Instruction Manuals, the Greatest Story Never Read

We've all been there before. In fact, if you're a dedicated fan of video games, you've probably done it hundreds of times. You take home the latest release after weeks of rabid anticipation, tear open the shrink wrap with the reckless enthusiasm of a hungry lion on a gazelle, and pop your prize into your favorite console for hours of fun. The instruction manual is quickly cast aside and spends the rest of its life trapped in the case… or if it crosses paths with a careless parent or spouse, at the bottom of a garbage can.

You almost have to feel sorry for the instruction manual. Historically, it's been the most overlooked part of the gaming experience… and if developers have their way, it may not have a future. Ubisoft no longer ships its games with instruction booklets, and software for the Playstation Vita, Sony's latest handheld, never had them at all. With print media on the decline and interactive tutorials becoming increasingly commonplace, the days of the instruction manual may well be numbered.

However antiquated it may seem today, there was a place for the instruction manual in the 1970s. Home gaming was a relatively new concept in those days, and players needed a guide to help them navigate this unfamiliar territory. In the beginning, instruction manuals were rarely longer than eight pages, giving the player just enough information to get started. However, as technology evolved and video games became more sophisticated, their instructions followed suit, eventually becoming unappreciated works of art themselves.

Most of the game manuals printed in the 1970s and early 1980s were roughly the same size, five inches wide by seven inches long. However, their design varied greatly from console to console, falling in lockstep with the art style chosen by the manufacturer to promote its products. For instance, manuals for the Fairchild Channel F were very much a product of their time, with a rounded sans-serif font for headers and a monochrome version of the Peter Max-inspired artwork that graced the front of the box. Atari's early manuals were more lavish but just as immersed in 1970s pop culture, with cringeworthy hair styles and dated science fiction scenarios decorating their covers.

Without licensing agreements to keep outside developers in check, there were considerable differences in game manuals depending on the publisher. While Atari adorned its own instruction booklets with intricately detailed hand-drawn artwork, Imagic preferred models of terrifying dragons and massive starships, enhanced with dramatic lighting and other clever camera tricks. Competitor Activision took a more literal route, offering simple but vibrantly colored illustrations that closely mirrored the artwork in its games. Activision also parted ways with Atari by celebrating its programmers, reserving a page in each game's manual for a photograph and a brief profile of the person who designed it.

One rule of thumb for early instruction manuals is that their quality rose and fell along with the fortunes of the publisher. Instructions for the first handful of Atari 2600 games reflect the modest size of the company when it was first purchased by Warner Communications. Years later, when video games hit the peak of their popularity, Atari's manuals became more sophisticated… layouts were drastically improved, the color was more prominent, and high-quality artwork was no longer limited to the front page.

Conversely, when a publisher fell on hard times, manuals were often the first to feel the impact. After Atari's fall from grace in 1983 and subsequent purchase by Jack Tramiel one year later, game manuals for the 2600 went from full-color booklets to decidedly less impressive fold-out posters. Similarly, the already modest manuals for the Bally Professional Arcade took a tumble into typewritten hell when the rights to the console were sold to cash-strapped Astrovision.

When Atari dominated the video game industry in the early 1980s, it went all out with its instructions, starting with the release of Yar's Revenge in 1982. Along with a standard manual, the game was packaged with a comic, which described its play mechanics in careful detail and offered a compelling origin for its cast of characters. Later Atari games were packaged with issues of Atari Force, a DC comic book about starship captain Martin Champion and his ethnically diverse crew of galactic explorers. (Imagine the original Star Trek series with frequent video game references and you'd be on the right track.)

Near the end of the golden age of video games, numeric keypads became standard equipment on controllers, and the instruction manual was partnered with another handy reference… the overlay. Once attached to the controller, these small plastic cards turned the digits on a numeric keypad into clearly labeled, game-specific buttons, making complex titles like B-17 Bomber and Fortune Builder more accessible to players. They were the perfect complement to instruction booklets, giving gamers critical information at a glance while leaving the finer details of the gameplay to a reference that could be leafed through between games.

Sadly, overlays perished in the video game crash of 1983 and were not brought back to life when the Nintendo Entertainment System made its American debut two years later. However, instruction manuals remained an important part of the gaming experience. We'll look at their evolution in the late 1980s and early 1990s in the next chapter of this feature.

Jess Ragan
Jess Ragan
Professional Author and Video Game Developer

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