Mystery Box!: The Death of the Instruction Manual

“The Death of the Instruction Manual”

By: Bryant Flanders


Some of my first gaming memories involved my grandma’s (actually her son, my uncle’s) Nintendo Entertainment System. On the left side of where the system was set was a plastic holder filled to the brim with classic NES games like Rygar, Kid Icarus, Super Mario Bros., and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. What made this collection especially spectacular was the inclusion of each game’s instruction manual.


To understand what made instruction manuals so cool, one must think back to when he or she was a kid. Then, (for me, it was the early 90’s), video games were simply not mainstream yet. Rather, they were a niche’ reserved for adolescents. Because of this, it could take one a long time before seeing his or her favorite hobby represented in any kind of media. There were gaming magazines like Nintendo Power, but certainly nothing like to the extent of today- where one can walk into a Hot Topic and buy a NES Remote belt buckle. Games were simply not represented.


Enter, the instruction manual. These bite-sized excerpts of gaming bliss not only taught the player how to play the game, but also enabled him or her to live vicariously through the manual’s pages. Often, they were filled with some of the game’s backstory or colorful pictures and screenshots that would enable the player to imagine the game- even when not playing it.


I remember fondly the Kid Icarus instruction manual. Inside of it was the story of Pit, accompanied by illustrations of his battles with Medusa and her minions. More importantly, however, my uncle had scribbled passwords to get through the game’s toughest stages. The only unfortunate thing was that my uncle had the handwriting of a toddler. I would beg my grandma to try and help me decipher my uncle’s 0’s against his O’s and his I’s against his l’s. We would get the combination right maybe a handful of times in my entire life. When we did manage to get it, Pit got his wings and the flying stage started. For some reason, we never thought to, ya know, re-write the password more legibly… but I digress.


Later in life, I got a Nintendo 64 that I developed a crazy extensive collection for. I eventually became somewhat anal about the condition of my games. If a box had a bent corner, I would be absolutely heartbroken; depending on the severity, I might have even exchanged it at the store for such a travesty. I also saved all of my instruction manuals. I had a big Tupperware container under my bed to store Nintendo 64 instruction manuals. Usually, they had a dark tan cover, and were filled with pages of awesome pictures and information. Even though I had played Super Mario 64 to death, it didn’t stop me from bringing its instruction manual with me to my dad’s dentist appointment.


Instruction manuals just don’t exist anymore, unfortunately. If a gamer is lucky, he or she will get a two page insert giving warnings about epilepsy in different languages. Ultimately, the decision to cut instruction manuals came down to the following:

  • Concern for the environment. Instruction manuals just used a lot of paper.
  • Thanks to the internet, video game tutorials were only a few clicks away.

  • Printing instruction manuals cost a lot of money for publishers.


I must admit–to this day it really bums me out to crack open a new release without having an instruction booklet. There isn’t an one for me to look through to get a feel for the game before I put it in my console, or to even peruse when I’m sitting on the toilet. The game just feels naked.

Perhaps an unforeseen consequence of this is when I resale games on Ebay; there isn’t an extra differentiator between my listing with a perfect instruction manual and the other guy’s item. There is no instruction manual! A video game now is essentially a DVD case, artwork insert, and the disc itself. Never again will instruction manuals permeate the box’s crevice. Instead, there is a “digital instruction manual;” this is a sad excuse for a replacement, if I ever saw one. I guess in this (very limited) instance, I’m just an analog guy in a digital world.

Bryant Flanders

I am a writer, liberal, Atheist, and Sharon Van Etten/Lindsey Stirling admirer. Enjoy.

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