Game plan


Issue: "California's wall of fire," Nov. 8, 2003

Nokia wants to revolutionize electronic gaming with a handheld device called the N-Gage. It's the Swiss Army Knife of portable gadgetry, but it could also be the Edsel of the video-game industry.

The $299 gadget is a combination gaming deck and cell phone that includes MP3 playback and an FM radio. Wireless game play is the boldest feature, letting two players go head-to-head from any location. The gizmo is shaped like a taco and weighs about five ounces.

Right now, the N-Gage only works with wireless services that use the GSM standard, which dominates Europe but is less popular in the United States. But T-Mobile and AT&T Wireless have agreed to offer the N-Gage in America. Its biggest competitor is Nintendo's Game Boy brand, which has cornered the gaming market on handhelds for years.

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So far American gamer response has been lukewarm, blaming an awkward design that makes the gaming/phone combination difficult. Another problem is that users must remove the battery when changing game cartridges. The biggest issue may be money. N-Gage's $299 suggested retail price is three times that of Nintendo's GameCube, a full-size console that plugs into a TV.

The N-Gage may be a step ahead of its time. The idea of combining numerous gadgets into one is attractive, and if Nokia can't make the concept work, someone else probably will.


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