Just picking up and playing a game, when I was a kid, was a recipe for disaster. Take, for example, one of the great NES classics: The Legend of Zelda. When you turned the game on, you were treated to cutting edge graphics . . . gray blobby cliffs and a blue-white waterfall, in all its pixelated glory. (Roll with me, here? It was exciting when I was a kid.)
“The Legend of Zelda” was wreathed in rather nice 8-bit ivy, laid over an upside-down golden triangle, and underlined by . . . is that a rapier? You never use a . . . OK, it’s a sword, at least.
If you were an eager kid, like me, you were tempted to press the start button instantly. Most people, not as musical as I was, did. I sat, enthralled by the beautiful theme song. The screen turned dark as the rhythm picked up, and the song felt a little menacing before getting into the meat of the theme we all know and love today. Wow. This was going to be awesome. I pressed start.
There was a place to put in a name for the character. Then the screen went black for a moment. The black parted like theater curtains to reveal a beige patch of ground surrounded by green . . . rocks? You could go north, east, or west, and there was a black square in the northwest part of the rocks that implied a cave entrance might be there.
Time out. Who am I? What am I doing here? What the heck is going on? What do I do?
If you took this approach, my friend, you just missed a very important part of the game, before you even turned the NES on and picked up the controller. How is this possible?
Did you read the instruction manual?
When I was a kid, the games were too tiny to hold all the dialogue and cutscenes we get in video games today. Video games today are practically interactive movies! At least, they are in comparison. I have to admit, I fibbed a little in my story. My sister and I loved to read, and we loved music. We read the manual before we started. And if you wait on the title screen, tempted by the music, The Legend of Zelda actually, kindly, gives you a short synopsis of the plot. “Gannon”– who the heck is that? Isn’t his name Ganon?– stole “one of the Triforce with power.” Princess Zelda “had one of the Triforce with wisdom.” She broke it into eight pieces to hide it from “Gannon” before she was captured. So what must we do? “Go find the ‘8’ units ‘Link’ to save her.”
Yes, those quotes are accurate from the original US release of the game. Don’t worry. The Engrish stops there.
My sister and I opened the instruction manual, which was much better translated. Printed on two pages was a panorama of a land of mountains and rivers, plains and forests, lakes and oceans. “A long, long time ago, the world was in an age of Chaos,” it begins. “In the midst of this chaos, in a little kingdom in the land of Hyrule . . .”
Wait. A little kingdom in the land of Hyrule? Doesn’t Zelda rule the whole thing? Not at this point, apparently. The powerful Prince of Darkness, Ganon– ah, there he is– attacked this little kingdom and stole the Triforce of Power. Princess Zelda broke the Triforce of Wisdom into eight pieces to hide them from him and sent her nursemaid, Impa, to go find a hero to save the kingdom from Ganon. Ganon heard of this, angrily imprisoned the princess, and sent out a party to hunt Impa down.
Fleeing through forests and mountains, Impa reached the end of her strength. She was surrounded by Ganon’s henchmen. “Cornered!” the manual declares. “What could she do? … But wait! All was not lost.”
Hope arrived in the form of a young man who skillfully drove away the monsters of evil, saving Impa from a terrible fate. Relieved and grateful, but desperate in her quest to find help, Impa told Link– ah, he has a name! I think I’ll put that in the character creation screen– the whole tragic story of Princess Zelda, all about the Triforces of Power and Wisdom and their ruined, conquered little kingdom. Ganon held the Triforce of Power. A hero would have no chance against Ganon, barricaded in his fortress in Death Mountain and protected by his dark army, without the reassembled Triforce of Wisdom to aid him.
“Can Link really destroy Ganon and save Princess Zelda?” the manual asks. “Only your skills can answer that question. Good luck. Use the Triforce wisely.”
Wow. And there was more! In the pages to follow, there were pictures as well as helpful information about Hyrule and Ganon’s dark forces. It turns out Impa is a little old lady in a red robe, with a long, witch-like nose, far from the warrior Sheikah bodyguard that Impa has been reincarnated into today. A boy kneels beside her, holding her up as she tells her story.
Link looks almost gnomish in the pictures, a small creature compared to the big, burly shopkeep in another picture, nothing like the tall, handsome human with pointed ears of the modern games. Small, but determined. Interesting looking, memorable, but not necessarily handsome, with his big nose and his trademark green cap with a large, odd yellow brim. A normal boy with an uncommon sense of justice and a legendary reserve of courage. Someone a kid could relate to.
The instruction book is forty six small pages long, chock full of maps and pictures, almost like a miniature strategy guide. It tells you all about the treasure and items you can get, and the overworld and underworld enemies, and if you read carefully, you get some good tips.
My sister and I devoured that book. Memorized it cover to cover. Tried to recreate the pictures in it without tracing them. Made up stories about the land of Hyrule and its colorful, monstrous inhabitants. And, from time to time, got into arguments about its contents.
A console game instruction book wasn’t always just a technical manual drily labeling controls for the gamepad with the occasional bit of concept art, finishing up with ten pages of credits you’d see at the end of the game anyway with an ad for a mobile spinoff game on the back cover. They used to be an appetizer for your imagination. Something you could always go back to, to remind yourself what you were doing was important. Zelda needed you. Hyrule needed you. OK, it was make-believe, but it was make-believe with a brave and beautiful goal.
I read somewhere that ‘Link’ wasn’t supposed to be the hero’s actual name. It was supposed to be more of an idea. The sprite on the screen was the ‘link’ between you and the game. I don’t know if that’s true or not. Today’s games play out more like movies, in many cases, with defined characters in a story that unfolds as opposed to being interacted with. And I’m not saying that’s bad! I intend to write more than a few articles about games that have done this beautifully.
But I will say that sometimes, even with all the shiny graphics and well told stories about awesome, intricate characters we get today . . . I miss the old NES instruction manuals.
PS– Remember Zelda II, The Adventure of Link? We’ll talk more about that later. But the story and pictures in that instruction booklet? Even better.
Want to see those manuals? Thanks, internet!
The Legend Of Zelda: https://www.nintendo.co.jp/clv/manuals/en/pdf/CLV-P-NAANE.pdf
Zelda II, The Adventure of Link: https://www.nintendo.co.jp/clv/manuals/en/pdf/CLV-P-NAASE.pdf