No other game defined the action RPG genre as Diablo did back in 1996. It was developed by a small studio named Condor and offered to Blizzard. Originally, Diablo was meant to be turn-based, along the lines of X-Com, with the player inching along the dark dungeon corridors and tactically slaying unholy beasts one by one. However, Blizzard insisted that Diablo be made into a real-time game, probably taught by their experiences with Warcraft and Starcraft.
The problem was that turn-based video games appeal mostly to strategic thinkers, which is a relatively narrow demographic. To become financially successful, Diablo had to become less about planning and more about action. Condor staff reluctantly agreed and would later become a subsidiary of Blizzard, changing its name to Blizzard North. The rest is fascinating history, which you can find in the book “Stay Awhile and Listen” (several chapters are available for free here).
You start off as one of three character classes: warrior, rogue or sorcerer and appear just outside the village of Tristram while this music is playing. The villagers are frightened of strange events that started happening recently and ask you to investigate the nearby cathedral and the dungeon below. You enter and that’s when your adventure begins.
Your character emits a faint light that helps you see your surroundings, but just barely. While you can see the layout of the dungeon on the screen, enemies are hidden until they are actually within your line of sight. This means that you will never be quite sure what lurks behind the corner and rushing into an unexplored room is a poor strategy.
Combined with the relatively slow walking pace and the fact that every time you’re hit, you flinch a little, you can quickly become overwhelmed, stunlocked and die a quick and brutal death. You are allowed one save slot per character, but that’s it. You are not encouraged to experiment in Diablo.
The winning strategy thus is to always look for a chokepoint, such as a door, and try to lure monsters towards it so they can only reach you one by one. However, this approach will require a major overhaul once you reach levels where enemies can actually shoot at you and cast spells. Then, you will have to become more aggressive and rush in to slay them or die a death of thousand cuts.
At that point, when the challenge suddenly ramps up, Diablo starts to truly shine. It will test your reflexes and planning skills in a way no other game has done before. When you take into account randomly generated dungeon layouts and a new roster of enemies each time you start a game, you’re guaranteed an exciting and fun trip down to the bowels of Hell. It’s no wonder the term “Diablo clone” is used to describe every action RPG since.
Diablo created such a mysterious in-game world that it spilled over into real life and created a certain shroud of awe that predates what we today call “hype”. Namely, outside of Tristram, you can find several cows. When clicked on, they will utter a hefty: “MOO!” and return to grazing. That’s it. The cows don’t have any other function, they can’t be attacked or interacted with in any other way.
However, soon after Diablo was released, rumors began spreading on message boards that cows are actually a hidden portal to the “Cow Level”, packed with hostile cows and containing wondrous treasure. To open the portal, you had to perform a complicated ritual, generally wearing some obscure piece of gear and clicking on a cow several hundred times. When the ritual failed to work, it was obviously the player’s fault for misclicking or wearing the wrong piece of gear.
What started as harmless trolling eventually reached Blizzard, who took it seriously and repeatedly issued the statement: “There is no cow level”. Obviously, this only made the players look even harder, because why would anyone deny such an absurd thing?
The legacy of Diablo was honored by Diablo II, which massively expanded the game formula in every conceivable way: more enemies, more gear, more of everything. And then added an actual Cow Level as a homage.
However, Diablo III was made by a completely different Blizzard team that managed to shit the bed in a truly spectacular way. First of all, they got rid of the dark atmosphere and replaced it with color, color and more color. The real-money auction house was introduced, where you could buy all your gear. Why bother playing? Simply whip out your credit card and steamroll through the game. But that wasn’t the worst offense.
Diablo III team, headed by now infamous Jay Wilson, decided to poke fun at all those players who had fond memories of Diablo and argued against a brightly lit game. To spite them, Jay Wilson started intentionally showcasing brightly colored attack animations at Blizzcon. But the ultimate “FUCK YOU” to players would be the new Cow Level.
Now dubbed “Whimsyshire”, the Cow Level in Diablo III consisted of fluffy unicorns, cuddly ponies and happy clouds. They could still be killed for experience and would drop gear and gold, just like regular monsters, except that they resembled a 10-year-old girl’s fantasy. There was no purpose for this move, other than to intentionally antagonize the players.
The fat slob Jay Wilson would later publicly apologize to the Diablo fans because he, among other things, said “Fuck that loser” to the designer of original Diablo, but the damage was already done. Though Diablo III was a financial success, this was the result of the Diablo legacy, rather than its own merits. Once Diablo IV comes out, I strongly urge you not to purchase it under any circumstances.
Even 20 years after its release, Diablo still has a lot of charm and manages to create a truly unique atmosphere of fantasy horror. Many conventions of action RPGs were introduced, refined and polished by Diablo. It was an innocent time, when video games and gamers were taken seriously and respected. These times are unlikely to ever come back, so give Diablo a spin and savor the ages past.
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