Like the daily newspaper, the printed phone bill and personal checks, the video game instruction manual is facing extinction in our increasingly paperless world. Hold off on mourning, though. Nintendo has spent the last year or so quietly implementing a digital revival that's been a joy to behold.
If you haven't noticed what's been going on, that's understandable. Most gamers probably haven't. Don't worry. I'll show you. But before I get to that...
What you probably have noticed is that fewer and fewer games even come with printed instruction manuals any more. Mega-publisher Ubisoft began shipping some of its games without paper instruction manuals back in 2010. Crack open a boxed PS4 copy of Battlefield 4 or an Xbox One copy of Call of Duty: Ghosts and you'll find some pamphlets hyping various games and promotions, but you won't find a proper instruction manual.
Many games don't need an instruction manual, of course. You can learn to play them simply by, well, playing them. Also, many modern games that ship without paper manuals often at least contain a digital manual. Too bad, though, that most of those digital manuals are ugly. They appear to be created as aesthetic afterthoughts. They look like ugly websites. They're terrible. That is where Nintendo is coming to the rescue.
The End Of Print
Slowly, surely, quietly, Nintendo has been figuring out how to make some terrific digital instruction manuals. They've been doing it on the Wii U recently. And, frankly, it's been a neat thing to watch.
Let's first wind things back to late 2012 and the launch of the Wii U. Back then, Nintendo actually did include paper instruction manuals in their games.
Here's the printed manual that came with New Super Mario Brothers U:
Here are a couple of pages from another Wii U launch game, Nintendo Land:
Not bad, right? They're colorful. They're laid out well. They aren't necessary, mind you. Their respective games explain themselves well enough. But those of us who have played games for a long time have come to appreciate manuals like these as charming extras. It's nice to see a decent paper manual, and it's been unsettling, initially even on the Wii U, to see what is replacing them.
Every Wii U game, including New Super Mario Bros. U and Nintendo Land, also has a digital instruction manual. That's been Nintendo policy, it seems, even back on the Nintendo 3DS. On either system, if you press the home button, you can tap a part of the screen and load a digital manual. The ones on the 3DS have been pretty good and probably worth a spotlight, too, but today I'm talking about manuals for games you play on your TV.
A Rough Start
The early digital manuals for Wii U games are pretty bad. Here's part of the one for New Super Mario Bros. U, screencapped from my TV (the same view is available on the screen of the Wii U GamePad and can be navigated with a stylus or with a controller thumbstick):
Nothing special there. The Mario one is functional. Clean. A bit cold for Nintendo.
Here's part of the Nintendo Land one, which seems to be the product of trying harder and falling further...
Here's another Wii U launch game, the superb ZombiU from Ubisoft. You'll see something a little different here from the inconsistently manual-averse publisher. The paper manual has stuff like this:
The digital manual for ZombiU has the same material, but presented in color...
By late 2013, ZombiU publisher Ubisoft seemed to lose interest in making impressive digital manuals for Wii U games. The printed manual included with the Wii U version of Rayman Legends contains just three pages of black-and-white line-drawings explaining which Wii U controller buttons do what. The digital manual isn't that much better. Here's a page:
No, it's not Ubisoft that has been making things right in the sub-sub-genre of digital instruction manuals. It hasn't been Sega, either (their Sonic: Lost World digital manual is mediocre). I haven't seen any publisher step up. As far as I can tell, all the progress being made on this front has been by Nintendo.
The Turnaround, Thanks To... Wario?
Nintendo has come a long way from those Mario Bros. U and Nintendo Land manuals. Take a tour with me through 2013 and you'll see...
In March, Nintendo published Lego City Undercover. They included a skimpy printed instruction manual that included an ad for legos and a URL through which players could take a Lego survey and maybe get a cheat code. The digital manual for the game was a sorry sight:
In June, Nintendo released Game & Wario and included this instead of a paper instruction manual:
That marked the end of them putting instruction manuals in game boxes, but it also seemed to mark the beginning of Nintendo making attractive digital manuals. The Game & Wario one below is a leap ahead. You can see more effort being made to establish an attractive, unifying aesthetic that suits the game. Some pages:
In early August, Nintendo released three pieces of software for Wii U: Pikmin 3, Art Academy: Sketchpad and Animal Crossing Plaza. Only the first of those is an actual video game. And only that one had a physical release that could have come with an instruction manual. All three had digital manuals, and while none were as good as the Wario one, they did show signs of improvement from late 2012 and early 2013:
Moving into September, things got really good. First, we had the Platinum-developed, Nintendo-published Wonderful 101 and then Nintendo's own HD remake of The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker. No paper manuals for those, but just look at how good these digital manuals are....
Steps Back, Leaps Forward
October and November brought some regression. Wii Party U's digital manual was decent. Super Mario 3D World's was only impressive compared to the previous November's Mario game manual...
And then we got to December...
December produced two slick, smartly-designed digital instruction manuals from Nintendo. They are, possibly, Nintendo's best digital instruction manuals.
We got the really good Dr. Luigi one, which wrapped many of its paragraphs in the same sort of medical beaker shape that is used in the game:
Also in December we got the best digital manual that I think Nintendo has ever made, the one for its surprise download-only release NES Remix. Just look at this one...it puts all the preceding ones to shame!
That one's marvelous. It looks like a love letter to the old-school Nintendo Entertainment System (and Famicom) aesthetic. Given that that's what the NES Remix game is supposed to feel like, too, it's pitch-perfect.
A few things to note about Nintendo's Wii U digital manuals:
1) The manuals are viewable on a TV screen or on the screen in the console's GamePad controller. One of the problems with digital manuals for other consoles is that you can only read them on the TV, and reading text on a TV is not that pleasant an experience. A digital manual is more useful and easier to look at when it is physically closer to you. That's an advantage to the Wii U for putting a screen in your hands on which you can view these things.
2) The Wii U manuals imitate a lot of the aspects of printed manuals. They're presented as a series of pages that you turn (swipe) through one at a time. But they don't strictly utilize a print philosophy. They've adopted some aspects of webpages. They include tappable links that let you navigate from one part of the page to another. Here's an example I captured in which, on the GamePad, I'm tapping the various numbered nodes:
3) The Wii U manuals are also coded to remember where you were on a page after you turn to another page and then turn back. That's a nice touch. Unfortunately, the system forgets where you were, though, if you go a little further away. An example:
I understand that, for some people, a digital video game instruction manual will never be a sufficient replacement for a printed one. I also get that manuals serve less and less of a useful function in an age when games can easily include tutorials within their own levels.
Perhaps, then, the digital manual is a decent compromise. It's not something that games need. It's not something that gamers need. But it's nice to have without being wasteful and without alienating gamers who downloaded a game instead of buying a copy that came in a box.
As Nintendo's shown, a digital instruction manual can be a thing of beauty. Let's at least get more instruction manuals like these.