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Stone Age Countdown - Top 5 Instruction Manuals

Stone Age Countdown - Top 5 Instruction Manuals

Posted by Kris Randazzo on Nov 1st 2021

Instruction manuals may be going the way of the dinosaur, but their place in video game history can not be understated. In the old days, these booklets were many players'' first portals into the worlds of the games they loved. These 5 (okay, more than 5) are some of the best.

Transcript of the video:

Hi everyone! Kris from Stone Age Gamer here. For gamers of a certain age, the noble instruction manual will always hold a special place in their hearts. At a time when the games themselves weren’t able to tell complex stories or teach you how to play via in-game tutorial, manuals are where you learned about games and their lore. Most were straightforward informational dumps. Many had amazing artwork. But some, some took things a step further to be truly legendary.

I obviously don’t own every instruction manual ever printed, so this list is by no means exhaustive, but I have read a lot of manuals in my day, and these here are my top 5 best instruction manuals.

#5 Donkey Kong Country

Classic instruction manuals usually did their job in a pretty dry manner. There were, however, some exceptions, and one of the first examples of a manual trying to spice things up that I ever encountered came in the form of Donkey Kong Country. The manual itself is more or less your basic fare, except that nearly every page has a blurb from Cranky Kong on it. This wrinkly old ape injected a hilarious sense of personality into the game itself, and that carried all the way into its manual.

On top of that though, it’s a really great looking booklet, and the story in particular was a lot of fun to read.

Even back in those days a lot of people tended to skip reading the instruction manuals, so any time I came across something that was special like this really made my day.

#4 We Love Katamari

Instruction manuals were very much on their way out by the time the PS2 had hit its prime, what with the games themselves now including tutorials that could show players how to play in the games themselves. But if you want to talk about a PS2 game with its own personality, Katamari is definitely a strong one.

The first Katamari had a surprisingly bland manual, but when it came time for the sequel, they went all out in the personality department. Every page is filled with this gorgeous, bizarre art. It’s likely that the game’s creators knew that most of the information in this booklet wasn’t going to be read or even necessary to the majority of players, so why not just have some fun with it? I couldn’t have been happier that they did.

I may not like We Love Katamari nearly as much as its predecessor, but this manual is one area where the sequel absolutely outshines the original.

#3 3 way tie between Zelda, Zelda 2, and Metroid

Yeah okay, this is a bit of a cheat, but I didn’t want to eat up 3 slots on this list with similar manuals that I love for the same reasons. These all came out around the same time, and Metroid, The Legend of Zelda, and Zelda II: The Adventure of Link all have absolutely stellar manuals.

What makes them special isn’t some sense of humor or 4th wall breaking, they’re just beautifully illustrated books that tell fascinating stories, and set the groundwork for some of my favorite game worlds of all time. These stories aren’t short either! Zelda 1 and 2 feature lengthy tales that for a young me were pure imagination fodder.

Meanwhile, Metroid’s manual repeatedly refers to Samus as a man, and focuses on their mysterious identity, making that shocking reveal at the end of the game that much more impactful.

These ones also do this wonderful thing where they show the original artwork next to the in game sprites, which is such a fun direct comparison to make in these old games, and helped make the limited spritework feel all that much more alive.

Other manuals like Kid Icarus employed similar styles, but for my money, nothing beats this trifecta in this particular department.

#2 StarTropics

This game is wonderful, but its manual is the source of not just one of its greatest moments, but one of my favorite gaming memories of all time.

At first glance, this manual isn’t anything special. It covers all the basics, and it doesn't do so in any kind of particularly interesting manner. It’s just there. But when you turn it over, there’s this letter.

The plot of the game has protagonist Mike Jones trying to rescue his Uncle Dr. J, and there was a novelty letter written by him attached to the back of the booklet. I thought it was a really cool touch when I first got the game, but when I pulled it off the back to read it I saw that the manual said this letter was important and that I should absolutely not throw it away. So I folded it right back up, put it inside the game box, and played the game.

Then there comes a point where you need a password to start up your Uncle’s submarine, and in order to find it, his robot tells you to put Dr. Js letter in water. He’s not talking about an item in the game, he’s talking about the literal letter.

I was skeptical at first because it’s paper, and I didn't want to get it wet. But I decided to listen to the robot in the end and sure enough, well…

I had ever seen anything quite like it before, and it was a positively magical experience the likes of which I wouldn’t see again for years in Metal Gear Solid for PlayStation.

What an amazingly fun thing to add to a manual.

#1 Uniracers

This manual takes everything Donkey Kong Country did and turns it up to eleven. Instead of having a straightforward manual narrated by a goofy old monkey, they made every word of the manual written in an very unusual style

Even the basic stuff about turning on your console is written like this, assuming that if you’re reading that part you probably just got your SNES. This made me want to read every word in the entire manual just to see how they’d approach it. It's just so goofy!

But the best thing of all comes on a page later in the manual titled Irrelevant. They talk about how manuals sometimes have blank pages in them, and they didn't want to do that here, so they wrote about pizza.

This made me laugh so hard, and I couldn’t wait to show all my friends. I loved Uniracers and I will always be mad at Pixar for pulling the game off the market because they think they own computerized unicycles, but whatever. The game was great, and its manual helped cement its place as one of the coolest Super NES games ever made, and my favorite instruction manual of all time. 

Instruction manuals are few and far between these days, and at least in my eyes they're a sorely missed part of gaming culture. There’s really nothing quite like the experience of having your parents drive you to the store to get a new game and then pouring over the manual on the drive home. Fortunately, there are still plenty of ways to view manuals of old online, which I suppose is better than nothing, and there are some folks out there who include manuals in their games, so the art isn’t completely lost, and that’s a comforting thought.

Thanks for watching, everyone. If you liked what you saw here today, please be sure to follow, like, subscribe, and let us know what your favorite instruction manuals are. Which ones did I miss? Let us know. Thanks again, and on behalf of all of us here at Stone Age Gamer, keep playing games.