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Latest gaming battleground: Handhelds

Offerings from Nokia, Tapwave, Sony put heat on Nintendo

By Daniel Sieberg
CNN Headline News

Nokia's N-Gage was released last week and retails for about $300.

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(CNN) -- A handful of tech companies are challenging Nintendo to a thumb duel, hoping to end its uncontested ride at the top of the mobile gaming arena.

Despite placing third in the current console battle with its GameCube machine, Nintendo has dominated the handheld market. Its GameBoy series has long been synonymous with playing games on the go. During the past 15 years or so, not even the likes of Sega and Atari have managed to unseat the Japanese gaming giant.

A few complaints have surfaced with the GameBoy over the years, including a dimly lit screen, expensive games and limited battery power. However, with its latest version, the GameBoy Advance SP, Nintendo received favorable reviews from gamers and seemed to hit the mark.

Enter the latest contenders: Nokia, Tapwave and Sony.

Nokia's N-Gage was released last week, a combo unit that merges phone features with networked gaming and an FM radio. The N-Gage's graphics appear deeper and sharper than the GameBoy's, though the screen is smaller. To boost its gaming image, Nokia has landed a few software-licensing deals, including Eidos' "Lara Croft."

Swapping out games on the N-Gage requires players to go through several steps, rather than just changing cartridges. Bluetooth technology allows N-Gagers in close proximity to play each other wirelessly, or they can compete on a phone network against any other N-Gage owner in the world.

The N-Gage is pricey, though, retailing for about $300, compared with less than $100 for the GameBoy Advance SP.

Tapwave's Zodiac decice is expected to sell for $300 and allows users to play games, play MP3 files and organize data.

Also on the higher end, Tapwave's Zodiac device -- based on the Palm operating system -- is expected to sell for about $300 by the end of this month. Founded in May 2001, the Silicon Valley startup will initially sell the Zodiac only via its Web site. It's more comparable to the N-Gage than the GameBoy Advance SP because the Zodiac also lets users do things like play MP3 files and organize data. (No phone included here.) Once thought of as vaporware, Tapwave now seems poised to join the fray.

Perhaps the wild card is Sony, which has been promoting its PlayStation Portable or PSP handheld for the past several months. The PSP is expected to be compatible with Sony's extensive library of PlayStation games, as well as play multimedia files and offer some form of networked gaming. It may also be much bigger than the others, more like a portable DVD player in size. Sony has remained mum about pricing and design, but the No. 1 console maker is expected to unveil a prototype at E3 in May 2004.

So can Nintendo continue its reign?

No one knows for certain. But given that the three new offerings will all cost much more than the GameBoy Advance SP, perhaps if Super Mario keeps his head down, the others will duke it out at the top-tier level, leaving Nintendo as the low-cost alternative.

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