Going backwards? Making the case for Diablo 2 – 23 years on

By Neil Merrett

Diablo 2 Resurrected, released on Nintendo Switch in 2021, published by Blizzard Entertainment

When you have the prospect of ever more technically sophisticated gaming sequels, is there any point in going back to older titles that have not had the benefit of two decades of videogame development?  The answer it seems, might depend on who you are sharing it with when spending potentially hours on digital luggage management.

The old adage about making a sequel is that it should be bigger and bolder than its predecessor. Of course, this does not necessarily mean that a follow up is better than what came before it, or even necessary.

But, if nothing else, there was a simple monetary logic behind the concept of giving people more of a thing they have previously loved or consumed.

From an artistic perspective, the idea of a sequel does carry an inherent risk of undermining the basic appeal of a story, or a compelling set of characters – perhaps by making them go through the very same ordeal with any logic to it.

If a hero or heroine once slayed a dragon. How might they fare facing a two headed dragon or the dragon’s boss?  Likewise, imagine a cop able to dispatch a skyscraper full of well-spoken terrorists having to do the same thing, but in an airport!

It is fair to say that sequels can very much be contrived.

The other popular option for a sequel is to opt for a significantly different tone, genre or type of story to challenge a group of characters – making them face more brutal stakes or emotional consequences.

It is also just possible to create a follow up just as a means to justify a cliff hanger ending and even more sequels.

Fraternal love and splinters in the mind’s eye

The publication of writer Alan Dean Foster’s novel, ‘A Splinter of the Mind’s Eye’ in 1978 was intended to serve as a potential sequel to the 1977 movie, Star Wars. 

As such, it told a story about the ongoing adventures of Luke Skywalker, his hunt for a magic crystal and the seemingly growing sexual tension between him and the beautiful Princess Leia.

Urban Legend has it that the book, which can still be picked up to this day and having reprinted multiple times over the decades, was designed to be the basis for a lower budget sequel to Star Wars should the film not be too profitable.

Film history would of course have other ideas and the release of ‘The Empire Strikes Back’ in 1980 would set a template for franchise film making for decades to come with a focus on cliff hangers and darker emotional exploration of characters. By 1983, the second Star Wars sequel would have Luke and Princess Leia revealed as siblings in a struggle for the soul of their father, Darth Vader.

A Splinter of the Mind’s Eye would go on to become a well-regarded curiosity for Star Wars fans – an example of the creative path not taken and a world where one of cinema’s most immortal lines and great character twists would never be spoken.

Ultimately, making a sequel can be something of a tightrope, regardless of the medium an artist is working in.

The gaming sequel

In the case of making videogames, sequels carry another burden for creative teams.  This is the expectation that a game should be more technically sophisticated than a direct predecessor.

A sequel game might not only have to have a bigger and better story, but must also be more technically sophisticated in terms of design and ambition.

Gamers will increasingly these days expect entirely new mechanics and more refined gameplay in a sequel to create a more thrilling and accurate simulation that still plays like the original game. After all, what is the point of asking a gamer to just keep doing exactly the same things with different levels?

In the current generation of consoles and systems, developers can also opt to create optional DLC to add new levels, playable characters and story to expand a gaming experience and make more money out of a title. This development has made the art of a sequel even more precarious to get right and justify.

A sequel must be a game that evokes a beloved, or perhaps flawed predecessor, but also creates enough of a new experience to justify paying the full price of the product.

In some cases, this might be the difference between the first and second Grand Theft Auto. Grand Theft Auto 2, released on home computers and the Sony PlayStation retained the original top down 2D gameplay of its predecessor, but added bigger maps and the option to work for rival gangs in the city.  It was a moderately well regarded follow up to an infamous and – at the time – controversial game.

The third game, released early in the century on the PlayStation 2, embraced a fully 3D world for the player to battle and engage in at ground level in a way that was impossible on earlier hardware.

It was a handy example of what an emerging generation of consoles could do from a technical standpoint. Grand Theft Auto 3 would go on to be regarded as a milestone in the design of sandbox games – a term used to describe an open ended approach to design where a player is afforded a large level of freedom with how they interact and navigate the world.

It was not only a commercial success as a sequel, but lead to the creation of a billion pound cultural behemoth and changed gaming forever.

Blizzard Entertainment’s Diablo 3 is the third instalment in a series of highly influential and successful RPG games. The has itself been ported and remastered across several generation of consoles, along with being re-released in a series of different additions and collections.

It is a more refined version of dungeon crawlers such as Gauntlet 2. As a game, it requires a group of players, either on the same console or connected online, to form a party of warriors and wizards to battle the forces of evil and find new loot, treasures and ludicrous abilities.

Diablo 3 was first brought to the Nintendo Switch console in 2018 – six years after its initial launch on a previous generation of consoles.

Curiously, the game’s debut on the switch would be followed in 2021 by the release of Diablo 2 Resurrected. This game allowed a player to play through a graphically remastered version of the second game from the series released back in 2000.

Is it reductive then, to return to an older – and in theory less refined version of a well known fantasy RPG? The question is pertinent, especially for those that have already played through the game’s sequel – a title that has inspired a host of rival developers to make their own versions that seek to evoke the world of superheroes or other popular gaming franchises?

Diablo 2 Resurrected, even with its graphical flair, has a more muted visual look compared to its successor.  However, many of the core mechanics are there, such as the thrilling and entertaining ability to develop new powers and choose a specific set of skills within a specific character class that can allow for different ways of playing the game.

A player might opt for a druid that is focused more on unlocking abilities to summon creatures and plant life to help the layer and their teammates kick the ass of a host of demons and undead warriors.  Otherwise, they might choose to be a damage-taking tank that can just club bad guys into the ground with their somewhat more physical approach.

Diablo 2 is notable for having no option for performing a roll dodge as a standard move to let the player quickly move into and out of trouble or avoid being surrounded by bad guys seeking to overwhelm the player. This might seem unthinkable in modern gaming, where the dodge roll is now a ubiquitous part of the medium.

Going back to Diablo 2 also highlights many of the so-called ‘quality of life’ changes that the sequel attempted to make to the series. Chief among them is equipping and managing inventories – this can be important in a game where ransacking tooms and treasure hunting plays a big part of progress and getting better weapons or money to spend on them.

Diablo 3 would create the option to let a player identify items they have accumulated as being for sale or scrap. This could allow a player to collect a whole litany of treasures and then sort through the crap with relative ease at the end of a quest.

The mechanic is particularly useful for online group play and to prevent players stopping every three minutes to check whether they have found a game changing item, or just a piece of tat.

Detectorists and luggage management

By comparison, Diablo 2, even in its resurrected form, gives a player a very limited space to carry and review items.  Luggage management, it becomes quickly clear to newcomers, will be a crucial and potentially maddening part of the game.  But it also can be hugely charming with these older mechanics. This is particularly the case when a player, in wanting to see whether they might want some luxurious leather gloves has to dump out several pieces of luggage to store the item and then use a special scroll to determine if they have found treasure. 

“When in doubt, dig it out.”

Diablo 2 inventory management

To play with others online is to find oneself in a cross between a riotous fantasy quest to slay monsters with magical powers, and also becoming a detectorist painstakingly scouring levels for treasures and getting them checked by experts or cross referenced with literature.

The game’s Scrolls of Identity, may as well be a metal detector or treasure guide for the role they play. 

In moments of a gruelling battle with higher level bad guys, one player may suddenly find their party divided as another is off busyily comparing a bronze shield with a knackered and possibly magical artefact dropped on the floor.  The older game suddenly takes on an almost surreal mundanity at the same time of fixing magical ruins to an axe to make it a fearsome ice weapon.

‘Will you search the lonely earth for me’

Anyone reading this may know immediately if they would wish to go back to Diablo 2, or perhaps embrace a fourth iteration of the game instead that will no doubt aim to offer an even more streamlined and cinematic adventure game to indulge in with players and friends around the world.

But even with technical progress, there is charm and enjoyment to be found in the strange mechanics of Diablo 2 that paved the way to other gaming classics.

As with many things in life – the value of a game relies on the important context of how and why it is being played. 

Getting lost in the world and mechanics of Diablo 2 Resurrected for the first time with veteran players, can become in of itself a charming walk in the past of gaming and hobbies. 

There is the risk that some players in 2023 may simply have moved on to bigger and better sequels and game types.  But perhaps its ok, with loved ones, close comrades and even the odd random stranger to talk and walk around in an older game from the bygone era of Windows 98. 

True, it does involve a lot of digging around a digital suitcase, but it’s not to say that there aren’t treasures hiding amidst the clutter and outdated game design and mechanics.  Perhaps the secret is finding a good person to share the experience with.


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