Genre: Action RPG
Developed by: Blizzard North
Published by: Blizzard Entertainment
Platforms: PC, PSX, iOS
Feeling Like: Staying a while, and listening
Blizzard’s 9 year span from 1995 to 2004 may be the single best a developer has ever had. Every time they’d come out with something new, it wasn’t just another notch in their belt; it was an event. I can’t say video games back then were automatically better, but it was an emerging and growing industry. Games had a higher potential to be revolutionary and the face of a changing and thrilling cultural zeitgeist. Blizzard re-defined what real time strategy could be with Warcraft 2: Tides of Darkness and then, in just 13 months, released an action RPG that would popularize another genre – Diablo. What a ridiculous run of success, 14 months after that they’d release Starcraft!
I was a rookie to PC gaming, mostly by necessity. Our 386 could barely run Microsoft Word, let alone the latest from Blizzard. I didn’t know how to adjust graphics settings. Even installing multiple CDs (or floppy disk) seemed like a daunting proposition. So it was either Secret of Monkey Island at Sean’s house, The Incredible Machine at GNS, or Doom at Graeme’s. Visits meant a brief interlude, but never enough time to sink my teeth into anything meaty. We did eventually get a CD-ROM and a proper computer, so Warcrafts and Starcrafts followed, but my history – or lack thereof – is why Diablo felt so special at the time.
I’d never played anything like it. I didn’t even know a game could work like this. The controls were so simple – click! Click to move, click to attack, click to sort inventory, click to pick up gold, click to talk to townsfolk. A bit repetitive, but it worked. The randomized dungeons, the enemy variety and the insanely addicting gameplay cycle were at the heart of Diablo. But the real appeal, at least to me, was the atmosphere.
Just listen to this track. One of the most instantly recognizable, eerie, mysterious, nostalgic, welcoming, creepy themes in gaming history. It tells you everything you need to know about the world of Diablo – a moderately peaceful intro, followed by a faster paced, foreboding melody that only gets scarier the longer it plays. The tune is just brilliant, it keeps evolving and getting more complex before finally reverting back to the intro. I am transported, even as I’m typing this, to Dobbo’s basement where he’d point me in the right direction, but knew that the experience was going to wholly be my own. There are very few instances in my life where I felt this excited.
The town of Tristram is as much of a main character as you are. It is a bleak, depressing place. It’s always dark, the villagers are terrified, no help is coming. Even the church, typically a safe haven where you can seek refuge from the dark, glows red with an ominous glare. You soon learn it’s just you trying to save these people and journey to the depths below. I’d hardly call Diablo a horrifying experience, but it was draped in something unsettling. There is no warm and cozy here.
The loop was immensely satisfying. Go into the dungeons (randomly generated so you’ll never see the same one repeated) kill as many demons as you can. Loot what you find, level up, get stronger. When you can’t take anymore, teleport back to town. Rest up, see if you can buy anything new and shiny. Take as many potions as you can with you, you’ll need them. Take a deep breath, learn what you can from witches, drunks and blacksmiths and head back down. It was so popular that there are countless clones, Torchlight being my favorite.
This is during a time when the game’s instruction booklet was mandatory reading. Whether it was memory limitations, or lack of understanding how to do it, many developers opted to put the game’s story, character bios and monster descriptions in the manual itself. Booting up a game without at least glancing at the opening few pages was heresy. It was often easier to look up something in the manual than try to do so in-game. If you were stuck, it was often your last bastion of hope. There wasn’t Youtube to bail you out in 1997.
Playing it today would be minorly frustrating. We’ve come a long way in 25 years, and a lot of the game’s quirks wouldn’t hold up to modern standards. However, Diablo still holds a very fond place in many gamer’s hearts. It spawned yet another immensely popular franchise for Blizzard and introduced much of the public to the genre. Loot-hunting and dungeon crawling would be a staple for decades to come and it all started in 1997 in a tiny village with the prince of darkness lurking beneath the surface. I may have missed out on Diablo 2 (a massive regret), but there wasn’t a chance in hell I’d miss this one.