Happy Fourth, to those of our readership who observe it!

Rocketnews has a comprehensive English-language report on some new Nintendo-related e-book news. Nintendo is launching an e-book program for its 3DS handhelds aimed at grade-school kids, with 300 Japanese children’s books available.

Whereas Nintendo used to be the undisputed king of console and mobile gaming, and still does well in Japan, its numbers have been declining abroad as more and more kids turn to smartphones and tablets and the gaming possibilities they represent. Hence, it’s starting to explore new markets.

On The Digital Reader, Nate Hoffelder mentions that there had been supposed to be a Japanese Nintendo manga store called “eBookstore Anywhere” launching last September, but there has since been no sign of it. This is far from the first time the Game Boy platformhas been associated with e-books, however.

The first time that I know of may not actually count, because it was all the way back in 1992 and just a mention in a book rather than a real device. This was back when e-books were still just science fiction—literally.

In the book Fallen Angels by Larry Niven, Jerry Pournelle, and Michael Flynn, Game Boys are modified into covert e-readers (or e-readers are disguised as Game Boys) to get around an oppressive dystopian government that has cracked down on reading. From Chapter 15:

He held the chip up to the light and looked at it. “How many books does it hold?”

“About five hundred,” said Will Waxman. The old man with the bushy patriarch’s beard laid four more on the table. “This is almost my entire library. The last one, there? That’s the Encyclopaedia Britannica.”

Ted grunted and laid the first chip down. All five had been modified to look like Nintendo “Game Boy” cartridges. “Cyberbooks. And you want to know if I can duplicate them?”

Will Waxman nodded. “And the reader.” He set a Sony Bookman on the table between them. “Maybe a dozen of each?”

Ted picked up the Bookman. “Where did you get this baby? I thought their import was banned.”

“It is.”

Ted inserted one of the cartridges into the Bookman and touched the “game buttons.” “How does it—Never mind, I got it. This is page forward; and this is page back. Hey! You’ve got the entire Heinlein canon in here! And Asimov and de Camp and … What does this button do?”

“It moves the cursor around so you can tab hypertext buttons. Go ahead, move it to the story title you want to read and then press the ‘A’ button.”

Ted did so and smiled when he saw the title page appear on the screen. He glanced at the other cartridges. “This must be a lot of fun when you’re browsing through the encyclopedia.”

Flying through the encyclopedia,” Will corrected him, “like a stone from David’s sling skipping over the water. No, more like jaunting in Bester’s The Stars My Destination or the stepping discs in Niven’s Ringworld. Did you ever hear Philip José Farmer’s definition of a dullard?”

Ted shook his head. “No.”

Will grinned. “Someone who looks a thing up in the encyclopedia, turns directly to the entry, reads it, and then closes the book.”

Ted laughed. “It’s a damn shame they banned these things. The trade problem—”

“Trade friction had nothing to do with it.” Will took the Bookman from Ted, saw that it was open to Pebble in the Sky and flipped through the electronic pages. “Can you imagine any gadget better designed to seduce the Video Generation into reading?”

Nintendo GameboyThis was before the term “e-book” was in common use, so they called them “cyberbooks,” presumably in reference to the Ben Bova novel. At the time, the only Game Boy was the original 1990 device (the Color didn’t come out until ‘98), with a black-and-white 160×144-resolution screen—not much worse than the 160×160 Palm Pilot that launched real mobile e-reading several years later. The biggest cartridge was 8 megabytes, which would realistically only have held about 40 to 50 books, not 500, but this was set “twenty minutes into the future”—probably right around now, in fact, judging by the ages of characters and things that happened in their youth—so they might have expected better displays to be around by then and Moore’s Law to hold out for another few years.

It’s remarkable how many things they got right, isn’t it? The general experience of how an e-reader would work, and even how tempting it is to “wiki-walk” from one on-line article to another. (Though they’d probably already had that experience with Encarta or some other multimedia encyclopedia-on-disc at that point.) Of course, now we have chips the size of your thumbnail that will hold tens or hundreds of thousands of books, and they also missed the whole Palm Pilot/smartphone/tablet revolution that’s largely usurped the Game Boy’s screen-in-your-pocket role (not to mention missing the boat on a lot of non-e-book-related things, like expecting us to have a fully-populated space station colony beaming microwave power back to Earth by now!), but prognosticating trends that come out of nowhere is hard.

(Fallen Angels used to be part of the Baen Free Library, but was a casualty of the switchover to selling via Amazon and hasn’t gone back up yet. It can be found as part of the “Wind Rider CD” image on The Fifth Imperium’s Baen CD repository, or on one of the foreign sites that still host the Baen CDs uncompressed. It also features a cameo by Richard Stallman of all people.)

Someone actually did create an e-book reader for the original Game Boy, several years after the fact, but given that it required a custom cartridge to use, and the web site is no longer even available outside of the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine, it’s not exactly all that viable.

More recently, of course, people have been using Nintendo DS e-reader apps and cartridges for a while, leveraging the way that its two screens, when held on the side, resembled the facing pages of a book. In 2008, several homebrew apps let people read books or comics on their DS, and HarperCollins UK put out a cartridge with 100 classic public-domain titles on it. The DSi seemed to offer even better reading capabilities, and companies did release cartridges to take advantage of it. In 2010, Harlequin released a romance novel e-book cartridge in Japan, and Nintendo president Satoru Iwata talked about making the 3DS “automatically acquire newspaper and magazine articles.”

So, apart from science fiction authors’ visions, there have been a lot of real e-book-related activities around Nintendo Game Boys, but mostly homebrew or one-offs from individual companies trying to capitalize on the device—not Nintendo itself. It may be too little, too late at this point—Japan had a $740 million e-book market in 2012, and almost half of all e-book consumers bought from Amazon’s Kindle store.


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