This Spawnkill editorial hits the nail on the head: game manuals were often cooler than video games themselves. Like record covers, and even CD liners now, game manuals have become a dead art. For those of us who grew up in the Nintendo era, but who lacked the resources to actually get a Nintendo, game manuals borrowed from friends were the next best thing, like a way to pretend you were playing the game. I remember long hours spent in the back of school buses imagining what video games must be like from the manuals other kids showed me, which were invariably more interesting than the actual experience…
Throughout those shining years of my childhood, purchasing a new game often meant thumbing through the pages of a mammoth tome detailing impending gameplay down to the letter. If I were stuck on a long car trip with a recently-purchased title, digging into that precious parcel and retrieving the manual was the first thing on my mind. It was a way to game vicariously through a few simple, innocent pages, and one of the first ties I established to any game I had my heart set on playing through. Unfortunately, it’s also a familiar constant that gamers new and old can kiss goodbye with the decision to downsize the distribution of manuals entirely, spearheaded by Ubisoft, and perhaps many more companies to follow.
Call me old-fashioned, but the feeling of thumbing through the crisp (sometimes colored) pages rife with back story, notes from the designers, and detailed instructions on how to play gave me a real sense of anticipation. It was genuinely difficult to wait those few short hours until the final journey home at the end of the day to eagerly devour the content on the disk (or cartridge) inside. In some cases, being treated with some delicious fiction related to the title was something to look forward to as well, especially if you needed a little extra hype to fully enjoy the adventure about to unfold.
And let’s not forget the lovely serial numbers or copy protection that would require you to find a certain line or word in the manual to be able to install the thing. Good luck if you threw it away! But even now, as illogical as it would be to require a simple word or pass phrase as DRM, it was part of the charm that came with buying a new game.