Best of ND 2013: Instructions Not Included

Marc takes a look at the disappearance of a video game staple… that included staples.

By Marc Deschamps. Posted 12/26/2013 17:00 1 Comment     ShareThis

This story was selected as one of our best from 2013. It was originally published on November 8, during Issue 178.

“Print is dying.”

It’s a sentence I heard over and over again during my time as a journalism major in college. I just never expected that it would be the video game industry that would make me start to believe it. The last couple years have made me start to see it much more clearly, though. Nintendo Power closed up shop last year. The spinner racks full of glossy guide books that once sat inside every GameStop are all but gone, replaced by websites like GameFAQs. But the most glaring example stares us right in the face every time we open up a new game: we don’t have instruction manuals anymore.

When I say that instruction manuals are gone, I don’t mean it in quite the literal sense. Nintendo still makes them, though its more recent titles come with something more akin to a pamphlet with some basic control info. Sadly, this is much more than most companies are producing right now. When I played Batman: Arkham City earlier this year, it came with a folded in half piece of paper with the cover art on one side, an advertisement on the back and nothing but legal information on the inside. Back in 2002, when I bought the Resident Evil remake on GameCube, it was filled with backstory and character bios. Earlier this year, I had the pleasure of revisiting the franchise when I reviewed Resident Evil: Revelations. The case had nothing but a disc inside. Not even the folded in half piece of paper that Arkham City provided. In neither case was my enjoyment of the title hurt. In fact, both are some of the finest titles currently available on Wii U. But it still feels like something is missing.

It might sound odd, but I always loved instruction manuals. When I was younger, they were something fun to flip through when I couldn’t play the game itself. They were also something to dig into on the car ride home; the last bit of hype before I finally put my cartridge into the system. When Pokémon Gold and Silver came out, the car ride home from the mall felt like an eternity. But I spent that bit of time pouring through every detail in the instruction manual. Reading up on the gym leaders I’d be facing, and all the new features the game had added since Red, Blue, and Yellow just made me so much more excited to get home. When I picked up Pokémon X recently, the GameStop I went to was much closer than the one from my youth, but I still excitedly tore my game open at the nearest red light so I could take a look at the instructions. I was disappointed. No picture of a vague eighth gym leader I’d be facing. No images of gym leaders at all, even. No partial Pokédex showing me some of the new creatures I’d be catching. Just the same thing we’ve seen with most of Nintendo’s manuals over the last couple years.

Hype wasn’t the only thing that instruction manuals were good for, though. In the ’80s, cinematic cut-scenes and elaborate stories were few and far between. Instruction manuals gave us the back stories to the heroes and villains that inhabited the world of the game. Would we have even known the names of some of Mario’s most iconic enemies without an instruction manual to teach them to us? And how else would we know Birdo was the first transgender character in video game history? Certainly not through the gameplay itself!

For younger or more casual gamers, this might not seem like a big deal. Maybe instruction manuals just aren’t needed anymore. After all, tutorials and cinema scenes both accomplish the primary reasons we had them in the first place. And sports games started the trend of trimming back on manuals years before other genres followed suit. But I can’t help but think of the little details of my gaming career, like the time my friends and I put the Donkey Kong Country instruction manual through a Pog-maker and made our own custom Nintendo Pogs (at this point in the article, I’m certainly showing my age). We found one more way to squeeze some fun out of a game we had already enjoyed so much.

As times change, the things we grew up with will either evolve or disappear. It’s a depressing thought, but it’s a part of life. Of course, the interesting thing about technology (and gaming in particular) is that it can be very circular. If you told me in the days of the GameCube that we would have retro style titles with graphics that evoked games from the ’80s, I would have scoffed. But here we are, using new technology to download 8- and 16-bit titles in a weird amalgam of past and present technology. Who knows? Perhaps instruction manuals will have a retro resurgence some time down the line. I hope so, at least. I miss those things.

One Response to “Best of ND 2013: Instructions Not Included”

  • 162 points
    LadyMushroom says...

    I agree – I always loved the manuals too – especially Nintendo’s full-color ones. One reason they aren’t likely to return is that Nintendo is very commited to digital sales (why wouldn’t they be? – full-price sales with no middleman and no used-game sales). Consequently they don’t want to give the physical games any extra inducements to buy.

    Sad though. Those manuals were a part of the fun. On the other hand we can find so much more information online now, and I guess that is the other side of the same coin.

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