Diablo’s Hardcore Mode Defined Indie Gaming’s Most Popular Genre

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A typical game of Diablo could start with the protagonist teleporting into a closed room and finding themselves in the middle of an elite pack of monsters. The creatures would then converge on the character, in many cases killing them. A journey that may well have lasted a week or more is reduced to an icon on the character select screen that simply reads “deceased,” all in an attempt to save the player from 25 seconds of extra walking.

Blizzard Entertainment’s Diablo II stands as one of the most iconic action RPGs of all time, its predecessor largely credited for inventing the genre. Both the game and its sequel Diablo III still feature fairly active communities. Among the series’ more intense features is the “hardcore” option, which activates permanent death, fundamentally changing the nature of the adventure. The mode was originally intended as an option for hardcore gamers that leaned into the challenge of survival, but the presence of hardcore strikes differently 23 years later. Thanks largely to the shifting landscape and identities of game genres, hardcore mode has transformed from a quirky challenge into one of the game’s most engaging features.

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A Brief History of Hardcore Mode in Diablo

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While the developers wanted a version of hardcore mode to exist as early as the first Diablo, back in 1996, the mode was first introduced in Diablo II with a simple disclaimer: “When a Hardcore character dies, it cannot be played again.” The expanded disclaimer in Blizzard’s rulebook adds even more gravitas, stating that the company “is not responsible for your hardcore character, no matter the reason, and choosing to play a hardcore character is done at your own risk.” This was aided by Diablo‘s overall tone and setting as an unforgiving world of terrible evils. The whole experience synchronized to truly impose a sense of terror into the player.

There was a clear atmosphere around hardcore mode at the time that made it feel like a high-risk investment, only meant for elite gamers willing to gamble it all for the sake of their bona fides. To confirm, there’s nothing different about playing the game in hardcore mode, except that players earn different titles for completing each difficulty, and they cannot respawn.

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How Roguelikes Made Diablo and Vice-Versa

<!–[if IE 9]> <![endif]–>Zagreus receiving a Dionysus Boon in Hades.

Long before Diablo, there was Rogue (1980), a turn-based adventure that had players on a quest to find the Amulet of Yendor while encountering different items and enemies each time. The game’s combined random encounter system and permadeath created a tantalizing combination of choices mixed with consequences. This formative gaming experience kicked off a wide range of imitators and innovators, still called “roguelikes” to this day, that all seek to capture the versatile experience in different ways. Among them was Diablo, a game looking to recreate Rogue‘s experience in a way that was more active and streamlined than other RPGs of the time. In the process, Diablo roughly invented the action RPG, which its successor Diablo II would popularize into a mainstay genre.

Diablo‘s unique gameplay had its share of appreciators from Titanquest to Champions of Norrath: Realms of Everquest, and eventually Path of Exile, but the revolution came with a new roguelike boom in the early 2010s with games like Spelunky, FTL: Faster Than Light and especially The Binding of Isaac. Each of those titles pumped new blood into the genre by following Diablo‘s example of pushing the limits of what the genre could be.

Over the last decade, roguelikes have kept only the bare essentials of what Rogue left behind — permadeath and random variance — and have embraced more active play patterns inspired by Diablo. This has led to a wave of prodigious entries like Hades, Risk of Rain, Dead Cells, One Step from Eden, Don’t Starve, and most recently Vampire Survivors, just to name a few. For many of these recent games, Diablo is cited as both inspiration and a description of play.

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Diablo’s Hardcore Mode Has Unique Advantages in the Modern Age

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Roguelikes have taken center stage as arguably the biggest emerging trend in gaming, and it’s not hard to see why. In the era of streaming, the promise of a game with an entire experience that can fit nicely into one to two sessions, changing every time, makes for a good spectator show. Path of Exile and Diablo have a tougher time on this front since they don’t really end, the goal becoming grinding endgame dungeons like an MMO. In this space, hardcore adds a precious dynamic.

With hardcore mode activated, Diablo transforms into a roguelike with the unique twist of being longer and more developed than almost any other. Diablo II is functionally a Hades run wherein each biome takes over an hour instead of several minutes, and there are technically 15 of them. It’s fun, in a stressful way, with relief only coming from defeating a zone’s final boss.

Diablo in hardcore mode is able to stretch the roguelike experience into a much grander adventure that keeps the player more invested in the outcome the longer it goes and keeps the game feeling fresh multiple decades later. Diablo IV is just around the corner and hardcore mode is confirmed for a comeback, so a fresh audience will get to experience the wonderfully stressful feeling of losing their favorite character 12 hours in.


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