Strategy Guides: Expensive aid or completionist’s best friend?

Strategies guides have long divided the gaming community. Some see them as expensive cheaters’ books that defeat the purpose of thinking for yourself, while others turn to them for much needed guidance as a means of finishing those near impossible tasks that are holding them back from the illusive ‘100% complete’.

These days I occasionally buy the odd strategy guide, but for a good number of years purchasing the official strategy guide was a ritual reserved for several of my favourite game series.

It was after 2001 that I really started taking note of video game strategy guides. Hidden away in my pretend operations room playing Command & Conquer: Tiberian Sun, I would scan the Prima guide to see if it held any useful tips to assist with my missions. Being someone who was fascinated by Dorling Kindersley books on ‘how things work’ and had the complete set of Star Wars cross-section books under his bed, strategy guides also satisfied me desire to learn more about the characters, technology and history of the game worlds I was interacting with. Whether as a manual was just an introduction, these books held advanced tactics and encyclopaedic knowledge on the games they covered.

From me, a strategy guide wasn’t just a fast track to completion, it was a meanings of understanding more about the game itself.

And the very first time that I remember a strategy guide being more than just a guidebook, was playing Jak II: Renegade on my brother’s birthday with the accompanying guide by Piggyback. The term ‘guide’ is a disservice to this book, it’s a full colour tome, printed on high quality paper, that’s bursting with original artwork and design that puts many in the same field to shame. Inside, there are maps, a breakdown of all the characters, detailed information on vehicles and items, quick references and walkthroughs carefully arranged to cater to different skill levels.

Jak II is a non-linear game, and in terms of using the book as a guide, my brother and I found we could dip into it as much or as little as we wished. Absorbing the sights and sounds that came with experiencing Haven City for the first time, I remember feeling some excitement simply from scanning the district maps and helping my brother to navigate the labyrinthine streets to our current objectives early on. Giving us a heads up on alternative routes, missions to persevere with or avoid and secrets, this guide enhanced the enjoyment we got out of Jak II.

Having seen want they could do, I went on the hunt for two strategy guides in the summer of 2004. A friend and I had been desperately trying to get all of the Skill Points on the first two Ratchet & Clank games. My hunt for the official strategies, which contained the much prized information, lead me to high street bookshops and eventually to order Going Commando’s guide, which wasn’t readily available in the UK.

Many strategy guides are often written by the writers covering the games industry or by creative firms, like Off Base Productions, who also handle copywriting for game manuals and design packaging and marketing materials. The primary publishers of strategy guides are Prima Games, BradyGames, Piggyback and Future Press.

Seeing as most guides are produced in the US before the game has actually been finalised, I’ve come across tons of mistakes and things which are irrelevant for readers outside the US in some of the guides I own – Prima and Brady have always been the biggest culprits.

For a time, I ended up purchasing strategy guides merely to add them to a growing collection of video game paraphernalia. My thought process was very much: Ow, Sly 2 is coming out, and there’s a strategy guide, I better get that with my pre-order. I’m slightly ashamed to say I even have a couple racing guides, which are about as useful as a hedgehog that only knows the phrases “slow down” and “speed up.” (Incidentally, if you are after racing game reading material, I recommend the Driving Games Manual: The Ultimate Guide to All Car-based Computer and Video Games by Joao Diniz Sanches). Looking back, I feel pretty foolish to have bought some guides which I have not used at all.

I no longer feel the need to buy strategy guides, mainly because of cost and the fact that all of the information can now be found on the internet. However, I don’t mind the odd one if I plan to devote a lot of time to a particular game, like an RPG (Rogue Galaxy, Elder Scrolls) or creation tool (LBP), or am interested in a piece of historical video game reference, often by Piggyback or Future Press because of their exceptional production values.

My point is strategy guides are more than just completion aids, they’re game-specific logs of characters, events, technologies, game worlds and more. And for those times when we do wish to indulge in a game world away from the controller, I’m glad they’re around.