Play it forward...on your cell phone. A growing number of wireless entertainments are ringing up big sales.

By Clive Thompson
Updated March 08, 2002 at 05:00 AM EST

You’re sitting at your bus stop, bored and tired. You’ve already read the newspaper and begun counting the number of times the guy next to you has coughed into his hand. Yet salvation lies in your cell phone. You pull it from your backpack and start punching keys. But you’re not calling a friend — you’re in a jet fighter, blasting enemy planes out of the sky.

Welcome to one of the hottest segments of wireless gaming. A few studios — in partnership with established game publishers — are releasing titles that cell-phone owners can easily access by calling a number. And the games cost less than movie tickets (prices vary). In the last few months, Viacom Consumer Products and Paramount have put out games based on Top Gun and Star Trek; Disney/Pixar produced one for Monsters, Inc., and the World Wrestling Federation and THQ released WWF: Mobile Madness for new Java-enabled phones. There are more titles to come later this year, including games for Mission: Impossible and The Lord of the Rings. ”This is the new cutting edge, and we’re trying to get out in front,” says Pam Newton, vice president of marketing and licensing for Viacom Consumer Products.

In a way, cell phones are perfect gaming devices. With 800 million in circulation worldwide, why not turn them into portable arcades? ”People love their phones and love their games, so it’s pretty obvious this stuff was going to converge,” says Matthew Bellows, publisher of Wireless Gaming Review (wireless, a webzine devoted to reviewing these decidedly quirky new offerings.

Quirky and, it must be said, slow. Even the most advanced phones don’t boast much processing power, which makes for games reminiscent of early-’80s home-computer titles. ”You have to be pretty creative with how you design these things,” admits Brian Baglow, global communications manager for Digital Bridges, which created the Star Trek game. ”If you ask [gamers] to type in 1,000 key strokes, they’ll kill themselves.”

Or kill each other. The games may be retro, but they have plenty of modern appeal. In Canada, a version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire logged 6 million hits in December. And it’s been estimated that the mobile-gaming industry will generate nearly $9 billion by 2006. Even now, games are making money: Newton says Viacom’s three titles have been profitable (though she declined to disclose figures).

As cell phones become more advanced, expect games to get more sophisticated and to add more-elaborate multiplayer elements. The next Star Trek game, slated for an April release, will even enable players around the world to team up in gangs to protect — or attack — one another. ”You’ll launch the game to find out you’re getting hunted down by some guy in Russia,” Baglow jokes. Now that’s what we call phone tag.