After nearly a year of anticipation, Nintendo finally launched the 3DS in the US yesterday, garnering what we’re sure were blockbuster sales. Not every handheld is so lucky, of course – and in fact, nearly every portable system to try and step to Nintendo since 1989 has ended up stomped into a greasy mudhole by the various Game Boy and DS iterations.
Amid all the twisted wreckage of handhelds past, some stick out a little more noticeably than others. Maybe they were great ideas that never had a chance to grow, or maybe they were terribly misguided, marketing-driven abominations that were doomed from the start. In either case, they were something special, and today we’ll recognize their quixotic efforts to knock Nintendo off its comfortable throne.
Picking on the N-Gage is like picking on an orphan with half a face and no limbs: it’s easy, sure, but life’s already dealt him such a bad hand that anything you do is just going to look like one more idiot jumping on the dogpile. Even so, the N-Gage was such a thoroughly messed-up proposition that to leave it out just wouldn’t be right.
The product of misguided design and marketing, the N-Gage was a game-centric cellphone that, in 2003 at least, was miles ahead of every other phone in terms of graphical capability and controls. Unfortunately, the minds at Nokia didn’t want to pit it against other cell phones – they wanted to unseat the Game Boy Advance, then the dominant force in handheld gaming. On paper, N-Gage certainly seemed up to the task. It was capable of pumping out 3D polygons that the GBA could only hint at, and enabled multiplayer not only locally through Bluetooth, but online as well. And on top of all that, it was a smartphone, capable of functioning as an MP3 player or a PDA.
Above: Also, its early ads demonstrated a clear understanding of gamers and how anyone at all played handheld games, ever
Of course, it Nintendo’s years of handheld dominance have taught us anything, it’s that flashy bells and whistles don’t count for squat against a lower price point and more recognizable games. Besides, anyone who’s actually played an N-Gage can tell you that said bells and whistles weren’t really all that flashy to begin with. Again, N-Gage was impressive next to other phones of the day, but its 3D games suffered from extremely choppy animation, and its cellphone-style buttons felt sticky and unresponsive for gaming, and were laid out so close to each other that pushing several at a time wasn’t uncommon.
Swapping out game cards meant removing the N-Gage’s battery (something that Nokia actually had the gall to defend as being commonplace for European cellphone users), and the screen was tiny and uncomfortably vertical. And its $300 launch price – which didn’t include monthly phone-service fees – was hardly competitive with the $99 GBA SP. Possibly worst of all, the first N-Gage’s design forced users to hold it sideways in order to talk on it, something that felt awkward, looked even more awkward, and eventually spawned the “sidetalkin’” meme, thanks largely to this photo:
The N-Gage’s Oct. 2003 launch was disastrous enough that retailers began chopping $100 off its price just weeks afterward. In May 2004, Nokia shipped a smaller, slightly improved version of the hardware, the N-Gage QD, which sported a less-awkward cartridge slot, a front-mounted microphone and speaker, and a lower price point (about $99) that was subsidized by a service contract.
Above: At least some of the ads were good
Sadly, it didn’t improve the crummy buttons or crummier internal hardware, and while the handheld did eventually get a thimbleful of decent games, they were too little, too late. By the time Nokia ceased production of the N-Gage in 2005 (only to later relaunch it as a short-lived gaming service for smartphones in 2008), about two million of the phones had been sold. Not a great performance overall, but good enough to keep it above the next six handhelds on this list.