stands out all the more because it was a great game on a system that seemed incapable of delivering one. It’s the saving grace of a gaming system made by people who didn’t play games but knew the marketplace was ready for cell phones to start wildly innovating. The N-Gage showed up too rough, and too early, but somebody had to do it, and it’s a fun reminder of the days before the ubiquity of smart phones. It makes you appreciate how far the industry has come.