An Ode To Instructions: Why I’ll Miss Video Game Manuals

Take a deep breath folks, because the next generation of gaming is about to kick off in earnest! New games, new graphics and new gimmicks! Unfortunately it will also mean the definitive end of some long-standing gaming traditions — traditions like the video game manual. Manuals are of course already on death’s door, reduced in most cases to boring, colorless, two-page pamphlets, and the coming of a new generation of always-on, super-connected consoles surely spells doom.

Which is a shame, because video game manuals used to be a real art form. I can say without hesitation that I often treasured the manuals that came with my games more than the games themselves. Sure, the games were fun, but the manuals were objects of obsession — something to be pored over again and again. I wouldn’t be particularly distraught if I lost all my old NES cartridges. I could find them all again fairly easily. But if I lost my Super Mario Bros. 3 or Zelda manuals? That s–t would be devastating.

What used to be so great about these little paper booklets? Well…

All manual images via Replacementdocs

The Weird Detailed Backstories Barely Hinted At In The Actual Game

Once upon a time game designers understood kids didn’t want to sit around reading when they could be shooting things, so most video games only gave you the most cursory introduction possible, before dropping you into the middle of the action. The game’s story was usually relegated to the manual, and sometimes these stories were kind of nuts.

Like, did you know all the bushes, trees and bricks in Super Mario Bros. are alive and sentient? They used to be (presumably human) Mushroom Kingdom citizens who were turned into random s–t by black turtle magic. So yes, every time you smash a block, you’re ending an innocent person’s life. Yikes. Without video game manuals we’d all be blissfully unaware of the horrible dark side of the Mushroom Kingdom!

The Beautiful Original Art

I love video game concept art — it’s always fun to see what game makers thought their game could be before the realities of development forced them to homogenize their vision. These days if you want to check out a game’s concept art, you better hope they release expensive art book, or collector’s edition of the game. More often than not, you’re simply out of luck.

But back in the day you usually got all sorts of rad video game art for free in your game’s manual! The Zelda series was usually the high-water mark for manuals packed with great art. While other kids were reading comic books or Playboys under their sheets at night, I was gazing at the manual for Ocarina of Time for 100th time.


What decent, properly raised kid doesn’t love maps?

Creative Copy Protection

Today’s anti-piracy measures are, at best, a pain at the ass and at worst total game-ruiners (looking your way SimCity). In the past, anti-piracy measures were, unbelievably, actually fun. The letter you had to submerge in water that came with StarTropics, Monkey Island’s Dial-a-Pirate wheel — rather than making you feel like you were being punished, these games made you feel like you were being given the code to some cool secret club.

 The Useless Tips

Every video game manual had to have a page of patently obvious “tips” — they were rarely useful, and sometimes outright misleading, but I always made sure to read them and dutifully commit them to memory.

The Weird Extras

Of course there were always those manuals that went a step further and included comics, stickers, newspaper clippings from the game’s world, pages from the character’s diaries and all sorts of other random stuff. Sometimes a manual was so packed with cool extra stuff that it made up for the game itself being a heap of junk. Just saying, I may have briefly owned Bubsy for the Genesis, a decision I can assure you I wouldn’t have made if Bubsy’s manual didn’t contain a pretty rad little mini-comic.

The Notes Page

Ah, the notes page. What was the notes page for exactly? Nobody knows! But therein lies the appeal — you could use it for whatever the hell you wanted! Personally I usually kept them blank in the interest of keeping my manual in pristine condition, but occasionally I would write a short review of the game the manual belonged to on the notes page.

Hell, without the notes page you might not be putting up with my video game ramblings today — feel free to thank the notes page any time guys.

They Were Your Special Bonus For Buying A Game New

Manuals used to be the ultimate incentive to buy a game new. The manual was almost always missing from used games, and rentals usually replaced the manual with a photocopy or a lame one-page button layout guide. Everyone I knew as a kid had played Punch-Out (and claimed to be able to beat Mike Tyson) but only one super-rad kid (who sadly wasn’t me) actually owned the manual. Owning a game and owning the game and the manual were worlds apart on the coolness scale.

I find it perplexing that the video game industry is doing away with manuals at a time when they’re absolutely manic about the evils of used games. Guys, the manual was your best weapon against used games for a good 20-years — maybe turning your back on it for the sake of saving 25-cents on printing costs is a bit short sighted.

Ah, but this old man does go on. How about you folks? Any video game manuals that you remember with particular fondness? Any titles you loved more for the manual than the actual game? Hit the comments and share, before the inevitable tide of progress washed over us all.