In the early 2000s, handheld gaming was king. And with the rise of cell phones, a small handful of companies set out to make phones specifically for gaming. The idea was a pretty spectacular failure, but for a brief moment in time, the race to make the first and best gaming phone was on.
Probably the most memorable of these failed gaming phones is Nokia’s infamous, N-Gage. It was released in 2003 and was immediately a critical and commercial failure. TV ads famously avoided showing gameplay and the few titles that ran well on the device looked pretty bad.
A technological mess from top to bottom, almost every aspect of the N-Gage’s design was somehow a major setback. The device was bulky and plasticky even for the time, people referred to it as the “Taco Phone” due to its characteristically taco-esque shape.
To insert a game you had to power down the device, remove the plastic cover and take out the battery. And then there was the “phone” part. Because the mic and the speaker were on the same side, the phone had to be awkwardly held sideways against the user’s head.
The N-Gage featured radio, mp3 playback, and multiplayer support but did none of it well, while still retailing at $300. After a few years of fudging sales numbers, Nokia finally admitted that the N-Gage was a failure. It was a rough first outing for gaming phones, but it wouldn’t be the last.
Let’s jump forward 2011 when Sony made their move on the gaming phones market. Sony was in an interesting position and had the potential to actually make a proper gaming phone. They boasted the best-selling console of all time in the PlayStation 2 and considering the success of the PSP, they thought they pretty well understood mobile gaming.
The result was the Sony Xperia Play. Fans were cautiously optimistic, but right off the bat the name was an issue. Sone made a huge mistake by not using their extremely well known PlayStation brand. A “PlayStation phone” certainly turns more heads than “Xperia Play.”
With a slide-out gamepad, including soft touch analog sticks, the device was expected to elevate mobile gaming. Instead, it was little more than a distraction. Controls were clunky and the game library was unable to compete with the still-blossoming iOS App Store.
With a lack of quality games to play and limited continued support for the device, Xperia users left with just an Android phone.
With these two notable failures looming, other companies started to take the hint that maybe the gaming phone market wasn’t worth cracking. Nintendo actually started R&D on their own gaming phone that would’ve predated both the N-Gage and Xperia Play by years.
Some of their early patent design date back to 2001, when handheld gaming was in its infancy and before we had any idea what a smartphone would even look like. Unfortunately, the gaming phone was a demand that was never well met, and by the time technology caught up enough to provide a good one, the rest of the world had already moved on.