Version tested: DS
Can you imagine what Nintendo's head office looks like these days? Rows of employees sit at solid platinum desks, writing on notepads made from 100-dollar bills and using former America's Next Top Model finalists as office chairs. Their main task is to sort through the lorryload of riches that arrives each morning, throwing any diamonds smaller than watermelons straight in the bin. For the rest of the day they just roll around laughing, or sometimes sit in solitary contemplation of just how much money they've made, and wipe it on the curtains. Which are made of polar bear pelt.
So what with all those pound coins swilling round their ankles, it's disappointing to learn that Nintendo couldn't stretch to spending a little bit on copyright fees for 100 Classic Book Collection. Or, as someone so succinctly described it in the pub the other night, A Load of Old Books on a Cartridge.
At least the selection of titles is comprehensive; it reads like a Greatest Hits of classic literature, with something to suit all tastes. There's romance (Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights), adventure (Treasure Island, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea), mystery (Sherlock Holmes, Yet More Sherlock Holmes), books based on successful musicals (Les Miserables, Phantom of the Opera) and books which are viewed as being politically suspect in retrospect (Uncle Tom's Cabin, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland).
There are great fat dollops of Austen, Dickens and Shakespeare. There is plenty of rollicking boys' own stuff (Rob Roy, Moby Dick) and a bit of tiresome girly old toss (Black Beauty, What Katy Did). Plus there are more Anthony Trollope novels than anyone could ever need (one). You can find the full list over on Amazon.
Plenty to be going on with, then, providing you're only interested in books written more than a hundred years ago. The copyright on novels expires 70 years after the author's death (thanks, the BBC), meaning anyone can then reproduce and distribute the text free of charge. It would have been nice if Nintendo had coughed up for a few modern classics - The Catcher in the Rye, say, Love in the Time of Cholera, or Jilly Cooper's Riders - just to mix things up a bit.
Still, if it's classic literature you're after, you can't fault the quality and quantity of the books on offer here. The real question is whether you'll want to read any of them on the DS. The answer is probably not, due to the fact the DS is of the wrong size and dimensions to comfortably accommodate this sort of thing.
You hold the DS vertically and text is displayed on both screens. The default font setting is "small", and although the text appears a little fuzzy around the edges, it's perfectly legible at this size. However, only around 50 words can be displayed on each screen at a time. Unless you're an extremely slow reader and/or massively thick, you'll find yourself having to turn the page far too often. This is easy enough to do - just swipe the stylus along the button of the screen, or use the d-pad - but it still becomes tiresome when you have to do it every 15 seconds or so.
It doesn't help that too many of the words are split up with hyphens to make them fit on the screens, breaking the flow of sentences. Plus, the page-turning animation, though nicely done, lasts just a touch longer than it ought to. Once you've seen it a dozen times in the space of only a few minutes, you start to wish it wasn't there at all.
In short, reading a novel on the DS is possible, but it isn't pleasant. The text, though readable, is slightly fuzzy, and the narrative flow is constantly interrupted by all the hyphens and page-turning. But are the other features on offer enough to make up for this?
There's the rather obvious advantage that it's easier to carry a DS cartridge around than a hundred books. Also, books don't come with wireless options. 100 Classic Book Collection lets you download additional titles free of charge - though there were only 10 to choose from at the time of writing. You can also download rankings to find out which titles are most popular with other readers. The rankings are divided into categories so you can check out the top ten "happy", "exciting", "scary" books and so on. Shakespeare can rest soundly in his grave knowing that Nintendo DS readers find A Winter's Tale to be more "profound" than The Casebook of Sherlock Holmes. Although not by much.
In addition, there are options to send a trial version to other DS handhelds, and exchange books with people who already have 100 Classic Book Collection. It's hard to see why you'd want to exchange books you've both already got, though, or could download anyway.
The offline features aren't much more exciting. You can search through the books on your shelf by title, genre or length. There are decent introductions and author biographies for each book. You can keep your place with electronic bookmarks, but there are no options to underline passages, add footnotes or scrawl pictures of male genitalia in the margins. When you finish a book, you'll be asked to mark it out of ten and can then choose a ranking labels to describe it - but only one, so a book can't be both "romantic" and "funny".
If you can't decide what you fancy reading, there's a stupid quiz to help you decide. A blinking owl asks you a series of questions, having first advised, "Please don't think too hard about your answers." He clearly hasn't thought too hard about the questions; they range from things like "Do you prefer thinking about things or taking action?" to "What do you like to drink after a meal - tea or coffee?" and "Do you prefer pop, rock or classical music?" (Turns out lazy tea-drinking Scooch fans are best suited to Hamlet, by the way.)
Then there are the hilarious background music options. Why not enhance your reading experience with the terrible plinky-plonky electro-harp of "Easy Listening", or hark back to the most boring text-based conversational interludes of the PSone Final Fantasy games with "Classic"?
"Beach" and "Moving Train" are at least vaguely reminiscent of the thing they're supposed to sound like. "Stream", however, is just white noise, making you feel like you're reading a book while trapped inside a broken television. "Forest" is like being trapped in a broken television with a load of birds. "Summer Day" is the terrifying and unending wall of noise which shall be the only audible sound once the nuclear holocaust is at an end and the cockroaches have conquered the Earth.
And that's about it. So for 20 quid, you're getting a hundred copyright-free books that are a pain to read and some fairly rubbish electronical features. It's not a brilliant deal, especially when you consider there's a similar application for iPhone which is free to download. It's much better, too, with more text on the screen at a time, sharper fonts and the option to choose white text on a black background.
Alternatively, at the risk of sounding like a hilarious old fuddy-duddy who goes round shaking their fist at lamp-posts and smashing up looms, you could just buy a book. You'll never have to wait for it to boot up. The batteries will never run out. You can read it in the bath. And if you live in Lewisham, you'll never have to worry about whether you can get it out on the bus without getting mugged, because no one will know what it is anyway. Joining a library is approximately 20 pounds cheaper than buying 100 Classic Book Collection, and besides - it's not as if Nintendo needs the money.
4 / 10