The N-Gage's killer application follows its platform's historical trajectory to the letter. It's about a year late, it won't earn Nokia any direct revenue, and it's a rehash of a classic title--which happens to be, ironically, the most successful mobile game of all time, and one of Nokia's most valuable and ubiquitous intellectual properties. These sad facts might suggest that Snakes isn't a worthwhile game, but nothing could be further from the truth. On the contrary, this simple 3D maze-running game from Nokia and Iomo epitomizes everything that's great and unique about the N-Gage.
Though it got its start as a BASIC programming project for students, the first mobile version of Snake came embedded in the first wave of inexpensive, monochrome Nokia handsets that helped spark the cellular revolution in the 1990s. You controlled a fast-moving, unstoppable line that grew every time it gobbled up a dot that sort of looked like an apple. If you ran into a wall--or your own body--the game was over. The 21st-century version of the game has been changed in a number of fundamental ways. The goal is no longer to simply last as long as you can. The new Snakes is level-based, meaning that you need to earn a certain number of points before the timer runs out on each of the game's 30-plus levels. The best way to do this is by picking up blue diamonds, which appear in sequential tracks (called "power paths") on each grid-based level--if you pick up an entire track without missing any diamonds, you'll earn a bonus multiplier for your score and knock a large chunk off your diamond meter. Some of these paths are in straight lines, and others put you through lots of precision turns. To beat most levels, you'll have to run through each one flawlessly and memorize the position of the next. There are plenty of other elements to complicate the gameplay, too. Your snake can now speed up and slow down, absorb a certain amount of damage from breakaway walls, collect letters to spell "N-Gage" to jack up your scoring multipliers, and snag extra lives. And that's just in the single-player mode.
For all its evolutionary features, Snakes is identical to its ancestor in one important respect: Other than the airtime you may use to download it, it's absolutely free. You can obtain the game, which weighs in at just over 1MB, from N-Gage Arena or over the Internet--and once you have it, you can distribute it freely to other N-Gagers via Bluetooth. There's a "send game" option right in the opening menu that will allow you hit unwitting players with the Snakes-bite in a minute or two. You don't need multiple MMCs to set up a rollicking four-player Bluetooth match--all it takes is four N-Gages and about 10 minutes. And the multiplayer games are a blast. There are several additional power-ups to pick up and use at your leisure, including offensive drones that hover around your snake and damage other players, shields, and teleporters. You also get an oscillating snake finder that'll point out the direction of your opponents. The player who racks up the highest score by barging into smaller enemy snakes and picking up power-ups will win.
Iomo, a small British developer that specializes in downloadable mobile games, has brought all its experience in making simple games interesting to bear on Snakes' level designs. The first major innovation is the inclusion of hexagonal tiles, which greatly change the dynamic of the game by making it more difficult to turn in a timely fashion. Consequently, to get more than halfway through the game, you'll have to learn how to perform sharp turns using the 2 key. The level layouts grow to be quite challenging, too. There are plenty of mazes that require fast turning reflexes, tiles that will unexpectedly speed you up or slow you down, and special power-ups that will activate hidden power paths. Later in the game, you'll even have to navigate to the underside of the plane by going through holes in the fabric of the level, or by simply running over the edge. When the levels get more complicated and start to curve up and down at the horizon, your jaw might just drop.
Snakes isn't necessarily fancy from a visual or auditory standpoint, but it's very clean and it runs faster than any other N-Gage game yet. The 3D environments are decked out in a rainbow of completely flat textures, some of which pulsate to indicate special functions. Think Tron's light cycles taken to another level of visual abstraction. There are also some great explosion effects when your snake runs out of energy. The HUD is laid out in a logical, easy-to-read fashion, with simple decreasing meters to indicate how many diamonds you have to go and how much time you have left. The entire game runs at a brisk 25 frames per second, with no slowdown at any time. Snakes also has some great sound effects to punctuate the action whenever you pick up power-ups or run into walls. There's only a single music track, but it's an unobtrusive, low-pitch techno track that fits the game well.
If Nokia were distributing some rotten game for free with the N-Gage, its release would look more like a desperate experiment than a purposeful business move. Luckily for us, Snakes is a one-of-a-kind product for the N-Gage--it's incredibly simple, incredibly engrossing, and currently, it couldn't possibly work on any other console. If Nokia can start to provide similar products for free (or at low price points) on a more consistent basis, while moving away from inferior console ports at the same time, it could very well change the entire calculus of mobile game consoles. For now, Snakes is mandatory software for N-Gagers. Download it immediately and start sharing.