8 Things I Miss About Video Game Instruction Manuals

When I was a kid, part of the experience of buying or renting a new game was poring over the manual on the car ride home. In part, this was a practical exercise in learning the controls and basics of a game at a time when tutorials were much less common than they are now. But more importantly, it was your first exposure to a brand new world — a peek through a window that heightened the anticipation of slamming that cartridge into your console and hitting the power switch. Here, then, are eight things I miss about video game instruction manuals.

Inspector Gadget
Inspector Gadget (SNES)

8. Notes Sections

The last page of two of every video game manual in the 90s was given over to a “Notes” page. Presumably for the recording of passwords and codes, I don’t think I ever wrote in one of these, but it was always fun — and sometimes actually useful — when you rented or purchased a used game and encountered the dashed-off scribblings of some other kid.

The Lost Vikings
The Lost Vikings (SNES)

7. Character Bios

Aside from RPGs, games didn’t typically give over a lot of space to character backstories in the 16-bit era. To learn more about the heroes you were playing as, you had to turn to the instruction manuals, which gave developers space to build out the personalities and histories of their protagonists. If it weren’t for the manual for The Lost Vikings, for instance, we wouldn’t know that Erik the Swift’s favorite authors are Dr. Seuss and Friedrich Nietzsche, or that his favorite band was Rush. Goofy? Sure, but these little touches added a real sense of personality and encouraged us to invest in and relate to the little guys running around onscreen.

Brain Lord
Brain Lord (SNES)

6. Tips

Tips! Hints! Secrets! Ranging from confusing to obvious to actually useful, developers frequently threw these in to help out players who might be stuck in an era before you could just look up a guide to anything online. Some games, like A Link to the Past, even came with their own hints booklets — sometimes imploring players to only refer to them in a last resort situation.

The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past
The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past (SNES)

5. Monster Illustrations

Video game artists of yesteryear were charged with the difficult task of transforming hand-drawn character designs into on-screen sprites limited in size, color, and complexity. Sometimes they succeeded, and sometimes you could barely tell what you were bopping or trying to avoid. In every case, though, it was a pleasure to see your foes rendered in all their intended fearful glory in the manual — it made them feel that much more real and dangerous.

Super Mario World
Super Mario World (SNES)

4. Hand-Drawn Maps

Nothing brought a 16- or 8-bit game to life like a colorful illustration. Maps — useful or purely decorative — made the worlds of these games feel bigger and more mysterious, encouraging our developing minds to imagine what might lie ahead in the areas we’d yet to encounter, and later, to wonder what might lie beyond the boundaries of the page.

F-Zero
F-Zero (SNES)

3. Comics

Japanese releases of games frequently included comics setting up their stories, though these were typically omitted from western releases. That said, some made it stateside, and some European and American developers featured comics in their manuals too. Getting a comic with a game was like getting a prize in your cereal — one of those little things that made the world seem like a pretty cool place sometimes.

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Harley's Humongous Adventure
Harley’s Humongous Adventure (SNES)

2. Messages From Developers

It seemed like every manual in the 80s and 90s opened with a message congratulating the reader on purchasing the game. In retrospect this is a little unnecessary, but back then it made us feel reassured in our choices at a time when it was hard to come by any kind of external critical evaluation of games. Sometimes these messages went even further, as in the case of Harley’s Humongous Adventure above, which includes a charming group photo and a little information on the team responsible for the game. Cute!

Home Improvement
Home Improvement: Power Tool Pursuit (SNES)

1. Gags

Sometimes, manuals were opportunities for developers to play little jokes on players. Perhaps the most notorious example here is Home Improvement: Power Tool Pursuit on the Super Nintendo, which has an extremely short manual plastered over with a fake sticker obscuring most of the information — very true to the source material, if frustrating to players. Contrary to popular belief, the manual did display the basic controls, and actual information on the game’s items and levels was provided in a poster as the end of the page above notes. That said, most video stores didn’t bother to photocopy that poster, so you were out of luck if you rented it. Anyway, it probably wouldn’t have helped that much.

What are some of your favorite game manuals? Let me know in the comments below.

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merritt k

Managing Editor, Podcasts