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Remembering the glory of videogame manuals

4:00 PM on 05.17.2014 // Brittany Vincent

Colorful pages, powerful memories

When I was a little girl, purchasing a new game often meant thumbing through the pages of a mammoth tome detailing impending gameplay down to the letter. If I were stuck on a long car trip with a recently-purchased title, digging into that precious parcel and retrieving the manual was the first thing on my mind. Sometimes, starting a fresh new game was only the icing on top of the delicious packaging sundae, and I was decidedly more interested in getting at the extras than actually tearing into Diablo II or Creatures.

It was a way to game vicariously through a few simple, innocent pages, and one of the first ties I established to any game I had my heart set on playing through. Unfortunately, it’s also a familiar constant that gamers new and old can kiss goodbye with the decision a majority of companies employ to downsize the distribution of manuals entirely. 

Call me old-fashioned, but the feeling of thumbing through the crisp pages rife with back story, notes from the designers, and detailed instructions on how to play gave me a real sense of anticipation. It was genuinely difficult to wait those few short hours until the final journey home at the end of the day to eagerly devour the content on the disk (or cartridge) inside. In some cases, being treated with some delicious fiction related to the title was something to look forward to as well, especially if you needed a little extra hype to fully enjoy the adventure about to unfold.

And let’s not forget the lovely serial numbers or copy protection that would require you to find a certain line or word in the manual to be able to install the thing. Good luck if you threw it away! But even now, as illogical as it would be to require a simple word or pass phrase as DRM, it was part of the charm that came with buying a new game.

Of course, the main reason these miniature morsels of gaming goodness exist can’t be overlooked: they teach you how to play the game -- or at least, they're supposed to. And there are those who, back in the heyday of these manuals, completely ignored the instructions within and jumped straight into the game anyway. I was one of them, only to dive back into the booklet to look up exactly what those glowing red items were, or why I can't save at certain points.

While the in-game tutorial is perpetuated for a generation who simply doesn’t have time to (or doesn't want to) sit down and get a primer on what they’re about to experience, I find myself frustrated with learning by example in-game and missing the thrill of discovery that came with gleaning information from a physical guide. I’ve always learned through instruction rather than hands-on walkthroughs, so it’s been interesting adapting over the years as tutorials have become more prominent.

They’ve had to, because we need to think green, and whatnot. Manuals are a mere few pages, and if they do happen to be a thick slab of paper, it’s because the mandatory multiple language are used as some kind of cruel, sick filler in my world. Spanish-speakers can find reference within these few pages, but where is the meat of the manual? I can read copyright information and EULAs in-game. I suppose that’s just me being curmudgeonly, but I know that opening up a game these days is completely disheartening. And it’s only getting worse.

Beautiful works such as the Lunar: Silver Star Story Complete manual and Tie Fighter tomes may never be seen again. And I’m not really okay with that. We shouldn’t be relegated to picking up collectors’ editions or limited runs of titles to receive a booklet that may be of some value. Unfortunately, this is likely just one more step toward moving into the digital age, and soon enough we may not even be graced with the traditional box.

As much as I'm for innovation, hanging onto gaming’s yesteryear has and always will be one of my favorite things to do. Though I'm excited to see the future, I’m also a little afraid. Decent manuals completed the package for me. They taught me to game in a much more efficient way than following directions from an in-game scenario, and they acted as one component of the fifty to sixty dollar package I spent my hard-earned allowance on that made it stand out from my collections of DVDs and CDs. Like the liner notes from your favorite artist, the wit and informative writing seen in great manuals were integral to the experience as a whole.

But as much as I’d like to see a renaissance of the familiar little booklets, it’s not going to happen. Thankfully, with resources like Replacement Docs or Nintendo's initiative to sell classic manuals, I can take a stroll down memory lane without having to find old PC titles or dig through the multiple plastic bins that serve as home for my precious commodities. I may have to face new titles relying on my familiarity with standard game mechanics and control schemes, but at least I have my memories.

So, I guess this is goodbye, you lovely manuals. I’ll miss the way you smell, your shiny covers, and the comments I furiously scribbled in your “Notes” section. I’ll miss the way you divulged secret codes right under my nose. Most of all, I’ll miss your value as bathroom reading material and padding for my bookshelf. Thanks for so many great memories. Here’s to seeing you in digital format again someday.

Brittany Vincent, Former Associate Editor
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Can't play witcha, I been busy workin', baby. Brittany Vincent is an accomplished video game and freelance entertainment writer whose work has been featured in esteemed publications and o... more   |   staff directory

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