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Nokia N-Gage retrospective review - a double-edged cult relic

In our Nokia N-Gage retrospective review, we excavate a mobile gaming artefact, a taco-shaped oddity that dared to dream and stumbled spectacularly.

Custom image for Nokia N-Gage review with the reviewer holding the device in the hands with a thumb on the d-pad

Ah, the early 2000s – a simpler time when dial-up internet serenaded us with its terrifying shrieks and the height of mobile gaming was a pixelated game of Snake on a monochrome screen… I’m really not selling it, am I? Enter the Nokia N-Gage, a taco-shaped mystery device promising to revolutionize the mobile gaming world. Unfortunately, like a mythical creature with no spatial awareness, the N-Gage stumbled its way, rather unspectacularly, into the annals of tech history.

Fast forward to 2024, where I managed to pick up a Nokia N-Gage that looked as if it had been pickling in vinegar since its launch for the princely sum of 15 Great British pounds, or $19 give or take. It was a solid deal, as this oddball piece of tech has become something of a collectible cult classic, beloved by a small but passionate group of enthusiasts, of which I am now part.

Here, we’re diving into this peculiar relic to see how it holds up in the cold, hard light of modernity and a world of high-spec Android phones. Prepare for a nostalgic journey filled with baffling design choices and a few chuckles at the expense of 2003’s boldest handheld experiment. Buckle up.

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Custom image for Nokia N-Gage review showing the loading screen whenturning the device on

Software and features

Contrary to popular belief, the N-Gage wasn’t just about playing Snake or making phone calls at a right angle – it had far loftier aspirations. Arriving in 2003, Nokia bundled this device with Symbian OS, the granddaddy of smartphone operating systems. Symbian was versatile for its time, supporting multitasking and offering a suite of applications ranging from basic productivity tools to multimedia playback. For 2003, this phone had it all. Or at least, almost (stay tuned).

The N-Gage came preloaded with a variety of applications that would make any early 2000s tech enthusiast weak at the knees. There was a calendar app that could sync with your PC (assuming you could figure out how), a contacts manager that could store an impressive 1,000 entries, and even a voice recorder for capturing groundbreaking ideas on the go. Let’s not forget the revolutionary MP3 player—because nothing screams “the future of gaming” quite like listening to low-bitrate Linkin Park tracks on the daily commute.

One of the N-Gage’s most lauded features was its ability to connect to the internet, albeit at GPRS speeds, making it a proto-smartphone in many ways. You could check your email, crawl the web (emphasis on the crawl), and even participate in some online gaming. Yes, multiplayer gaming was a thing on the N-Gage, with titles like Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater and Asphalt offering online features that were a little too far ahead of their time.

Custom image for Nokia N-Gage review showing the reviewer loading a game with hands on the device

This brings us to the N-Gage Arena – Nokia’s attempt at creating a mobile gaming community before it was cool. The N-Gage Arena was a platform where players could compete in tournaments, share high scores, and even chat with fellow N-Gage enthusiasts. It was like Xbox Live (forgive me Nokia), if it ran on a potato powered by hamsters on tiny treadmills. Despite all its limitations, the N-Gage Arena was a pioneering effort in mobile social gaming, paving the way for the massive online mobile gaming communities we see today.

But it wasn’t all roses. The N-Gage’s software often faced criticism for its clunky and unintuitive build. Moreover, installing games was a chore. The games came on MultiMediaCards (MMCs), and you had to remove the battery in order to swap them. This was about as counterintuitive as having to take out your engine just to refuel your car.


Of course, by comparison with today’s tech the Nokia N-Gage has all the raw computing power of the previous generation’s Samsung toaster (don’t quote me on that) or a slightly fizzy lemon left abandoned at the back of your fridge, but that’s beside the point.

Custom image for Nokia N-Gage review showing the open back of the phone where the battery would go

Hardware-wise, the N-Gage was a shining star of its day – no really, I mean it. It featured a 104 MHz ARM processor, which many considered to be quite the beast, and 3.4 MB of internal storage – minuscule by today’s standards but decent for 2003. It also sported a 176 x 208 pixel TFT display capable of showing 4,096 colors. Now, before you scoff, remember that this was an era where the Game Boy Advance was the pinnacle of handheld gaming, which boasted a resolution of 240 x 160 pixels with no backlight.

One of the N-Gage’s hardware highlights was its stereo sound capability. It had two speakers that could pump out surprisingly good audio for its size, enhancing the gaming experience significantly. It also featured Bluetooth 1.1, enabling wireless multiplayer gaming and connectivity with other devices.

The battery life was another aspect where the N-Gage shone. The BL-5C 850 mAh battery provided up to three to four hours of gaming, or around six hours of talk time, which wasn’t bad for its era. However, all this came with some serious drawbacks. The phone’s shape and size were awkward, to say the least, leading to the infamous “side talking” meme where users had to hold the device sideways to make calls, looking rather ridiculous in the process.

Custom image for Nokia N-Gage review showing the phone on its side on a keyboard

Nokia attempted to address some of the hardware criticisms with the release of the N-Gage QD in 2004. This revised model moved the card slot to the bottom of the device (no more battery removal shenanigans) and relocated the speaker to the front face. It also shrunk the device down to a slightly more pocket-friendly 118 x 68 x 22 mm and a weight of 143 grams (a slight increase). However, these improvements were a bit like putting racing stripes on a tortoise – it looked cooler, but it didn’t fundamentally change the game.

Design and display

The design of the Nokia N-Gage is arguably what defined it – both for better and for worse. Shaped more like a taco than a phone, the N-Gage was a clear departure from the sleek, candy-bar designs of Nokia’s more traditional handsets. This was a gaming device first and a phone second, a bold move that Nokia hoped would pay off.

Custom image for Nokia N-Gage review showing the calendar option on the phone

When held horizontally, the device featured a D-pad on the left and a number pad on the right, mimicking a traditional game controller layout. This made playing games relatively intuitive, but the caveat of this decision was using it as a phone became awkward. Not to mention, the five-way navigation key and other buttons were tactile but often criticized for their poor ergonomics.

The button layout was a masterclass in “how many functions can we cram into a single key?” The number keys doubled as game controls, while the five-way navigation key served as both a menu navigator and an action button in games. It was quite like trying to play chess and Twister simultaneously – possible, but not exactly comfortable and you’d be right to question what the host was up to.

Aesthetically, the N-Gage was… different. It was flashy and futuristic, catching the eye of gamers and tech enthusiasts alike, but not always in a positive light. The backlighting and button design screamed “look at me,” which was great for a gaming device but less so for a phone you might want to use discreetly in public. Of course, any hopes of discretion went a full head and shoulders out the window when you answered a phone call, which meant holding the phone up like a taco.

In Nokia’s defense, there was a lesser-known method to the madness with the whole ‘side talking’ debacle. Back in 2003, people were more paranoid about mobile phone radiation, especially when it came to Specific Absorption Rates (SAR) and radiofrequency energy. As phones were getting thinner, those pesky antennas were creeping closer to our brains, probably plotting to steal our thoughts. So, Nokia’s designer Frank Nuovo, came up with ‘side talking’. By making you hold the phone sideways, Nokia was prompting you to angle the antenna further from your head, thus reducing those scary SAR measurements… No comment.

Custom image for Nokia N-Gage review showing the phone loading up a game from Mophun

Oh, and let’s not forget the elephant in the room—or rather, the feature that wasn’t in the room. The N-Gage launched without a camera, at a time when camera phones were becoming all the rage. It was like showing up to a smartphone party in 2024 with a rotary dial and a wind-up calculator. This omission was not well-received, with critics and consumers alike wondering if Nokia had somehow missed the memo on this whole ‘convergence’ thing the brand was supposedly pioneering. But hey, who needs photos when you can have Sonic in your pocket, right?


Well, it wouldn’t be much of an N-Gage deep dive without discussing the games – the make-or-break factor of any gaming device. The Nokia N-Gage had a library that ranged from sublime to outright bizarre. At launch, the selection included titles like Sonic N, a port of the Sega classic, to Tomb Raider, which, while ambitious, didn’t quite capture the magic of its console counterparts.

One of the standout games was Pathway to Glory, a tactical war game that showcased the N-Gage’s capabilities impressively. The graphics were top-notch for a mobile device at the time, and the gameplay was engaging and engrossing. Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater, despite its cumbersome controls, was another highlight, offering a glimpse into what mobile gaming could aspire to be.

Custom image for Nokia N-Gage review showing the phone running Tomb Raider

However, the N-Gage suffered from a lack of third-party support, a common plight among consoles trying to break into the market. While there were around 58 games released for the system in total, many of them felt like watered-down versions of their console and PC counterparts. Games like Red Faction and The Sims: Bustin’ Out were valiant efforts but ultimately limited by hardware constraints. Developers struggled with the small screen size, the limited control scheme, and the general lack of optimization for the device’s unique hardware.

That said, the N-Gage did have some hidden gems. Pocket Kingdom: Own the World was a fascinating blend of RPG and strategy that featured one of the earliest examples of online multiplayer on a handheld device. Similarly, Ashen brought a surprisingly competent first-person shooter experience to the small screen, showing off what the N-Gage could do when developers truly embraced its potential.

The pricing of N-Gage games was another point of contention. At launch, most titles retailed for around $30-40, which was comparable to Game Boy Advance games but significantly more expensive than most mobile phone games of the era. This pricing strategy, combined with the need to purchase specialized MMC cards, made building an N-Gage game library an expensive proposition.

Custom image for Nokia N-Gage review with the reviewer holding the phone while its on the home screen

Despite some smaller hits, the overall game library was inconsistent. Poor controls hampered many of the N-Gage titles, as well as awkward gameplay mechanics, and a lack of innovation. The necessity of swapping out MMC cards by removing the battery also meant that switching games was far from seamless. In the end, while the N-Gage had its share of memorable games, it never quite established a killer game that could draw in a mass audience.


When the N-Gage hit the market in 2003, it was met with a mixture of curiosity, skepticism, and unintentional hilarity. Critics praised its ambition but were quick to point out its flaws. The awkward phone design, the cumbersome game-swapping process, and the high price point (around $299 at launch) were all common and justified points of criticism.

Sales figures were less than stellar. While Nokia had initially projected sales of six million units in the first year, reality hit harder than a Nokia 3310 dropped from orbit. By the end of 2003, the brand had only shipped about 400,000 units, and records suggest actual sales to consumers were even lower. To put this into perspective, the Game Boy Advance had sold over 8 million units in roughly the same timeframe. Ouch.

How does the Nokia N-Gage hold up today?

Looking back from the vantage point of 2024, the Nokia N-Gage is a fascinating relic, a testament to an era when companies were willing to take bold risks and blur the lines between devices. It’s easy to mock the N-Gage for its quirks and failures, but it’s equally important to recognize its innovations and the way it paved the path for the phone you carry with you today.

In today’s world, the N-Gage is a collector’s item, cherished by those who appreciate its unique place in gaming and mobile history. For modern users, however, it’s a tough sell. The hardware and software are outdated, the screen is minuscule by current standards, and the game library, while nostalgic, doesn’t hold up well against today’s more polished mobile games.

Custom image for Nokia N-Gage review with the phone on its side

Interestingly, the N-Gage has also found new life in the world of emulation. Enthusiasts have developed emulators that allow you to play N-Gage games on modern smartphones and PCs, too. This has given a second wind to some of the platform’s more interesting titles, allowing a new generation of gamers to experience these games without wrestling with the original hardware or device.

When we compare the N-Gage to modern smartphones, it’s like comparing a horse-drawn carriage to a Tesla. Today’s phones offer vastly superior processing power, graphics, storage, and connectivity. The average smartphone in 2024 has more computing power than a roomful of N-Gages. And yet, there’s a certain charm in the N-Gage’s clunkiness. Its ambitious attempt to merge gaming and mobile functionality was ahead of its time, foreshadowing the future of smartphones where gaming is a central feature.

So, does the N-Gage hold up today? Not really, if you’re looking for a practical device. But if you’re after a piece of tech history, a symbol of innovation, and the courage to answer a call in public with one, step right up; the N-Gage remains a fascinating and valuable artifact. It reminds us of a time when the future was still up for grabs, and every new device had its chance at shaping the world. For that alone, the N-Gage deserves a tip of the hat and a spot in the annals of gaming lore.

The N-Gage’s legacy represents a double-edged sword. On one side, it represents a commercial failure, a lesson in the dangers of overreaching, and the importance of user-centered design. On the other, it stands as a cult relic, beloved by those who appreciate its daring vision and the significant impact it had on mobile gaming. Don’t ask me where I fall on this scale because I have no idea.

One thing is for certain, without such bold experiments, you could argue that progress would be a whole lot less interesting.

As we look back on the N-Gage from our vantage point in 2024, surrounded by sleek smartphones capable of console-quality gaming, let’s raise a toast to Nokia’s brave little taco phone. It may not have conquered the world, but it certainly turned heads. And in this fast-paced world of tech, sometimes that’s victory enough.

There you have it, our Nokia N-Gage retrospective review. If you want more retro delights, check out our picks for the best retro gaming handhelds, as well as our guides to the best GBA games and the best PS Vita games. Or, if you prefer living in the future, take a browse through our list of the best portable gaming consoles and best gaming phones.