Just before the DS and the PSP were launched, I remember having a debate with an old friend from the technology press as to whether or not the handheld games machine had had its day. He felt that, given the ubiquity of the mobile phone and the growing power of the hardware, there simply wasn't any need for handheld consoles. I felt that specialist devices still did the job better, not least because the hardware was designed specifically for playing games, and because the manufacturers had a better idea of what games were and how they worked.
Nokia's original N-gage concept could have been created to back up my point. Who can forget the original N-gage handset - the notorious Cornish pasty-like device that was a horrid mobile phone and an even worse games system. The QD redesign was an improvement, but despite a few successes - the war game Pathway to Glory, the MMO Pocket Kingdom - the system ended up as a bit of a joke. Mobile games have grown in popularity, particularly budget-priced casual games and licensed titles, but given the huge success of the DS and, to a lesser extent, the PSP, it seems that a dedicated device is still the best bet for gamers.
Now, however, Nokia has come back for a second crack at the market. N-gage 2.0 is a very different beast from version 1. Instead of a dedicated, cartridge-based device, we get a combination of applications and online services that runs on several Nokia handsets, including the N81, N82, N73, N95 and N93 series phones. The theory is that this strategy will give Nokia a foothold in the games market and gamers a good reason to opt for a Nokia handset, without forcing anyone to go for some peculiar specialist gaming handset just because they want to join in.
I fancied giving this new approach a chance, and Nokia was kind enough to lend me an N81 8GB mobile phone. This particular handset has become a favourite with mobile gaming enthusiasts, even if our Sandra wasn't quite so impressed. It has built-in Wi-Fi and Bluetooth and a lovely 2.4in 320 x 240 resolution, 16.7 million colour screen, and for gaming purposes you can opt to use it in either horizontal or vertical positions.
With the phone held horizontally the phone's main control pad becomes a digital d-pad while two hidden buttons on the other side of the screen come into play. It's a good way of making a phone feel like a gaming device without stopping it from feeling like a phone, though it has to be said that the d-pad is a bit clunky under the thumb, and it never feels as natural as Sony's classic d-pad or analogue nub. On the plus side, the handset packs some pretty good speakers for a mobile phone. You'll want headphones if you want to avoid annoying your fellow commuters, but if you're lounging around on the sofa at home you'll find the sound quality at low volume levels pleasant enough.