The year is 1991. You sit in front of the 20-inch television in your living room with your Sega Genesis controller in your lap and a brand new copy of Spider-Man vs The Kingpin in your hands. You peel off the crinkly plastic wrapping and crack open the box. The factory-fresh smell of black vinyl washes over you, but slapping the game cartridge into your console is not your first order of business.
Gamers young and old were often caught toting around the tiny tome that accompanied their latest game purchase.
No, you must treat this digital vacation as you have treated so many before it – with a bit of reading first. As you slide the crisp new game manual out from under the firm plastic clips holding it in place, you instinctively measure its thickness between your fingertips. At 20 pages long, it’s not the most epic piece of game documentation in the world, but still large enough that you feel confident it will satiate your needs.
You automatically skip the first page, after all, who needs to be told how to put a cartridge in a slot? On page 2 you find a pleasant surprise: a beautifully-drawn comic strip that sets the stage for the pixelated perils that await you. This retail-quality cartoon adventure continues for a full four pages, and by the time you’re done, you can’t wait to start the game.
But that’s not all the wonderful little booklet has to offer, and you spend a further twenty minutes browsing an in-depth controller guide, options overview, villain glossary complete with screenshots, tips page, and of course the all-important “Notes” section that you plan on filling with cheat codes and passwords. As you close the manual and slide it back into its rightful place, you suddenly snap back to reality.
The year is 2012. You look around and realize you’re sitting in front of your 47-inch HDTV with the pleasant glow of your Nintendo Wii just a few feet away. You look down to see a newly unwrapped copy of Spider-Man: Web of Shadows on your lap. You have what looks like a game manual in your hand, but it can’t possibly be; it’s just too thin. As you flip through the seven-page document, which contains nearly as much text in its seizure and motion sickness warnings as it does about the actual game, the grim reality of the situation finally sets in: Today’s game manuals suck.
It didn’t used to be this way, and if you owned an 8- or 16-bit console, you know that the paper pamphlet that came with your fresh new cartridge was as exciting to explore as the game itself. These relics of yesteryear often included lengthy story sections to set the stage for your experience, and in-depth control explainers complete with screenshots or even hand-drawn art of what each move or weapon looked like in action. The game might be the main course, but the booklet was a tasty side dish that gave each meal a unique flavor.
Gamers young and old were often caught toting around the tiny tome that accompanied their latest game purchase. The manuals were found on coffee tables, in office drawers, and hidden within school backpacks the world over. They often became bent and busted, their spines worn to shreds after thousands of page flips. They were repaired with tape and staples in a futile effort to preserve their all-important content. They were the single most important part of the gaming culture, aside from the games and systems themselves.
The included instructions for the Nintendo classic A Boy and His Blob featured 15 pages of story, character biographies, and tips broken down into sections with playful names like “Fourteen Fabulous Flavors” and “Menacing Meanies.” The manual for Battletoads was equally impressive, offering an editorial-style preview of the entire game within its covers as well as 31 hand-drawn enemies and obstacles with complete descriptions.
Genesis fans who owned Ecco the Dolphin (let’s be honest, who didn’t?) were treated to 26 pages of tips, tricks, facts about real-life dolphins, and even a full-page excerpt from The Living Sea by Jacques Cousteau, just to set the watery mood. Sonic the Hedgehog 2 brought with it a 26-page encyclopedia breaking down items, enemies, and even five full pages of level descriptions and artwork.
These extras brought the games to life in a very special way, and paging through a written history of the virtual landscape you were about to enter offered a way to connect to – and care about – the characters and story before even touching the controller. The written prologues evoked a litany of emotions, and reading about places and events that preceded your own involvement made you feel like you had the inside scoop.
You could browse through pages of enemies and bosses that were hours, or even days of play time away, and it gave you an incentive to press on through punishing difficulty and unfair odds. It may have been midnight, and perhaps your attempt to beat Contra was entering its fourth hour, but you had made it to the Hangar Zone twice already, and according to the manual, you were just one stage away from expelling the alien threat once and for all. So you peeled open a new bag of Doritos, grabbed yet another Mountain Dew from the fridge and did what you had to do.
By contrast, the modern equivalents of these once-fantastic documents are absolutely abysmal. If you’re lucky, the thin pamphlet included with your disc might contain a general control layout somewhere between production credits and warranty information, but good luck finding anything resembling manuals of yore.
Most of today’s game makers seem to think they’ve skirted the need for written backstories by including opening cinematic sequences.
Metroid Prime 3 for the Nintendo Wii is a great example. The included text spends 10 pages in a hopeless attempt to explain the convoluted controls and how to make sense of the map screen, without a single mention of who or what Samus is, why we should care, or how we got to this point in the Metroid timeline. The sad part about this is that Metroid Prime 3‘s manual is actually one of the better ones.
For a true glimpse at just how pitiful today’s manuals have become we can take a look at Silent Hill: Downpour, officially the eighth installment in the Silent Hill franchise. With such a rich and storied history, surely its manual is a lengthy atlas explaining where Downpour fits in to the somewhat confusing, but nevertheless interesting universe, right? Wrong. One page. A single, solitary page with a photo of a controller and a list of button commands is all we get. Well, technically, if you include the warranty information, seizure warning, and the fact that these three pages are reprinted in both French and Spanish, there are nine pages. This is absolutely unacceptable.
We can take a small amount of comfort in the fact that some titles still include at least a halfway decent manual. Many of Nintendo’s Mario titles still feature full spreads, complete with art and tidbits of story that catapult the universe off the screen and into both your hands and your heart. Likewise, many role-playing games still come packaged with epic tomes detailing everything from items to spells to … more items. Unfortunately, this is too often the exception rather than the rule, and it only serves to highlight the overall lack of proper game documentation on the whole.
Most of today’s game makers seem to think they’ve skirted the need for written backstories and tasty extras by including context in opening cinematic sequences or character dialogue. Unfortunately, the events presented to you on the screen pale in comparison to what your own mind could draw for you, given the chance. I’ll take two pages of a professionally-written prologue over a couple minutes of computer-rendered video and shoddy voice work any day.
Some games let you unlock bonus art and other material by completing specific objectives within the game itself. This is perhaps the worst idea since the Bandai Pippin. I don’t want to look at pictures of places I’ve already been after the game is over, I want to see them before I get there. I want to be teased. I want to read about a dangerous and beautiful land I haven’t yet explored. I want to see original drawings of deadly enemies waiting for me somewhere down the road. I want a game to be able to put me in the mood to play it before I hit the power button, not attempt to wow me with what I’ve already seen.
Sometimes a premium is put on this type of content, requiring that you buy a collector’s edition if you want a glimpse at concept art or additional materials. You may even find yourself reluctantly shelling out money for a strategy guide you don’t really need, just to get that same behind-the-scenes feeling that the manuals of yesterday provided for free.
You shouldn’t have to. This very obvious feeling of entitlement exists for a reason, and we as gamers deserve thick, well-written, fantastically-drawn game manuals that add to the experience, rather than a leaflet with little to no useful information. A great game manual is like a trusty sidekick that tags along with you even when you can’t be enjoying the adventure on a screen. They can make a game feel more real than HD graphics and surround sound ever has, and we desperately need them back.
Mike has been a gamer since the Atari 2600 days, and holds a somewhat unhealthy adoration for Mega Man. He is the Senior News Editor for Tecca, which specializes in consumer technology.