In praise of not reading classic video game instructions

Relive the glory days of the Commodore 64 - but make sure you don't read the rules first...

This article comes from Den of Geek UK.

I have a long standing commitment to skipping in-game tutorials in videogames when given the option, preferring to press all the buttons than sit through a spiel. Pressing all the buttons can work, particularly for classic fighting games (I learned to play Way Of the Exploding Fist by having my older brother shout “just press the button quicker!” at me over and over back in the days when there was only one button to choose from), but rarely bears good results when it comes to strategic play. Still, I’m committed to it and that’s because I grew up in the age of the printed instruction leaflet.

Printed instruction leaflets were once the only choice if you wanted to know what was going on within your new Commodore 64 game. There was rarely any preamble before you got plunged into the action, and the details on the screen could be blocky. Where were you? What were you trying to achieve? Just press the damn button, or risk unfolding the tiniest folded leaflet of all time with smudged print.

The instructions were so small, and usually presented in a concertina effect. This meant the paper was often very thin and cheap, too; try folding good quality paper down to a size where it fits in a cassette box. Then try folding it up and getting it back in the box again. Really, reading and acting upon video game instructions was a two man job back then. One person would play the game, and shout “What key is it? What key is it?” at the other person, who was trying to find out what key would pick up the sword/light the lamp/raise the shield/cast fireball before the monster killed you.

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My video game education involved a lot of shouting.

Who had patience for that? Thus began my love of pressing all the keys/buttons and ignoring any form of advice, also because my brother would always tell me the wrong key to press, probably because that meant the monster would kill me and it would then be his go on the Commodore 64.

So here’s a look back at some classic games which were, I think, really improved by my commitment to not reading the instructions:


Paradroid was just a beautifully created game. The small robots would drift so gracefully through the decks of a large, elegant starship. You started out playing a little round robot of your own, on a quiet deck with other non-armed lovely robots, but get in a lift and move up a few levels and oh God the robots suddenly had blasters and disrupters and there was even one robot that was a dead ringer for a Dalek.

For a long time I thought this was a game of survival. Cat and mouse. Hide your tiny robot in the corner for the longest time possible. Then I experimented with types of button pressing and discovered the part of the game where you attempt to take over another robot’s body. How do you do this? You press your button randomly some more.

It took yet more time before I realised that there was a game of skill rather than chance goings on in the robot-taking-over screen. Then I started to win sometimes, and clear decks of enemy robots with my own blasters and disrupters, until I conquered all. And my prize? Sitting alone in the giant darkened starship. Alone. I preferred hanging out with the small floaty gentle robots.

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Impossible Mission

You play a secret agent who must defeat the nefarious plans of an evil genius known as Professor Elvin Atombender. I only know this because I’ve just looked it up; I had no clue at the time. This is the problem with modern gaming – you don’t know how to complete a level or where the hidden bonuses are? Google it. There was no Google back then. There was only pressing the button, and that was your salvation and your tragedy.

Anyway, Impossible Mission was one of those challenging games that you’d get stuck into for hours and end up missing your dinner for. It had great action and brilliant sound effects and a strange end section where you had to try to fit pictures together. I had no idea what I was doing. Eventually it dawned on me that it was a kind of jigsaw puzzle, and I got to know what pieces went where, and I cracked the thing. The sense of achievement was mighty indeed, all the more for starting from absolute scratch.

The Lords Of Midnight

This was one of those rare games (in this case from the late, great Mike Singleton) where it really didn’t matter if you knew what the heck was happening or not. It was fascinating. There were different Lords who commanded troops, and you had to recruit them to get them to fight alongside you to defeat some bad guy. I never got to that stage. I rode around on my horse for ages attempting to find Lords to recruit, and sometimes even got the point where I had an army but could never get much further than that.

Sometimes I would get stuck in some sort of loop where the landscape repeated itself over and over, and I could never work out if I’d reached the end of the gameplay or got lost or if the whole thing had crashed. Looking back now, I wonder if perhaps there was a map amongst the tiny tiny folded instructions.

I’ve just Googled it and apparently, yes, there was a map in the instructions. Also a novella. I bet the novella explained what all the riding around was for. I’m glad I didn’t read it at the time; I just liked the riding around, pretending to be in Lord of the Rings.

Boulder Dash

Some games are so good that they need no instructions. Teaching yourself is all part of the fun, and you learn fast in Boulder Dash. Your character, Rockford, has to get out of a series of caves within a time limit by moving certain boulders. Run under a boulder? Smash. Hit a butterfly? Smash. But everything happened so quickly and so entertainingly that you simply restarted and tried again, and each level was a fun, engaging puzzle as well as being a smash-fest that never lost its appeal.

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All the character of Boulder Dash was there from the first load; clear gameplay with a central figure who managed to have personality from such simple design. If you stood still too long he would blink and you and tap his foot. I had conversations with him, apologising if I had to leave him waiting while I wandered off for dinner (Why did gameplay always coincide with dinner?). I’m sure I wasn’t alone in this.

Sometimes instruction is needed in life. In fact, in most aspects of life instruction is mandatory. I think maybe that’s why I like to go without it when I play a video game. I still game now, and have to admit that with my latest passion, Battleborn, I would have been foolish to ignore the opening chapter tutorial. It’s a complex piece of work, and rewarding for that.

But my heart still belongs to those Commodore 64 games that were so good to figure out on my own terms. It’s strange how they entertained me by being a mystery as well as a source of fun.