Diablo 1 in 2023
14 July, 2023
I didn’t know another Diablo game was coming until I saw advertisements for Diablo 4 on buses around the city. Around the same time I was researching the origins of Guild Wars, one of my favourite games from my early teens. I learned that the early Blizzard games—Warcraft, Warcraft 2, Diablo, and Starcraft—are sort of “direct technical ancestors” to Guild Wars: ArenaNet, the studio that created Guild Wars, was created in 2000 by some important former Blizzard employees1. Combined with my general sense of the Diablo series’ renown in video game history, I started getting curious about what the Diablo games would be like to play.
I’m kind of allergic to buying something as highly advertised as Diablo 4, and it currently costs AUD110 which is a bit expensive relative to my mild sense of curiosity. I’m also skeptical of more modern “loot-based” or “progression-based” games, where there’s potential for a sort of “superficial feel-good feedback loop”: increasing your character’s stats so that you can fight stronger enemies so that you can increase your character’s stats, ad infinitum. This ruled out Diablo 3 for the time being. Faced with the choice between Diablo 2 and Diablo 1, I chose the original (which from now on I’ll just call “Diablo”). Might as well start at the beginning. I recently finished the game2, and this post is about my experience.
Diablo turned 26 this year. It’s the second oldest game I’ve played to completion, after Myst (1993). Many elements of the game, such as graphics, gameplay, and narrative show their age and have been obsoleted by modern titles. The part of the game that I think has aged the best, and impressed me the most, is the music.
The Tristram theme plays every time you return to the town after dungeon crawling, and each time it was a pleasure to hear. It still evokes feelings of spaciousness and release, while still keeping a sort of dark undertone. Some of my favourite parts are: the open acoustic guitar chords with ping-pong delay (00:00, 01:35), the use of guitar harmonics (00:29, 01:29), the brooding fingerstyle melody (00:44), the reverbed recorder-sounding flute instrument (01:40), and creative slide effects (02:10). The whole song is wonderful. As a bonus: 8-bit music theory recently did an analysis of the song which I really enjoyed.
As you venture deeper into the dungeon under the town, the music gets increasingly creepy. I found it unsettling and unpleasant at times, especially when I entered a new area for the very first time with no idea what I’d find. I appreciated the use of vocal samples, such as pitch-shifted / reversed laughter, crying babies, creepy moans and ragged breathing, to cement the hellish atmosphere. Even though this is an isometric game (not the most immersive of player viewpoints), there were times when I actually felt jumpy and on edge. I think the music was largely responsible for this.
Having finished the game once I probably won’t play Diablo again, but I will definitely revisit the soundtrack.
Setting and Story
The game manual does a lot of world-building. I enjoyed reading it before jumping in. The game itself has a very narrow setting (a village and a dungeon), and it was fun to imagine that the story I played was part of a larger “living” world. Somehow the extra setting details made the game more enjoyable, even though they were “merely” imaginary.
Some of the manual’s world-building was revealed in game, through conversations with townsfolk, and books scattered throughout the dungeon. Reading the manual beforehand reduced the impact and intrigue of those moments. I would have really enjoyed a more methodical gameplay-based revelation of most of the things I read in the manual. That said, it’s a lot cheaper and easier to convey that stuff through writing than it is through a game, so the way Blizzard did things seems reasonable given the game’s scope.
I left-clicked a lot. The combat mechanics were trivial: click to attack. I started to worry that this game was more Cookie Clicker than RPG, but as I got deeper into the dungeon I found harder enemies that required better tactics to defeat. Some melee enemies swarmed and interrupted my attack when they damaged me, so I had to fight them one-on-one in doorways and corridors (a classic roguelike tactic). Others ran away to attack from afar, and I found I could herd them one-by-one into corners for a guaranteed kill.
Despite the simplicity of the controls, I found myself quite engaged with the game. It felt like there were stakes; dying seemed consequential even though I could reload a saved game. Getting swarmed by enemies made my heart rate rise, and narrowly escaping death was a real relief.
I was pleasantly surprised to find that the character attributes (strength, magic, dexterity, and vitality) were all useful. When a warrior’s “primary attribute” is “strength” my first inclination is to maximise strength. I did this in my first attempt as a warrior, and I got stuck about half way down because the enemies were too strong. When I made a new warrior and distributed my attribute points more evenly, I made more progress more quickly. I eventually beat the game on that character, but not without a struggle. Even though I paid more attention to my non-primary attributes, I had still neglected my resistances (magic, fire, and lightning). There was a point where I thought I’d have to give up on the final level, until I found a way to boost my fire resistance enough to make progress.
Diablo definitely seems designed for multiple playthroughs. There are three classes, and I expect they all play differently. There were some enemy types that appeared for my first character that didn’t for my second character. The dungeon layouts are mostly randomised, too. What would it be like to play as a Sorceror? What else I didn’t see in the dungeons? If video games were more scarce then my current level of curiosity would be enough for another playthrough, or maybe two. But in 2023 I’m surrounded by thousands of incredible games, so I feel like the ~15 hours I’ve played is just the right amount of Diablo.
I had a good time! I guess the fact that it held up as well as it did should be evidence that it’s a good game. I’m glad to have discovered another great game soundtrack and its composer (Matt Uelmen). Finally, I’m grateful to have experienced another piece of gaming history. If services like Good Old Games didn’t exist then I probably would have just missed out.