December 31st, 1996 is when Diablo was unleashed unto the world. It was great. Excellent even, one of my favorites. It catapulted Blizzard forward into the world like no other, and triggered Diablo 2 and 3 as well. The game world was moody, the writing was creepy, vague in all the right ways, and humorous at the right times. So where is it today? Well, it is scattered across eBay and Amazon used sellers and resellers.
Blizzard may have adopted digital sales, but not for Diablo. It isn’t even in the Diablo Battle Chest anymore. Now the chest is simply Diablo 2 plus the expansion and the strategy guide (which I would wager is woefully out of date with all of the balance changes and mild expansions like Pandemonium Events). Diablo has been left behind by Blizzard. You can’t even get it on GOG. Some of us still have our CDs, but for many, if not most, of those who play Diablo 2 or 3, the original is more a concept than an experience. I would love to see it for sale on Battle.net. Preferably with support for modern resolutions, and maybe, just maybe, a more streamlined store front interface (one of my few issues with the original Diablo). But this is only addressing the availability. We’ve got Diablo 2 and 3! Those are logically twice and thrice as good, right?
Wrong, as repeated ad nauseam to your preferred tune. Diablo is a fairly separate game mechanically from the sequels, to the extent that if you were a fan of Diablo’s gameplay, as in the full gameplay loop, you never did get a sequel. Let’s compare the loops a player goes through in playing them:
In Diablo 2 or 3, you launch the game, go into an area with enemies and begin killing them. As you do so your XP bar fills up. Along the way you heal with numerous potions/health globes, shrines, and steal health from your enemies. Sometimes your health itself just regenerates. You perform abilities to wipe out huge swathes of monsters which consume mana. Mana which regenerates. All the while you are sprinting, outpacing almost every single enemy you encounter. Periodically you level up and can either pick new skills, following a tree, or get them delivered to you by the game. You may or may not assign stat points. As you kill the enemies you fill up with items that almost always are vastly worse than what you have, and you do a quick Town Portal, which is either from a book of numerous scrolls, or a free spell, to sell them off. Having had enough, you save and quit. Later on you come back for more, you start back in town, and fast travel to an area which is repopulated. You continue killing the monsters, and the loop resumes.
In Diablo, you launch the game, go into an area with enemies and begin killing them. Your XP increases, but it isn’t right in front of you – that is a meta level abstract for growth, not the point of the game. You heal damage and recover mana with potions, which do not stack in the inventory/belt. There is no sprinting, no running circles around enemies as they will keep a decent pace to you. Each engagement is risky as it involves a finite resource. When you level up, you assign stat points. There isn’t any skill picking, you want to learn something, find a book in the game world. When you need to retreat, you use a town portal scroll, cast the spell (but only if you know it), or you just walk back. Yes, you walk somewhere. The fast travel equivalents are only every few levels. When you’ve had enough you save and quit. Return, load, and you are back exactly where you left off. Exactly. You aren’t back in town unless you saved in town, you are in the same battle you left, with the same chests looted and monsters killed.
Diablo is about vanquishing evil from the land, and you do it. With every zombie slain, every skeleton smashed and scattered, the game world has fewer monsters in it. Items are meant to help you do that, and you cherish every upgrade. Spells are indeed magical, rather than innate to the character. And as you level them up, they actually get better. They do more damage and cost less mana. Power in Diablo is real, not relative. Player growth is a much more concrete aspect. Bookshelves are a cherished sight, and shrines are a questioned one, as they are named mysteriously and give you riddles as to what they did. The world leads you on through poems, memories, and things glanced in the night and the dungeon possesses no fewer than three enemies which you can talk to, and the exchanges are fairly memorable.
I enjoy Diablo 2 and Diablo 3, but they are not mechanical or mood sequels to Diablo. They are franchise sequels. Monsters become the currency, levels and items the objective. Everything respawns, everything regenerates, there is no permanence, and things are increasingly relative. The mysterious lore is fleshed out to cartoony proportions, and the meta-game behind the original becomes the game that people now play. The 2008 reveal trailer of Diablo 3 had some aspects to it that felt more like Diablo, (“The air is thick with the stench of ghouls.”) such as nude women exploding in gore to feed the summoning of a Thousand Pounder, or the Siege Breaker on death spawning very large hordes of skeletons. Sure it had more shtick and shlock to it than Diablo did, but it still felt like there was some evil in that world, and that it was worth fighting. But what we got was a continuation of Diablo 2, another Skinner Box around the sacrosanct items.