An Open Letter: Fare Thee Well Game Manuals

An Open Letter: Fare Thee Well Game Manuals

An Open Letter is a regular-ish feature where we communicate directly, straight to the heart of someone/something/anything in gaming. This week? We say goodbye to an old friend – the humble game manual.

Fare Thee Well Game Manual

When I was a kid, game manuals were important me. They were my guide. They taught me things.

When I think of game manuals, I remember sitting in the back seat of my parents car on my birthday. With the money stuffed in my birthday cards I would inevitably buy a brand new video game – and trapped underneath the seatbelt that was too big for me, fighting off car sickness, manuals were there to help stave the sheer hysteric excitement of a kid with a brand new game to play. The 20 minute drive from the shops back home was always a torturous journey, but it was made bearable with a game manual clutched in my tiny paws.

And I also had a little brother. Thanks to game manuals, it was always easier to be the bigger man and let the little bastard have the first go. I’d just lie on my bunk bed, flick through it for a few more minutes until he got bored and went out in the back garden to eat dirt and stamp on ladybugs.

Game manuals were important to me.

I can even remember a few favourites. The Zelda: A Link to the Past one in particular, loaded with info on the items I hadn’t discovered yet – ‘what does the hookshot do?’ I would ask my brother, in hushed tones. ‘Maybe it’ll let us get into that dungeon?’

I don’t need game manuals now. Games have tutorials. I don’t have a sticky fingered younger brother, smearing jam on my SNES controller – he’s grown up now and lives in another continent. I don’t get car sick, and I usually drive myself home regardless.

Both Ubisoft and EA have abandoned game manuals now, and I understand the reasons. They’re redundant, they cost money, they’re not environmentally friendly – in the grand scheme of things they’re irrelevant.

I won’t miss them. Not necessarily. Not in the way you miss something that provides a function in your life.

I will, however, remember them. Fondly. I’ll remember how I felt flicking through a manual for the first time – the excitement, the feeling of having a new game, scrambling for hints on how it would play, what to expect. That’s what game manuals represent for me – the anticipation.

I expect that sometime in the future, in my old age my grandkids will catch me flicking through my old game manuals, carefully and deliberately the way my parents handle vinyl records. They’ll laugh at me, before running off to create their own obsessive memories – leaving me with mine.


  • haha +1

    I can relate to the whole “reading the manual in the car” thing or reading the manual a few times at home to kill some time whilst the rest of the family gets ready to go to someone’s place we were visiting. Weren’t allowed to play the game but I was going to read the manual slowly and carefully and look at the screenshots on the box 5 more times!

    (back in those days, a game would be purchased based off its boxart and screenshots!)

    • I still do the whole reading the manual in the car thing… well, if bee’s driving of course.

      I try not to deprive myself of simple school-boy thrills. If i had to be completely grown up i just wouldn’t last very long in this world. I’ll always be a car manual flicker.

    • I loved reading the info included in manuals on the games back story or character info. Twisted Metal and Crash Bandicoot games are a good example of this. I also used to draw a lot and based a lot of it from images in game manuals when I was a kid. Manuals were great.

      • Dark Reign had a great manual, great game too!
        So thick and full of awesome pictures etc
        Wish i still had the game 🙁

        • I’ve still got the manual on my bookshelf and it is awesome. But the original release of the game won’t run without directX 3. Not 3 or higher but exactly 3.

        • Dark Reign did indeed have a fantastic manual. And DR launched on recently. Should have the full manual as a pdf, which isn’t quite the same, but it’s better than nothing.

          By far my favourite manual of all time is the Mechwarrior 2 manual. Everything about it was fantastic, the texture, the personality. I’ve still got it but the cover hasn’t aged well.

        • I still have and love my Dark Reign manual!

          The Il-2 Cliffs of Dover manual is brilliant, so some people are still putting in the effort.

  • Really? You don’t particularly mind?
    When i read this in this months game informer my heart sank..

    I love manuals.. The smell, the feel, the useless backstory i’ll probably never read. The yare things of true beuty.

    My favorites always come from fantasy games, like Eldar Scrolls: Arena. And the Witcher.

    I only ever buy a pre-owned game if it has a manual, as well. Not so much that i need it, more that the package just isn’t complete without it.

    When they stopped putting manuals in PC games (arguable the best manuals one could EVER hope to obtain), i was consoled with the fact that i would at least still have that with my console games… now they are all going too…

    I know i will get over it and get used to it… but still.. part of me will always crave that beautiful flowing artwork and back stories that just made everything that much sweeter… that made my hard earned money spent feel more tangible and real than just plastic and data…

    Farewell, old friend…

  • Great article Mark! I suppose with systems like steam, most game manuals are converted to an electronic format anyway, and as sales start head in this direction, manuals, and even the boxes they came in, will become more and more redundant.

    However I have the same memory of reading up a bit on the back story of a particular game, or getting some spoiler tidbit about a future weapon or area when I wasn’t actually playing the game. It’s something that a site like gamefaqs cannot replicate.

  • I like books, whether they be comic, pamphlet or manual. I like things in hard copy.
    This new digital age is not my thing.

    MP3s on the other hand…

  • My first memory was the manual from pokemon yellow version i got for christmas one year. A family member gave it to me but i did not have my gameboy so i spent the next 2 hours at our family christmas gathering doing nothing other than familiarizing myself with the pokemon types and the gym leaders, While leaving my other presents on the floor. Man 10 year old me was awesome.

  • I’m with Chu-ee. I mind. I loved game manuals, still do. I love the colour text, the smell, the feel of the extra-glossy stock. When Starcraft II didn’t come with one I was disappointed, Starcraft’s was so great. It was so good that a friend of mine wanted me to lend it to him. Not the game, he had a pirated copy of that, he wanted the manual. I never got it back either, which is a pity.

    My ritual was to read and gaze lovingly at the box on the way home or while waiting in the shopping centre, then install the game and play for an hour or two, then stop and go and read the manual, learn anything I had missed and revel in the errata.

  • Awesome article Mark, that really connected with me. I feel exactly the same, in that I have fond memories but I’m not all that sad to see them go. I will miss the odd manual that was actually well made (Fallout 3 springs to mind in ‘recent’ memory) but overall I would much rather a game teach me controls in an interactive way.

  • I love older game manuals. Full color, original and exclusive art… Now, you pay extra for that shit. For something thanks costs 10 cents to print, at most. Thanks for taking that extra 10 cents, those extra 2 dollars for cartridge chips, and shoving them in your pockets, devs.

    For the record, generating electricity is overall an environmentally-unfriendly process. Sure, there are “cleaner” ways to do it, but all of these things depend on fossil fuels and substances to at least maintain – even the cleanest of them. Paper decays, trees can be farmed, ink decays, ink can be farmed, glue decays, glue can be farmed, etc.

  • And yet, a manual still serves a purpose.
    It’s good for referencing when you forget something.

    Although, sometimes not even the manual includes things about the game… and you’re forced to go to the internet for answers (I’m looking at you Dragon Age 2).

  • I saw a guy at kfc the other day reading the manual of the latest Golden Sun game, which he had just bought, while waiting at the counter for his food.

    I thought to myself “good on you mate”

  • Bah. Between in game tutorials, and wishing to save ourselves from spoilers, the humble instruction manual will not be missed.

  • My mum is at my house at the moment so she can babysit later…as I’m reading this article she’s reading the manual for Final Fantasy XIII, which she’s planning on borrowing.

    From reading the manual she already knows she’s going to like the game and hate Vanille.

    My initial reaction to having no more manuals was that I minded. But then I realised I barely look at the manuals anymore. I used to pore over them lovingly before starting games when I was younger but now I just don’t have the time. Time spent reading a manual now is potential gametime wasted.

  • I agree Mark, I really miss the longer game manuals and I’m really going to miss them if they aren’t included at all.

    PDFs or in-game tutorials just aren’t the same 🙁

  • I agree completely with won’t miss them but will remember them fondly.

    I loved flicking through a manual. I remember getting Cricket 96 at the start of a holiday and not being able to play it for 3 weeks (we were camping) but I read that manual to death.

  • I second all the above notions that are pro-manual. I still read the manual for every game before I boot it up for the first time.

    Though I can totally understand them ditching manuals on 360. I don’t think a single manual in my pile of games has proven worthwhile at all, they’re all just so… bare. Maybe four pages of info in each one, tops. Such a different experience to being a Nintendo gamer.

    It still grates me massively whenever I open a new game’s manual to find it black and white on the inside.

    • Damn straight.

      What is with black and white manuals these days? It feels cheap.

      If you’re going to use up paper by shipping your game with a manual, why not make it worthwhile and print the whole thing in colour?

  • I’d be sad if game manuals weren’t already dead. A game manual used to be almost a book on its own. These days is a quick guide to playing the game. I already lament the loss of the game manuals of the past.

  • I remember hiring games out with my best friend and reading through the manual memorising the controls on the short drive home so we could jump straight into the game and not waste any time guessing our way through. Some manuals were fantastic in terms of back story and artwork.

  • in a couple of years time if you want a manual you’ll have to buy the collectors edition. not a manual as such but an extended art book perhaps with backstory, character bio’s etc, etc.

    • This is the reason why I buy retail exclusive collector editions, as the art book is a means to replace modern mediocre manuals.

  • Speaking of manuals, was playing Dragon Age 2 the other day, looked in the manual for an explanation of what the crap the different conversation icons meant. Nope, not covered… it spends plenty of time talking about generic stuff covered in the game’s help tips, but not this? Ugh.

  • Ah yes, the game manual. I’ve observed how its gotten thinner and thinner. Its days are numbered for sure.

    I still have many old ones that I love. The Might and Magic and King’s Quest ones would have flowery prose to describe the start of the adventure in a time where cut-scenes were out of the question.

    Then I recall the bad ones like the first Tomb Raider for PSOne. It was printed in faint black and white, yet it had a multi-page, full color insert… advertising other Eidos games. That upset me.

    And then there’s one ones where part of the copy protection. Hands up if you had to go looking for word number eight on the third paragraph.

    But honestly, lately they feel unnecessary. Yet there’s still a barrier to opening a case and finding only a disk inside.

  • I’ll miss the money from my wallet that I should save from getting less product when I buy a new game.

    Don’t appluad the companies who are doing this thinking they are doing something enviromentally friendly, they are doing it to increase profit.

    Same price, less product. Just great.

  • I am amongst you “oldfag” despite being a younger generation of gamers with this. I remember the days of my very very early childhoods, where upon buying a new game; the first thing I would do was open it up and read the manual.

    If I was lucky, it would be a filled with lore, pictures and very rarily, be structured like a newspaper or scribbled notes.

    These days, it seems manuals are very bareboned, if present at all. It is a shame as manuals used to be a gateway to the game without being it in.

    Oh gaming manuals of olde, I sorely miss thee.

  • It’s so true – I’d do the same thing, finding out every piece of information possible in the game manual, then feeling like a genius when you played it.

    They really did ease the pain when you couldn’t play the game too.

    Oh well, RIP.

    • I have mine on the desk next to me. Cracked out Red the other day, with the intention of catching them all. And I know bugger-all about what type beats/gets beaten by what 😛

  • I’m still amazed by how much effort developers would put into some manuals. Rockstar are the kings of this IMO. Those GTA ones are almost a companion to the actual game and I love how the Manhunt manual basically read like a sleazy catalog for snuff films.

  • My memories of all my favourite games start with the manual. Christmas day, my cousin playing Zelda while I read the manual thinking “Did these images come from a cartoon? Why have I not see this cartoon!?”, my aunt taking me to the store to pick up Final Fantasy VII on launch day and taking me out for pancakes. Wishing I were home already, playing the game, trying not to get the manual sticky. Wondering why the main character was called Cloud…

    I should like to add that I live in Penrith (West Sydney) and train to work in North Sydney, about 1 hr 30 mins away. I usually buy my games from the JB Hi-Fi by Town Hall Station. On these days I wouldn’t watch videos on my iPod or play games on the PSP or DS. I get as comfy as I can and peel the shrink wrap from the game, crack the case and admire the contents before settling down to read the manual, wishing I were home already.

  • I have always delighted in the attention to detail and tongue-in-cheek nature of R*’s game manuals. I really hope the company doesn’t phase out its amazing GTA full-colour, travel brochure-styled game accompaniments. Part of my gaming experience with the GTA series is to smell the booklet (in a new glossy paper smell way, as opposed to anything creepy) and then carefully pour over the cool little nuanced images and text within.

    Also, from memory the Bioshock manual was a lovely piece of art, in itself.

  • I read the manual for Diablo 2 and Warcraft a lot… they had a lot of backstory and pictures to accompany. But the all time best manual I own is the one for Icewind Dale. It was as big as a novel and it’s a bit tattered from all the reading, but it was from an age gone for sure.

  • Goldeneye 007 for the 64… I brought the game for myself as a young child but unfortunatley my parents got the 64 for my christmas present and I had a week or two too wait. That manual was the only thing that kept me sane through the horrible ordeal. I’m quite scarred, knowing the rest of the world has the 3DS and I don’t is just as bad. I seriously hate living in Australia in regards to being a gamer. No r18 rating, over the top prices and the fact we miss out on so much.

  • I still have a copy of Rise of the Dragon, an old Dynamix adventure game, which apart from a manual structured like an idiot’s guide to private investigation, included a comic which featured the manual, given to the game’s main character.
    The issue one comic, which told the story of the game’s opening, also included a letters page and a page of mail order ads for handmade guns and customised bullets, “get a bullet with your name on it”
    Mauals still have a place if they’re well written.
    I still remember my dissapointment at opening Half Life 2 and not finding a manual. Having played it I understand, but still…

    • I now think they could have written it as a first arrival’s guide to city 17, some of the dangers and veiled hints included.
      Manuals can increase the interest and enjoyment of a game if they’re done right.

  • Don’t get me started on this topic:) The early ‘Lucas’ game manuals spring to mind. As I recall, they were FULL colour and thick. Also, I still have a Sybex published guide to AoE II, pub. ’99, 370 pp. Paid $30 for it but worth every cent. Allows you to understand the game much better – it enriches the gaming experience. Sadly, both Sybex and even Primaguides don’t seem to be releasing many guides. Brady Games has a few which seem okay. The ‘golden era’ is past. How so? Just look at the huge variety of games that were available. Now, many seem generic copies of each other almost.With a few exceptions, IMHO, it’s like music, the best has already been made and it’s all downhill from here.:(

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