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What Are The Best Game Manuals?

Celebrating a forgotten part of PC gaming

The omnipresence of the Internet, together with the ease of modern control schemes, has all but eradicated the need for game manuals. Who needs a glossy paper booklet when they have Reddit and GameFAQs and YouTube? Who has time to read with such a gluttony of entertainment options available at their fingertips?

But game manuals and owner’s guides aren’t just about information. The best ones can be beautiful: cornucopias of concept art and comic panels, hives of witty one-liners, knots of clever prose intertwined with moments of weird. I want to talk about, if not the best, then at least my favourite manuals - and then I want to know about yours.

Kikopa Games’ inscrutable yet charming Minkomora is a great example of modern games doing old-school manuals right. The downloadable PDF, which is available through a pay-what-you-want model, teems with dream-like creatures and pastel colors, gentle descriptions of a gentle world that invites no other commitment aside from a desire to explore. Similarly, Serpent in the Staglands, an intentionally anachronistic party-based RPG, summons memories of Baldur’s Gate with its pretty little manual and its in-depth descriptions of pointy objects.

That said, these contemporary endeavours pale somewhat in comparison to their predecessors. Namco’s We Love Katamari — an apocalyptic game about rolling up the universe into a ball — came with a pastel-colored wonder that read a lot like a children’s pop-up book. Inscrutable bipedal animals raced from page to page, pushing the eponymous sphere along, before finally gathering together to stare lovingly up into the cosmos. Strip out the concise explanations about how to engage in two-player conflict and what the Select Meadow is, and you’d have a perfect Christmas gift for anyone under seven.

(Yes, I know that We Love Katamari wasn’t a PC game, but ssh. Sssh.)

Even Metal Gear Solid 4 was gorgeous. (The manual. Not the game. Although the game was great.) The 2008 action-adventure stealth title came replete with gritty comic panels, all in-character, all meta, all intended to illustrate -- har, har -- the mechanics of the game. Move back a few years, though, and things get more elaborate. There were manuals that spanned hundred of pages, combat simulator Falcon 4.0 being perhaps the most noteworthy example. The game featured a staggering 716-page compendium that was meant to be used to as a “quick start.” It shipped with a binder. A binder.

While critically lacking in fluff, the manual was an instructional marvel. Take Chapter One, for example. Not only did it expound on the symbiotic relationships between turn rates and aircraft G, it also outlined the exact effects of an F-16 being flown under minimum speed requirements. You’d almost think that this was an actual how-to for military pilots instead of kids with disembodied cockpits, and its attention to detail helped sell the accuracy of the game before you even started playing it. On top of everything else, Falcon 4.0 also included surrealist short stories rife with in-game advice and 80’s good-naturedness.

Speaking of prose, The Hobbit was great. The 1982 game, I mean. An interactive fiction title that featured NPCs who strove to have a life outside of you, The Hobbit pushed the boundaries of gaming at the time. I mean, it had a text-based physics engine.

In a bid, perhaps, to ensure people were properly excited for this innovative adventure, the makers released an oddly charming manual elucidating the big idea behind its INGRISH engine.

Where The Hobbit strove to explain its parser, Captain Blood’s manual tried to explain the game’s very existence. It had an elaborate tale, filled with over-the-top moments of drama (The snarling yet weary postman on the first page is a personal favorite), that looked at why its protagonist, a video game designer, must eliminate all 30 of his clones in order to retain his tenuous connection with the human species. And though bizarre, it made more sense than Kojima’s justification for Quiet’s outfit.

Still, Captain Blood has nothing on the StarCraft manual. Like the game itself, the accompanying text borders on iconic. Every page is trimmed with metallic grills, cogwork and mechanical structures conjoined in defense of the words within. In between the more utilitarian descriptions of how the game worked and the fantastic, the owner’s guide offered a history of its universe: how the Terrans came to interstellar conflict, what birthed the Zerg, and why the Protoss became involved in this cosmic war.

The same way Starcraft and Baldur’s Gate came festooned with vivid illustrations and flavor, Diablo shipped with a gorgeously elaborate manual. It didn’t just have little blurbs about what the controls did. It had a bestiary of monsters. Descriptions about the backgrounds of the weapons available. It dove into the history of the universe, the socio-political structure of its cosmology.

I could go on.

So, are these the best game manuals out there? Probably not. They’re some of my favorites, though. Which, I guess, makes them the best in my eyes. But that seems such an unnecessarily arbitrary gesture. The best manuals -- the best anything, really -- are the ones that care enough to do something different, or to do the mundane well. Startopic, Earthbound, Fallout, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy -- there’s something to them all, whether it is the conciseness of their instructions or the depth of their illustrations, the use of clever DRMs or glorious irreverence.

What’s your favorite game manual of all time, Rock Paper Shotgun? And why?

Header image via Posidyn.com.

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The Hobbit

Nintendo GBA, Nintendo GameCube, PS2, Xbox, PC

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Cassandra Khaw