Welcome to the tenth installment of the Portable Project here at GameCritics.com. The handheld market, once dominated by Nintendo's Game Boy, has suddenly become very crowded. This month we'll take an in-depth look at one of the newcomers to the scene: the Tapwave Zodiac.

The Zodiac is essentially a high-end PDA (running the Palm OS), that has been optimized for gaming. It was designed by a company founded by ex-Palm employees who

Portable Project - July 2004: Tapwave Zodiac
Tapwave Zodiac

felt they could serve the niche of hardcore games who also owned PDAs. They just might be on to something.

As the average age of gamers climbs (age 29 is the oft-quoted ESA statistic), it seems completely feasible to expect a crowd of professionals to emerge who grew up comfortable enough with gaming to crave more than shallow cellphone games, but self-conscious enough not to want to be seen with a Game Boy on the job.

The PDA also seems more inherently suited to portable gaming than the cellphone, which is why a PDA-handheld hybrid has the potential to be less problematic than a cellphone-handheld hybrid: the thus far tepid response to Nokia's N-Gage serving as the example. Certainly one of my own lingering issues with the N-Gage is that games are still hampered by its cellphone characteristics: a tiny letter-boxed screen, and too many darn buttons.

The Specs

The Zodiac sports a backlit color screen with 480×320 pixel resolution. The screen is optimized for landscape (horizontal) alignment, but it's also possible to select to play games using portrait mode (and to switch between the two on the fly). Certain games, such as Breakout, actually work better in portrait. According to the website PR schtick, there is the possibility of 3D graphics "similar in quality to the original PlayStation console."

Portable Project - July 2004: Breakout (top), Doom II (bottom)
Breakout (top), Doom II (bottom)

There are two SD card expansion slots, a headphone jack, an alarm function (that works even when the system is turned off), and MP3 capability. The Zodiac supports Bluetooth for up to 8-player multiplayer, and has the potential to surf the internet with WiFi SDIO cards as soon as the Palm OS drivers are ready (again, according to the website.)

The system uses a rechargeable Lithium Ion battery that, like the Game Boy Advance, is non-removeble. I averaged about 3 hours playing a game at moderate brightness. Having other apps running at the same time—the MP3 player for example—drains the battery much faster and it can die after as early as 30 to 45 minutes.

The controls

The Zodiac has joystick-like analog left thumpad, the first portable gaming system to have such a feature according to Tapwave founder Byron Connell, who demonstrated the unit for me at E3. (The thumbpad on the Neo Geo Pocket was similar, but was in fact an 8-point stick.) To the right of the screen is a color-coded four-button layout similar to the Super Nintendo's. There are left and right shoulder buttons, and a vibrate function.

The Zodiac is incredibly ergonomic. Its curved edges and shoulder pads accommodate the hand very nicely. The light weight (only 6.3 ounces) makes it comfortable to hold with one hand and operate the thumbpad in portrait mode.

Price and Availability

The Zodiac 2 launched in stores across America this June. The Zodiac 2 contains 128 MB of RAM and retails for $399.99, while the Zodiac 1, with only 32MB of RAM, costs $299.99. There are no plans at this time to release the product internationally, however they can be ordered directly from Tapwave's website or acquired from willing sellers on eBay.

Portable Project - July 2004: Legacy


Games sell from between $9.99 and $29.99.

Stylus-driven gaming

Not to be underestimated is the touch-sensitive screen and the possibilities this opens up for direct-interface gaming. Any fan of the point-and-click genre knows what I'm talking about. The Nintendo DS stole some of the Zodiac's thunder in this regard, and to be fair the demos Nintendo showed at E3 made far more creative use of the stylus than the games I sampled on the Zodiac, which basically amounted to using the stylus to plot the trajectory of the ball in bowling and golf, guiding the paddle in Breakout, and directing the bubble-gun in Bust-a-Move.

There is promise however, in the form of the RPG Legacy. Essentially a menu-driven dungeon crawl (think Eye of the Beholder or Dungeon Master), Legacy required the stylus to navigate menus, select items and spells from the inventory, and, most importantly, interact with non-player characters and objects in the environment. A typical in-game example is that of a town scene where the party is standing in front of a tavern door. Options include clicking on the sign to read the name of the tavern, clicking on the door itself to enter, clicking on the barrel near the door to investigate its contents, or clicking on the shady-looking NPC off to one side to engage him in conversation.

Portable Project - July 2004: Altered Beast (top), SpyHunter II (bottom)
Altered Beast (top), SpyHunter II (bottom)

The Verdict

After spending some time with a Zodiac, my verdict is that the machine has a lot of potential, but needs more games that take advantage of the PDA's unique characteristics-the most exciting to me being that of the touch-sensitive screen. The potential is there to become the next step in the evolution of point-and-click: from text-based interface, to controlling an arrow with a mouse, to tapping directly on the object. I envision great things in first-person combat: imagine if the stylus were to take the place of a sword. Dragging it would execute a slash; a sharp tap would be a jab. Specific body parts of the enemy could be targeted, wounds opening wherever the stylus struck.

The company's willingness to embrace emulation (Tapwave has so far officially approved Commodore 64, Sega Genesis and Game Gear emulators for the system), and homebrew games as demonstrated by sites like Zodiac Gamer, is also promising. Unfortunately, the review versions of Altered Beast and Golden Axe I played were crippled by extreme slow-down and a sluggish response time.

The Zodiac is an absolutely killer piece of hardware: a sweet, top-of-the-line PDA with all the bells and whistles. Its gaming interface is also sophisticated, comfortable and intuitive to use. The bottom line, as with any system, is it needs games that will draw me in-games that exploit the systems' inherent strengths. As it stands, ports of Solitaire, golf, Breakout and Tony Hawk just won't cut it.

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