Since Nokia first launched a handset the size of a house brick in 1984, we've associated the company with mobile phones, a field it now dominates. But by this Christmas, Nokia intends to infiltrate a whole new industry - electronic gaming - with a hybrid mobile phone-game console called N-Gage.

If the words "mobile phone gaming" make you think of tiny keypads, grey screens and simplistic embedded games like Snake and Memory, think again.

The prototype N-Gage that we tested resembled a souped-up GameBoy more than a mobile phone. The gameplay was impressive as well as the fact it could play versions of popular titles, including Tomb Raider.

Mobile gaming is not new. As soon as manufacturers started adding Java to their phones, outfits such as Psychic Software ( began writing simple games for the new platform, delivering them to customers via the mobile network, and charging next to nix.

N-Gage can play Java games, but it's designed for playing "rich games", processor- and graphics-intensive software which otherwise is the domain of consoles and PCs. To support rich gaming, the N-Gage sports a high-resolution colour display, an eight-way game controller, and Bluetooth, which can create instant, short-range wireless networks. N-Gage users can play their games against the machine, against up to six friends wirelessly in a room via Bluetooth, or against a faraway foe via the mobile network.

Rich games are too large to download through a phone call and too detailed to sell at shareware prices. Instead, developers will distribute them on copy-protected multimedia cards (MMCs) sold through the same game, phone and department stores that will stock the N-Gage.

"Gamers are very specific about their requirements, and if the device does not meet their expectation they will be the first to tell you," says Loren Shuster, director of Nokia's entertainment and media business unit in Asia Pacific. "The game cards allow us to provide a rich, deep, gaming experience."

Tyler McGee, Nokia's vice-president for mobile phone sales in South-East Asia, would not speculate about how these games would be priced, but says they clearly should not cost more than PC and console games - which cost up to $90.

McGee also sidestepped most questions about the N-Gage's expected retail price, but says, "It's a mass-market product and as such it will be competitively priced in the category for which it is designed, which is gaming." According to McGee, the N-Gage's price should be judged by its total "value proposition": the fact that it can take the place of many portable digital devices.

In fact, the N-Gage will be a portable MP3 player, an FM radio, an internet appliance and a digital voice recorder as well as a phone and a games console. What's more, most of the N-Gage's functions will be interlinked. As well as enabling multiplayer games over the mobile phone network, games will be able to point N-Gage's web browser to sites where users can swap tips. Users will be able to take screenshots of their game triumphs and send them via the Multimedia Messaging Service (MMS).

The invisible force that makes this all possible is the Global Packet Radio Service (GPRS) - an extension of the mobile phone network that allows users to send and receive data, for which they are charged by the byte, not by the minute. For N-Gage users, this data could be an email message or a ringtone.

The Telstra, Optus and Vodafone networks all support GPRS, as do all but the oldest SIM cards. So for most Australian mobile phone owners, getting started with the N-Gage should involve nothing more than transferring their old phone's SIM card to the new device and then asking their telephone company to add GPRS to their mobile service.

In blending so many portable devices yet keeping the focus on game performance, Nokia appears to be completely "out there". Rosalie Nelson, Ovum's research director for telecoms, suspects that Nokia's rivals are too busy trying to juggle the transitions to 3G and CDMA, the next generation of higher speed networks, to be releasing products similar to N-Gage.