#428: Diablo

The origin of the “action RPG” — or is it?

june gloom
8 min readFeb 18, 2022

Initial release: 1997
Platform: PC, PSX, mac OS
Developer: Blizzard North

It’s funny, the way we name things. Diablo is one of Blizzard’s flagship series, with Diablo II being a smash hit around the time when LAN parties were common and the internet was becoming a more viable platform for online gaming. The genre created by Diablo (or rather, Diablo II, but more on that later) is ubiquitous now, with themes ranging from real-world mythology to Victorian horror as players navigate a top-down, isometric game in real-time, fighting monsters and collecting loot. But there doesn’t seem to be much consensus on what to call it.

The most commonly-used term, “action RPG,” feels vague and undifferentiated, supposedly meaning games like Diablo but going by the term alone would include anything from Zelda to Dark Souls (each of which have their own imitators spawning a subgenre.) “Diablo-like” (or, more archaically, “Diablo clone”) is more precise, describing games that are similar to Diablo in specific, similar to how “Souls-like” or, more recently, “Soulsborne” (a term that makes no real sense) describes games similar to FromSoftware’s flagship titles. And, given Diablo’s pedigree, Diablo-like feels like a good term to use… but hardly anyone uses it.

Let’s back up a step.

1980’s Rogue, while primitive by today’s standards, probably sets the record for the most derivative subgenres of any kind of game. From Rogue we get the term “roguelike,” which has somewhat diluted in meaning in recent years as some of the core concepts like permadeath have been incorporated in less traditional games such as Dead Cells or Into The Breach. Rogue spawned a horde of imitators, each with their own innovations, probably the most important spinoff being Hack and its followup NetHack, but the one we’re going to focus on is Moria, released in 1983, which provided the innovation of a town at the top of the dungeon that the player can revisit and resupply at. From Moria’s UNIX port came the more well-known Angband, and from Angband we get… Diablo.

The combat can be pretty bare-bones compared to later games.

“But wait,” you ask, “isn’t Diablo real-time? Roguelikes are turn-based!”

Right you are, and, indeed, Diablo was turn based early in its development, before it was decided that realtime was more fun (the development of Battle.net had something to do with that…) It otherwise has many of the elements of Angband and its predecessors: a town at the surface, a procedurally-generated dungeon to explore, character classes with their own strengths and weaknesses. The game is even technically tile-based, though it does a good job of hiding it. The only major change, besides being much more graphically slick than the traditional ASCII-based roguelike (and even that’s optional with the right mods) is the lack of permadeath, at least in singleplayer — you can quicksave and quickload to your heart’s content.

(Side note: Diablo technically is turn-based, in that 20 turns pass each second regardless of player input. While it’s not feasible to simply make it truly turn-based, such a thing could possibly be done by a talented enough modder.)

So what even is Diablo anyway? Well, as the term “Angband clone” suggests, Diablo is a dungeon crawler through and through. You pick a class (warrior, rogue and sorcerer, though gender is tied to class) and you’re plopped into the town (more of a village) of Tristram in a quasi-European fantasy setting. (The game itself is quite ambiguous about its setting; the manual tries harder to do some world-building, but it’s not until Diablo II that any of it matters and the setting becomes more overtly a constructed fantasy world.) On the edge of town is a cathedral, dark and silent, red light shining from within; most of the village, you’re told, is either dead or fled following a disastrous attempt to rescue a kidnapped prince in the catacombs of the cathedral. Those that remain are typically business owners — and a good thing too, because you’ll need that blacksmith to keep your gear in shape.

The playing board is a rather nice-looking isometric environment (as was the case with many RPGs of the era, including Fallout) which allows for an atmospheric experience; the dungeon proper makes good use of a primitive lighting engine to be dark and scary and full of monsters, and you can only see so far in the dim. Movement is slow and methodical; the gameplay is structured as such that you’re not a superhero mowing down hordes of enemies, but instead have to slowly pull apart each level and try not to get surrounded.

It’s hotter than hell in the caves.

Made up of sixteen levels, the dungeon is split into four themes, each with their own monster types. The first four levels are a gloomy catacomb type deal, full-to-bursting with zombies and skeletons, including the dangerous “Black Death” zombie variant that knocks off a point of your max health for every hit it lands on you. Beyond that is the area actually called catacombs, a gloomy dungeon of brown stone and brick walls where more demonic enemies begin to appear in large groups. Next is the caves, a half-finished mine with rivers of magma, and finally Hell itself, a mix of cold stone and walls made of bone and flesh, holding back walls of molten blood. (Not the scariest Hell I’ve seen in a game, but it works for the setting I suppose.) The Hellfire expansion adds two more optional dungeons, four floors each: a monstrous, alien nest filled with hideous insectoids, and something called the “Demon Crypts” that resembles some of the creepier levels from the original Quake.

Gameplay is in realtime, with the use of a mouse: see enemy, click on enemy, and your character will stab (or smash, or shoot) it until it’s dead. Motion is with the mouse as well, moving from point to point by simply clicking on where you want to go. The keyboard is for managing hotkeys — you can set spells to the F5-F8 keys, and you have a toolbar that you can place items you need quick access to, such as potions.

Unlike some of its successors, Diablo feels pretty bare-bones. There are no hard-coded class restrictions on magic or gear — any class can use any spell, weapon or armor, provided they meet the stat requirements; though if you’re playing as the monk that’s included in the Hellfire expansion, less is more when it comes to armor. While the different classes do handle their abilities differently (the rogue is a much faster archer than anyone else) it’s entirely viable to, for example, play your warrior as a spellsword.

They’re coming out of the walls!

Speaking of Hellfire, it’s got a bit of an interesting history. Blizzard North didn’t want to make an expansion for the game, as was common in those days (due to being relatively cheap to make), instead opting to move on to the sequel. Comp-U-Card International, Blizzard’s parent company at the time, thus outsourced the expansion to Synergistic Software, which was a studio that had recently been acquired by Sierra (which itself had been subsequently acquired by CUC.) Both Blizzard studios protested against it, having been burned by a Warcraft II expansion that had gone awry a few years earlier, forcing Blizzard to take control of development and finish it themselves; nevertheless, the job was handed to Synergistic, who did the expansion under the restrictions Blizzard placed (namely, to avoid certain spells, character classes, or themes that Blizzard was saving for Diablo II.) While Synergistic was okay with avoiding certain content, the mandate that the expansion be single-player only when a big part of Diablo’s runaway success was because of co-op games on Battle.net proved to be a sticking point, and while they technically obeyed Blizzard to the letter in that the expansion can’t connect to Battle.net, they snuck in a local play option as an easter egg regardless, much to Blizzard’s displeasure. Regardless, Hellfire did include a number of important improvements such as the ability to “jog” while in town (meaning you could get errands done much faster) and an automatic heal from the town doctor; some of these improvements would be carried on to Diablo II.

I’m gettin’ ‘Nam flashbacks, y’all.

While Diablo and its sequel are both landmark titles, there’s a fundamental difference in how they play. The first game is slow and methodical, with an emphasis on atmosphere; while horror elements are common in fantasy games, rarely are they actually intended to be scary (as opposed to just fun, spooky atmosphere) — and Diablo is pretty darn scary! (All you gotta say is “fresh meat” and some nerds will get that thousand-yard stare…) In contrast, the faster-paced, more expansive Diablo II solidified many of the tropes and mechanics that we expect from a Diablo-like, which leads me to suggest that perhaps when we say Diablo-like, we really mean Diablo II-like. Even the original Torchlight — created by former Blizzard North employees — plays more like Diablo II than its more immediate inspiration.

Which is probably why Diablo feels neglected compared to its sequel. Diablo II recently got the HD treatment, a full-scale redo of its graphics and slight gameplay updates, similar to what Blizzard did for Starcraft. While you can approximate the experience with the DevilutionX source port and a few mods, Blizzard doesn’t even sell the original game on their website or on Battle.net; the only place to get it now is gog.com. It feels almost completely forgotten. You could make arguments for why that is, but I think it just boils down to Activision-Blizzard prioritizing what makes them the most money. It’s probably just as well; the people who made the original Diablo are long gone from Blizzard, which has been swallowed up by the machine that is Activision, a machine that grinds up employees and spits out sexual assault cases. It can’t be fun to watch the company you built become such a monstrosity, but that’s what you get for consorting with the devil.

— June❤



june gloom

Media critic, retired streamer, furry. I love you. [she/her]