Friday, January 28, 2022

Retro Review: Diablo [1997]

25 years ago this month, a friend of mine got his hands on the North American version of Blizzard's then latest videogame: Diablo. It was a precious acquisition that he rightfully wouldn't let out of his sight. It wasn't slated for release in the EU for another 11 months so the only way to play it was on his laptop. And that I did, I took over his laptop and played the whole game over the course of a few days and it was amazing.

Diablo was forged at the beginning of Blizzard's success, their Warcraft RTS games had given them notoriety but it was Diablo and then StarCraft the following year that cemented their place in history. Blizzard produced a simple action role playing game that was instantly accessible to anyone. This was proved by the fact that this was my first video game RPG and I was able to play the thing on a laptop, using only a mouse, the number keys and the shift key. No other controls were needed, a far cry from the 80+ different keyboard commands one had to memorise to play X-Wing. No, Diablo was simple and that was one of it's greatest strengths.

Simple as it was, it wasn't easy. One had to employ tactics against increasingly tough enemies. Clicking the right area, the right enemy, the right spell or potion at the right time was mandatory or you'd easily die. But unlike something like Dark Souls nowadays, it was forgiving in so far as you easily could get out of a tight spot or if you died you could just change your tactic and it would likely mean success.

Diablo at it's time had the best voice acting, the best music and the best sound. It also notably had the best cinematics by far. Blizzard's 3D cinematics were years ahead of the curve - even when compared with LucasArts who had Lucasfilm resources behind them. No one held a candle to what Blizzard produced back then. Diablo's cinematics set the scene for the game but unlike many modern games that use scenes to flesh out the story, Diablo's appear only at the beginning of the game one close to the end and a final cinematic which is enough to tell the story along with NPC exposition.

In Diablo you play a nameless hero of one of three archetypes or classes, the stalwart Warrior who one may argue could be considered a Paladin, the sneaky Rogue, which played more like a Ranger and the physically weak but magically powerful Sorcerer. Your quest in the game is simple: journey beneath the town's cathedral and vanquish the evil that lurks within, some 16 levels deep. While you have your basic equipment to begin, you'll soon acquire more and more powerful weapons and equipment as you venture downwards into the bowels of hell itself.

Before I lost my CD version I replayed Diablo a number of times. The dungeons were partly randomly generated lending itself to some level of re-playability and you never found the same equipment (apart from the quest-reward gear) twice. As the game was not available on a digital storefront, I attempted to install an imaged disk version of the game early in the Windows 7 lifecycle but I was unsuccessful and didn't spent do much time working at it. However when GOG surprisingly released Diablo in March 2019 it answered the prayers of those who longed to play it again or certainly, for the first time.

I finally installed the GOG version of Diablo to mark it's 25th Anniversary and the rush of nostalgia was palpable. While it's not by any means a beautiful game when it's ancient graphics are displayed on a 4K screen, GOG's Direct-X implementation is quite satisfactory and flawlessly executed. The game is perfectly stable on Windows 10 and there wasn't a single hiccup in my playthrough. The new GOG launcher, which can be initiated through GOG Galaxy allows a few options, one of which can display the game in all it's original VGA-era glory. I declined the offer favouring the (slightly) new sheen on an otherwise quarter-century-old video game. 


It took me just over 15 hours to complete but with short play sessions as alas, I was in danger of developing RSI if I played more than a level at a time. The controls for Diablo may the simplest of any video game but the constant left click is likely to reduce your mouse's lifespan if not your finger's. Nevertheless the pros outweigh the cons and it was enjoyable to look back at and re-experience one of the most famous RPGs of all time. I would recommend anyone so inclined to relive the adventure as I have.

Diablo (bundled with it's Hellfire expansion) is only available on GOG for €8.89 but has a 15 or 20% discount in frequent sales.

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