I opened up my copy of The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess HD yesterday and aside from the game disc it was depressingly empty, which describes exactly how I feel every time I pick up tellingly lightweight retail game. I miss instruction booklets something fierce.
There was a time when retail games where solid, meaty things. First they were cartridges with sleeves and booklets packed with extra pages for notes. Then they were hard plastic CD cases with square manuals, extra thick due to compact dimensions. Those gave way to DVD cases with lighter plastic but a more satisfying snap upon opening and closing and epic instructions secured via plastic tabs.
As we move further and further towards digital download domination (PC gaming is already lost) we're losing the tactile sensation of purchasing a new game, but in many cases (pun intended) we've already lost one of the most important parts. The smell of freshly-printed paper mingling with new plastic. The rush of excitement upon cracking open a new game for the first time.
Ubisoft started the trend of replacing physical manuals with digital equivalents back in 2010. Other publishers started following suit. Combined with the practice of cutting holes in game cases to conserve plastic, retail games have gotten a great deal lighter.
I understand the ecological reasons behind leaving print media behind. In fact these days I tend to lean towards digital purchase rather than physical, if only to ensure I don't get rid of a game before seeing it all the way through.
But in the process I've several rituals that used to make buying a retail game a special occasion for me.
Going to the game store used to be an event. I'd browse for around an hour, make my selections and pay. Then I'd stop at a restaurant on the way home, crack open the cases and read over the manuals. Character bios, controls, game mechanics; by the time I finished eating I'd committed these things to memory. Then I'd go home and play.
This was an important part of Xenogears to me.
And let's not forget the importance of having something to read in the bathroom during breaks from gaming. There was a time that my bathroom book rack was filled with gaming instruction manuals. I'd read through them over and over again, sometimes in the same sitting.
Some instruction booklets I love more than the actual games, Unlimited Saga.
Digital instruction booklets are nice. They get the job done. But they don't extend the gaming experience beyond the screen. They aren't extensions of digital entertainment in the physical world. They lack that freshly printed smell.
There are still publishers who are bucking the manual ditching trend. I'm not talking about companies that place a printed leaflet in the case. Quick reference cards do not count. I'm taking about companies like Marvellous, whose recently-released Return to PopoloCrois: A Story of Seasons Fairy Tale comes with a nice thick manual filled with cast intros, maps, tips and even staff credits. I've not gotten a chance to play the game yet, but damn if it doesn't smell wonderful.
Big inhale here.
Yesterday I nearly spent $US30 (minute 20 per cent for reasons) on a collector's edition strategy guide for The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess HD. I know how to play the game. I am familiar with the characters. It's just my yearning for some sort of physical reading accompaniment was so strong I was almost willing to spend half of the game's price for it.
I would certainly pay an extra five or possibly even ten dollars for some sort of official (or officially sanctioned) instruction booklet/strategy guide that fit inside this flimsy blue game case.
I could print my own manuals, but it's not the same. The paper is different. The ink doesn't have the same scent. It wouldn't marry with the case plastic in the same way.
But if game publishers wanted to maybe forgo the massive officially licensed strategy guides or collector's edition art books and just give me the option of paying extra for a game with a manual, I'd be down. Or if the strategy guide folks started printing mini-guides that fit inside game cases, that would work as well.
Physical video game releases are losing more ground to digital downloads every year. As much as I'd love to say there will always be a place for retail releases, I'm not so sure that's the case anymore. Over the past decade game cases have become increasingly weaker and more frail. If they're going to die, I say we let them die with dignity, full of grace, knowledge and that new video game manual smell.