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A History of Hack'n'Slash | From Golden Axe to Diablo IV

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A History of Hack'n'Slash | From Golden Axe to Diablo IV

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If the burglary statistics in my suburban town are to be believed, breaking doors to retrieve treasure is one of the most popular activities of human beings. This probably explains why hack'n'slash is almost as old as the video game and how a once disparaging term has come to mean a successful genre.

Like just about everything else that displays dragons and swords on a computer screen, hack'n'slash is a direct descendant of tabletop role-playing games. In fact, in 1980, in an issue of Dragon Magazine, the official journal of Dungeons & Dragons, we find the first certified occurrence of the expression: "There is great potential for more than hacking and slashing in D&D".

Along with other terms, such as grosbillism or minimaxing, it is associated with the very baston-XP-optimization (or, to put it more politely, "monster-treasure") approach to role-playing. Logically, it is used to designate the first action video games inspired by Dungeons & Dragons, like Golden Axe or Rastan. By extension, the term comes to describe any action game with vertical or horizontal scrolling in which you fight enemies with hand-to-hand weapons, like Ninja Gaiden. And in the upper echelons of "comparative videoludism" (i.e., at that time, the twenty-year-old nerds who tested games in the first specialized magazines), the term still has a pejorative dimension: when a game comes out that is more ambitious in terms of narrative, gameplay, or world-building, whether it's a Zelda or an Ultima, it's often compared favorably to the "hack'n'slash beasts" that, for their part, boil down to their combat and are meant for guys with more muscle in their fingers than in their brain.

Golden Axe

Trouble in the genre. In fact, when Diablo was released in 1996, the press did not consider it as a hack'n'slash but as a JDR, even going so far as to twist reality a bit to avoid recognizing that it was a silly click-boom-boom game. Trent Ward writes for Gamespot, for example, that while the warrior character "will appeal to fans of action games," the rogue and the wizard are "aimed at strategy fans. A mouse-controlled game, a real-time descendant of the ancient ASCII roguelikes (the most hardcore of computer role-playing games), which relied on a strict rule system rather than on the player's reflexes, could not be anything other than a variation, albeit a somewhat fight-oriented one, of Ultima.

Even the least hardcore of video game genres still has its snobs.
It took two events to give the term hack'n'slash its current meaning. First of all, the appearance of the term action-RPG, designating these descendants of immersive sims which, to varying degrees, from Daggerfall to Deus Ex, have been increasingly mixing role-playing game elements and real-time 3D universes, to such an extent that they have become the norm. To differentiate these games from the heirs of Diablo II, the latter needed a new name. The second was the release of Diablo II, which set in stone the codes of a new genre, from the ability to modify items by setting them with gems and runes to the division of the adventure into acts. Once again, the term hack'n'slash, this time associated for good with the games we know today by that name, served to distinguish, in a pejorative way, this genre of games from another considered richer: as "action" as they were, the Elder Scrolls deserved the beautiful name of RPG, while Blizzard's casinos were only vulgar hack'n'slash.


The quarrel of the hardcore and the modern. If the post-Diablo II hack'n'slash games have never really managed to break with their model, they have not stopped evolving. Some of the first big competitors tried to distinguish themselves by moving away from the dark fantasy and seriousness of their illustrious ancestor (Torchlight). Others abandoned random generation in favor of a huge world created by hand by the developers (Titan Quest). But it wasn't until Diablo III (2012) that the first real breakthrough occurred, for better or for worse.

Until now, hack'n'slash, lacking particularly deep or punishing gameplay, relied most of its difficulty on character building. The knowledge of effective builds was the key to recognizing a good player, and most skill choices were either final or, at the very least, required great sacrifices of time or gold coins to undo. Blizzard, with its experience with MMOs, decided to break away from this punitive nature and push the logic of incremental play even further by creating a game in which it was not only impossible to regress, but also where no choice was final. The release of the Reaper of Souls expansion in 2014 further hammered the point home by definitively breaking away from one of the last elements imported from traditional role-playing games: the "dirigiste" narrative. No longer did one need to follow a story, one could now simply teleport from one place in the world to another to grind for experience and items, with a free difficulty level allowing one to adjust the level of difficulty (and rewards) to the desired experience.

But even the least hardcore of video game genres still has its snobs, and some, especially among Diablo II fans, have criticized Blizzard's new game for breaking with the complexity (sic) of traditional hack'n'slash. It was among them that the excellent Path of Exile built its success, overplaying both the fidelity to the old Blizzard canon and the complexity, with one of the most complex active and passive skill systems in video game history. For the first time, a hack'n'slash was deemed unworthy of the name because of its over simplicity. Times are changing.

Opening image: Diablo II: Resurrected Blizzard Entertainment


Diablo 1

Titan Quest

Diablo 2

Diablo 3

Path Of Exile
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