Who will win the handheld gaming wars?

commentary Nintendo has sold millions of Game Boy Advance systems. But now Sony, Nokia, and others want a piece of the portable gaming action.
Written by David Carnoy, Contributor
David Carnoy
commentary Nintendo has sold millions of Game Boy Advance systems. But now Sony, Nokia, and others want a piece of the portable gaming action.
Poor Nintendo. First, Microsoft muscled in on its game console action with the Xbox, and now it seems like everybody wants a piece of its Game Boy Advance business. At this year's E3 trade show, Sony finally trotted out its PSP (PlayStation Portable), Nokia revealed a more engaging N-Gage, and Tiger Telematics introduced a gizmo called the Gizmondo. The plucky Tapwave folks were there, too, trying to jump-start the Palm OS-powered Zodiac, while mobile phone industry insiders lurked nearby, looking for their own slice. Undaunted, Nintendo announced the dual-screen Game Boy upgrade, dubbed the DS. Double your pleasure, as the folks at Wrigley might say. Double nothing, others grumbled. Either way, it's game on. And here's my take on who stands the best chance of winning or losing.

Sony PSP
After getting my hands on what Sony dubs the "21st-century Walkman" at the show (you needed a Sony PR rep to escort you into the special demo area), I was impressed. The PSP is a beautiful-looking device. Due to launch outside of Japan mid-2005, the PSP will not only offer graphically rich gaming, it also will be capable of doubling as a portable media player for music, images, and movies. If that's not enough, the built-in Wi-Fi connection -- ostensibly for head-to-head multiplayer gaming -- could certainly be used for Web surfing and e-mail on the go, if Sony chooses to enable such functionality.

Since the PSP will allegedly have the processing power of the PS2, the big question isn't whether the games will be cool -- it's how you get movies and music onto the device. The PSP will use a new proprietary media disc called UMD (Universal Media Disc), which stores 1.8GB of data and is about the size of a MiniDisc. However, Sony says the media will be read-only (at launch at least), so you won't be able to copy MP3 files and MPEG-4 movies to UMD.

What about the Memory Stick Duo slot? Well, the strange thing was that Sony was showing the device with only 128MB cards at the show. When I asked whether it would accept larger-capacity media, the Sony reps had no definitive answer. Obviously, it would be nice to be able to slip in a 512MB card loaded with a couple of MPEG-4 movies and music. Early hardware specifications are seldom written in stone, but somehow I get the feeling that Sony is going to want you to buy the movie or album on UMD. That's going to irritate a lot of people who would prefer to make fair-use copies of content they already own on DVD.

The PSP should be "it" gadget of 2005, but sales might be dampened if Sony sets the price too high and has a strict, walled-garden approach to nongaming content.

Nintendo DS
The press gave the DS, which Nintendo hopes to release in time for Christmas in the US (currently slated to ship in the Australian market in the first quarter of 2005), a lukewarm reception at E3, and when I saw it, frankly, I wasn't wowed. However, after speaking with my 9-year-old nephew, I reconsidered. "It's got two screens!" he exclaimed. I thought, Hmmm, kids implicitly think two screens are better than one. Nintendo might be on to something, especially when you factor in its wireless capabilities (unlike current Game Boys, the DS doesn't need a cumbersome cable for head-to-head gaming).

If Nintendo can launch the DS at US$149 or less and offers some games that effectively make use of the two screens (I saw only a couple of titles that appeared to), it will be a hit with Nintendo's core audience of younger gamers. The fact that it's backward compatible with the current mammoth library of Game Boy titles doesn't hurt, either.

Nokia N-Gage QD
Nokia acknowledges the design mistakes it made with its original N-Gage phone/gaming device and will soon release the updated N-Gage QD, which is clearly an improvement. For starters, you can swap game cards without having to remove the battery, and you can hold the phone flat to your head as you would a standard mobile phone (no more side talking). The price starts at an affordable US$179 -- and could be even lower with a service contract from a telecommunications provider.

Unless Nokia comes up with a couple of signature games -- it has high hopes for an impressive-looking, action-oriented, real-time strategy war game called Path to Glory -- the N-Gage will continue to languish.

Tapwave Zodiac
From a hardware standpoint, the Zodiac is a winner: in addition to being a credible gaming device, it's a fully functional Palm handheld that's multimedia capable and Bluetooth enabled. Unfortunately, in order for any new gaming platform to succeed, it needs developers to create games for it, and Tapwave-friendly titles are still in short supply six months after its launch. The company showed off a few new ones, such as Doom II, Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 4, and Duke Nukem Mobile, at E3. But Electronic Arts' Madden Football is still MIA.

Like the N-Gage, without a signature title or two, Tapwave's prospects will dim, especially since the company's pockets aren't as deep as Nokia's.

The Gizmondo has some similarities to the Tapwave Zodiac in that it has multimedia capabilities (music and movies), uses SD cards for storage, has a wireless component, runs games such as Stuntcar Extreme that appear on both platforms, and will retail for around US$400 when it comes out later this summer. There are no Palm OS or organiser capabilities, but built-in GPS and a digital camera make for a couple of distinct features.

Thanks largely to its built-in GPS and digital camera, the Gizmondo certainly has a palpable cool factor that distinguishes it from the crowd. The company's initial sales goal is an ambitious -- but not outlandish -- 300,000 units. To achieve such numbers, the platform will need more unique games such as Colors, an edgy urban gang-war-themed title that's guaranteed to send Joe Lieberman ballistic.

Mobile phone games
Serious gamers -- and semiserious ones such as myself -- have scoffed at the little Java games finding their way onto mobile phones, but they're quickly turning into big business for carriers and game developers such as Sorrent, Jamdat, Namco, and THQ Wireless. There's still a lot of junk out there, but higher-quality, more-addictive mobile phone games are gradually coming out. For example, THQ is releaasing an NFL-licensed 11-on-11 football game in the fall that uses rosters from pro teams and looks and plays like a mini football game should. My current favourite is Sorrent's Fox Sports Track & Field '04.

Now that all new phones have the sharp colour screens and zippy CPU speeds needed for gaming, the hardware is in place. That, along with improving titles and an affordable pricing model, means mobile phone gaming should be poised to surge in popularity.

What do you think? Do you play games? What platform do you prefer? TalkBack to me below!

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