When the Nintendo DS first came out everyone was excited about the world of possibilities it opened up. Indeed, as time went by players saw some truly fascinating and innovative game titles that redefined the videogame experience. So far, however, the possibilities the DS could offer outside of the gaming universe haven’t been exploited. 100 Classic Books falls in that tiny category; it’s not really a game, it’s much closer to being an application than anything else, in that it allows you to use the DS as a portable, electronic library, full of literary classics.
The selection of titles is varied and there is something for almost every taste in the selection. The line-up of books is quite impressive, and includes almost all of the hallmark masterpieces of each literary genre. There’s adventure (The Man Who Would be King, Robinson Crusoe), social drama (Oliver Twist, Les Miserables), science fiction (The Time Machine, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea), romance (Pride and Prejudice, Romeo and Juliet), comedic irony (Don Quixote de la Mancha, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court) and even a few truly ancient immortals (The Odyssey, The Arabian Nights). One word of sound advice, though: most of these books were originally geared towards a mature audience, so if you’re a parent you may want to screen the content before recommending a book to your children.
Due to this commitment to variety, don’t expect to find too many titles in each genre. So if you only have a palate for, say, science fiction, you will soon exhaust your reservoir of attractive options. Luckily, there is the promise that new books will be periodically added as downloadable material from the web, and so far there are ten new titles available to download.
100 Classic Books is a good effort at trying to reproduce the traditional reading experience on the DS. You hold the handheld sideways like an open book, with the text displayed on both pages. You flip pages either by flicking on the side of the touch screen, or by using the buttons on the D-pad. This action is accompanied by an elegant page-turning animation that lasts just a fraction of a second, which is good, because you’ll be seeing it often. Although the letters aren’t particularly big, they are clearly legible from the ideal book-reading distance of about an arm’s length. The bad news is that the regular DS isn’t an ideal size for accommodating large, text-heavy books. There is never much text on screen and, if you read any faster than a first grader, you’ll find yourself turning pages a little too often for comfort (the package runs better on the larger DSi XL, though). In case you become tired and need to pause, the game allows you to use electronic bookmarks (up to a maximum of four).
Although 100 Classic Books is first and foremost a visual experience, the game does pack a few sound options. There are several jingles available as background music. Some of these jingles are slow and soothing instrumental compositions, such as ‘Classic’ and ‘Easy Listening’. Others, such as ‘Beach’, ‘Stream’ and ‘Forest’, are combinations of white noise with random nature sounds. In this category you'll also find the very peculiar ‘Summer Day’ jingle, which is an odd cacophony of cricket and cicada chirps, with just the right touch of hungry pigeon added to the mix to produce one of the single most annoying noises I’ve ever heard. But all in all, the background tunes are not so bad. However, as with any repetitive noise, these jingles grow old on you quite fast, and more often than not you’ll end up resetting your DS to ‘No Background Music’.
Finally, in case you really want to make good on that New Year’s resolution to read at least one book before December returns, but are clueless as to what to pick, the game sports a small quiz that can help you select a title that suits your mood and personality. The quiz seems outlandishly random and the logic that binds your answer to an actual book selection totally eludes me, but the one time I tried it I had no complaints.
Nevertheless, there are a few criticisms that can and should be made against this package. The first and foremost observation is that Nintendo went out of their way to select only novels held in the public domain (those older than 70 years old), so as not to have to pay copyright royalties. That means there is no chance of seeing any Tom Clancy or Gabriel Garcia Marquez added as a downloadable anytime soon. Then there are the aforementioned drawbacks about reading text on the tiny DS screens; there’s simply too much page turning required. A third negative aspect is that you cannot make annotations on the side, or highlight passages in the text, or even change to other font styles or colors.
One personal disappointment was the lack of illustrations in the package. Readers don’t expect a comic book, but illustrated book covers do add a lot of value to novels; just ask anyone in the business. After all, everyone certainly remembers that there’s at least one instance of a poor girl who fell into a strange alternate reality for staring too long at a book without illustrations (and yes, ‘Through the Looking Glass’ is present in the collection). Even a small black and white closing illustration at the end of each book would have been a nice visual reward for the effort of going through a novel cover to cover.
However, the single most poignant criticism that one could make about 100 Classic Books is a question; why pay hard earned dollars for books that can be downloaded for free from the internet? There are some interactive features in the menus, but none within the actual books. There is no art. The music is generic. One could easily emulate a similar package with a few smart phone aps. Or you could just… go to a library and read the books (yes, I actually said that). All are valid arguments; nevertheless one must admit that there is potential behind this concept. The need to evolve doesn’t negate the fact that the package does deliver what it promises, namely a hundred literary classics that you can carry in the snug little package that is your DS. Add to that the incredible lasting value you can obtain for just $19.99 (a full run of the entire package is not counted in hours, but in months, and possibly even years). So, if you would like to cultivate your reading skills on the go, you will love this title.