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Stop What You're Doing and Look Back on These 10 Beautiful SNES Instruction Booklets

Back when instruction booklets were a canvas.

Feature by Nadia Oxford, .

Most SNES games aren't very text-heavy compared to games today, but they still deliver decent exposition through their instruction booklets. Back in the 16-bit pre-dawn, you had to turn to these glossy, stapled bundles of paper if you wanted to know everything about your quest, its characters, and its power-ups.

While most instruction booklets of the era delivered the bare basics, some went above and beyond. The best booklets contained high-resolution color artwork, well-written stories, detailed character profiles, and even jokes and puns. Unsurprisingly, most of the games Nintendo selected for its SNES Classic Edition line-up were initially bundled with excellent instruction booklets offering all of the above, and more.

Oh, you missed out on the golden age of pack-in video game literature? No worries. Nintendo has clean scans of each SNES Classic game booklet. Even baked-in strategy guides are on display. Between Nintendo's efforts and its excellent Star Fox 2 instruction booklet mock-up, it's good to see the company go the extra mile to preserve such an important—if under-celebrated—element of retro gaming.

Here are ten SNES instruction booklets that deserve to be re-read.

Super Mario World

As with its booklets for Super Mario Bros 1, 2, and 3, Nintendo's booklet for Super Mario World illustrates each of Mario's moves with a full-color picture. That's cool—especially since Mario World has a lot of moves compared to its predecessors. I also like the large map that explains each region and links Super Mario World to Super Mario Bros 3 via the Sunken Ship guarding the Valley of Bowser.

F-Zero

F-Zero wasn't initially supposed to be set in the future; the technical limitations of the SNES forced fate to make a sharp turn. Once Nintendo made up its mind, though, it committed to the whole "future racing" business. There's a lot of great art and exposition in the F-Zero booklet, some of which is delivered via a small comic by Valiant.

Castlevania IV

In the 8- and- 16-bit era, Konami loved to joke around in its instruction booklets. The instruction booklet for Castlevania IV is a lovable nightmare of groan-worthy puns and bad wordplay. Even if Konami is absolved of all its sins in the distant future, nothing will erase the travesty of "Paula Abghoul and Fred Askare." I appreciate the floating horse head named "Mr Hed," though.

The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past

The manual for A Link to the Past is a delight. It's where we first learn about the three goddesses that are now an indelible part of Hyrule lore, as well as Ganon's initial history as Ganondorf. I still love the images of blood, war, and slaughter the booklet relays through its story of the Imprisoning War. Pretty hardcore stuff for '90s Nintendo.

Secret of Mana

One trick RPG developers tried in hopes of recruiting more players outside of Japan was to include extra-thick instruction booklets that served as partial strategy guides. Secret of Mana is one example of this effort. I really like the narrative tone of this booklet, especially the instruction to choose a name for Randi that will "strike respect and fear in the hearts of the people you meet." Some of my choicest names have included "FART," "QUEEF," and various strings of nonsense when I couldn't be bothered. Don't follow in my footsteps, youngsters.

Super Metroid

The Super Metroid booklet contains some great outlines of Samus' armor, as well as an illustrated two-page map of Zebes and a full bestiary that contains lesser-known tidbits of info. Did you know the Keyhunter enemies are another species of Space Pirate?

Donkey Kong Country

The Donkey Kong Country manual is worth re-reading just for Cranky Kong's quips, especially "Who'd want to copy this game?" on the Copy Warning page.

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Final Fantasy III

The booklet for Final Fantasy III / VI doesn't contain a step-by-step guide in the vein of Secret of Mana, but it's still packed to the brim with useful information about the game's characters, skills, spells, and Espers. It's also sprinkled generously with illustrations by series artist Yoshitaka Amano. Great stuff all around.

Earthbound

Here it is: The Holy Grail of RPG strategy guides. Buying EarthBound back in the day netted you one of these beauties as well—but since few people bought EarthBound when it was released, the guides quickly became scarce. That's too bad, because it's a thing of beauty. It walks you through the game step-by-step, of course, but it also features clay models of the enemies you encounter, and it utilizes wonderfully cheesy human models in parts. The whole shebang is modeled to look like travel brochures and local newspaper articles. It's truly a step above. Even the digital file is a hefty 50 megs.

Super Mario RPG

Super Mario RPG's booklet isn't as detailed as Square's other SNES efforts, but it's still worthy of a shout-out. I love the clean renders of the game's characters and items, not to mention Luigi's guidance from page to page. "Mario doesn't need me this time around," he says. It's OK, Luigi. You can cry. I won't tell anyone.

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Comments 9

  • Avatar for dr134 #1 dr134 16 days ago
    Thanks for linking to the full manuals. Took me a minute to realize you had done that.

    I used to love getting a new game and reading the manual from cover to cover before plugging it in and playing.

    Jagged Alliance (iirc) had a secret message hidden in the credits section of the manual that said to write them saying you had seen it for some sort of prize. I miss crazy stuff like that.
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  • Avatar for Vaporeon #2 Vaporeon 16 days ago
    Amazing feature, Nadia! Thanks for sharing. I might suggest changing the article title to "...look (and smell!) back... since those Earthbound scratch-and-sniff cards in the back totally grossed me out as a kid. Actually, I have a weird taste on my tongue just recalling one of them ::shudder::
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  • Avatar for guillermojiménez88 #3 guillermojiménez88 16 days ago
    I remember reading many of these: Super Mario World, DKC (and DKC2!), Super Mario RPG. Great stuff.

    I still have the manual for Super Metroid, along with a Player's Choice edition box. I take it out to read It every couple of months.
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  • Avatar for ReptilianSamurai #4 ReptilianSamurai 16 days ago
    Why couldn't Nintendo have gone the extra mile to include these in the SNES Classic? Instead the manual link gives you a QR Code to get to that website. Unfortunate. (Websites are by nature ephemeral, I'd rather have a manual included in the system).
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  • Avatar for DrCorndog #5 DrCorndog 16 days ago
    Love the manual for SMW. I once ended up with my friend's copy of that manual, when he had a SNES and I didn't. I couldn't play SMW at the time, but reading through that manual I could dream that I was.
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  • Avatar for bring_on_branstons #6 bring_on_branstons 16 days ago
    I do love a good manual. But more than that I do love a good Nintendo game manual. They were always so well produced with full on colour illustrations. In the UK at least, Megadrive/Genesis manuals were B+W and never as nice.

    PLUS if you click on the language button top right on the main page of the SNES manuals webpage, you can select Japanese at the bottom and have access to Super Famicom manuals! :) For my money, these are even nicer with different title pages and a slightly more arty approach!!!

    https://www.nintendo.co.jp/clvs/manuals/ja/index.html
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  • Avatar for Vonlenska #7 Vonlenska 16 days ago
    I miss videogame manuals. Especially well-written, punny, quirky, oddball manuals chock full of promotional art. They could add so much to a game; I probably spent more time nosing around in half these manuals than playing their respective games back in the Before Time.
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  • Avatar for riderkicker #8 riderkicker 16 days ago
  • Avatar for Woogity #9 Woogity 16 days ago
    The EarthBound guide is worth a read even if you're not playing the game. I was fortunate to find it at Software Etc. about 15 years ago for just $1 after I foolishly sold my complete-in-box copy to buy Chrono Trigger back in late 1995.
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