Artifacts From A Bygone Era – The Lost Beauty Of Video Game Instructional Manuals

This year, I turned thirty years old.  When I was a little over two years old, Nintendo introduced the Nintendo Entertainment System to America.  This meant little to me then… but when I was five, I played Super Mario Bros at a friend’s house and I was hooked.

I don’t recall exactly what year it was that I received my NES.  Based on the games I received as gifts over the years, I’d place it probably around 1990.  Games like The Legend of Zelda, Super Mario Bros 3, and Shadowgate were the cornerstones to my young life.

I spent more than a year going through The Legend of Zelda, finding secret caverns, and exploring the huge 16×8 screen overworld.  And that didn’t even include the labyrinthine underworld, filled with deadly enemies and perilous traps! That game was as good as it got for me at seven years old.

Christmas morning was always exciting.  But by nine, I had learned to be cautious of the NES game-shaped present under the tree. I would be playing a new game after we went to my grandmother’s for dinner, sure.  But what would it be?  Chances were decent that it would end up being Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out or RBI Baseball.  But chances were, unfortunately, better that it would be Dick Tracy, or Top Gun 2: The Second Mission (I owned both games as a child… pity me, pity me).

But this was pre-Internet.  The only resource I had for video game reviews was Nintendo Power… and even that couldn’t be trusted.  Hell, they gave the soul-sucking horror that was Dick Tracy an average 3.0 rating and anyone who has played the game will tell you that a giving Dick Tracy a 3.0 is tantamount to giving a trash can full of turds a 30-point Zagat rating.  Sure, you can eat.  But it may kill you.

Another option would be to ask one of my friends, but most of them actually engaged in activities that didn’t include video games.  Some of them even played sports! How was I to trust their judgement of what made for a good video game?  Hell, one of my friends even claimed to have enjoyed Bill and Ted’s Excellent Video Game Adventure. Oh wait… that was me.

So no Internet… no trust-worthy friends…  What was a young boy to do, stranded at Grandma’s house for hours on end… no video games… No Game Boy… Nothing but football on the television…  Why, a boy would turn to the video game’s manual of course.

Ah yes, the manual.  In the NES days of video games, the manual was nearly an art form.  Not only did it give you the story of a game (in fact, it was often the only story for a lot of games), a manual would often give you data on the controls for the game, the baddies you’d be fighting, and it would often be filled with all kinds of helpful tips and tricks… mainly because NES games weren’t always the most intuitive or the easiest to conquer.

That leaves me with just one question: What the fuck happened to video game manuals?  In the halcyon days of yore, manuals were robust.  They were beautiful pocket-sized guides that helped a young adventurer save the world in Crystalis and The Legend of Zelda.  The manual for Maniac Mansion let me believe I would eventually conquer that crazy place (I didn’t).  Hell, the manuals for Friday the 13th and Home Alone 2 made the games seem like they were going to be great (they weren’t).

But manuals now-a-days?  Complete crap!  You get a page of controls, maybe a tiny bit of text explaining the story, and about six pages of credits and anti-piracy notices.  Some games even come with a booklet that shows the title on the front and instructs the gamer to visit a web-site to read the full manual.  Bullshit, I say!

To prove my point, check out these manuals from the NES days over at Digital Press! Specifically, check out the first-part Nintendo titles.  The Legend of Zelda, the Super Mario games… Full-color, lots of information regarding the enemies (plus, the SMB2 manual taught us that Birdo was male, but wanted to be female… so…), the worlds, and extensive descriptions of the controls… Just wonderful!

Nothing can really compare to the manuals of the era for me.  Bethesda does a really good job, as has From.Software with the Souls series… but these examples are few and far between in modern gaming.  The last time I remember being really impressed with a video game manual was Acclaim’s N64\PC game Shadowman, which even included a map! Crazy thought…

Anyone out there have favorite manuals from back in the day?

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