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Diablo: Alpha 1
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Date: February 1996 and earlier

The earliest Alpha1 material is from February 1996 or earlier. While we do have screenshots as old as November 1995, these were most likely all mockups created by Blizzard for promotional purposes. The first actual gameplay screenshots with the first interface seem to appear in 1996.
Originally Diablo was supposed to be a turn based game, like the old Rogue/Hack/Moria style games of early computer RPG days. After several months into development, people from Blizzard Entertainment suggested to Condor/Blizzard North to switch from turn based to real time gameplay. Initially there was a heated debate at Blizzard North as they wanted to stick to their turn based concept and switching to real time would require heavy changes to the gameplay engine. However, David Brevik changed the code and everybody loved the new gameplay. That's how the action RPG "Diablo" we know today was born.
The screenshots below are from the old turn based version. You will see red and yellow cursors, supposedly meant for movement and targeting enemies for attack.
  • Alpha1-Idle

    Because of the low quality and rarity of Alpha1 shots, the splitting of screenshots into two Alpha1 builds is a little bit risky, but it seems likely that there were multiple versions. The "Idle" build can be differentiated by several features. First is the stance of the player character. We know that in the dungeon, the player character will assume a different stance than in town, but a few shots show the player character in the idle town stance everywhere. Second are the selected spells, which are always "Firebolt" and "Healing", different from the other shots. We also don't see the light armor sprite in any of these shots. It's a little bit difficult to tell, due to the number and quality of the shots, but it seems the hit points are at the same level in the shots we have, but it might be a coincidence. Also, this version always has lighting in the dungeon, while other Alpha1 shots don't. We're unsure which version comes first. While these shots appeared quite early, some shots of the other version (although not a lot) appeared at the same time or earlier.
  • Alpha1-Action

    These shots seem to be the same build at first glance, but here the player character is in the proper action stance when he's in the dungeon. The other indicator are the selected spells, which are always "Firebolt" and "Lightning" and the absence of lighting.


We can see that four of the five tilesets (Town, Cathedral, Catacombs and Caves) are already implemented. Until retail, they will be changed slightly. Strangely enough, the Hell tileset won't be in the game AFTER the pre-release demo, shortly before the Beta, making it seem like an afterthought.


Facts:
  • From the beginning of development to the end of Alpha1 eight months have passed. After that the game switched to the real-time Alpha2.
  • The initial game was supposed to feature claymation models, but that idea was quickly abandoned in favor of pre-rendered 2D sprites
  • No line of sight yet. Enemies behind solid walls could easily be seen by the player
  • Since the game was turn based, the action didn't need to always center around the main character and the player could move the screen, resulting in a lot of shots where the players character is off center
  • The interface is completely different from later versions of the game
  • The Warrior class was originally names "Fighter" as can be seen in several screenshots. In Alpha2 we see the renaming to the Warrior class name, which remained until the retail version.
  • No transparency in the dungeon yet
  • Note that off-center screenshots are likely to be Alpha1, but are no guarantee, as the feature to move the screen was still present in later versions



About early dungeon layouts:
In almost all early versions you will see dungeon formations that seem kind of different from what we can see in the retail version. This is because the level randomizer has been changed a number of times during development. At one point the level generation seems to have been completely redone. Most likely some time before the pre-release Demo but after the Alpha3. This is how we think the dungeons were generated until Alpha3: (note that these observations only apply to the Cathedral levels)
  • 100% map usage: Dungeons in these versions always use 100% of the available map space to fill with rooms of various sizes and shapes. From the pre-release demo forward, we will see more unused space in dungeons
  • Less fixed elements: The pre-release/beta/retail dungeons are made up of connected premade rooms, trying to fill the whole map as best as possible. Here it seems like there are very few premade rooms or elements. The butcher's chamber is one of the elements, as are later elements as the tile formation we see from time to time until Alpha3. Another regularly used element seems to be a very long corridor. While this seems to still appear in the new level generator, it is far less flexible with solid outer walls and only two exits. Here, there can be archways, doors etc. at the outer walls. Even the stairs to the upper level/town can spawn in this corridor. The big four column room also seems to exist at this point
  • 100% square: Of course the pre-release+ dungeons are also more or less square, I'm almost 100% certain that dungeons up until Alpha3 were always a perfect square with each tile utilized, this is further strengthened by the next point
  • Outer walls! In a lot of the Alpha1-3 screenshots you will encounter wall tiles that are no longer used in the retail version. The reason for that is them being the outer walls of the square dungeon. While the old dungeon generator filled the empty square dungeon with rooms, the new one creates a square dungeon by connecting premade room elements. Since these elements don't utilize the outer wall tiles, we don't see them anymore, except for one rare occurrence in Leorics Tomb
  • I'm not sure which version I prefer. On one hand, the early dungeon seems more random and thus maybe more interesting. Also more space is being used, making the levels effectively bigger. On the other hand, this method might have had issues with dead ends and disconnected rooms. Also it might have been "too" random, resulting in very repetitive gameplay. Having more fixed elements also allows for slightly better looking room layouts instead of just square room after square room
  • Since we never see the automap until much later in development, this is all still slightly speculative, but a lot of screenshots support this theory

Alpha1 - Idle


Fighter in Town

  • The Fighter is standing at the original starting point for new characters, which was in front of the tavern. Soon Ogden will move into the Blacksmith shop, but the starting point won't change until Ogden takes over the tavern
  • While the town map seems complete at this point, NPCs seem to be absent for now. With no NPCs, we can assume that there was little to no story or quests yet
  • The selected spells are Firebolt and Healing with the Fighter wearing medium armor and the health being at roughly 40%
  • No targeting cursor is visible



Fighter in Cathedral

  • The fighter is standing in the dungeon, but in the passive town-only idle stance.
  • Lighting is enabled, transparency is off, the selected spells are again Firebolt and Healing and the hitpoints are again at about 40%
  • The Zombie type enemy and an Overlord are present in this shot. At this point the Overlord is just called "Fat Demon"
  • The light radius seems unusually high. The default value will be lowered in later versions
  • Note there is no targeting cursor again
  • The dungeon formation looks like the typical big four column room, but you can see a small difference to the later version: The small corridor connecting to the next room in the west is shorter than in the retail version, three instead of four columns
  • Screenshot variant: It is of higher quality, but missing the interface



Fighter in Cathedral, Butcher's Chamber

  • We don't see the interface, but with the idle stance and lighting and the fact that this shot appeared in the same issue as the shots above, is suggesting it's the same version
  • Early version of the Butcher's chamber, which will receive a number of iterations in later versions
  • Again, no targeting cursor, suggesting this version didn't use them (yet? anymore?)



Alpha1 - ?


Fighter in Cathedral

  • You can see an Ice Stalker corpse next to the stairs
  • This shot defies all logic as it combines elements of both Alpha1 versions and introduces new ones not seen anywhere else
  • We have lighting, which would make it an Alpha1-Idle shot
  • We also have a targeting cursor, which could move it into the Alpha1-Action category
  • There is a lighting type spell being cast, probably by the player. This suggests the second selected spell is NOT Healing but Lightning. So Alpha1-Action?
  • What puzzles me is the player sprite. It doesn't seem to match ANY frame used in the later versions. This is extremely odd, since all other screenshots on this website are using animation frames still present in the retail. Except this shot!
  • So where do we stand with this shot? It might be possible that the Idle version is using an old, outdated, animation set. While it does have a targeting cursor, this particular cursor isn't used in any of the other Alpha1 shots
  • The quality of the shot is extremely bad, which makes identifying the character sprite slightly more difficult
  • If someone has any ideas about this shot, any speculation is welcome



Alpha1 - Action


Fighter in Cathedral

  • This is a typical Alpha1 screenshot and actually one of my favorites as it was the first pre-release shot I saw which motivated me to work on this website
  • Almost all "Alpha1-Action" features are visible: Off center character, "Fat Demon" enemy, no line of sight, no lighting, Firebolt and Lightning selected, old dungeon tile graphics, turn based cursor, weird dungeon formation and no transparency
  • We can see how the message log works: You kill an enemy and it gives you a message with the enemy name. Then in the next like you can see the experience gained from killing the enemy, your level and the total experience. We can clearly see the two Fat Demon corpses on the floor represented in the log by the two "+9 EXP" messages



Cathedral

  • This is another typical Alpha1 screenshot. A few differences to the previous shot:
  • The big yellow targeting cursor is shown, which doesn't explain exactly how it's used, but maybe when (due to a lack of transparency) the regular cursor is obstructed by a wall, this cursor is used instead
  • The character is level 1 and killed his first two enemies (two Ice Stalkers, 10EXP each). I have no idea why he is in this room, seemingly starting this level, but there's no way to town. This also shows that the level 1 fighter might have started with medium armor. Unfortunately there are also later "Fighter" shots with light armor, so this doesn't tell us much
  • You can see the northern border of the dungeon level and the old brazier flame sprite as well



Cathedral

  • Not much to see here except for a character in light armor using a bow
  • Also a good example of the old dungeon generator with the eastern wall being visible and the stairs spawning in the long corridor
  • Screenshot variant: It is the same shot, but in perfect quality. Unfortunately without the interface



Cathedral

  • Typical Alpha1 shot
  • Screenshot variant: Higher quality with the interface missing



Cathedral

  • It's a bit of a mess,but the character is swinging an axe at the enemies, killing an Undead Captain
  • Screenshot variant: Higher quality, without interface



Cathedral, Butcher's Chamber

  • This was the first shot we originally had where we could identify the removed enemy "Ice Stalker"
  • You can see the experience gained was reduced heavily and quickly at higher levels. At Level1 an Ice Stalker gave 10XP while at Level4 it's reduced to 3
  • A hidden is (de-?)cloaking just above of the butcher's chamber



Cathedral

  • Not a super interesting shot, but one with a funny anecdote: This shot was sent to magazines by Blizzard with the graphical error you can see in the interface bar on the bottom. It was printed like that by several magazines with the glitch present
  • Screenshot variant: Slightly higher quality, without interface. Probably removed by the magazine due to the damaged image file



Fighter in Catacombs

  • Rare Alpha1 Catacombs shot, showing the character stats and class name (Fighter)
  • Unfortunately he is wearing light armor and shooting a bow, making a huge dent in the armor/character class theory
  • Fakeshot: Very interesting as it was also used by Blizzard but had the yellow rectangle removed, probably for aesthetic reasons. This is very unfortunate, because it quite makes the identification of some otherwise clearly Alpha1 shots very difficult, if not impossible



Fighter in Caves

  • Strangely enough we have more Caves shots of Alpha1 than Catacombs. The caves would not show up again until a later Alpha3 build
  • One feature that's standing out is the different lava tileset. This would be an excellent way to identify other shots, but unfortunately we don't have later lava shots with a visible interface
  • Balancing is obviously still quite different with the character in light armor fighting Illusion Weavers and Burning Dead on the same level in the Caves, a scenario that's quite impossible in retail



Fighter in Caves

  • A very nice screenshot, only a little bit ruined by the watermark
  • Without the interface (which is often removed in Alpha1 shots of high quality) we would have a lot of trouble identifying this shot as it doesn't have the yellow targeting cursor, which has probably been removed manually



Caves

  • A rare occurrence of the red cursor beneath an enemy. Possibly the yellow cursor was used for navigating/walking and the red one was used for combat
  • Previously we didn't have this shot with an interface, but we found a screenshot in a magazine that had a number of Alpha1 shots with a fake Alpha2 interface, but the correct message box text pasted into the new interface. It was the weirdest thing. So we recreated the original shot, which we know to be Alpha1, with the Alpha1 interface and the message box text supplied by the magazine
  • So this shot isn't 100% original, since we don't know the exact health/mana values for sure, but it should be very very close to the original, as there is no doubt about the interface version and message box content



Caves

  • Business as usual with this very nice early screenshot
  • Fakeshot: Blizzard tried to hide their ugly cursor



Pre-Alpha - Mockups etc.


Town

  • This shot isn't special, except for the date which is most likely around November of 1995, earlier than any other screenshots released
  • It was released in a german magazine along with a bunch of promotional renders and a clearly very early mockup screen, leading me to believe that this is also possibly a mockup



Mockup

  • This is a very nice Dungeon mockup from 1995. We can see the northern and western dungeon walls and the unusual floor tile formation inside a cross shaped room
  • The room wasn't used in later versions, but the floor tiles were
  • We can see a number of enemies that will later appear on much later levels in the dungeon
  • No player character is visible
  • This is a very early version of the game (or just the sprites) as the skeletons don't have a shadow yet. Since all Alpha1 shots have skeletons with shadows and the shadows are part of the sprite, this must be pre-alpha material
  • There are two different shadow colors on the enemies in this shot


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Miscellaneous pre-Alpha images from different early sources. Not super exciting, but relevant for archival purposes nonetheless.