Dis N-Gage

 Q: I've been a faithful Nintendo Game Boy customer since the days of monochromatic Tetris. But I've gotta say, those ads for the new Nokia N-Gage have me intrigued. Is it worth considering a switch, or should I remain true blue to the House That Mario Built?

Though Mr. Roboto's always reluctant to speak ill of our Finnish friends, it's clear that Nokia's entrant in the portable gaming market ain't yet up to snuff. The N-Gage has this whole Swiss Army vibe going on, since it also works as a cell phone, an FM radio, and an MP3 player. But for the price, heck, the thing ought to divine gold deposits too. You never know, though—maybe by the time Sony's on-the-go gizmo debuts next year, some of the kinks will be worked out. Maybe.

Pretty much every reviewer has described the N-Gage's shape as akin to a taco, and Mr. Roboto concurs. The screen resolution's as sharp as can be, but the screen's a tad smaller than what the Game Boy Advance SP boasts. It only displays 4,096 colors, a mere eighth of what you'd get with the Game Boy, but you probably won't notice too much of a difference. As for the controls, the octo-directional digital joystick takes some getting used to, but it's no insurmountable hurdle. Mr. Roboto gave an N-Gage version of Tomb Raider a whirl and had a grand old time—though he wishes the so-far paltry game library (about 20 titles at present) included some original bits, rather than retreads from the console world.

illustration: Insu Lee

By far the most annoying thing about N-Gage is the game-swapping process. The Nokia folks didn't opt for a click-in, click-out slot, but instead nestled the drive behind the battery. So if you want to switch, you've got to remove the back, pop out the battery, and then shuffle the games, which are stored on thumbnail-sized multimedia chips (MMCs). It's not neurosurgery, but it's definitely way more of a pain than it should be.

The other major drawback is price. The N-Gage lists at $299, though a few retailers are offering a $199 holiday special that throws a couple of games into the mix. That's not a total bank breaker, but it's still $100 more than a Game Boy Advance SP. Nokia hopes the non-gaming functions can coax you into their cellular fold, but that means dropping even more coin. T-Mobile and AT&T Wireless charge roughly $25 to get the phone service going, and you've got to invest another $50 in a blank MMC memory card to get the MP3s cranking.

There are some nice touches to the N-Gage, starting with Bluetooth capability, which lets you battle other users sans wires—though they'll have to be within 30 feet. And Mr. Roboto's happy to report that fellow Scandinavians Opera (opera.com) have rejiggered their alternative Web browser for the N-Gage, which guarantees a happy mobile surfing experience. Perhaps if the next generation can solve the game-swapping and pricing issues, the N-Gage has a shot.

But can it weather the rough early days? Though Nokia says it sold about 400,000 units worldwide in October alone, Wireless Data News says "bollocks"—the industry insider did its own little survey in November, and guesstimated that only 5,000 of the decks had moved off American shelves. (The higher figure is probably retail orders, not actual sales to customers.) Plus, there was this big to-do where hackers cracked the early games and posted them on the Internet so folks could port them to other handsets. Not exactly the type of development that inspires confidence among game designers, who desperately need to get on board and beef up the N-Gage library.

If the N-Gage does survive until the end of 2004, it'll likely face some stiff competition from Sony. The PlayStation maker is preparing to release its own Game Boy rival, the PSP, which it's already billing as the "21st-century Walkman." Gaming bible gamespot.com recently listed the preliminary specs, and they're juicy indeed—two 32-bit processors with PS2-like clock speeds, Wi-Fi compatibility that'll let you game against rivals up to 100 meters away, and 3-D sound. Oh, and it'll run universal media discs that can store up to two hours of DVD-quality movies. Pretty sick, geek-wise, and sure to be on the Xmas lists of many of 2004's best-behaved girls and boys. Well-behaved robots too.


Input questions at bkoerner@villagevoice.com.

 
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