"More than 15 years later, the original Diablo remains a must-have."

With Diablo 3 only days old as of this review being written and setting launch day records, a lot of people might wonder if a trip down memory lane will be worth the effort. Diablo 2 is popular enough for people to already know what they're dealing with, but the original Diablo is a different animal entirely. Not too many people have played the original in comparison, and getting it to work on a modern PC might take some effort.

It's definitely worth that effort, though. The original Diablo, flawed as it is, was well ahead of its time when it was released all the way back in 1996. Randomized levels, colored loot and online multiplayer weren't really staples of gaming back then like they are now, so Diablo was a defining game for both its genre and its system. It's definitely still worth playing today, but anyone going into this after playing future games in the series need to be prepared for a few things being a bit... archaic.

Diablo is a very simple game. You pick one of three classes -- Warrior, Rogue or Sorcerer -- and begin play in a tiny little town called Tristram. A local archbishop, Lazarus, previously led a group of people into a sanctuary to search for the prince's missing son. Naturally this was a trap, because very few people are trustworthy in the Diablo universe. Lazarus went deep into the sanctuary's depths to perform some satanic rituals with the child, and most of the men who went down with him were slaughtered like cattle by a host of demons.

This is where you come in. Your job is to go through 16 floors of literal isometric hell, and thoroughly murder Lazarus and eventually Diablo himself. To do this, you'll be using your chosen class to the best of his or her abilities. The Warrior class is a strongman and master of close quarters combat, with the obvious weaknesses of being weak with magic and having issues with ranged enemies. That said, if the Warrior catches any enemy they're basically mincemeat. The Rogue class is amazing at ranged attacks, namely with bows. She also has some decent magic acumen, but for quite awhile she'll have issues with melee attackers. If anything gets close to her, she tends to drop like a stone until geared up. Last comes the Sorcerer, who is the best class in the game when used correctly. Early on he has some issues surviving against enemies and killing things, but he's golden once he learns a few spells. Unlike the other classes that use an HP bar as health, the Sorcerer essentially uses his mana bar as a health bar. That's because Mana Shield is a completely absurd ability in this game. Pair that with his movement ability via Teleport, and the entire game becomes a joke for him once he clears it once. All three classes have their place, but there isn't much balance here.

On top of the classes are neat little ways to customize them. The thrill in Diablo has always been "that one item drop", which actually happens a lot more often in this game because you aren't dealing with absurdist drop rates. Unlike Diablo 2 where you can go years and never see a specific item without trading for it, you won't have to play Diablo all that long to see a Grandfather or a Messerschmidt's Reaver. It gets even sillier with the Sorcerer once you're teleporting all over the place. Add in consumables and unique stat balance for each class, and you'll have a load of fun playing through this game multiple times. It's not a very long game -- it's just 16 floors with the occasional trip to town, and none of the floors are very large -- so it has insane replay value. After beating it once, you'll want to go through it multiple times just to level up, max stats and perhaps get more items. There was also a rudimentary online multiplayer function, though almost no one really plays it anymore and it's ripe with hacks and duping. Just enjoy the single player.

The meat of the game comes in the labyrinth itself. There are 16 floors total, and those floors are divided up into four different areas of four floors each. With town portal spells and each of the four areas having a way to directly visit Tristram, you'll never find yourself overextending if you're careful. There's a certain thrill in inching forward, killing enemies that could kill you if you mess up exploring, finding some items and moving on. There's tons of doors to open, enemies to kill, treasure to find and money to spend. The first time through the game is a decent enough challenge, though with only one difficulty level the game is a joke on subsequent playthroughs.

There is also one thing Diablo 1 does best among any of the three games in this series: atmosphere. You are literally in a corrupted church headed down toward Hell itself, and the areas grow more and more creepy as you travel down, culminating in a rather scary setting that won't be spoiled here. The game aids the atmosphere with some very fitting graphics and music, and the graphics especially are worth noting here. Spell animations and combat aren't particularly impressive-looking, but the actual models themselves are incredible. They start off small in the early chapters, then as you go down they grow larger and scarier. Some of the deaths you'll see are also rather graphic, and in 1996 they along with all the demonic symbolism made hypersensitive parents really crap their pants. As a rule of thumb, everything your parents hated when you grew up is awesome and anything they like is terrible. Your mom probably hates Diablo and loves the Twilight novels.

For all that Diablo does well, there are three major weaknesses that are impossible to ignore. The big one that anyone will notice if they didn't play this game first is the lack of running from your character model. Your character can only walk, which is a huge issue and can make the game feel very sluggish at times. It's also why everyone loves the Sorcerer so much, because he can just teleport all over the place. Secondly are item drops. Not the items themselves, those are fine, but the actual process of finding items on the ground. Diablo is quite literally a very dark game and there are no markers to finding things. Anyone who couldn't find the brain during the Black Mushroom quest knows exactly what I'm talking about here; items are just a real pain in the ass to find sometimes. Lastly, and this is kind of minor, is that the game is way too easy. The first time through is challenging enough, but if you get a good sense of what to do then the Butcher is the only difficult boss you'll really see in the entire game. By the time you get to Lazarus and Diablo, they won't be hard. You'll also be very adept on how to fight the enemy swarms by the time you're done the 12th floor, because the caves are far and away the hardest part of the entire game. With potions instantly healing you rather than slowly regenerating, there are few true threats in Diablo. Then once you beat the game and replay it with a current character, the entire dungeon becomes a huge joke. Diablo really needed increasing difficulty levels, but thankfully future games offer this.

Diablo is overall still an outstanding game if you're willing to look at this through the lens of 1996 rather than 2012, but even then a couple of things will really take some getting used to. That said, for those of you getting into the series on Diablo 3 wondering if you should give this a try just to see how far the series has come through 16 years, the answer is a resounding yes.

Reviewer's Rating:   4.0 - Great

Originally Posted: 05/24/12

Game Release: Diablo (US, 12/31/96)

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