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Tuesday, August 5, 2014

The Death of Printed Instruction Manuals

"Say goodbye to paper." This is the slogan that is splashed across the packaging of every Boogie Board LCD e-writer device. There is no denying the fact that we are rapidly racing towards a digital world. But when something is gained, something must be lost. The times, they have a changed. With digital devices making it easier for our reading and writing needs, paper is going the way of the Dodo bird. In the paper vs. digital war, digital seems to be the clear victor since it takes up less space and its accessibility is infinitely easier. One such causality in this war are video game instruction manuals and I'm finding their loss a bit difficult to cope with.

It didn't really sink in with me that gaming manuals were disappearing until I bought my 3DS two years ago along with Super Mario 3D Land and Mario Kart 7. Mario's latest 3D adventure had me raring to go and I thought I'd take a glance at the instruction manual, and well, just a glance is all it really ended up being. Much to my surprise, the manual that came with Super Mario 3D Land was more of a folded pamphlet that showed nothing but the basic controls and nothing more. Had Nintendo turned into some tree huggers or what? The Big N had always delivered some of the finest instruction manuals even back in 8-bit NES days. To see such bare bones manuals from them was quite the reality slap.

You can find out about the story of Kirby's Adventure
in the opening cut scene, but the manual also explains
it to you, complete with nice, colorful pictures.

I really, really should have seen this coming. I myself had begun to embrace digital media, beginning in 2010 when I picked up a Wii. The list of downloadable games I purchased from the Wii Shop Channel is quite hefty. Sure, many of them are digital versions of games I already own, but there are quite a few that I never would have been able to obtain if not for downloadable distribution. We gamers from the NES days love to laugh and joke about blowing in the carts to get them to work, but having the ability to fire up Mega Man 3 without that hassle saves me a lot of frustration. When I picked up a PlayStation 3 earlier this year, I ventured out even further into the realm of digital gaming. Sonic CD, NiGHTS HD, and Zanac x Zanac. My PS3 digital library continues to grow. But as I said in my intro paragraph, the loss of paper manuals is a tough pill to swallow and the rise of digital media has largely attributed to the decline.

Box art has improved a great deal for video games in the west. In previous console generations, it was usually Japan and Europe that got all the sweet-looking box art. Video game manuals weren't just there to instruct you on how to play the games. They were also a means for you to get a look at the original artwork. The manuals for Super Mario Bros. 1-3 were filled with illustrations of Mario, power-ups and the numerous enemies you would encounter on your journey. There seemed to be an understanding on the makers of these manuals that they didn't always have to be dull, lifeless, light booklets filled with nothing but informative text, which sadly, is what lots of manuals have become these days. True, the whole point of an instruction manual is to give the player guidance on how to play the game. But when they were bursting with pictures of the non playable characters, mooks and the like, you got the feeling that they were meant to be much more than a simple "How To" book.

Mario, demonstrating his various jumps
from the manual of Super Mario 64.

You've all heard the saying actions speak louder than words. Not all of us pick up on things through instruction or words. There are those of us that are better educated when we've got a visual. Why just tell the player how to slide when you can actually show them by providing a detailed image of the executed action? Mario had always been a jumping fanatic long before the leap into the third dimension but by moving him to a bigger playing field, his jump game was expanded tenfold. Double jumps, triple jumps, long jumps, back flips, wall kicks, boy howdy, the nickname "Jumpman" was more well earned than ever before by the time Super Mario 64 arrived. The two dimensional drawings of the 2D Mario games may have been absent in Super Mario 64's instruction manual, but the 3D models of Mario performing his various acrobatic feats were no less a welcome sight.

Long before the days of the internet and spoilers, manuals were also great for showing you what lied before you. The Sonic the Hedgehog platformers were especially good with these, providing brief explanations about each zone along with a screenshot. The American manuals were colorless compared to their Japanese counterparts, which were by and large much better manuals and I'll get to those in a bit, but still, they weren't too shabby. Seeing images of Star Light Zone gave me a bit more incentive to press on in Sonic the Hedgehog. What's more, the Sonic manuals also told you how to dispose of the Badniks that littered each level. Coconuts giving you trouble? Attack him from underneath. Catakillers making you lose rings and lives? Spin attack him from the front. Yeah, you could find out how to handle these guys by simply playing the game, but the thought of explaining it via manual was still appreciated, at least from this gamer's perspective.

As I've said before, instruction manuals were a great source for original video game artwork. What kid doesn't love looking at pictures? The Japanese manuals for the Sonic the Hedgehog platformers were overflowing with illustrations that it was liking having a free art book to go along with your awesome game. What's more is that these manuals were loaded with cute little sketches, some of which wouldn't be available to the outside Sonic fanbase until the release of the 2012's The History of Sonic the Hedgehog. You can tell that the folks at Sonic Team really went above and beyond caring with those manuals. It's enough to make me want to grab Japanese editions of Sonic 1-3 & Knuckles just to have paper editions of those manuals.

Words, however, do matter. As much as I love looking at the illustrations in game manuals, it is important to tell the player how to play. But that doesn't mean you have to be boring about it. One of my favorite instruction manuals is from the SNES game, Uniracers. When I rented this from Blockbuster in 1996, I was fortunate enough to get it with instructions. It's one of the few video game manuals I've read from cover to cover, not because Uniracers was an overly complex game. Written by Steven Hammond, Uniracers manual was not only informative and well written as a good manual should be, but it was freaking hilarious. It was almost impossible to read a page and not laugh out loud. It even poked fun at those memo pages that you more than likely never used. It was one of the few times where a manual's text out-shinned the artwork, though those CG images in the manual were cool to look at.

So print game manuals are disappearing and its made me a sad panda. Some of the digital manuals I've seen have been nothing but boring strings of text. However, it wasn't until I started writing this editorial that it occurred to me that not all is lost on the digital manual front. Nintendo has been putting out some pretty nice digital manuals for their games. The digital manuals for NES Remix and NES Remix 2 use the in game sprites to decorate the manual and go along with the text. Furthermore, you can spot some of the Famicom's design signatures on the pages. With NES Remix Pack coming to American later this year, I can only hope we'll get a printed version of this nostalgia inducing manual.

Those that backed Yacht Club Games' Shovel Knight with $15 or more could download a digital instructional manual from the game, which is loads better than the digital manual. It looks to be a homage to the manuals from the NES days, with tons of character art to go along with the accompanying controller actions.

Digital manuals like the ones for NES Remix 1-2, Mario Kart 8 and Super Mario 3D World make the lose of print manuals a bit easier to deal with and are an excellent way to remind developers that care can and should be placed in them. I'm hoping more developers and publishers take a look at what Nintendo and Yacht Club Games has done with their digital manuals and follow suit. If companies going to provide gamers with instructions on how to play the game, then the very least they can do is make them look appealing, even through digital media.

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