Physical game manuals are hard to come by these days, especially as the industry begins to heavily lean into cloud streaming and digital-first infrastructures. But if you remember those good ole times when game boxes came with chunky pamphlets for you to peruse before jumping into your recent purchase, a games preservationist called Kirkland seeks to preserve that nostalgia for posterity by creating high-quality scans of the manuals of yore. In fact, he’s just finished uploading his complete set of U.S. PlayStation 2 manual scans.
Launched in the U.S. in October 2000—22 years ago this Wednesday—Sony’s PlayStation 2 was one of the most popular consoles ever. With more than 4,000 games released worldwide and selling approximately 158 million units globally, just about everyone had a PS2. Games like Jak & Daxter and Sly Cooper helped popularize the console among kids and tweens, while titles such as Metal Gear Solid 2 and Onimusha continued growing a more “mature” market. Devil May Cry 3, Final Fantasy X, Kingdom Hearts, Ratchet & Clank, Silent Hill 2 (which is getting remade now), Okami, Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 3—the list of PS2 hits goes on forever, all bangers.
My fave aspect of buying a new PS2 game was always reading the manual to see what tips, tricks, and occasionally cheats I could use. While that time is long gone, Kirkland has now preserved just over 1,900 of them, uploading every single U.S. PS2 manual to Archive.org in full 4K resolution for your downloading and scrolling pleasure. The set comes in it at roughly 17GB—it was 230GB before compression. That’s chonky.
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Each manual is just as cool as you might remember back in the ‘00s, with the high-quality scans highlighting the often-striking art. It really is a portal through time! I mean, browsing the manual for Square Enix’s Musashi: Samurai Legend (one of my fave PS2 games, ever) fills me with nostalgia, transporting me back to my grandma’s house when I’d stay up ‘til 3 a.m. slashing goons as the cropped-top wearing protagonist Miyamoto Musashi. Clearly, things haven’t changed much for me.
“The goal is to raise some awareness for game preservation efforts,” Kirkland told Kotaku. “So many games growing up shaped how we looked at and experienced the world. Of course as we ‘grow up,’ we move to other things but there are a lot of us who have nostalgia for these things and want our kids to be able to enjoy what we did. The whole ‘read the books your father read’ deal. And there have been great efforts to preserve games: VGHF, the Strong Museum, and grassroots efforts like MAME, redump.org, No-Intro, and Cowering’s Good Tools before that. Which I always thought, ‘This is great! We’re going to have everything preserved. But without the manuals, we’re not going to know how to play them.’”
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Unfortunately for the manuals, scanning can be a pretty rough process. “My process is horrible. I pull the staples and run most everything through my Epson DS-870 sheetfed scanner. As a die hard perfectionist, using a document scanner is disappointing for quality, but a necessity due to volume,” he said. I spent seven months scanning SNES manuals and only made it to the letter ‘E’ using three flatbed scanners. With this setup I’ve been able to scan almost 75,000 pages in the last year alone.”
After the tedious work of scanning each page, Kirkland used a bevy of apps—like Adobe Acrobat Pro, Photoshop, Textpad, and PDF Combiner Pro—to get them as clean and pristine as possible before uploading them all to Archive.org in both 2K and 4K resolution. “I’ve spent entire summer vacations scanning manuals, only to discard them as I’ve gotten better equipment, or better processed,” he said. “Lots of late nights.”
Kirkland said he dropped about $40,000 on his U.S. PS2 collection as he methodically bought every U.S. release over the course of 22 years. “I grabbed new releases when they got down to $20 for about the first 800 releases, then I started picking up used sports games in good condition, then it was hunting down the odd variants (which is never-ending).”
Kirkland’s 4K U.S. PlayStation 2 scan set is likely the largest, highest-quality collection of video game manual scans publicly available, but to him, it doesn’t quite constitute “archival” quality.
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“I consider this ‘functional preservation’ for now,” he said. “Since I’ve popped the staples, I can always chuck them on a flatbed to properly preserve them. But then it goes back to my perfectionist nature. What is ‘good enough’? 2400 dpi at 48-bit color (over one gigabyte per page). At what point are we archiving ink instead of images? There is no easy answer.”
Maybe further advances in technology will eventually make the task easier.
“In the future, I’d love to have an AI that can truly reconstruct the text and images as they were intended, correcting skew and properly descreening without blurring line art,” he said. “As it is, no one really wants a 600 dpi scan with staple holes and black edges, they just want the polished, finished project.“
Of course, getting there requires an incredible amount of labor on the part of the archivist.
While finishing over 1,900 PS2 manual scans might strike you as a good life’s work, it’s actually just another milestone for Kirkland. He’s previously completed the full set of U.S. SNES manuals in 2K (collecting those to scan cost him $8,000), and is in the process of chipping away at SNES 4K, Atari 2600, and Game Boy. “I’ve scanned about 300 of the original PlayStation manuals the last few weeks,” he casually drops, as if it’s nothing.
Kirkland says he has about 7,500 manuals on hand, of which about 3,000 have already been preserved. He just wishes that this work didn’t all have to fall onto the backs of unusually motivated individuals like himself. “In a perfect world, companies would step up and release their original artwork sent to the presses for preservation,” he said. “But so many of those have been lost to history and hard drives over time.”
Yet collaboration brings its own challenges.
“At this time it’s mostly a solo effort—which I’m hoping to change as I move on to systems I cannot 100%,” he said. “I’ve been burned in the past by collaborations, so I’ve been a little leery of attaching to other projects, in the hopes of having a little more control over quality and direction.”
The work is painstaking, and many of the manuals most in need of preservation are stuck in private collections or being jacked up in price by “investors.” But Kirkland plans to continue his scanning projects because, in his view, this work simply must be done before it becomes impossible.
“The internet has had 25 years to make it happen, and all we have are the same scanned manuals from 2004 that look like they came off a fax machine, or gimped NES manuals because NintendoAge old-timers were so paranoid people were going to counterfeit their expensive holy grails that they themselves scored for $5 at a garage sale in the ‘90s. It just doesn’t sit right with me that you have to pay $200 for the privilege of reading a Chrono Trigger manual that is actually legible.”