With the arrival of Diablo IV just around the corner, there is no better time to blow the dust off the first Diablo game to experience the original story. Better yet, you can play it with modern enhancements, previously unplayable characters, and more.
Diablo was first released in January 1997 by Blizzard Entertainment but was a runaway best-seller even before it hit the shelves. The title was pre-ordered nearly half a million times leading up to the January release and then went on to sell more than a million copies by the end of the year. Within two years, it had sold two million copies.
The original spawned a successful franchise that includes Diablo II (2000), Diablo III (2012), Diablo IV (2023), and a mobile game, Diablo Immortal (2022). Even the expansions like Diablo II: Lord of Destruction (2001) and Diablo III: Reaper of Souls (2014) and Rise of the Necromancer (2017) were best-sellers. And in 2021, Blizzard released a completely remastered version of Diablo II, Diablo II: Resurrected, which brought the 2000-era classic into the modern age.
With all those options, why play the original version now? You could certainly skip it and dive right into Diablo IV after its June 6, 2023 release. Or perhaps only play Diablo III to feel like you’re getting up to speed to enjoy Diablo IV.
Despite the 1990s-era graphics, however, Diablo is still worth taking for a spin today. Not only are you playing a piece of action role-playing game (ARPG) that influenced the history of video game design (including the best-selling ARPGs that came after it, like Path of Exile, Torchlight, Grim Dawn, and more), you’re diving into the lore of the Diablo franchise.
And, all told, it’s not that long of a play experience. Playing through newer games in the series might take weeks (and optimizing your builds might take even longer), but you can play Diablo in a few evenings or over a long weekend.
On top of experiencing one of the most influential video games of the late 20th century, you’ll get to fill in the lore gaps and meet the game’s original cast. After all, how can you truly enjoy wielding Wirt’s Leg in Diablo II and Diablo III (and possibly in Diablo IV, too, if it makes an Easter egg appearance) without meeting Wirt himself?
So come for the old-school gritty dungeon crawler atmosphere, and stay for the insights into deep-cut references to early Diablo lore.
With a few tips and tricks, it’s easy to run Diablo on a modern Windows PC. Before we dig in, let’s mention one method that might seem like a simple approach but ends up being overly fussy and complicated.
If you happen to have an original game (as in the original CD-ROM based release) squirreled away in a closet somewhere, it’s a bit of a pain to take it from released-in-1997 status to playing-smoothly-now status.
You’ll need to get the data off the CD-ROM, install it in compatibility mode, use a no-cd crack, patch the game (Blizzard still has the last 2001-era Diablo patch available on its FTP server), and then from there, you’ll have to patch and mod it just to get anywhere near where we’re going to start the process below.
Despite having a dusty copy of Diablo around here somewhere, I skipped that whole process, and you should too. Instead, we’ll use an updated copy of Diablo courtesy of Good Old Games (GOG.com) and then supercharge it with a really awesome open-source project.
Instead of fussing with old CD-ROMs, ancient DRM, and scrounging the backwater of the internet for long abandoned patches, there is a much simpler way to play Diablo on a modern PC. Back in 2019, GOG reached an agreement with Blizzard to republish Diablo as part of its vast library of, well, good old games.
For a very reasonable $9.99, you can pick up a copy of Diablo that includes the base game, the wildly popular expansion Hellfire, and some bug fixes and support for modern screen resolutions.
Here are the versions you can play with the GOG-repackaged Diablo installation:
- Diablo — This version includes modern bug fixes, high-resolution screen support, and LAN-based multiplayer (with support for up to 4 players).
- Diablo (Classic) — This is the original Diablo frozen in time since 2001. It uses the original SVGA graphics, and you can still access Battle.net for old-school Diablo co-op pairing. You’ll even get a burst of nostalgia when the resolution resize shuttles your Windows desktop icons everywhere!
- Hellfire — This version stacks the updated Diablo with the Hellfire expansion. There’s no Battle.net access (or multiplayer at all), but it supports high-resolution monitors.
A quick word on Hellfire because it’s not just a great add-on, but it has an interesting story too. Hellfire is a non-canonical expansion pack to the original Diablo game created by programmers at Synergistic Software, a division of the game industry titan Sierra Entertainment, in November of 1997.
How did this cross-development-studio expansion come to be? Blizzard had opted to focus on Diablo II, rather than an expansion pack for Diablo. But at the time, Blizzard and Sierra were both owned, at the time, by an umbrella company Comp-U-Card Internationa (CUC). While Blizzard had strong opinions about where its energy should be focused, CUC executives didn’t want to leave the runaway success of Diablo on the table while waiting for an entirely new second game.
It seems almost incomprehensible in the modern game and copyright climate for one publisher to release an expansion pack for another publisher’s best-selling intellectual property (even with the backstory about the parent company calling the shots). But Sierra and Blizzard developers met and agreed on how the expansion should take shape and what the limitations were out of respect for the Diablo II development arc. Thus Hellfire became an official but non-canonical addition to the Diablo universe. (You can read more about this on the Diablo Wiki.)
The expansion pack includes two new dungeons, a handful of additional quests, extra game items, a bigger and tougher final boss, and some interface improvements. It also introduces the Monk character class, which rounds out the basic Diablo roster of Warrior, Rogue, and Sorcerer. Although Blizzard restricted the Sierra developers from including more than one additional class in Hellfire, a Bard and Barbarian class is tucked away in the code. (In the next section, we’ll discuss how to play those hidden classes without modifying any files.)
You could download Diablo from GOG and stop there, enjoying the GOG Diablo launcher, the improvements, and the bundled Hellfire expansion. But I hope you won’t stop there because it’s unbelievably easy to modernize Diablo for a vastly better player experience.
While the simplicity of just dropping ten bucks on the GOG Diablo pack is tough to beat, there is a Diablo modernization project you must check out if you’re at all serious about giving Diablo a run-through.
The secret sauce is DevilutionX, a port of the original Diablo game engine. DevilutionX isn’t the complete game—you still need either the original Diablo disc or the GOG download to access key assets. But it’s a completely overhauled way to run the game that introduces a laundry list of welcome improvements. If you want the full run down, check out the change log and the wiki manual, but here are some highlights.
With DevilutionX, Diablo now supports both LAN play using TCP/IP and ZeroTier for easy remote play without any firewall rules (and these improvements are extended to Hellfire too). I’d recommend sticking to LAN play or remotely connecting to friends you’ve pre-planned a Diablo game with, however, as random remote Diablo matchmaking is about as hit or miss as you’d expect.
The full-screen high-resolution support is vastly better than the GOG version too. The GOG version will stretch out your view for widescreen if you want, but the DevilutionX version will properly scale it in a completely natural way despite the game’s native 4:3 resolution.
Additionally, there are tons of bug fixes that smooth things over behind the scenes. You can also modify keybindings, use a gamepad, run in town (you have no idea how slow walking in town feels until you can run), and automatically pick up gold, potions, and gear. There are plenty of other quality-of-life improvements like numerical values for your health and mana, as well as an experience bar.
And there’s a stash! Officially, the stash function didn’t appear in Diablo games until Diablo II. Believe it or not, the “stash” in the original game was just chucking your stuff on the ground like you were running a perpetual Medieval yard sale.
Items didn’t despawn—so players would pile up their excess gear and potions in the empty spaces around town and go scavenging later. If that sounds awful, I can assure you it was. But it’s all we had, so we did it.
With DevilutionX, you can access your stash by talking to the townswoman Gillian. Not only will she hold your loot for you, but any gold you leave with her is accessible to any of the vendors in town, so you don’t have to carry it around. I know, I know, it sounds unbelievably archaic not to have a stash or a universal wallet, but remember Diablo came out last century.
But enough hyping DevilutionX, here’s how to take advantage of it on your Windows PC. First things first, you’ll need to install Diablo using the GOG installer so we can access those crucial assets. Without those assets, the port won’t work at all.
After installing the GOG version of Diablo, install the latest windows-x86_64 version of DevilutionX. It’s a portable app, so you merely need to extract the ZIP file to a location of your choosing.
Once you’ve extracted it, you must copy five key files from the Diablo installation directory to the DevilutionX directory. If you used the default GOG installation directory, all the files are located in
C:\GOG Games\Diablo\ .
The first file,
DIABDAT.MPQ , is found in the root of the install directory—this is the core Diablo game pack. The rest of the files,
hfmusic.mpq , and
hfvoice.mpq , are in
Copy all of them into the root directory where you extracted the DevilutionX files. When you’re done, the directory should have the five highlighted MPQ files, as seen below.
Here’s a fun bit of trivia about the MPQ file format. It’s a propriety file format used in Blizzard games named after former Blizzard company director and lead programmer Mike O’Brien. The file extension is a shortened version of “Mo’PaQ” which is a shortening of “Mike O’Brien’s Pack. ” The file type was developed for Diablo and used in all subsequent Blizzard games.
With your Mike O’Brien Packs in place, you can run
devilutionx.exe to launch the game. You can choose to play it as-is right out of the gate—a more or less vanilla experience with a properly scaled full-screen experience, bug fixes, and an improved UI and keybindings. Or, if you’d like, you can jump right into the settings before your first playthrough and toggle all those features mentioned above, like automatic gold pickup and more.
If you opt for the super-enhanced experience, don’t forget to toggle on the “Test Barbarian” and “Test Bard” options in the settings menu. This will enable the Barbarian and Bard classes for both Diablo and Hellfire (though the Monk class will only appear in Hellfire).
Older video games are often punishing in ways that surprise people unfamiliar with old game conventions and limitations, and Diablo is no exception. So rather than leave you to flail about, here are some solid beginner tips that will make picking up Diablo for the first time (or after 20+ years) a wee bit easier.
Talk to everyone. Quests are triggered by conversations. If you don’t talk to townspeople, you’ll wander around bored and pondering if you should look up a Diablo walkthrough. If it feels like nothing is happening, you didn’t talk to enough people.
Everything happens in town. You might be used to expansive modern games, but Diablo is more compact. The entire game takes place in the town of Tristam and the dungeons and catacombs under it. Don’t waste time trying to break free from the town to go galavanting about, all the action is close to home.
Poke around everywhere. There is a map when you’re in dungeons (hit the TAB key to engage the overlay). But the map only shows basic stuff like wall borders, doors, and stairways. Unlike modern games with active quest markers, Diablo requires you to poke around to find everything. Don’t overlook cracks in the wall or things that look out of place.
Save your game frequently. Quick save, when playing with DevilutionX, is F2. There are no auto-saves. If you forget to save for an hour and die, that’s an hour of progress lost. Super frustrating if you found a good weapon, as weapon drops are random.
Use choke points and terrain to hold enemies back. Although you never see it on the screen, Diablo uses a chess-board-like movement grid (possibly a remnant of the original early-development turn-based design). Enemies will come at you on this grid, and if you position yourself just outside a door frame or behind a sarcophagus, you can keep them from surrounding you.
Use town portals liberally. Always keep at least one town portal scroll handy. Without a town portal, you’ll spend an unbearable amount of time backtracking through levels you’ve already cleared. And if you’re roughed up, popping right back to town to visit the healer Pepin and buy more potions is a must.
Repair your gear. In the beginning, when you’re using basic loot you scooped off the dungeon floor spending money on repairs doesn’t make a lot of sense—the next wooden club or generic dagger is right around the corner. But as soon as you get better gear, pay attention to the durability and have Griswold the blacksmith repair it.
Don’t let Wirt hustle you. On the north side of town, there’s a young merchant named Wirt. He charges you 50 gold to see his newest and greatest find. But in the early game, it’s not even worth looking at because his loot is too expensive for you to buy.
Further, the item only renews if you buy the old one or go adventuring in the dungeons and level your character to an even-numbered level. Looking at his inventory ten times in a row hoping for something new will waste 500 gold for nothing.
Read the manual. It’s been ages since video games have come with extensive manuals, but Diablo hails from a videogame era when substantial manuals were part of the experience (and game designers expected you to read them). Sure, you could just read Diablo wikis online or Google random questions, but if you’re going all-in on the retro experience, you should check out the manual that comes packaged with the GOG download.
It’s nearly 80 pages of game instructions, tips, artwork, and extensive Diablo lore. It’s a relic from an age when game designers couldn’t possibly fit everything they wanted into the game itself and used supplemental materials to finish fleshing things out. If you take the time to read through the manual, you’ll see references and foreshadowing of things that happen over the next twenty years of the Diablo franchise.
In the end, if you finish the original Diablo, great. But if you don’t, even wandering around to visit the townspeople and a partial run-through paired with a look at all the lore in the old manual will give you an appreciation for the franchise (and all the little references and Easter eggs in the later games).