Strategy guides get a lot of unearned negativity. I can agree with some of it, but dismissing them entirely seems unfair. I am rather fond of a good strategy guide. Nowadays, I only pick up one or two a year. However, there was a time when I purchased them far more frequently and, in my opinion, a well executed strategy guide is, very nearly, a strange kind of art that is dying. It's hard to stand as a static object-of-reference in the face of the more dynamic resource of the internet.
I still, unabashedly, love a good strategy guide, and, a good one, can still stand on it's own against the internet.
I realize this sentiment is antiquated, but there is something cathartic in having a book with all the answers right in front of you. You could compare it to people who prefer vinyl records over downloading MP3's. The tactile act of opening the book, flipping through the pages, checking the table of contents and finding an answer feels good to me. It could be a product of my age; an activity that taps into that feeling of research that wasn't just a few clicks away on the internet. You had to find the right book just to start finding the answer. Or, it could be from cutting my teeth on old JRPG's where simple, and exceedingly obscure, acts could completely remove access to something awesome much later in the game.
Don't take me for some crotchety old man, waving his cane at all those young people, yelling about how easy it is now. I don't begrudge the convenience afforded to us by the internet. I recognize that countless videos are on youtube for every problem you could conceivably run into. I have used them. I just personally enjoy having the book.
Now, of course, there are games that don't need guides. I wouldn't use one for games like Portal, Gears of War, or Alien: Isolation. But, something like Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII, I love having a well made guide to reference.
Now, not all guides are created equal. When I was at the height of my strategy guide acquisitions, I ran across some really unfortunate productions. When purchasing a guide, one is entitled to the idea that this book could function as an atlas for the game it's representing. Something comprehensive to get you through all those tight spots. This does not always happen.
One of the worst guides I ever bought was for the original Mass Effect by Prima. In retrospect, after having completed the game, the actual need for a guide was wanting at best. That could have been the foremost reason it was awful. But, it was made and sold, so, I'm going to complain about it for a minute.
This guide weighed in at a paltry 288 pages. On my shelf (Yes, I keep them on a book shelf. Don't judge.) it looks anemic. And a large chunk of it was interesting, but useless, information that was already openly displayed in game. Granted, Mass Effect was not, by any means, a huge game, but the attention to detail here was shoddy. Crappy, blurry, tiny thumbnails masquerading as screenshots, no maps, and half-assed text. Of course, with the way Mass Effect was structured it wasn't very useful, but on the one side-quest I could have used it for it failed miserably: finding those damn keepers for scanning. I barely used it.
What makes a good strategy guide? Detail, detail, detail. Let's talk about one of the best strategy guides I have ever had the pleasure of cracking open: Disgaea 2. This guide, by formally Double Jump Books, now Onionbat Books, was a masterpiece. It had detail bursting out its gills. All of their Disgaea guides were awesome; Disgaea 2 was just my introduction to them.
Weighing in at a whopping 640 pages, this thing was a beast. They went into everything. They even had the formulas the game's leveling systems used. For the uninitiated, Disgaea games are swarming with systems and sub-systems. Layers and layers of mechanics stacked high and proud, that Double Jump had to dissect and reveal to the reader. They left no stone unturned. It was printed in a smaller form factor so it felt heavy and useful in my grip. This guide became the gold standard that I rated all future purchases against. Rarely do they live up to the meticulously crafted splendor of this one.
Double Jump also had a knack for making guides with style. The Persona 4 guide laid out the scheduled actions you could take as a TV guide; a cool choice that was functional and relevant to the source material.
As a kid, when forced away from my beloved games, I would carry these guides with me. On a long road trip I would make schedules or to-do lists for me to follow. It was a great way to stay involved with a game when I, otherwise, could not be.
More recently, I did this type of scheduling for Lighting Returns. That game was ripe for pre-planning. There is no way, in my adult life, that I could have dedicated the amount of time required to play through that game "the right way" without some kind of guide. A guide afforded me the ability to enjoy that game on a more compressed timetable and still see a vast majority of what it had to offer.
The special edition version of that guide was a nice, heavy hardback that came accompanied with two bookmarks. These bookmarks, which also had useful information printed on them, were a great way to keep track of the main and side-quests independently. This was crucial for the way you had to juggle multiple tasks. This guide actually made the act of playing the game more enjoyable. (This may say more about my need to schedule and pre-plan things then it does about the game.)
For something like the Elder Scrolls games, I find it exceedingly rewarding to plan out side-quests based on the rewards that would benefit my play style. I know that the recent iterations of these games already have great ways of tracking your currently active quests, but I find a guide more useful as a compendium of all the options available to me.
What it all comes down to is finding that comfortable little spot where I can play a game and relax. An early Saturday morning, a steaming cup of coffee on the table, and a heavy tome of solutions in my lap. A brief respite from the problems of the previous week. Problems I get to forget for a few hours as I play, with all the answers laid bare before me.