The lost art of video game instruction manuals

video game instruction manual lost manuals booklets

Video game instruction manuals hold a special place in the hearts of many gamers. As a kid, poring over the instruction manual for GoldenEye 007 on the car ride home was my first true glimpse into the game I was about to dive into, and it set the imagination racing. Unique artwork, lore, and gameplay tips were all vitally significant in an era where game guides were not always readily accessible. Unfortunately, instruction books have almost died out completely by this point, and it’s not hard to understand why. Digital gaming and the internet have rendered traditional video game instruction manuals obsolete. After all, who needs a physical book when in-game tutorials and Google can provide infinitely more information? But in spite of the modern digital age we live in, could there be a way for instruction manuals to make a return in some form?

What makes a video game instruction manual special?

In the early console generations, an instruction manual was one of the best pieces of supplemental material a player could ask for. Controls were rarely viewable within games, and the rapid advancement in controller designs meant that this knowledge was essential to get to grips with brand new control schemes. Additionally, since hardware limitations restricted graphics and storytelling capabilities, a lot was left to the imagination involving story and setting. Developers had to get creative to present the stories they envisioned to players, and instruction manuals became an avenue to do just that.

Nintendo was no stranger to this, as it often created instruction manuals with full-color artwork and elaborate lore for its games. The depth of lore provided in instruction manuals set the stage for grand narratives that the games couldn’t convey alone. To give you an idea of how important this was, Nintendo’s own Yoshiaki Koizumi stated that the team members who wrote instruction manuals also often created most of the backstory for a game.

Colorful artwork painted a vibrant picture of what a game was intended to look like. The Legend of Zelda’s instruction manual demonstrates this beautifully. Pages upon pages of it are filled with character and location art, as well as oodles of hints, backstories, and even a map of the game world. For The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time 3D, Nintendo even decided to use the new hardware to make character models more closely reflect the artwork seen in the original instruction manual, giving you an idea of just how important instruction manual-based artwork was to a developer’s vision.

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Beyond informing the imagination of gamers, instruction manuals also served to be fun additions to a game’s experience. With Metroid, the artwork and descriptions intentionally led players to believe Samus was male. Super Mario Bros. 3 included a message from Mario directly to the player, and the notes section was a novel way for players to gain hints from previous owners of the game. Pokémon Red and Blue featured an instruction manual with not only tips, a map, and an element chart, but also a full bestiary of the 151 Pokémon to fill out.

Taken as a whole, instruction manuals served their purpose and went the extra mile by adding to the experience outside of a game itself. Luckily, Nintendo keeps online archives of various NES and SNES instruction manuals, so I encourage you to check some out for yourself.

It’s clear why they had to go

Most contemporary games have stopped including instruction manuals and for good reasons. Gaming technology has rapidly advanced, making it simple to teach players everything they need within a game itself. Controls are viewable in menus, in-game tutorials let players master the mechanics, and inclusions like tooltips and practice modes are perfect for learning advanced moves. In many cases, these features are contextualized as part of the story, meaning that instruction manuals are no longer needed to help players learn controls or provide lore.

Improvements in graphics have made it far easier for developers to tell compelling narratives with well-produced cutscenes and voice acting. As a result, the story provided in instruction manuals became pointless. Players that purchase digital copies of games can’t physically receive an instruction manual, and even features like artwork can now be found as unlockable extras in many games or sold separately as art books.

video game instruction manual lost manuals booklets Super Mario Bros. 3

The rise of the internet also contributed to the fall of instruction manuals. Guides and secrets are as convenient as a Google or YouTube search or even watching a streamer play the game. These factors have resulted in instruction manuals becoming a waste of development time and money for developers. It’s becoming increasingly more expensive to develop games, so the irrelevance of instruction manuals makes them an easy cut from a developer’s budget (as well as to be environmentally friendly).

All told, instruction manuals became thinner over time due to the ever-growing prominence of digital gaming and the internet. What was once a creative outlet for supplementary visual and written material for a game is now nonexistent, and while the reasons behind that are solid, it feels like a shame.

Could they return in some form?

So we’ve established that the rise of the internet and digital gaming has rendered instruction manuals all but irrelevant for both gamers and developers. However, is there any potential to revive this tradition for modern gaming? Unlikely as it is, I believe there’s a chance it could be possible with physical versions of games. The convenience of digital games is undeniable, but what if there were a greater incentive for players to purchase physical games?

Elaborate instruction manuals, complete with exclusive artwork and other merchandise not available anywhere else, could be a draw for enthusiast gamers. To an extent, this is similar to what some pricier special editions of games have included in recent years. There is still a potential audience that would appreciate the return of elaborate and lovingly crafted instruction manuals, even if they were exclusive to physical special editions.

Hyper Light Drifter

For gamers, it’s a chance to get their hands on unique merchandise for their favorite games. For publishers like Nintendo, it represents a chance to strengthen its relationship with the retail industry and potentially boost the opportunities available for artists on the development teams. Going the extra mile, the return of instruction manuals could even give rise to fun experiences such as hiding decipherable cheat codes within them or containing the necessary information for in-game puzzles, much like Metal Gear Solid did with its game case on the PlayStation. For digital games, manuals could be made available in-game as perfect representations of their physical counterparts. Alternatively, entire video games based on the idea of using instructional help, such as the virtual reality (or just Nintendo Switch) hit Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes, could be an unorthodox method here and there to keep instruction manuals in the fray.

Would you like to see video game instruction manuals make a comeback?

Chirag Pattni
Psychologist and long time gamer. Has a love-hate relationship with technology and enjoys all things Japanese.