Instruction Manual – Context and Prologue

By now everyone knows the story of Mario. Princess Peach has been kidnapped by Bowser and it’s up to our stalwart plumber to rescue her. Try and imagine 1985, no internet, you boot up your brand new Nintendo Entertainment System inserting the packed in game, Super Mario Bros. I’m sure many, like myself, didn’t even know what purpose we had. The screen scrolled to the right, guiding us along the path. How many people didn’t even know we were tasked with rescuing the princess until we were told she was in another castle at the end of level 1-4?

The instruction manual for Super Mario Bros. was 18 pages long. How could a simple game need so much space to explain how to play a game with such intuitive controls? Simple, the manual explained more than just the controls, it gave us back story, supplemental material about the characters in the world. Every knows Mario’s a plumber and those little mushroom guys we jump on are called goombas, but how? The manual explained all of this.

The more complicated the game, the more information was included. NES games at the time could only store a max of 8MB. Most mp3’s are larger than that. This space needed to be used for graphics, animation, controls, music, etc. Using some of that valuable space for text just wasn’t an option. The larger and more complicated the game, the more background information was needed. Many games of this and following generations even included maps or even a strategy guide.

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I can remember tearing into the box of my brand new game on the car ride home to get the set up for the back story or characters. Dense role-playing games like Final Fantasy VI or Chrono Trigger were the best for these types of things. Showcasing a varied cast each with distinct personalities. I wanted to know exactly who they were so when I met them I would know I was getting a new party member.

Sadly, this is becoming a lost art. A few games like Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, still include dense instruction manuals, a map, etc., but many don’t. Instead they offer simple black and white pamphlets with the control scheme mapped out and a link to a website offering more material. A cost cutting measure. It’s understandable. The first hour or so of games is typically a tutorial, or there’s one available from the opening selection menu, filling you in on tall the information you need.

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Still, it’s sad to see something that was a stable of video games for decades turning into a forgotten relic. As the medium changes from a physical to digital distribution system, the need for manuals will vanish. All will include at least the controls and basic information, but many won’t got beyond that, keeping the cost down. A few are already combating this by including a digital manual completely with back material and artwork easily accessible in game. I hope they continue to, instruction manuals were something that helped define video games.

What was your first or favorite manual? Suggestions for another topic? Comment or tweet!

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