26 April 2011

The Slow, Painful Death of the Instruction Book

As a younger man, before videogames came into my life, I played a great many board games. I was obsessed with three board games in particular: Mouse Trap, Master Mind, and a game with a cheery exterior but a vengeful, dry heart called Sorry!.

My brother was the more creative soul of the two of us. He was perfectly fine with inventing his own rules for board games. But I would not tolerate such anarchy. So, by default, I became the Official Instruction Book Reader of our household. (Another one of my part-time jobs: TV Guide Reader. I enjoyed the crossword puzzles, the profiles of James Garner, and scrutinizing the program listings for other nearby cities, which were surprisingly robust compared to the anemic, three-fuzzy-channels programming our middle-of-nowhere town had to offer. Example: I would note in TV Guide that Son of Godzilla was airing at 2 p.m. in Utica, a city located about an hour's drive away from us. Then I'd stare at the clock and watch 2 p.m. come and go while I was treated to Bowling for Dollars on our local station, followed by an edge-of-my-seat episode of Meet the Press. In fact, now that I think about it, I'm fairly certain that the reason why I have chosen to reside in cities for most of my adult life can be traced back to my childhood TV Guide obsession: I live here largely because Son of Godzilla is broadcast here. Also: I would eventually grow up to see Son of Godzilla. All I will say is: What a movie.)

Instructions for board games were always of an amazingly low quality. They were usually either posted on the inside of the box cover, or were printed on tissue-thin paper in a tiny font known as Inscrutabilica. Regardless, I studied these documents with the dedication and curiosity of a scholar translating the Dead Sea Scrolls from Hebrew, sometimes even employing the small magnifying glass that my mother kept in her sewing basket.

Once videogames came along--in the form of an Atari 2600 which my Uncle Bobby owned, who still lived at home with his mother (my grandmother) and would not marry and/or move out for another decade; also, he was a prodigious farter, which partially explains why he would not marry until late in life--I naturally became the Instruction Book Reader for all videogames.

The quality of the instruction books for videogames was tangibly higher than it was for board games. These books were actual books, printed in full color on heavy paper stock. And, unlike the board game books, they were often written with style, humor, and a touch of attitude. A fine ex

ample: the cover of the instruction book for Kaboom! included the following sentences: "You're about to face the world's most unpredictable and relentless 'Mad Bomber.' He hates losing as much as you love winning."

I remember reading this, then chuckling to myself while thinking, "Mad Bomber, you have met your match in me. You are in for it now."

On the next page, I studied the game's point system. It seemed straight-forward enough. Group 8, the highest group possible in the game, featured 150 bombs--wow!!!!!!!--with a point value of eight points per bomb, bringing the total point value of the group of 1,200. Underneath this explanation was this message: "Once you reach this level, all bombs that follow will fall at the same rate of speed and are worth the same points as bombs in Group 8 (unless you miss a bomb--see next page)."

I was anxious turning the page, bracing myself for the consequences of missing a bomb. Would it be wrack? Ruin? Both? "When you miss a bomb," the next page explained, "all bombs explode and you lose a bucket. Lose all three buckets and the game is over." This was indeed the sort of wrack and ruin I had been fearing. I'm not kidding. Though it might not seem so by today's high-definition standards, words like "bombs," "explode," "lose" and "game over" carried a lot more weight in the minds of gamers in 1981.

Other interesting facts that the Kaboom! instruction book informed me of: for every 1,000 points I scored, I'd be awarded a new bucket. That sounded pretty fair to me. The book also had a section titled "Getting the Feel of Kaboom!" ("Try to get a feeling for the bomb patterns that develop") and a section called "Join the Activision Bucket Brigade!" which explained that if one could achieve a score of 3,000 points or higher, one could mail--with stamps and everything--a photograph of your television screen to Activision, and they would send you a special membership patch which one could have sewn onto one's jacket and which would no doubt ensure that one would wind up living at home with one's mother for a large part of one's adult life.

"If you ever reach the maximum 999,999 points," the book said, teasing me to the brink of madness, "please send us a photo! Such a remarkable achievement must be recognized."

But recognized how? The Kaboom! book, unfortunately, would not say. I imagined parades. I imagined oversized checks like the ones they gave away on Bowling For Dollars. The ambiguity, the nuances of that sentence--note the exclamation point after the word "photo"--fascinated me for days.

For me, reading the Kaboom! instruction book was gripping stuff, far more personally affecting than A Separate Peace by John Knowles, a long, boring novel which my seventh teacher practically had to use a buggy whip to get me through.

Finally, at the very back of the book was a section titled "How To Become a Master at Kaboom!" which included a grainy, black-and-white photograph of a smiling, bearded man named Larry Kaplan. Larry was described as one of Kaboom!'s designers. At the time, I had a hard time fathoming where videogames came from. I still do, to some extent. (All I know is that a bunch of people go into a building and two years later a game comes out the other side. What happens in between remains a mystery to me.) Yet here was a person, here was a man, who had worked on a videogame. I was looking at his face.

Here is a sample tip from game-maker Larry Kaplan: "If you hit the 10,000 point level, that really impresses the 'Mad Bomber,' and he'll show his appreciation. Watch for it." I was thrilled by the coyness of the phrase "he'll show his appreciation." I could not wait to find out exactly what Larry Kaplan, a.k.a. the newly crowned master of understatement, was referring to here.

Finally, at the end of his tips section, Larry Kaplan closed with this sentence: "Please take time out from your bomb chasing to drop me a line. It would be great to hear from you." This personal statement was followed by his signature--Larry Kaplan--in a tight, cramped script.

The entire book ends with the Activision company address--3255-2 Scott Blvd., Santa Clara, CA 950551--which is where you could write to Larry and mail in your photographs of your Kaboom! achievements. (Note: woe to the Fotomat employees who had to develop those photos.) In an age when game companies are now usually equipped with more security than Sydney Bristow's SD-6, when even trying to find the location of game developer can be a challenge, this sort of transparency, this personableness, seems charming and quaint.

For me, the event that would come to be known as The Reading of the Instruction Book has always been almost as important as the event known as The Playing of the Game. More than merely relaying information about a control scheme or giving me tips on how to handle certain enemies, I learned to count on instruction books to give me clues about the kind of experience I was about to have and to give me some insights--to tell me something tangible--about the people who created these experiences.

True story: after purchasing a copy of The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past from a game store on Michigan Avenue in Chicago in the early '90's, I boarded an overcrowded uptown bus headed back to my apartment. Despite my very public surroundings--there were at least two attractive girls in my vicinity at the given moment--I was so beside myself with anticipation for the game that I thought, "Protocol be damned," and I broke it out its shrink wrap and began reading the instruction book right there in front of god and everyone including two attractive girls.

Forty minutes later, I looked up and realized that I'd missed my stop.

For years now--and this is going to sound very strange, so you should probably sit down for this one--I've been in the habit of taking videogame instruction books to bed with me at night. It's true. If I am enjoying a game, but I'm too tired to continue playing, I'll get into bed and--that's right--I'll peruse the instruction book for awhile before falling asleep. For example, I remember doing this many nights in a row with the hefty instruction book for Super Mario 64. Just before dozing off, I would read a sentence like, "Not all courses are entered from the paintings on the walls. Some entrances are found in unexpected places, so search everywhere." Then I'd drift off to sleep, my brain soaring through the game world, half-searching for, and half-dreaming of, all of the unexpected places I would find the next day.

Beyond pathetic, I know. But those were not unhappy dreams.

One of the game-related stories that I've been pitching for years--and it's one that always gets rejected by editors, for the obvious reason that it would be completely boring to read for 99-percent of all readers--is a story that traces the slow, inevitable demise of the videogame instruction book. In the name of cutting costs and corners, and as games transition from being tangible objects to virtual objects, those books have became booklets. The downward, death spiral has been going on for decades now.

With the April 19th release of Mortal Kombat, the instruction booklet finally reached one-page/pamphlet status. At the top of this post, what you're looking at is a photo of the actual instruction booklet/pamphlet that comes packaged with game. Yes, people: that's it.

Attitude? Gone. Panache? Gone. Dream-inducing sentences? Long gone. Gone also are the photographs of bearded, glasses-wearing men and the addresses of game publishers. What remains is small-print legalese, a bunch of technical jargon, and don't-sue-us warnings about seizures. It's a sad, sad day, people.

I can no longer merely stand idly by and watch these instruction books waste away before my eyes. If

instruction books were terminally ill patients, this is the moment--right here, right now--when we'd be doing the right thing by pulling the plug.

Despite Larry Kaplan's tips and a great many hours of dedication on my part, I never did achieve the 10,000-point mark in Kaboom!. I never impressed the Mad Bomber. I never discovered how, once impressed, he would show his appreciation. I did, however, reach the 3,000 point threshold. I badgered my flatulent uncle into snapping a blurry picture of the TV with his camera. My mother mailed it off to Activision. I'm still waiting for a response.


  1. I swear we're brothers. I remember sometimes spending more time poring through game manuals than actually playing the games. I'm the same way with strategy guides. I've taken game FAQs to bed with me for a little light pre-sleep reading.

    I spend more time reading shit on MMO sites than I do playing the MMOs (which is scary when you consider my well publicized playtime of Final Fantasy XI. Between the game and poring over websites about it, I've lost a year of my life. I'm not really as broken up about that as I probably should be...).

    I'd pay real money to read your article on the demise of game manuals. Someone out there needs to give you the greenlight on that one.

  2. I definitely would bring game instruction manuals to bed with me to read before falling asleep. Alas, those days are mostly gone given what passes for an instruction book these days. I will, however, bring a strategy guide to bed and even to work with me to read. Usually I get guides for hefty games like Fallout 3 and Dragon Age Origins, and the guides are often packed with lots of lore and descriptions to sink one's teeth into while away from actually playing the game.

    I'd certainly read an article on the demise of the game manual. Peppered with examples of the best manuals from the past, that would be quite an entertaining read, I'm sure.

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  4. That's seriously the 'manual'? I understand the environmental aspect, but that's just a waste of paper. If you're going to give me paper inserts, make it full of awesome art and writing. And if it's going to be in-game instructions, make THAT full of awesome art and writing.
    I always set aside time to read the instructions first. Because of its awesomeness, I destroyed my Ocarina of Time manual rereading it for kicks.
    I'll read your article on manuals: I miss them, too.

  5. This totally reminded me that I used to read my manuals all the time as a kid! I started gaming in the Super Mario World/SNES era, but I'm sure you remember those classic ones anyway. Nowadays, I only read them thoroughly if I'm really excited for the game. Your article reminded me of this love of coyly-worded Nintendo instruction manuals, and I realized there's a few I haven't read of my recent Wii games. So I went and checked, and found, of course, the newer ones shorter and shorter, the older ones (and Nintendo-specific) more fruitful. It was totally an extension of the game experience for me as a kid. I, too, didn't read the cheery prompts on which button to push to make Donkey Kong or Diddy run in Donkey Kong Country (SNES!) because I didn't know, but just because I loved reading it! I vividly remember reading all about Klomp and Klampett and other K-named villains (complete with pictures), tips from Cranky, backstory on the Kongs, etc, desperate for any more content I could glean from the pages. (Now that I think about it, I think one of the SNES sequels didn't have an extensive villain list, and I was rather disappointed. How would I know what K name they gave to the different reptiles I'd be jumping on and throwing barrels at?) The Super Mario World manual was also a favourite, I really remember reading all the one-line trivia about all the L-named Koopas in each castle. :D I never fully noticed how the manuals now don't give much more than controls and warnings I ignore (take a 10-15 min break every hour? Right. Don't throw your Wiimote at the TV either, remember!) But I realize now that's why I get more excited when I pick up a game case and it's a little heavier, unconsciously knowing the manual that awaits is actually worth reading! Now, I'll know I'm not the only one. :)

  6. A small world, indeed: I, too, was indoctrinated into the world of video games via a flatulent uncle! Some of my favourite childhood memories are playing Combat on the 2600 with my uncle... er, in the breeze, as it were.

    As for manuals, here's a memory: Growing up my mom had this inane idea that I should share my NES with my brother (luckily he was too young to have gotten his grimy hands on my 2600, but the NES years they were tough). Rather that sit by and watch my game be sullied by his incompetent, button-mashing fingers, I would do the mature thing: throw a hissy and go sulk in the other room. But not before grabbing the instruction manual of a game or two as consolation. I would read and re-read that game porn fantasizing about how great it was going to be when I played again. To this day I feel strangely comforted looking at game manuals (or what's left of them).



  7. It seems that the intro to the video game world via flatulent uncles that lived with grandparents well into there prime years is quite a trend. This makes me appreciate my grandparent dwelling uncle even more now remembering how without him I would have probably not have the love I have for video games now.
    How sad it is that manuals have come down to this, I am all for a movement to restore the heart in the beloved video game manuals!

  8. Maybe I should write a follow-up piece about these uncles. Possible title: OUR FLATULENT UNCLES WHO STILL LIVE AT HOME AND WHY GAMERS WOULD NOT BE GAMERS WITHOUT THEM.

    Just a thought.

    Thanks for sharing your lovely memories.

    Keep them coming.

  9. When I was younger I never read any instruction manuals, I’m afraid I was the button mashing moron, or the annoying person you had to continuously explain game rules too. I was definitely the younger snot nosed sibling. But recently I’ve slowed down and discovered the beauty in game strategy guides. Like Steve, I have no problems pulling them out at work for a quick read on my break.

    I never grew up with that Uncle, I was exposed to games through those flatulent college guys skipping school to play NHL 96 or Mortal Combat and after being such a goody goody in High School, I took to skipping college classes along with them. However if any of them ever lost to me, cause again I was still the button mashing moron, oh the upset. I do remember one glorious day I took them all down in a round robin of NHL. Glorious victory was mine!

  10. Uninteresting blog is uninteresting...

  11. I remember how much the manuals would spark my imagination, back in the NES days. It was like having a little Bible to compliment the impending quasi religious experience we were about to have.
    Lately I had stopped reading them - until Fallout Three, when my husband and I had a giant argument about how to hack safes. We had tried every esoteric combination that we could think of,(it had gotten over the top pathetic), and then we read the manual. When my husband got a copy of Bioshock for his last birthday, the first thing I did was read the manual - and we didn't have one game fight during the whole thing. (but those manuals aren't what they used to be...)

    You write so eloquently about the details. I really enjoy your blog.

  12. I speed read manuals when I do read them... but can often be find with a comprehensive guide complete with tabs, underlined or highlighted passages, and hand drawn quick reference charts for games which I feel compelled to finish 100% by finding every item, treasure, secret, star, nook/cranny, etc. (Two examples that immediately come to mind include Secret of Mana & Mario Galaxies I)

    On a different note unrelated to manuals, your Kaboom! story left me wanting to give you a little look-see into my beloved game collection. Not a spam link, promise.


  13. I don't mean to stir a pot, but I found the subject of this entry to be very interesting and unique, and just now I saw this article that was just posted over at G4. You might want to email this author and see if he reads your blog Mr. Jones. Don't worry, his writing is far less inspired.


  14. just a quick comment

    I would do that every time i would open a game, I would be fascinated with the instruction book reading it page to page, and Im angry that they get smaller and smaller each time i open a game :D