In this digital age of broadband connections and instantly downloadable video games, convenience is everything. No longer do you have to head to a store and waste precious seconds in line, or leave your couch to go 10 feet and answer the door when the delivery guy comes knocking. Now at any time of the day all you need is a poseable finger to push a button on your controller to checkout and wait for the game to immediately install on your gaming console. The process could not be any more streamlined. The future is today. All hail thee, sentient DRM overlords.

As this seemingly effortless system of electronic delivery gradually becomes the industry norm, it is easy to forget the little things that you are giving up for comfort’s sake. When you picked up a new Nintendo Entertainment System game, for example, you were not only ensured access to bytes of programmed data, you were also investing in the all-important dust sleeve to protect your tangible cartridge, a pile of miscellaneous paperwork with strategy guide offers and magazine subscription cards and Pizza Hut coupons to sort through later, a neat little instruction manual with tips and more to study, and an eye-catching box to keep everything snugly together.

Those few fleeting euphoric moments, after you tore away the plastic seal and opened the cardboard flap to breathe in that new game smell, are fast coming to an end.

There is more than just cardboard huffing that will be lost in the future, though. Let us talk about the extinction of the instruction manual.

Flipping through a manual used to be an essential part of the New Game Ritual. The manual was not only a companion when you sought professional advice, it provided an excuse to take a quick breather for a few minutes to refocus after suffering a devastating Game Over.

For a title like StarTropics, the manual even became an extension of the gaming experience. In order to proceed in that game, you had to physically dunk a letter into water to decode a hidden message and reveal a secret frequency code. When Nintendo re-released StarTropics on the Virtual Console, a clip-art water bucket graphic was added to the bottom of the electronic “Operations Guide.”

It was a nice effort, Nintendo, but virtual bucket clicking does not feel the same as playing detective and splashing around in the sink.

As StarTropics proved, you just never knew when you might need a manual. I took precautions to protect mine by tying a rubber band around them to form one massive miniature anthology to prevent their sprouting legs. When I was a kid, I never wondered why some people revisited books that they have already read because I must have gone through “The Story of Super Mario Bros. 2” at least 350 times. Somehow, it got better every time.

It was entirely possible for a child with a healthy imagination to find him or herself lost in the lore of an old instruction booklet. The best ones expanded upon the game’s back story and provided hyper-realistic artist renderings of even the most minor enemies, almost humanizing them in a way that their pixels never could.

Then there was the blank “Notes” section, which served as a personal travelogue of your game journeys. The blank pages also became a place where I channeled my inner Robert Stack and recorded eyewitness accounts of unsolved mysteries like the hidden chocolate factory in Super Mario Bros. 

Turns out, there were a lot of little fibbers running around the halls of my elementary school. The boy, who claimed that he knew how to unlock a swimming money bin bonus round in DuckTales, grew up and became even more practiced in distorting the truth, which came in handy, I might add, with his choice of a law career.

The surviving manuals of today are often as thin as a magazine perfume sample, if not entirely paperless like a .pdf file that nobody bothers to open because all of the important information is fed to players on loading screens and through mandatory in-game tutorials.

In memory of this sadly dying art form, this article showcases two pieces of original manual drawings from the Nintendo Entertainment System games Menace Beach and King Neptune’s Adventure.

A title from the unlicensed developer/publisher Color Dreams would normally cause me to reach for the thesaurus to look up synonyms for “putrid,” but Menace Beach, despite its flaws (and there are several thousand), manages to stand out if only in one regard: the game can be pleasantly psychotic at times.

The ghostly hit detection, outer space controls, and hellish level design–all typical calling cards of Color Dreams games–are no doubt frustrating enough to cause many players to fold up their blankets and leave this polluted beach for good, but those not bothered by getting some sand and hypodermic needles in their shoes will have their patience rewarded with one odd little guilty pleasure.

The story goes that Scooter, a skateboarder with boyish good looks and a cowlick hairdo, is on his way to the local malt shop to meet up with his much older-looking, temper-prone girlfriend Bunny. Unfortunately, a devil named Demon Dan butts in on the couple’s plans. He kidnaps her and chains her to a rack in his fiery underground den. She demands that Scooter rescue her at once, or their milkshake date is off!

Scooter’s mission becomes clear: He must skate through beachfront streets crowded with anthropomorphic fire hydrants wearing pantyhose, grizzled perverse hags living in crates, and down dank sewers crawling with out-of-work Elvis impersonators and carnival clowns.

As Scooter progresses through these levels, Bunny’s clothes come off, eventually stripping her of everything but a bra and a pair of skimpy black panties.

These random peeks at Bunny’s private peep show appear to be the only motivation the player has to continue the slog. Menace Beach shares more in common with a triple-X Taiwanese adult Nintendo game like Hot Slots than you might think; the player willfully pours a ton of time and a concerted amount of effort just to reach stationary images of a groaning woman sprawled out across the screen in various states of disrobement.

Every time that Scooter successfully bashes an enemy with his skateboard spin kick, he breaks the fourth wall by giving the player a triumphant-thumbs up–a small gesture of encouragement that he or she is that much closer to seeing more skin. When you get down to it, the gameplay is really nothing more than hours of torturous foreplay disguised as an action-adventure with surf ninjas, a crude carrot and stick approach to game design.

 

 

On the road down to Hell and sexual depravity, Scooter meets up with one of the most annoying minions in Demon Dan’s demonic army, a politically incorrect sumo wrestler named Suki Yashi.

 

 

The Menace Beach instruction booklet provides a short blurb on the big-bellied brute, “A giant Sumo with an evil sense of humor, Suki Yashi likes to push his way around sewers and piers. The only way to defeat Suki Yashi is with a bomb. Health Loss: One Heart.”

There is a bit more to his background than that, however. And it’s much uglier.

The scan above shows the original hand drawn artwork that was used to accompany the manual description on page 10. The full-size drawing of Suki, with his swollen stomach and pig-like snout, is even more disgustingly detailed than the sprite in the game. Unwashed strands of greasy hair hang over his balding head. His filthiness attracts flies. You can practically smell the fried tofu.

According to the note below his name, which was removed for publication, his sense of humor has not yet turned “evil.” Instead, it is, like everything else about him, just plain “nasty.”

On the backside you can see whiteout to the right of the figure’s head that hides a partially written “SUKI YA.” Light pencil markings are present throughout.

The piece is signed by the artist Nina Stanley (formerly Nina Bedner), who created the graphics for Menace Beach using a program called NinDraw. She joined Color Dreams while earning her Master’s in Painting at Cal State Fullerton and stayed on board as an in-house artist for nearly three years, from September 1989 to May 1992, contributing to a diverse selection of games like Menace Beach, King Neptune’s Adventure, Operation Secret Storm, Secret Scout in the Temple of Demise, Exodus: Journey to the Promised Land, Bible Adventures, King of Kings, Joshua: The Battle of Jericho, and Spiritual Warfare. Afterwards, she joined Novalogic for a year where she presided as the lead artist over the unreleased CD-i game Super Mario’s Wacky Worlds.

Nina Stanley makes an appearance in Road Rash 3: Tour De Force as a leather-wearing Russian biker.

Over the years, Stanley has also worked for Electronic Arts (Madden Football [unreleased]), Capcom (Werewolf the Apocalypse [unreleased]), That 3DO Company (Army Men: Sarge’s Heroes), and Vicarious Visions (Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 4). She currently teaches online courses in Game Art & Design and Media Arts & Animation at The Art Institute of Pittsburgh as well as through art workshops in upstate Albany, New York where she currently resides (link).

I reached out to Stanley to find out more about the inspiration behind Suki Yashi and the other crazy characters that she designed for Menace Beach.

“I don’t remember a lot of the specifics, but I know that I based the skater hero on my son who was about seven at the time,” Stanley said. “The surfer dude was Jim, one of the programmers–I can’t remember off the top of my head who else was involved, but I’m pretty sure the sumo guy was loosely based on a pair of kids who used to do testing for us–we called them the Sumo Brothers ’cause they must have been over 300 pounds each, and they were only about 14 or 15 years old. And they smelled pretty strong. I don’t think they even went to school ’cause they couldn’t read above about a second grade level.”

A couple of barely literate teens with room-clearing bodily stench were assigned quality control roles at Color Dreams? Suddenly, everything is starting to make sense now.

Roger DeForest, another Color Dreams artist, further elaborated on the so-called “Sumo Brothers.”

“Yes, the laughing sumo. I think I know where that comes from,” DeForest began. “One of the co-owners, Eddy Lin, would regularly take our games-in-development to these two large Asian teenagers to see if they could finish the games and if they found them to be fun. Apparently, they were excellent gamers. We called them ‘The Sumos’ or ‘Sumo Brothers,’ even though I never actually met them, but I was told they were large like sumo wrestlers. The Sumos would give their pros and cons of our games and Eddy would take that feedback and have us tweak the gameplay or graphics. Usually, they could finish our games in like an hour. (laughs) If memory serves me correctly, that’s where the laughing sumo in Menace Beach comes from. I totally forgot about the Sumo Brothers, another piece of Color Dreams history!”

The original Sumo Brothers-inspired artwork originally came from Brenda Huff, the current owner of Color Dreams/Bunch Games/Wisdom Tree. She explained to me that when she purchased the company back in 1997, she took everything with her, including quite literally the bathroom sink. Among the packages and packages of company records and floppy disks containing source code were several pieces of original art, from concepts to completed box cover paintings, all of which have since been sold to Nintendo collectors.

I was completely oblivious to this massive find, however, until I happened upon an eBay seller in early 2013 who had a number of these pieces up at one time and could not attract a single offer. He kept reducing his asking price until he reached the point where he was hoping to recoup only a third of what he had initially paid.

There may not be much love for Color Dreams these days, or any days for that matter, but there is no denying the company’s place in Nintendo history. As foul as he is, Suki Yashi is a true artifact from the days of reverse-engineering and lockout-free gaming. It is not every day one gets to take home a smelly Japanese sumo wrestler. I welcomed him with open arms and Playtex gloves.

He was not the only Color Dreams art piece to come home with me.

King Neptune’s Adventure is to the adventure game genre what Red Lobster is to sit-down seafood dining: cheap, unsatisfying, and strictly one-star. Sometimes, though, you are just in the mood for greasy slop, and that is when you venture into King Neptune’s Adventure knowing damn well that your craving is going to end with severe stomach cramps.

Also developed in 1990 by the Brea, California team at Color Dreams, what this game may be lacking in the charm department it tries to make up for in having a Metroid-styled open-world environment. This non-linear approach is a novel way to translate the vastness of the ocean into a compact 8-bit game.

King Neptune Adventure‘s underwater settings are fairly diverse, as well, and pull from familiar romantic sea tropes like sunken ships, submerged castles, and the mythos of the Lost City of Atlantis.

The graphics, though basic and bland, are still somewhat colorful, particularly the splashy rainbow strands of seaweed that line the ocean floor.

According to the wonderfully descriptive manual, the story begins 1,000 years ago when the crown of Polaris was stolen on the Equinox of the new star of Tritan. It is not explained why, but every 100 years since then, when that fateful star returns, another treasure is taken from King Neptune’s sparkly hoard of gems.

The Orb of Peace is the last and most powerful of these treasures, and when that also turns up missing and transforms the normally peaceful sea creatures into briny anarchists, King Neptune has no other choice but to set out and retrieve the golden loot to restore peace to his kingdom. He carries out this peace mission by hurling bolts of goodness at fish with his magical trident and by dropping incendiary bubble bombs of benevolence on their heads.

The above original hand drawn artwork, also composed by Nina Stanley, was used in the King Neptune’s Adventure instruction manual on page five. This piece shows King Neptune’s missing treasures: Goblet, Happiness (candlestick), Pot of Gold, Peace (olive branch), and Love (heart). The heart and the goblet drawings are cut-outs that have been pasted to the paper.

There is a substantial amount of whiteout in the pot of gold that covers several additional black outlines. It appears that the goblet used to be colored in, also, despite the fact that all Color Dreams manuals are printed in black and white.

 

Another strange thing is that “Happiness” appears in the game not as a candlestick but as a candelabra (actually, more like a menorah). A partially erased pencil sketch in the center of the page reveals that Stanley had once drawn a sort of candelabra-like object but ditched that design to ultimately go with a single candlestick instead.

Stanley is credited on the back of the King Neptune’s Adventure box for drawing the game’s graphics, but the title screen shows that “Lady Nina” had help from “Miles O’ the Forest,” a.k.a. Roger DeForest. DeForest used NinDraw to create some of the in-game objects and backgrounds. I again reached out to him to see if he could explain the manual’s discrepancy.

King Neptune’s Adventure was nearly complete when I got hired at Color Dreams,” he said. “I built some of the objects in the game, but can’t honestly recall drawing very many. They might have been redone by Nina anyway because the owners liked here style of the heavy black outline, whereas mine was harder to see onscreen. I may have worked on the seaweed for the background, and am pretty positive I drew a candlestick sprite for the game, much like the one pictured in the manual. I haven’t played the game in ages so am unsure if the candlestick is even in the game, but you say it’s a candelabra? Maybe Nina drew the candlestick for the manual based on my graphic, but then they changed their mind after the manual was printed. It’s possible the single candlestick was hard to see onscreen, so they changed it to the bigger candelabra. But I do distinctly recall creating a yellow candlestick object for the game.”

What’s more, a prototype once owned by Color Dreams co-founder Phil Mikkelson shows an early build that does not have any floating dollar bills, and the manual does not list money as being an item, either. As DeForest suggested, the manual was printed first and therefore does not reflect later changes made to the game.

After King Neptune’s Adventure, DeFrost went on to design Secret Scout in the Temple of Demise, compose the music for Bible Adventures, and program the unreleased Free Fall.