N-GAGE(2003-2006): A Retro Review of the "Taco" Gaming Phone of the 2000s

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It has been a while since we had a retro review of the devices of the ‘90s and the 2000s. Today, I feel motivated to go back to the nostalgic days of the Nokia. The days when Nokia was still the top mobile phone company. What strikes my mind is the Nokia N-GAGE gaming mobile.

The early 2000s saw the rise of the mobile smartphones. Different companies came up with unique futuristic designs of their phones with additional features to win the clients. Nokia, being a leader, predicted the growth in the gaming industry. And because of that, they released the N-GAGE, which was a perfect combination of a phone and a gaming device. This device did not sell as much as the standard phones, mostly because of the ergonomics, but I loved the look and it versatility in gaming.

Playing games on the N-Gage was pleasant experience. But honestly, using it as a phone was a little frustrating because the earpiece was located on the side.

N-Gange: The Ultimate Handheld Gaming Phone
The concept of handheld gaming consoles was not new at the time, but the idea of having a phone and a handheld console on one device was novel. This was uniquely Nokia and I would say they really nailed it. Just that the concept really needed some upgrades because of the competing games-only console that did hit the market around the same time.

The N-Gage was not as popular as the Game Boy when it was released. This is because the Game boy had already garnered a huge following by the time of release of the original model of the N-Gage in 2003. I remember we used to call it the taco phone back then because of the strange placement of its earpiece. You would look weird talking on the device. The 2004 upgraded model came with slightly sharper features with a 2.1-inch screen.

Despite being a commercial failure in terms of sales, it is was a very interesting phone that was ahead of its time. For one, Nokia definitely got it right that mobile gaming will be popular. At the time of its released, we would have separate devices for gaming and the phone. This was a bummer to those people who love traveling light. Although the N-Gage came with too many compromises in order to run both the gaming and phone features.
Like other Nokia phones of the late 90’s to early 2000s, the N-gage ran on symbianOS and can be classified as a smartphone and of course it was not extremely powerful by today’s standards. It had a 100 Mhz single core processor that was efficient to playback game.

Another phone that comes to mind is the later Sony PlayStation phone or the Xperia PlayStation phone that was exclusive on Verizon that ran on android and was more powerful but was also not really commercially successful for Sony. They also tried to bridge the gap between a portable console by having better controls and ergonomics for handheld gaming with a smartphone concept.

Anyway, the design of the Nokia N-gage was cool in a nostalgic way. The bumpers came in a number of different colors that you could customize. I used to own a lime green version and later a black bumpered. Surprisingly, you can still buy these phones in their reconditioned form.

Background History of the Nokia N-GAGE Handheld Gaming Phone

Let us dig deep into the detailed background history of the Nostalgic Nokia N-Gage. This device was an awesome must have back then. Nokia introduced the N-Gage in 2002 and went on sale in 2003 as a hybrid smartphone & handheld gaming device.
It ran on Symbian OS v6.1. at that time, most of the Nokia gadget were running on Symbian 60, this made the N-gage superior to the other device and more advanced. N-Gage made an attempt to entice users away from the Game Boy Advance by including a phone feature. Because the buttons were built for a phone, they weren’t well-suited for gaming purposes.

The first N-Gage was dubbed the Taco Phone. I guess because it looked like a taco. In 2004, Nokia released the N-Gage QD, which was supposed to be an upgrade from the original classic model. This was meant to address the faults that were identified from original version. Things did not pan out to the favor of Nokia as the new upgraded model did not receive the much-anticipated reception in the gaming industry let alone the smartphone world at the time. It was still not a match for the Nintendo

Nokia moved its gaming capabilities to certain Series 60 cellphones in 2006, ending production of the N-Gage. The N-gage platform sometimes known as the N-Gage 2.0 was unveiled in 2007 under the N-Gage name.

The Design Concept of the N-Gage

The design concept of the N-gage was quite genius, but I guess the execution and timing was a bit lacking. This device was based on a sound and stable platform that would have existed for many years to come if it was given the necessary upgrades. While the N-Gage was not the top of the line device at the time, it was among the few that offered dual capabilities.

It had a 2.1-inch TFT display in the center, a D-pad on the left, and numerical keys on the right, among other buttons on the N-Gage. The Nokia 5510 cellphone utilized a similar design in the past. Bluetooth or internet was used instead of cords to enable multiplayer gaming function through the N-Gage Arena Service. Play back of Mp3 and real audio files was also supported in the N-Gage.

During the early 200s, gamers began to carry smartphones and handheld game consoles. These gadgets could be combined into on unit by Nokia in the form of the N-Gage. That was the development concept behind the handheld device.

The Evolution of the Nokia N-Gage Handheld Gaming Phone

The original N-Gage was sold at around $299 at that time. It was outsold by the Game Boy Advance by a factor of 100 in 1 in the first few weeks of availability in America. GameStop and Electronic Boutique began giving $100 discounts on the deck’s pricing within 17 days of its release.

In 2004, CEO Jorma Ollila announced that the N-Gage will be allowed till 2005 to be regarded as a success or failure after it had failed to have a significant impression to the gamers. It was later removed from the Chart Track’s ELPSA in 2005 with the company noting that the device was no longer popular.

This was a big blow to the N-Gage’s prospects for success in the gaming world. However, Nokia maintained the N-Gage platform with hopes for release of new upgrades. Later in 2005, Nokia conceded that N-Gage was a failure selling barely a third of what the company had expected. In 2006, it was completely discontinued. Civilization was the last game to be released for N-gage in the United States in 2006. At the same time, Nokia launched Payload as the final game for the device. More than 2 Million N-Gage gaming consoles were sold by Nokia by 2007. As a result of the luckluster first games and the constraints of the original model, the N-Gage brand name had a terrible image in the gaming world and mostly among die hard gamers. At the time of its discontinuation, the N-Gage had over 50 games up its sleeves.

Sales Figure of the Nokia N-Gage

It is unfortunate that the N-Gage didn’t match to the competition at the time. But still was decent gadget that served its purpose for the period that it was in the market. According to several sources, the actual quantity of N-Gage consoles sold is disputed. In two weeks of its released, Nokia claimed that it sold over 400,000 units. For the time being, independent market research Organizations Chart-Track and Acradia Research reported that the N-Gage had not sold more than 5,000 units in the United sates and a dismal 800 units in the United Kingdom.
According to several critics, Nokia was calculating the number of cards supplied to retailers, rather than the number of decks that were actually purchased by customers. Later Nokia confessed that it was really the case. A press release from Nokia announced in 2004 that they had shipped its millionth unit, despite company’s earlier prediction of six million units by the end of the year which was business milestone.

Unfortunately, it is impossible to tell how many units exactly had been sold just on the number of units shipped. By the end of 2007, Nokia had shipped three million N-Gage units. When Pocket Kingdom: Own the World and Pathway to Glory were released, they garnered a number of positive reviews. It is possible that these games didn’t have much of an impact on the public’s view of the N-Gage hardware. It was Nokia’s expectation that at least 6 million unites would be sold in three years’ time instead of the actual 3 million units that were sold.

Different Types of N-Gage Devices Sold

The N-Gage Classic

The original classic N-Gage was a unique device. You had to remove the phone’s plastic cover and battery to access the phone’s gaming slot, which was located right next to it. This was the original taco-shaped handheld gaming phone.

Another problematic characteristic of this phone was the placement of the speaker and microphone on the side edge of the device. This gave it the name Taco phone or side talking as you had to press it harder against your cheek to talk. With an aspect ration of 11:13, it was taller than wide for a phone but unusually wide for a portable game system. During that time, portable game systems had an aspect ration of 4:3.

The N-Gage QD

When Nokia noticed the sales on the original classic version were dwindling, there was need to upgrade to win gamers. The N-Gage QD was a game console and smartphone that was designed to revamp the original N-Gage. It came equipped with Symbian OS v6.1. and was launched in 2004.
The physical design of the N-Gage was reworked, making it smaller and rounder. The gaming slot issues was rectified and placed on the bottom of the devices instead of behind the battery. This was a more convenient cartridge slot that its predecessor.

Also, for the N-Gage QD, the earpiece was moved to the face of the device as opposed to the side as it was the case with the first release. The new model design was very impressive and set the stage for other designers of similar gadgets.

In order to save space and money, some of the previous system's functions, such as MP3 playback, FM radio reception, and USB connectivity, were omitted from the new device. N-Gage USB detachable drive drivers can be replaced with either Bluetooth or an MMC card reader in order to transfer files to the device memory or an MMC card for use in the N-Gage QD. The QD did not support MP3 internally, however third-party software could still play MP3s, albeit only in 16 kHz mono, on the QD.

Additionally, a "Orange-and-grey" theme was applied to the unit's face and the graphical user interface (GUI). This was a departure from the'more colorful' GUI of the original N-Gage, according to some. Even back then, there were several third-party apps that improved or replaced the system shell.
The updated N-Gage no longer supported three GSM frequency bands 900/1800/1900; instead, it came in two dual-band varieties, one for the American market and another for the European and Asian markets.

The only alteration to the device's buttons was the substitution of the previous five-way controller (four ordinal directions and a center "click" or confirm) with a simpler four-way directional controller and a separate "OK" button with a check mark.

Though newer Symbian 7.0s Series 60 2nd Edition cellphones had already been released, the QD was still running the same software version as its predecessor, despite this fact.

Final Thoughts

Despite the fact that the N-Gage was not well received in the gaming world, I still believe it was an awesome gadget and it was way ahead of its time by the early 2000s. I would love to see some company pick the same concept. Especially now with the virtual devices and such, it is a good time to have re-launch such awesome devices.

What is you take about the N-Gage? A

Did you get a chance to play with it back in the days?



Jul 15, 2020
I haven't even heard of this. lol My first mobile phone was a Sony Ericsson. I had that for years!
Many people missed this one. It was not the best of design. It required some more years of research to make it perfect. Plus the Game Boy knocked it out of the game! It could not just match up to the dedicated handheld consoles.