It’s easy to miss game manuals from the 90s. Previously an essential piece of packaging, physical manuals in 2016 are either thin enough to be invisible or left out entirely.
It’s also easy to see why publishers like to keep costs down, and today’s game case has little room for the lore-stuffed door stoppers of yesteryear. Praise is lavished upon any company that still sees the manual as an indispensable work of art, a guide that not only explains the how to the reader but the deictic why. Why choose this game above others in a store? Why play that hero instead of the rest? Why feel sad for those catchphrase villains when you find them in a tomb surrounded by their cronies?
Whether the manual belongs in collector’s editions or perched next to your home toilet is definite food for thought, but what you’ll find here is an unranked flashback to some great 90s gaming manuals – old favorites to be picked up and discarded at will.
Manuals have been primarily sourced from Replacementdocs.com. If this article piques your interest, you can find full-length manuals over there.
“Not even the sun can banish the phantoms of our land. Nevertheless, we huddle in the darkness and pray for dawn.”
Diablo’s manual is Gothic and wonderfully frightening, its margins packed with lines from Shakespeare and Virgil as well as unattributed quotes made up purely for the hell of it. The words death and fall and fang creep over the sides as the guide helpfully points out the difference between a left and right click.
All joking aside, this isn’t a manual for the faint of heart. The spell entries are less about spells and more about the endless war between Heaven and Hell. And things just get steadily darker and more twisted. Read an entry on Winged Fiends and you’ll get a tale of bat-winged imps that secretly fed on their masters until they were powerful enough to claw the flesh from their faces.
My favorite monster-plus-lore combo is about Overlords, large meaty brutes that clobber enemies to death. Perhaps because the mob is so straightforward, Blizzard treats us to a horrible tale cribbed straight from Greek mythology: Inarius, an angel who thinks he’s more beautiful than anything from Heaven or Hell, lays waste to a temple and finds all those hours spent pouting at the mirror did not quite prepare him for war.
The angel is captured by Mephisto, Lord of Hatred. Chains tear off his wings, and “great barbed hooks” are used to stretch out his once-beautiful skin. “To this day,” reads the Diablo entry, “Inarius is said to be trapped in Hell within a chamber of mirrors, his eyelids torn from his face as he is forced to gaze upon his misshapen form for all eternity.”
And that’s why you don’t mess with the Lord of Hatred.
The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (1998)
“A long time ago… Before life began, before the world had form, three golden goddesses descended upon the chaotic land of Hyrule.”
Putting a character like Link next to the grotesque menagerie of Diablo seems cruel, but the two game manuals provide a nice contrast. Diablo’s guide is chock-full of lore, whereas Ocarina of Time’s is about gameplay. Diablo provides us with every gory detail, but Ocarina of Time lets the game speak for itself. The two manuals are very different when it comes to length, content, and style, but it’s clear both had designers poring over details.
When it debuted in November 1998, reviewers praised Ocarina of Time for its action-adventure elements. IGN said Ocarina of Time was “unmatched when it [came] to the variety and diversity of actions and puzzles.” That’s probably why the manual is devoted to advice about the controller, movement, and targeting – the real nuts and bolts that are essential to master. Ocarina of Time also introduced context-sensitive actions and Z-targeting, a system whereby players can lock on to characters and objects. It’s become ubiquitous in the series but had not been seen before Ocarina.
The little bits of story we do get are sandwiched between gameplay descriptions. So you get an intro to Link and Hyrule on pages 5-6, a peek at other characters from 7-8, but the manual saves its ink for the practical stuff.
Ultima Underworld: The Stygian Abyss (1992)
“I, Cabirus, call upon those of Virtue to join me in a Valorous Quest, one which promises to be rich in Sacrifice and Spirituality.”
Looking Glass Studios has made some fantastic games. Outside of System Shock and Thief, they’re known for the first-person RPG, Ultima Underworld, developed by one of their earlier incarnations, Blue Sky Productions. (For those interested in Looking Glass, I highly recommend Indigo Gaming’s three-part video retrospective.)
Ultima Underworld has the player traipsing through caves in search of a baron’s kidnapped daughter. The plot is questionable, and the voice acting makes Troll 2 seem Oscar-worthy. Still, there’s a lot to love about the first “virtual reality” dungeon game. Instead of being spoon-fed hints while a quest arrow points you in the right direction, Underworld forces you to pay attention and write notes on your map if you ever hope to get anywhere.
For its manual, the developer separated out the fluff (setting) from the crunch (mechanics). So while the technical details are housed in a 32-page player guide, there is the Memoirs of Sir Cabirus for ye olde questing adventurer. Thou hast truly stumbled into another world when thou find a first-person, in-world account of swords, sorcery, and the foul creature known only as the Rotworm. Wouldst thou liketh to keep reading about gelatinous beasts? Then look no further, for here be the entry on Slugs!
“Of the two varieties of Slug found locally, the Flesh Slug — notable for its pale fleshy color — is the most common and least dangerous. We are not certain if these creatures intend to bite their victims, or if their offensive actions are accidents of their constant writhing. Certainly, no warrior of any experience need fear these pitiful beasts.
However, beware the greenish Acid Slug. Though only a little larger than the Flesh Slug, the Acid Slug secretes a noxious vapor which sometimes intoxicates its foes. Despite its fearsome name, this Slug is not poisonous — merely inedible.”
So in short: Flesh is placid, don’t eat the Acid. Thou may thanketh me later for this invaluable counsel.
“Happy Friggin’ New Year. Two days in and I almost blasted my first punk in ‘36 already. That kid musta been smacked out pretty good to kill a cop just to get to his cruiser.”
SiN’s manual spends its first 19 pages on a pitch-perfect diary. Like a teenage boy’s scrapbook, it’s full of sex, swear words, and brains being blown out. Except maybe your average boy doesn’t take Polaroids of his dead colleagues lying face down in pools of their own blood.
The diary paints a grim picture of SiN’s world. The year is 2037. The setting is Freeport, a city with a major junkie problem. Crime is sky high because a cheap drug called U4 is literally turning men into monsters. Private security forces have taken the place of traditional policing, and the commander of one such force, Colonel John Blade, is making it his personal mission to clean up the streets. It’s nothing we haven’t heard before, but Ritual Entertainment put enough personality into the package to keep things fresh.
SiN is awash with guns, gore, and top-heavy girls. Villainess Elexis Sinclaire – biochemist by day, dominatrix by night – struts around like a catwalk caricature. But if the game works, it’s precisely because it’s exploitative. And if the manual works, it does so because it carries the reader over to that experience.
Just look at how it describes Mancini, an enemy we encounter in the opening bank robbery level.
“Found out Antonio Mancini got off somehow and is back on the streets already. I swear there is so much red tape in this friggin’ city, I can’t believe it. He musta had that scumbag lawyer Johnny Cockroach defend him. How the hell did he afford that crooked bastard? Someone high up on the food chain must be pulling some strings because Mancini has more goddamn lives than an alley cat.”
It sets us up for our first Big Bad. It hints at Freeport’s corruption. And it does so through the voice of Blade, the central protagonist we’ll be playing as.
As a stepping stone to SiN, the manual is wonderful.
“Whatever killed your buddies deserves a couple of pellets in the forehead. Securing your helmet, you exit the landing pod. Hopefully you can find more substantial firepower somewhere within the station.”
Nothing about Doom’s manual is remarkable. Excluding the front and back cover, it’s a brisk 14 pages. There’s something about this efficiency, though, that speaks volumes about the game itself.
Creative director of Doom, Tom Hall, left id Software in August 1993, a mere four months before its release. He wanted Doom to have a real story, and created a 79-page design document, the Doom Bible, fleshing out the cast, maps, and narrative. There were going to be four characters: Lorelei Chen, John “Petro” Pietrovich, Dimitri Paramo, and Thi Barrett. The game, spread out over episodes, would have started with an off-shift game of cards on a military research base in “the Butt End of Space.” Scientific anomalies would result in aliens overrunning the facility.
Lead programmer John Carmack didn’t want any of it.
He’s quoted in David Kushner’s Masters of Doom as saying: “Story in a game is like a story in a porn movie. It’s expected to be there, but it’s not that important.” It was this way of thinking that led to Doom’s explicit focus on combat. The main character didn’t have a name. He didn’t have backstory. The most emotion he showed was the so-called “ouch face” when the player took heavy damage. The code was written incorrectly, which led to the ouch face’s infrequency in the game. Even the gaming gods didn’t want Doom’s hero to emote.
Doom blazed a trail for titles like it. Until the late 90s, the term “Doom clone” was more popular than “first-person shooter” to describe games with the kind of bloody, fast-paced firefights that made Doom so addictive.
It’s silly to attribute the decline of the game manual with the rise of the FPS. And there are games in this list with lauded plots that have manuals focused on gameplay. But to some extent, the nature of a game does dictate the nature of its manual. Have a game light on character and story, and its manual need not fill in the blanks. Instead the manual explains technical details to the player, and when a developer moves this help in-game through tutorials and training missions, the manual becomes a four-page beverage coaster or a digital-only warranty pamphlet.
Again, expect no great debate on the death of game manuals here, but it’s interesting to wonder if they were more essential in an age when RPG and RTS genres dominated the shelves.
Metal Gear Solid (1998)
“You’re Solid Snake and you’ve got to single-handedly infiltrate the nuclear weapons disposal facility which is being occupied by a group of terrorists. If the enemy spots Snake, they will call in reinforcements and go after him… try to avoid unnecessary battles whenever you can.”
Few PS1 game manuals came with a prologue. Less still were 62 pages long with eight alone devoted to the cast. It’s testament to Metal Gear Solid’s rich mythology that the manual reels you in rather than pushes you away.
The color scheme, full of cold blues and greens, seems reminiscent of a 90s spy thriller. Sections are clearly signposted, and until the character files near the end, Yoji Shinkawa’s illustrations sink into the background, letting the loud, white text boxes do all the talking. It’s hard not to love the attention to detail: lightly glowing character outlines, tiny FOXHOUND logos, the sparing use of lens flare. It’s like the original Mission Impossible poster had an artwork baby with Ghost in the Shell.
I love the images of Snake in silhouette the most. Snake hidden behind a wall. Snake peeking into a corridor. Snake strangling a man to death. The man’s legs flap about as an arrow hints that you can drag someone while strangling them. “If you repeatedly press the Weapon Button,” says a nearby text box, “you can snap your enemy’s neck.”
Flipping through the pages, you can see the machinations and careful marketing, but since everything’s cool without being desperate it’s difficult to care.
“It has become clear during the past 120 years of driven industrial and technological expansion that Kharak can no longer sustain us. While always harsh and unforgiving, our technological development has stripped the planet of what few vital resources it contained.”
Oh, Homeworld manual. How lovably technical you are. Still to this day, if I need to look up the maximum velocity of a Missile Destroyer, I know you’ll have the answer. Who could resist playing after seeing all those ships?
Of course, the guide does have other things aside from vehicles. In the 90s, it was somewhat expected that a real-time strategy game should give players some background knowledge (hello Age of Empires), and Homeworld’s manual doesn’t disappoint. The reader learns about the quest to abandon Kharak, the desert planet where the game starts. But the quest isn’t merely about trading up – the people at the story’s heart have realized they are aliens to their planet, and through the discovery of a huge spaceship and galactic map they have a shot at getting back to their home world, hence the title.
The opening chapter is devoted to the history and the Mothership: “part carrier, part survey ship, part factory complex, and, most importantly, the temporary home for millions of our people frozen in cryogenic sleep.” This is the vessel that’s going to establish a colony in another world. It’s noted that it takes 20 years just to build the infrastructure needed for construction.
Also included in the manual is a section on clan histories since Homeworld is less about individual characters and more about factions. The developers here have a tendency to throw pronouns at you to see which ones stick, but if you can get through the deluge of peoples and places the clan histories make for enjoyable reading.
One last thing: a lot of stuff from the manual never made it into the game. It’s obvious why – Homeworld is not an episode of Who Do You Think You Are? – but it’s nice that Relic Entertainment let their collective imagination run away with them.
“This document, VTB-001, the Vault Dwellers Survival Guide, is for the events following a world-wide nuclear war. In the case of a limited scale nuclear war, or other world ending catastrophe, please refer to the appropriate documentation.”
It’s difficult to write anything after reading Fallout’s manual. To tell you the truth, I’m scared to try. But then you can’t have an article called 10 Classic Game Manuals of the 90s with only nine manuals, now can you?
The Vault Dweller’s Survival Guide treats you like the keynote speaker at a stupid convention. It not only thinks you’ve never played a video game before, it assumes you’ve been dropped on your head at regular intervals since birth. If it’s ballsy to talk down to your audience, Fallout has giant nuts of steel. Let’s go all meta and have a list within a list because some of these lines are gold.
2) THE NO SHIT, SHERLOCK: “Characters are people in the game world.”
3) THE HOW DUMB DO YOU THINK I AM?: “Your actions as the player will control the actions and consequences of the little character on the screen.”
4) THE STOP PATRONIZING ME: “Click on the NAME button and type your character’s name. Press ENTER when you are done or click on the DONE button. If you want to change your name, this is the time to do it. If you don’t, people will call you: “None,” the character with no name.”
5) THE I’M DONE: “Containers are a special kind of item that can store items within themselves. A backpack, or a bag, would be a container.”
Fallout’s manual is 121 pages. It doesn’t need to be 121 pages. It’s 121 pages in length because it spends 121 pages belittling you. Did I mention reading these 121 pages has made me nervous about turning on the tap without instructions?
Warcraft: Orcs & Humans (1994)
“I am Sir Lothar, Armsman to the Brotherhood of the Horse, and a warrior in the King’s service. I feel it necessary to inform you of the events that have led us to this time of conflict. The tale of our battle with the Orcs begins some forty years in the past.”
Blizzard, Blizzard, Blizzard. You set the bar for game manuals in the 90s, didn’t you? I’d include Starcraft if I could, but having three Blizz games on this list would be a bit excessive. I’m already gutted I can’t mention the manuals for Warcraft III: Reign of Chaos, Diablo II (the battle chest! the memories!) or World of Warcraft. But thems the rules.
Warcraft’s manual has a divided heart: half in love with orcs, half with humans. It splits itself in two, devoting equal space to both races. Each sub-manual also shares content with its brother, particularly when it comes to the bestiaries.
What’s surprising is Blizzard changes the monster descriptions depending on whether you’re reading from the orc perspective or the human perspective. You’ll find monsters like ogres and scorpions in both halves of the manual, but Blizzard changed how they’re described based on the POV of the race.
It’s a nice touch by Blizzard that they weren’t lazy enough to go for neutral descriptions which they could’ve repeated verbatim.
Falcon 4.0 (1998)
“The skills and knowledge required to use the F-16’s systems are not easy to learn, and will take time and effort to master. For this reason, I suggest you eat this elephant one bite at a time.”
Finally, we come to the grandaddy of 90s manuals, the jewel in the crown, the pièce de résistance, Mr. Five Hundred and Seventy-Nine Pages. Can a flashback to 90s game manuals be complete without mention of Falcon 4.0? I think not.
This monstrous tome can be used to beat rival pilots to death. Maverick from Top Gun could’ve skipped the volleyball match with Iceman if he’d had this baby. Content-wise, it breaks down basic flying, training missions, dogfights, tactical engagement, and campaigns. Instructions are written by experienced instructor pilots, and there are explanations for why you have to fly the way the guide advises based on factors such as airspeed and altitude.
Because this is more of a technical document, any showboating has been eliminated. Falcon 4.0’s flight manual is easy to read and tries not to bog you down in complex terminology, although at points this is unavoidable. The presentation is crisp, too. The manual doesn’t pretend Falcon 4.0 is a laidback affair, but developer MicroProse gets top marks for not putting on airs.
And so we reach the end of this list of classic game manuals. What are your favorite guides from the 90s? I’d love to know.