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N-Gage platform launched: All your phones are belong to us

Today Nokia launched the N-Gage platform, which lets you download games and play with your friends, all from the comfort of your N-Gage compatible phone

Today Nokia officially launched the N-Gage platform, an Xbox Live Arcade-style system that lets you download games and interact with other players, all via a compatible Nokia phone. At the moment you can download it for the Nokia N81, N81 8GB, N82, N95 and N95 8GB, by visiting n-gage.com on your desktop or mobile browser.

We installed the N-Gage platform on a Nokia N95 this morning and have been playing around with it for a few hours. From our very early impressions, the platform itself is easy to use and looks good too. The current games catalogue is limited to a handful of pretty uninspiring titles -- World Series of Poker, anyone? -- but Nokia promises more will be added soon, including ports of FIFA 08, Tetris and The Sims 2: Pets.

Downloading games is possible via your mobile's over-the-air data connection, such as 3G or Wi-Fi -- be warned that you may be charged data for downloading games over a mobile network, depending on what kind of contract you're on. Alternatively you can download games to your PC and then install them on your phone. 

The N-Gage platform allows for multiplayer over-the-air gaming, which will make certain genres, such as football or racing titles, much more fun. We weren't able to test the friends and Nokia score functions -- which, superficially at least, are very much like Xbox Live -- but it's this added functionality that Nokia thinks will win over mobile gamers.

Graphics-wise, the games look better than Java games, but not as polished as those available on dedicated handheld consoles such as the DS or PSP. Importantly, the experience of playing each game will vary depending on the phone you're using, particularly since certain Nokia N-Gage compatible handsets are fiddly to use, whether you're playing games or not.

While the N81 is designed for play, we think there's plenty of room for improvement and hope that more game-centric handsets appear in the future.

Something that caught our eye and then got stuck in it, causing us some pain, is the N-Gage pricing structure. At the moment games will cost you between £6 and £8, which we think is rather steep. Relative to other portable consoles it's very cheap, but with a PSP, for example, you're paying for an experience that includes the console itself.

This is only the beginning, however, and at least Nokia has taken the first few steps in creating a gaming platform that connects mobile gamers. Right now it's still got some way to go, but we firmly believe there's a future in mobile gaming -- as long as Nokia invests as much time on hardware as it does on the platform and promoting games. -Andrew Lim