If you were to ask most gamers what the best part of their favorite game is, it’s a fair bet that none of them would say that it’s the tutorial. Tutorials are usually seen as a necessary evil; most games need to teach you how to play them by giving you space to make mistakes and learn the controls.
As a result, most games’ tutorials are boring sequences in which a character breaks the fourth wall and tells you to press a button to perform an action. Wash, rinse, repeat. But the best tutorials find ways to make these maligned sequences fun, interesting, and very memorable.
Psychonauts wastes no time getting its plot going. Its tutorial level is Basic Braining, which is located in Coach Oleander’s subconscious. Oleander himself is a former army commander, so his mental landscape is themed after a war-torn battlefield; you’ll learn to jump, swing, and slide while dodging falling shells and seeing your fellow campers get blown to bits.
It’s funny and a little disturbing, which is the perfect introduction to Psychonauts, made all the better by Coach Oleander’s constant commentary about you being as slow as molasses in January. Whatever that means.
9 Kingdom Hearts 2
In retrospect, it’s hilarious to think that the four-year gap between Kingdom Hearts and its sequel felt like such a long wait, but it did. Twilight Town, Kingdom Hearts 2’s tutorial level, was divisive as a result – it’s a very long, slow sequence where you play as Roxas instead of Sora – but its gentle, relaxing tone and emotional storytelling makes it feel unique. Just try not to get choked up when you reach the end.
Plus, it marks the point where Kingdom Hearts would begin to focus on its famously complex lore; and depending on your point of view, that… might not be the most positive development. But you can’t deny that it had a huge impact on what the series would be going forward.
8 Uncharted 2: Among Thieves
Where most games will set their tutorials in slower, wide-open levels with a lot of room for error, Uncharted 2 went for a more dramatic, in medias res style. The game opens on Nathan Drake, unconscious in a train car. He wakes up, realizes that he’s covered in blood, and then he falls to the back of the car; the camera pulls back and reveals that it’s dangling off the edge of a cliff and could fall at any second.
That’s when you take control: you have to climb up the car, with the game teaching you its basic movement controls and introducing you to its cinematic style at the same time. It’s one of the best moments in the whole series.
7 Beyond Good & Evil
Like Uncharted 2, Beyond Good & Evil wastes no time during its tutorial, opening with a big cinematic fight sequence. It quickly teaches you its combat controls, leads you into a boss battle that kicks off the plot in earnest, and only then pulls back and lets you explore the corner of the world that you just saved. It’s a graceful and emotionally involving set-piece that instantly pulls you into the game without being too didactic. Time will tell if the sequel can pull a similar trick… provided that it makes it out of development hell.
6 Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines
Compared to others on this list, Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines’ tutorial is surprisingly straightforward in how it presents information to you – you’ll get a lot of text boxes telling you about specific mechanics, for instance. So why is it here? It’s what surrounds that information that makes it unique.
The tutorial segment tosses you, a newly turned vampire, into an alley with an older vampire, Smiling Jack. Jack isn’t just an exposition-dumping NPC; his dialogue is funny and full of character, and even this early in the game you’re given choices about how you want to play. It sets the tone for a game that’s filled with unique side characters and questlines.
Half-Life’s tutorial was trailblazing for its time; rather than setting its instructional sequence apart from the rest of the game, Half-Life’s tutorial is integrated with the plot. Gordon Freeman takes the tram into his office, meeting coworkers and preparing for the day ahead of him.
This sequence allows you to familiarize yourself with the controls and get acquainted with the character you’re playing, before an experiment goes terribly wrong and the game starts leaning on that knowledge. It’s an example of how the Half-Life games tutorialize without shoving instructions down your throat.
4 Fallout 3
Most game tutorials make you feel like a kid – they’ll explain basic movement controls to you, treating your character like they don’t know anything about the world. It’s rare that tutorials will make that explicit, though, which is what makes Fallout 3’s tutorial so cool.
The game has you play through the first years of your protagonist’s life, teaching you a new mechanic and letting you build your character at each different stage of growth. It’s a unique way to get around the awkwardness of a traditional tutorial, and it makes the moment where you step out into the game’s wider world so much more impactful.
3 Portal 2
Portal 2’s tutorial is equally experimental, though in a different way. Most of the time, a game tutorial will be pretty straightforward in how it presents its mechanics – it’s a lot of “press this button to do this thing.” And usually, pressing this button will indeed do the exact thing the game tells you it will.
But Portal 2 plays it a little differently. At one point in the tutorial, you’re instructed to press a button to speak; however, when you actually press the button, you’ll jump instead. It’s a short little moment, but it encapsulates Portal’s determination to do the unexpected.
2 The Legend Of Zelda: Breath of the Wild
One of the best kinds of tutorials is the playground, where the game gives you a confined space to learn about its mechanics without tough consequences for failure. Breath of the Wild has one of the most well-executed playground tutorials in recent years with its Great Plateau; the game gives you a brief overview of its controls and then lets you loose in an elegant microcosm of its huge open world.
You’re confined here until you find the sailcloth, which lets you survive falls from long distances, so you have plenty of time to learn the finer points of the game’s many interlocking systems. This means that once you’re set loose in Hyrule, you’re well-prepared for whatever comes your way.
1 Super Metroid
Of course, Breath of the Wild isn’t the first playground tutorial, and the roots of the style run deep. Perhaps the best example, and easily the most recognizable, is Super Metroid’s version. It’s sort of a cross between a playground and the more cinematic tutorials in modern games.
You take control of Samus as she enters the Ceres space station, following a distress signal. You wander through the eerie, empty hallways and discover a broken lab tube surrounded by unmoving human bodies. In the next room, you’ll see the baby Metroid, seemingly alone in a dark space… until Ridley appears and attacks you. This fight is very simple – once you hit a low health threshold, the battle will end and Ridley will trigger the station to self-destruct – but the suspenseful way it plays out hooks you into the story and teaches you the game’s basic mechanics, all without a single word being spoken.
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About The Author
Leah Isobel (21 Articles Published)
Leah Isobel is a writer, critic, musician, and actress based in California. Her work has appeared on the Singles Jukebox and Soap Ear Journal. She’s been playing video games since she was four years old, and has a particular fondness for RPGs, platformers, and adventure games. You can usually find her in a kitchen somewhere baking pies.