Before I had a car, a job, or credit cards, buying a game was a major event. It took planning to choose just what game I’d save allowance for, and often involved a lot of research on an anemic version of the internet to figure out exactly when that game would appear at my local store. When the day finally arrived, my mom would drive me to the the mall, I’d excitedly purchase the factory sealed case, and then head home, counting the moments until I could play it.
A final, key part of that purchasing ritual was opening the game in the car and flipping through the instruction manual. I’d carefully remove the booklet from the box, appreciate the cover, and begin to page through it. I’d see controls, be introduced to the story and characters, maybe learn some key movements and attacks. I wasn’t just killing time on the ride home from the mall - I was preparing myself for the journey I was about to undergo. And now, those days are long over for both me and the little booklets of old.
These days, you’re lucky to get a black and white slip of paper in the flimsy plastic box, likely with a plain image of a controller and arrows pointed towards the buttons. Oh, you’ll get a lot more printed material, but that paper is usually an insert with a Day One DLC code attached, or perhaps an ad for a season pass or upcoming game. Even the legalese that used to pad the pages of most manuals is now simply printed on the back of the cover art. Finding an actual manual gets rarer and rarer, especially with far more convenient digital releases slowly but surely replacing retail. I wouldn’t be surprised if I wrote another feature like this one for discs in five or six years.
And even the few manuals still getting printed are thinner every year, slowly shrinking until they disappear like the rest of them. I first realized the era of the instruction booklet was coming to a close when I saw Nintendo, once a master of the manual, include a folded piece of paper in major titles like Super Mario 3D Land and Super Smash Bros. for 3DS. Nintendo titles used to include massive, colorful books that were full of lovely character art. If even Nintendo is cutting back, then it’s a dark day for instruction lovers like myself, and it leaves me with many questions.
Who killed the video game instruction manual? Was it the slow decline of printed media? Did publishers just want to cut costs? When most titles started to host hours of in-game tutorials, were manuals even needed anymore? Were people even reading them before diving into games? Or had the booklets simply become outdated?
Speaking pragmatically, I can see instruction manuals no longer being needed as the true culprit. Even I didn’t use them much for their intended, informative purpose. Upon seeing one in a current game, I’d exclaim, “Wow, this company still makes manuals? Awesome”. I’d then flip through it, more to appreciate the art and page layout than to actually learn how to play the game. I knew whatever I read would likely be redundant once I played the opening training mission or overly expository instructional stage.
Why spend money printing a pamphlet that goes unused? Also, if someone really wants to read a manual, many titles come with digital ones attached to the game. It goes without saying that scrolling through a black and white Adobe Reader file doesn’t have the same magic as holding a physical copy in your hand, but maybe that proves manuals’ current uselessness. As the medium evolves, a written guide isn’t nearly as helpful as a heavily noted FAQ or official forum - especially not with shrinking attention spans.
And so, with the reasonable extinction of the instruction manual, all that remains are the memories. Of reading the intro notes that explain a story far deeper than the 8-bit game could possibly tell with its limited tech. Of seeing some highly detailed character art that supposedly represented what some pile of polygons was supposed to look like. Before HD graphics, those booklets informed your imagination: they showed you what you were supposed to see when playing those classic games. Hell, I’ll even miss all those ‘notes’ pages in the back of the booklets, useless as they were to me - I’d never defile the manual with my inky scribblings.
What will you miss most of the instruction manual? Perhaps the comments section of this article can work as a place where we can all share memories of our favorite booklets, and why we’ll miss them in our increasingly paperless society. Until then, I’ll be flipping through my pristine Super Mario Bros. 3 manual and remembering those halcyon days of my youth.