TV Out on the Nokia N95 - Part 2: The N95 as a games console

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The Nokia N95 (like the N93 and N93i) has a TV Out feature, which lets you connect it to any television. Krisse examines how S60 games look on the big screen, and how the big screen may affect gameplay.
TV Out on the Nokia N95
 Part 1: Will the smartphone eat the PC? & How to connect N95 TV Out to a TV
 Part 2: The N95 as a games console
 Part 3: Word Processing, Spreadsheets and PowerPoint on the Big Screen
 Part 4: What retro computers have become?
 Part 5: Communicating through your TV set
 Part 6: The problems with TV Out, and how they could be solved


TV Out on the Nokia N95 - Part 2: The N95 As A Games Console

System Rush Evolution menu screen on N95Possibly the most successful use for the TV Out function is in gaming. Games generally look good on a bigger screen, even at QVGA (320x240) resolution, and it's usually easier to play them because you can see the picture in more detail. Obviously, if you're sitting right next to the TV you'll see the pixels, but if you sit a couple of metres away on a sofa (which is what most people do with games consoles) then the graphics look much smoother.

Gaming on S60 smartphones via TV Out is possibly about to become a very big thing: Nokia is of course launching its Next Gen N-Gage platform on an as-yet-unannounced list of existing S60 smartphones some time in the Autumn, which will greatly expand the number of quality games available to S60 users (as long as they have a Next Gen N-Gage compatible model). The compatibility list is very likely to include the N95, N93 and N93i, all of which have TV Out capabilities, and TV Out may become a standard feature of new S60 models in the future.

However, as we don't have any Next Gen games to test (apart from the System Rush demo), we've tried out several current S60 games from various different genres to see how they cope with the big screen.

Unless specified otherwise, all the games have been played using a wireless Bluetooth keyboard. The phone's direction pad is mapped to the keyboard's arrow keys, and all the other phone buttons have their equivalents on the keyboard. Using the official Nokia keyboard is a bit awkward as it doesn't click open, it keeps folding shut if you place it in your lap so you have to use it on a table. As a controller it works well enough though, often better than some phone models' direction pads.

Playing games without a keyboard is more difficult, as the TV Out leads supplied with the N95 and N93/N93i are fairly short, so you have to sit in front of the TV if you want to use the phone's own controls. 

It's worth noting that all these games are in QVGA, but in vertical mode QVGA is displayed in a smaller screen area than horizontal QVGA, as the TV Out feature automatically tries to fill as much screen space as possible without affecting the aspect ratio.



System Rush Evolution on the N95

System Rush Evolution Demo for S60 3rd Edition models with 3D Acceleration Hardware

System Rush Evolution is the upcoming Next Gen sequel to the original N-Gage game System Rush. It's a futuristic 3D racing game (and it really is 3D, you end up on the roof and walls of tunnels) with a computer hacking theme. This demo consists of two levels where you have to collect various bonuses from the walls of the tunnels you fly through, trying to capture your target and avoid enemy attacks.

The graphics on System Rush Evolution are absolutely stunning on a TV. It's difficult to believe you're playing a phone-based game when you see it running on a full size telly, as it looks much closer to something you might see on the PlayStation 2. SRE's graphical brilliance is especially obvious when you play it after playing other 3D games such as Global Race or Snakes (see below). While GR has jagged edges and crumbling textures, and Snakes also looks obviously jagged, SRE looks almost perfect by comparison, with graphics that are smoother than Right Said Fred's haircuts. Not only that, but SRE is also much faster than Global Race or Snakes.

Ideaworks3D, the developers behind the System Rush series, are clearly maintaining their extremely high standards for smartphone games. Back in the days of the original N-Gage, Ideaworks3D produced one brilliantly realised game after another, striking exactly the right balance between graphical richness and speed, pushing the N-Gage's S60 1st Edition hardware to its very limit. Consequently they made 3D games that looked impossibly good compared to other titles on the system, and obviously they haven't lost their touch on the move to more modern S60 hardware.

Gameplaywise, this reviewer doesn't really want to comment, mainly because this is a very very early demo, released over a year before the final game. There's not much to do, and it's quite difficult to pick up bonuses quickly enough to beat the short time limit, so hopefully the real game will do things a bit differently.



Frozen Bubble on the N95

Frozen Bubble for S60 3rd Edition

Frozen Bubble is an open source Puzzle Bobble/Bust A Move clone. The aim of this puzzle/arcade game is to remove bubbles from the top by forming chains of three or more. Read the AAS Review of Frozen Bubble here.

Frozen Bubble is only available for S60 3rd Edition in 240x320 at the moment, so we've had to use the N95 in vertical mode. However, the vertical nature of the game means that vertical mode is probably a better option anyway.

The game works absolutely fine, just as it does on the phone by itself, with the added bonus that it's easier to judge angles on the TV screen. It's also easier to distinguish between red and orange bubbles.



Global Race Raging Thunder on the N95

Global Race: Raging Thunder for S60 3rd Edition models with 3D Acceleration Hardware

Global Race: Raging Thunder is a 3D arcade racing game bundled with the Nokia E90 smartphone. However, it can be downloaded separately from Nokia's E90 support site, and (unofficially) will work almost perfectly on other S60 3rd Edition devices that contain 3D graphics acceleration hardware, which at the moment means the Nokia N95, N93 and N93i. More info this way.

To be fair to its developers, the version of Global Race that we tried was only written with the E90 in mind, and the proper 3rd Edition release has not yet appeared. However, the game does work perfectly fine in vertical mode on the Nokia N95, so we've included it in this test.

Due to its E90-based nature, this version of Global Race can't really be used on the N95 in horizontal mode as the speedometer blocks your view too much. It works fine in vertical mode though, so that's what we tested it in on the television. As a racing game, Global Race is much more satisfying on a big screen, it's very much like playing a PlayStation 1 racing game and is generally great fun. The Bluetooth keyboard gives you more precision with steering, braking and accelerating.

The one problem you notice when playing Global Race through TV Out is to do with the graphics: for some reason, there are a lot of jagged lines and easily-broken textures. If you look in the photo, for example, you can see how jagged the road markings look, and this effect looks even worse when the game is in motion. This can't be a hardware limitation, because the System Rush Demo (see above) handles a racing game without any obvious jagged edges or broken-up textures, so it has to be to do with the code used in the game.



Snakes on the N95

Snakes for S60 3rd Edition

Snakes is a radical overhaul of the classic Snake game found on mobile phones since time immemorial. The first five or so stages seem fairly straightforward, but the game rapidly becomes more complicated introducing such as hexagonal playing fields, speed-up and slow-down tiles and three dimensional playing areas. There are also a number of different bonuses that you can use, and a Bluetooth multiplayer mode. For the AAS review of the original N-Gage release of this game, click here.

Snakes is definitely more fun to play on a TV screen, especially in horizontal mode where the playing area seems to stretch out forever. The graphics aren't perfect, there are a lot of jagged edges visible, but the Tron-like graphics mean the textures never break up as there aren't really any textures, just pure colours. Snakes on a television plays a lot like one of the more imaginative and addictive releases on the first PlayStation, and generally shows off the usefulness of TV Out pretty well.



TibiaME on the N95

Tibia Micro Edition for S60 3rd Edition

TibiaME is the world's first Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game for phones, and was first released for S60 1st and 2nd Edition devices way back in 2003. It has a fantasy setting and an extremely large game world, with players from around the world always to be seen wandering around the towns, wilderness and dungeons. You can read the AAS review of TibiaME here.

As noted in our review, the S60 3rd Edition TibiaME client is exactly the same as the old S60 1st/2nd Edition client from 2003, right down to the 176x208 screen resolution. Despite this, the pixels aren't any bigger than on a QVGA game, because the TV Out also displays the black borders around the game, and in effect one can vary the size of the pixels by putting the game in vertical (240x320) or horizontal (320x240) mode.

The game plays exactly the same way on the TV screen as it does on the phone, there's no real difference between the two methods. What would  have made the TV Out version superior would have been support for the Bluetooth keyboard: TibiaME involves text chats with other players, which is quite tricky to do on a phone keypad, but would have been very easy indeed on a full size keyboard. Unfortunately, TibiaME doesn't support Bluetooth keyboards (it doesn't even support predictive text on a phone keypad), so that potential "killer feature" just isn't present.



PaintBall 2 on the N95

PaintBall 2 for S60 3rd Edition

PaintBall 2 is a puzzle game that involves painting spheres of different colours that lie next to four walls of pipes. If you get three or more the same colour next to a pipe, they disappear, you score points and your paint supply refills a bit. Read the AAS review of PaintBall 2 by clicking here.

Of all the games tested, this was the only one with a Bluetooth keyboard problem: any keypresses take a second or two to register which ruins the gameplay. CrazySoft, the developers, also made Frutakia (see below) which works fine with the Bluetooth keyboard, so it's odd that PaintBall 2 has these difficulties. PaintBall 2 works fine with the phone's own keypad, even when the Bluetooth keyboard is connected.

Graphics-wise, PaintBall 2 looks good on a television, the colours are nice and bright, and overall it's quite pleasant to look at. The size of the screen makes no difference to gameplay however, as the graphics were already so clear and large.



Frutakia on the N95

Frutakia for S60 3rd Edition

Frutakia is a puzzle game that looks like a fruit machine, where you have to line up rows of three or more identical symbols in any direction in order to make them disappear. When they do vanish, you gain points, you gain life and they're replaced by more symbols. You can move the symbols by nudging the wheels, or by pulling the lever of the machine to shuffle the whole lot. Click here for the AAS review of Frutakia.

Frutakia works fine with the Bluetooth keyboard, and it looks wonderful on a television set. For some reason the graphics are very clear indeed, and the format of the game suits being on a television as it resembles a real life fruit machine. Gameplay is pretty much the same on the small and big screens, but this game just felt nicer somehow when the wheels of the machine were closer to life size.

What Nokia needs to do to be part of the TV Out gaming revolution

TV Out on portable gaming is about to get a huge boost thanks to Sony's upcoming new version of the PlayStation Portable, which will include a TV Out. This could well be the beginning of the end for the home game console, as portable systems with TV Out ability get closer and closer to the "good enough" graphical standard that most people are satisfied with.

Gaming through the TV Out on the N95 is generally brilliant, it really enhances most of the games we looked at, and hopefully the TV Out feature will become more and more common on S60 phones, perhaps universal at some point.

However, one problem does need Nokia's direct attention: if Nokia is serious about TV Out helping to build their gaming platform, there's one accessory they really ought to bring to the market as soon as possible - a Bluetooth joypad.

Using the phone's own controls or a Bluetooth keyboard for gaming are both okay, but it would be so much nicer to have a console-style wireless controller. You could park your phone next to the TV, park yourself on the couch, switch on the joypad and you're all set. Everything else would be handled by the phone, you wouldn't even have to stand up to change games. You'd have your entire game collection with you anywhere, and a built-in online connection too.

A Bluetooth joypad could be done relatively quickly and cheaply, too. S60 games don't use analogue controls, so an S60 joypad wouldn't require any new technologies or standards, and from a technical point of view it could simply be a Bluetooth keyboard with fewer buttons and in a different-shaped casing. Such a joypad could use exactly the same wireless components as existing Nokia-compatible Bluetooth keyboards use right now, and indeed a hardware hacker might be able to build such a joypad themselves by cutting up a keyboard. As well as a direction pad, the controller ought to also have a complete phone keypad to ensure compatibility with all games, and perhaps a good starting point for designing such a joypad might be to use a similar shape to the N-Gage or N-Gage QD but with the screen removed.

There's a lot of potential for gaming through TV Out, at the moment perhaps the most potential of any application type, but to really make TV Out gaming sessions plausible a Bluetooth joypad is needed.

If you'll forgive our rather crude edited-in-five-minutes mockup based on a QD photo, it could be laid out something like the image below:

Mockup of wireless bluetooth controller


PS: You can see a video of all the above games in action on an N95 connected to a TV by going to the Unofficial Nokia Gaming Blog.