O Manual, Where Art Thou?

I have always found that the game manuals that come with video games were as much fun to read and as much a part of the overall gaming experience as the games themselves. That is why the news that EA is no longer going to put manuals in game boxes really hurts my game loving heart.

I guess it really should not come as much of a shock since the true gaming manual as I remember it hasn’t existed for quite some time. Modern games rarely even give you more than a pamphlet these days and all it shows is the controller and a few simply movement commands. I know game manuals sir, and you are no game manual!

I can easily go back to the heyday of computer games and you could just about pick up any new game off of the shelf and you would be guaranteed to get a nice meaty manual that helped to set up the back-story for the game and gave you a very detailed description of how best to interact with the game itself.

It’s almost as if the farther back you go, the better the manuals were and the better the “feelies” were that came packed with the game. The Retroist has already done great posts here about what feelies are so I won’t go into much detail on that here. I will just say that feelies were anything the game makers packed into the box that you could hold in your hand that would really help to flesh out the game and its world for you. Old Infocom text-based adventure games almost always came with great feelies like glow-in-the-dark rocks that once they started glowing would actually reveal secret passwords that you needed to move forward with the game. Oh how I miss feelies desperately!

Glasses, a button, a name badge, and a printed newsletter. Oh sweet heaven!

Of course any kind of simulation game in the 80’s had the most glorious game manuals ever made. Games like Aces Over the Pacific and Red Baron had manuals that clocked in at over 300 pages. They gave you every bit of information there was about the game itself, but they went the extra mile and included information about wars the games were covering, the enemies you would be fighting, and even what was going on in the world during the timeframe that the game takes place in. You would also get a really nice foldout piece that you could lay over your keyboard that would show you what each of the keys did during the game.

Manual love though was not just only for PC games. I can go all the way back to the Atari 2600 and Activisions game Space Shuttle. This was one of the more complex games for that system and it used every single know and switch on the 2600 unit itself as well as both of the joysticks! The manual did a great job of telling you what was needed to succeed in the game as well as setting the stage for what would truly happen to the astronauts inside if you failed your mission. It truly gave the game a weight that you carried with you as you played it. That’s a feeling I haven’t gotten from any game in quite a long time.

space-shuttle

Shown here is the overlay that went over the Atari 2600 for the Space Shuttle Game

It seemed for a while, especially on pirate ridden systems like the C64, that manuals started being used more heavily for anti-piracy purposes. The game makers would use more and more pages of the manuals for things like tables that would hold codes in them. If the player didn’t have the manuals they would not have the codes needed to continue playing the game. This would have worked wonderfully had the copier never been invented. Unfortunately for the game makers, the copier was invented and the pirates would simply copy the manuals as well as the disk images. So in effect, piracy hurt the game manuals as much as the games themselves.

The famous Dial-A-Pirate wheel for Monkey Island

Of course with the explosive growth of the Adobe product line, and more specifically Adobe Acrobat, companies found that they could simply put a PDF of the game manual on the game disk and save themselves money by not having to even print the manuals. Unfortunately, this totally killed the buzz that true manual lovers like me had for games.

I remember that whenever I would buy a new game, on the way home, I would hand the game to my then girlfriend/now wife, and ask her to open the game and read the manual to me. She enjoyed reading about the games to decide whether she might be interested in playing it herself, and I got the added benefit of not having to wait until I got home to know how to control the game. Now try doing that when there is no manual and there is just a lifeless PDF on the game disk!

These days, feelies are better known as “Collectors Editions” and they make the game cost an extra twenty dollars or sometimes much more than that. I recently purchased the “Collectors Edition” of the new Mortal Kombat game. It comes with a lot of extra feelies in it such as book ends and an art book. Instead of the normal $59.99 price tag, it cost me $99.99! Quite the premium isn’t it. Oh and there is no manual included for the game! Which means I will have to spend an extra $20 for the strategy guide to learn how to play the game! Grrrrrrrr!

Strategy guides really tick me off because they are what the included game manual should be. Now I don’t think they should give away all of the secrets of the game. After all that is why we play the games in the first place. But let’s face it, everyone who buys the Mortal Kombat game wants to know the control combination to the super cool, awesome fatalities. Yet they are never included in the game manual. They want you to spend the extra $20 to find the cool stuff in the games. This is akin to going to McDonalds and ordering a hamburger and just getting the buns, and then they tell you for an extra $5 you can get the meat added on.

At any rate, game manuals are now all but dead and a true integral part of the gaming experience has died with them. The say that everything old becomes new again, so I will keep hope alive that one day a game company will decide that a totally cool game manual will help them sell more games, because I would be there day one to buy that game.

The Doc

If it was made in the 80's it's simply better!Take Empire Strikes Back for instance!

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4 thoughts on “O Manual, Where Art Thou?

  1. Doug says:

    Great post, Doc. Remember Yar’s Revenge’s manual. It was a comic book showing the Yars’ homeworld and civilian life. The Legend of Zelda’s manual had all sorts of anime-ish art and a fold-out map that revealed some secrets and only hinted at others. Good old days.

  2. I still hold onto the the games and all its extras that I probably played the most when I was younger, Pirates! I hung that map over my bed and would stare at it until I memorized every port.

  3. Atari Adventure Square says:

    Great article on what was an integral part of home-gaming mindsets, Doc.
    Yeah, the Atari 2600 manuals added the context in which the blocky elements came alive.
    And I hear you about strategy guides. It’s a collaborative business.

    Today, these relics of the past are no longer needed with the narrow-minded shoot-em-up scenarios of which there plenty (and I’ve played my share, so I’m not judging). A meager few pages of generic control scheme, a paragraph of context, and more pages of disclaimers than is needed.

    I’ll look forward to feelies making a comeback, as everything old becomes new again.
    Maybe a new Pac-Man incarnation could make a deal with Tic-Tacs?

  4. Great post, Doc!

    You are so right about the joy of the Feelies for the Infocom games, I personally can’t think of anything that compare to them. You also brought up a great memory of playing Space Shuttle, as soon as I opened the box and all of that stuff fell out…I felt like it wasn’t a game anymore, I was doing something vitally important.

    Sadly, under my command, a lot of the shuttle missions were unsuccessful. ;)

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