A brief history of gaming phones

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ASUS’ surprisingly ambitious ROG Phone is a clear sign the company has confidence in the gaming smartphone category. And it wasn’t that long ago that the likes of Razer, Xiaomi and Nubia thought they saw an opportunity for a cash grab here. But as history has shown, gaming hardware is risky business, especially a segment this niche. Remember, not even Nokia at the height of its powers could crack the gaming phone equation with its legendary infamous N-Gage. While we wait for the ROG Phone to arrive later this year, let’s take a stroll down memory lane and revisit some of its precursors.

Nokia N-Gage

This was how it all started. Launched in late 2003, the N-Gage was positioned as the Game Boy Advance of mobile phones. Its design bore a strong resemblance to Nokia’s 3300, but it packed a larger screen, plus a few more buttons. It even supported wireless multiplayer gaming over Bluetooth or via its N-Gage Arena online service. Unlike modern devices, the N-Gage games came in the form of cartridges (MMC memory cards) instead of downloadable apps. And, to make things more complicated, you’d have to remove the battery in order to access the card slot. But perhaps it’s best remembered for having to be held sideways during phone calls, thus earning the “taco phone” nickname.

Nokia N-Gage QD

About half a year after the N-Gage, Nokia released the N-Gage QD, which solved many earlier versions’ pain points. Most notably, the MMC memory card slot could be accessed from the bottom of the device for easier game swapping, and you could add an adapter that let you stick two games in at a time! But, most important, the earpiece was back in its proper location, meaning you could make phone calls without the humiliation. The new directional pad was no longer clickable — that task was offloaded to a new “OK” button, thus making the directional controls more enjoyable. However, the QD lacked the stereo speakers, FM radio and MP3 playback that were present on its predecessor, which might explain the slightly lower retail cost.

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