If you’re old enough to remember printed game manuals, you’ve probably heard gamers joke about how superfluous they were. Ever since the mid 90’s, games have featured in-game tutorials and, even then, most people are smart enough to figure out the basics just by fiddling with the controller for a few seconds. They were utterly redundant. And yet, just about everyone admits that the first thing they did when they bought a new game as a kid was read those blasted booklets cover to cover. I know I did.
Nowadays, print manuals have been phased out in favor of in-game tutorials and digital guides accessible with a few, quick button presses. But just because something’s extinct doesn’t mean it’s not worth studying. Let’s take a look at how game manuals evolved over the years.
I’ll be limiting this examination to one mainline Mario title per console generation: Super Mario Bros., Super Mario World, Super Mario 64, Super Mario Sunshine, and Super Mario Galaxy 2. Why? Because contrary to popular belief I actually have a life, and to do this properly is way more work than even I’m willing to put out.
The most noticeable difference between manuals at first glance is their physical construction. The original Super Mario Bros.‘s manual is approximately 5.2×4 inches, which is considerably smaller the manuals of later generations, which all average to roughly 4.6×7 inches. Of course, size differences pale in comparison to the actual printing. With the exception of the cover and the gold Nintendo Seal of Approval on the first page, Super Mario Bros.‘s manual is entirely in black and white. Later generations would feature full color print for their manuals. Moreover, much more thought was given to how the pages were laid out, with sentences no longer being split between pages and more organic placement of text and illustrations. The last item of note is Super Mario Galaxy 2‘s manual is written in three languages: English, French, and Spanish. As to be expected, this tripled the booklet’s thickness.
Back in the day, the only way to know a game’s plot often times was reading it in the game’s manual. Even after games started to become self-contained by providing opening cinematics, manuals continued to provide brief summaries of the game’s premise.
As to be expected, the plot summary of the first Super Mario Bros. is short and to the point. It describes what happens, without going into much detail as to how or why. Moreover, we don’t get to see things from any character’s point of view. Because of this, the narration has a sense of detachment from the plight of the hero, giving the plot summary a matter-of-fact tone. In short, it’s not so much a story as it is a plot.
In short, it’s not so much a story as it is a plot.
By contrast, Super Mario World‘s story uses a limited third-person narrative, presenting the story from Mario and Luigi’s perspective. The characters are presented as, well, characters: they’re given motives, emotions, and even dialog. Moreover, the story is actually presented as a narrative, with events playing out in sequence. Interestingly, the story (in the North American manual, at least), makes reference to the events of Super Mario Bros. 3, indicating that SMB3 is canonical despite Miyamoto stating it was all a stage-play…
Super Mario 64 continues the increased focus on narrative, notably by spending two whole pages on story! The story starts with a dose of self-awareness by asking, “Is there no end to the constant feuding between Mario and Bowser?” Afterward, the plot is told entirely from Mario’s perspective, with frequent interjections from the man himself. These quips from Mario are actually a bit jarring for anyone used to Mario’s modern portrayal, as they actually communicate some personality. It seems at this point Nintendo wasn’t afraid to let Mario be his own character instead of a stand-in for the player. Other than that, the story unfolds much like Super Mario World’s, which is to say a narrative instead of a plot. Interestingly, Mario 64 and Super Mario World‘s stories both include some overlap with what the player would see during gameplay.
It seems at this point Nintendo wasn’t afraid to let Mario be his own character instead of a stand-in for the player.
Super Mario Sunshine‘s story section is somewhere between the style of Super Mario Bros. and its super Nintendo and N64 predecessors, mostly leaning toward the former. While it attempts to convey the story with the sense of drama of Super Mario World and Mario 64, it only describes things in broad strokes. Like Super Mario Bros., there’s no focus on characters, instead favoring a description of events from an outside perspective. I assume this is in part due to the inclusion of cutscenes in the game itself. Since this was the first Mario game to be almost entirely self-contained when it came to plot, Nintendo probably thought it would be redundant to put information in the manual that the player would receive in-game.
Lastly, Super Mario Galaxy 2 somehow manages to beat even Super Mario Bros. in brevity. It doesn’t even set up the story’s conflict. All we learn from it is that Mario’s been invited to the castle and meets a Luma along the way. That’s it. The Prologue page actually devotes more space to character bios than story, which—given the game’s focus on gameplay over any semblance of plot—is probably appropriate.
Controls and Gameplay
The most important part of a game, and thereby the most important part of a game manual, is the gameplay. Gameplay and controls vary from game to game, even within the same franchise. As such, these sections are going to differ quite a bit on the granular level. Seeing as this is an examination of the evolution of game manuals and not the Mario series, I’m going to look at the big picture: what’s emphasized and how those instructions are written.
So right off the bat, I noticed something peculiar about the way pre-2000’s manuals were written. Often times when explaining controls or specific actions, the manuals often phrase actions in terms of Mario and not the player. For example, when listing the uses for the A-button, the Super Mario World manual says it “Makes Mario jump,” instead of, say, “Makes you jump.” Sunshine and Galaxy 2‘s manuals instead phrase controls and player actions in terms of the player, using terms like “when you touch an enemy” and so on.
This is interesting as conveys the idea that—despite the player controlling him—Mario is his own separate entity, with the player simply giving him instructions rather than Mario being an extension of the player. That said, I would be remiss to not mention that the pre-2000’s manuals were inconsistent in this trend, often alternating between describing actions as being performed in third-person (i.e. Mario) and second-person (i.e. the player). Also interesting is that while Mario Galaxy 2‘s manual exclusively describes the actions Mario can perform in second-person, actions that Yoshi can perform are exclusively third-person, indicating that the player isn’t the character he’s controlling, he is Mario.
This conveys the idea that—despite the player controlling him—Mario is his own separate entity.
Older games take a very different approach to describing gameplay. Both Super Mario Bros. and Super Mario World go into great detail about everything: defeating enemies, items, kicking shells, using the weird pink ramps in Mario World, everything. Super Mario 64‘s manual spends most of its pages explaining analog movement, items, and how to progress through the game, with basic concepts like stomping on enemies being mostly glossed over. Sunshine‘s gameplay section is almost exclusively about all of the different moves and actions Mario can perform, only briefly touching on game progression or items. Lastly, while the Galaxy 2 manual mostly lists moves, it does go into more detail when explaining the mechanics of recurrent items and stage features like checkpoint flags than the previous 3D games.
Personally, seeing how ideas and perspectives have changed over the last 30+ years is fascinating. We’ve seen Nintendo promote Mario as a character, only to make a 180 and make him a simple stand-in for the player. Then there’s getting to see what they thought was important for each game: back when Mario was first introduced, stomping on enemies, kicking shells, and so forth were new ideas, and the manuals tried to explain everything they could. Later games trusted that the player was familiar enough with the series—or video games in general—to figure out how to use their abilities and instead focused on the basic controls and the game’s new ideas, such as Mario 64‘s analog movement.
Unfortunately, this is where the story ends; Nintendo phased out print manuals during the Wii U era in favor of digital manuals, and now with the Switch, we don’t even have those. It’s a shame really, because, as I’ve just shown, even if you don’t need a manual to play a game or understand its plot, you can still learn from it.