As the digital age becomes all encompassing and steamrolls us all, the beauty of the video game manual — that tactile, essential document that often sold you on a franchise as much as the video game itself — has faded.
It’s not a completely lost art, and there are some developers and publishers who understand that special, collector’s editions should come with a book you can treasure and hold. But because these aren’t things that are being printed en masse, the need and the emphasis to create beautiful, sprawling, detailed little bibles just isn’t there.
And that’s a real shame, because manuals themselves have often been a work of art. Civilization 2‘s manual was one I remember growing up with. It was essential often because it was faster to flick through the hard copy of the tech tree than it was in-game. Civ‘s improved on that front a bit, and PCs are more powerful than ever, but there was still a special joy in having that book on hand. (And the manual had other uses: it was comprehensive enough that an AI got a 79% win rate just by going over the instructions.)
But that’s a deeply personal anecdote, and one that doesn’t even come close to appreciating how superb some manuals were. Take Metal Gear Solid 2, which had a whole instruction manga talking you through the controls and stealth mechanics:
I was always partial to the sketch drawings in the Heroes of Might and Magic 3 manual. The detailed lines of angels, demons, black dragons and other mystic creatures was incredibly well done, but sadly Ubisoft didn’t incorporate any of that brilliance into the manual for the HD re-release. Fortunately, GOG still has the manual for the original and its two expansions.
I know plenty of artists would look at this and think about how much further these drawings could be taken — but I absolutely loved this at the time when I was a kid. And it’s a great use of all that concept art that would have just been filed away on a drive or a drawer somewhere.
Going further back, the original manual for The Hobbit — one of the first games out of Australia and one of the most successful — was something else for its time.
The Hobbit was a text based adventure, so the manual itself didn’t have a great deal in the way of actual art. But what was neat about it was the sheer precision with which it went to explain things.
And then you’ve got companies like Nintendo, which have a history — one that’s receding fast, sadly — of producing some outstanding illustrations and manuals for their first-party games. Here’s one from New Super Mario Brothers U:
I could go on and on. But I’m curious about your own memories. What were your favourite video game manuals, either growing up or of all-time?