I worked in an EB Games back in 2003 during the time the N-Gage was reaching its (very small) peak in the gamer consciousness.
We had one small end cap with the 10 or so games that we had in stock and a demo system available.
I only ever knew of one person who owned one and actually bought games for it. He would come in every few weeks and ask if we had any new games for it. We never did.
Despite its failings in the market, it was a novel innovation in protable gaming. It was a phoen as well as a portable gaming systems. Its major flaws and the reason it was so panned by the gaming community as well as the phone buying community were the convoluted way you had to change out games and the way you held the phone to your ear.
For those not familiar with the N-Gage, in order to change out games, you had to pop the back cover off the phone, remove the battery, take out the game cart, put in the new one, put the battery back and put the cover back.
Such a crazy convoluted wayt o put a game in a game system. Even with the strong history of Nintendo's and other companies' handhelds having slot loading cartridges, Nokia went this way thinking it was a good idea. This alone was probably the biggest reason most gamers refused to buy. With their second version, they fixed this issue and added slot loading cartridges.
The other issue was mostly about aesthetics. When talking on the phone portion, you had to hold the edge of the phone to your head rather than holding it flat.This was not very comfortable or nice looking. This again was something they addressed in their second model.
Even with these improvements, the N-Gage never took off and was never a success by any means. Yet, the N-Gage was a revolutionary device and was on track for the future of mobile gaming and cell phones.
During the early years of this century, gaming on cell phones was never a reason anyone bought a phone. I remember my first phone having a black and white LCD screen. The only games I had on it were Snake and Black Jack.
My second phone had Poker and something else. Gaming just wasn't that big of a deal on phones at the time. Yet despite that limiting culture, Nokia foresaw that gaming on a mobile phone was a logical move. They simply lacked the coolness factor that would come later.
Then came Apple and the iPhone in June of 2007. This new phone brought with it the ability to play games, run apps, watch movies and listen to music, oh and your could also talk to people.
Apple was able to do what Nokia attempted because Apple had a coolness factor, a no nonense way of getting games on the phone and a comfortable user interface.
Although Apple doesn't promote gaming as the main feature of the phone, their marketing features it quite regularly and games are the highest revenue generating apps in their store. A mere 4 years after the N-Gae and Apple succeeded where Nokia failed.
Not long after Apple came Google with their Android OS, providing an OS that could be used on a variety of hardware and cell services. The Android OS is building on the success of the iPhone and bringing the prospect of gaming and phones to a greater number of people. Again, the Android OS has a lot of its success laid out by the gaming community.
The success of Android has even brought Sony over with their new Xperia phone. This phone is meant to be a dedicated gaming phone with Playstation and Android games available for it. While its success has yet to be tested, when it releases it will have the trails which Apple and Google have blazed to follow upon.
So while the N-Gage lacked a lot when it came to actual usability and games, it had tremendous vision. This vision of a world where gaming and cell phone use collide and live in harmony was lost on the crowd in 2003 but hopefully history will not forget Nokia and its revolutionary phone (or is it a gaming system?)