Published: Jan 29, 2018 10:16:04 AM

dmc4-box-ps3.jpgCool coats and motorcycle swords.

Hello! It’s me, professional internet storytelling expert, Alex Crumb. Today is the tenth anniversary of the million-selling PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 hard-action game, Devil May Cry 4, developed and published by Capcom.

I love this game. I drove an hour through a snowstorm to buy it and ran my car into a ditch on the return trip. A guy with a tractor pulled my car back onto the road. I played Devil May Cry 4 that afternoon with a white, imported Japanese DualShock 3 before they were available in the US. I guess that anecdote settles which date I ended up on certain watchlists!

Ten years? Wow! By my measure, absolutely everything and precisely nothing has changed in that time. Video games are still cool and video game players remain self-conscious about the comparatively uncool demeanor they must re-inhabit upon returning to the real world. That’s a  frustration I’m certain a lot of people share, but I’ll tell a story in a moment about how it’s not entirely true.

You’d imagine ten years is also enough time for video game players to notice the Devil May Cry series is a Japanese goth-rock remix-parody of western demon theology, and the series is decidedly not, like, Bob Dylan reading a passage from Paradise Lost at your dad’s funeral.

That prior joke contained twice as much conviction as the Devil May Cry series’ narrative integrity. That prior sentence explaining the joke is me gathering your attention for this statement: I love Devil May Cry to death. To put it academically, Devil May Cry is to God of War as David Bowie is to Vanilla Ice. I’d apologize for the deceptive ploy to get you onboard with this anniversary retrospective, but, man, I’ve got to compete with red circles, fat arrows, and block fonts over on the YouTube thumbnails. All I’ve got are words. Then again, there’s a zero percent chance anyone on YouTube has made a joke involving Bob Dylan and Paradise Lost while discussing Devil May Cry 4.

Hey! You’re in rarefied air! That’s what you get on Ghost Little, baby!

(Somebody, please create an original video montage of heck-hot, SSS-rank Devil May Cry action and I will narrate this article over it in the most dead-on, self-celebrating Dante voice. Now, let’s flock on to the birthday boy: Devil May Cry 4!)

Look, remember when Capcom announced DMC4 and everyone was upset that they weren’t playing as recurring series protagonist, Dante, despite the fact Nero, our new protagonist, looked a lot like Dante: The College Years? While we aren’t going to have a deep conversation about the game’s art design just yet, Nero flat-out looks like Dante’s younger brother. He looks roughly seven years younger than Dante. He looks like Dante concept art. (Knowing how long it takes to develop AAA video game content, especially in Japan, there’s a good chance Nero’s brasher, more youthful look began as young-Dante concept art.)

Since his arrival 10 years ago, Nero’s bristling, cruel demeanor has since become a unique factor within the Devil May Cry canon. He’s a powerful jerk, just like Dante. Unlike Dante, Nero hates being powerful. His power comes from a weird demonic infection secretly possessing his right arm—something the game’s narrative calls The Devil Bringer. This deformity frustrates Nero. Nero hides the affliction under an arm cast. Nero wants to be wanted. Nero wants a girlfriend. Meanwhile, Dante loves himself and hates people.

Dante is a reveler. Nero is a sadboy.

And yet, each character is a manifestation of the human trait we call “cool.” However, the point of this retrospective is to reveal just that: what it means to be cool is a product of the times (comma, man). Dante and Nero each possesses a unique style. With 10 years of hindsight, Dante and Nero are each as much Devil May Cry as the other. Why do I say that? Because coolness is a volatile currency, and we’re all just day traders.

part i: Devil May Cry 4 Is A Joke, On A Joke, On A Joke.

dmc4-jokes-small.gif

A Joke, circa 2008.

In 2008, hostility was coolness. Man, Nero was hostile. He was also a joke.

Uh-oh, was this Capcom being tongue-in-cheek again? Was Devil May Cry 4 director, Hideaki Itsuno, borrowing a familiar rhythm from human-blockchain and series progenitor, Hideki Kamiya, and quietly mocking his audience? Yeah. He was. All the Devil May Cry games are jokes (Except Ninja Theory’s oft-hated, loving cover-band modernization, DmC (5 out of 5 stars)). But, you see, Devil May Cry 4 is telling the same joke for a 2008 audience.

And, let me just add, wow, the joke becomes funnier 10 years later, thanks to the unceasing march of personal growth and a decade’s worth of perspective.

But Dante himself was a joke, too (comma, man).

The first Devil May Cry, released August 21, 2001 in North America, presented players with Dante, an affable, indifferent protagonist. DMC1’s Dante was flat-out annoyed to be a video game character. He got into childish shouting matches with self-serious bosses, be they lava spider, lightning bird, or armor knight. He quipped like a Japanese Duke Nukem. He wore red leather and dresses like a Manchester goth, because, like, dude, that’s a pretty funny look.

(I once lived in Scotland with a goth flatmate. She deliberately dressed like Kate Beckinsale’s character from the Underworld films and told me as such. She loved Dream Theater. She was one of the most bland people I met in all of the United Kingdom.)

the-cameron-haircut-1.gif

The Cameron Haircut, est. 1991

But nobody noticed how funny Dante’s fashion was because he owned the self-serious style, all the way down to his haircut, borrowed from Resident Evil 2’s Leon S. Kennedy (who borrowed the haircut from Titanic’s Jack Dawson (who borrowed the haircut from Terminator 2’s John Connor (oh no, James Cameron, what did you do to planet Earth?!))). Dante was an irreverent presence upon arrival in Devil May Cry. Hardcore game-likers loved him instantly. IGN gave DMC1 a score of 9.6! You have to remember that in 2001, The Matrix had just come out two years prior, and there was nothing cooler than black coats and two guns. Well, maybe red coats, two guns, and an electric freak-sword! The only way to become cooler than The Matrix was to be The Matrix, but more moronic.

By the time DMC3 arrived in 2005, Dante was literally Mad TV-style parodying The Matrix’s bullet-time dodges and surfing on rocket-propelled grenades. Like, don’t take DMC seriously for an atomic second, folks, or you will be thrown in the hole for bad behavior.

Video games were an old enough medium by 2001 for veterans developers with an eye toward tasteful self-mockery. Presenting: Devil May Cry, directed by Hideki Kamiya, the man who introduced the Resident Evil series to methamphetamines in 1998. You can rehab, but you never really kick it.

For a more overt text on the topic of “lol, video games,” Exhibit V is Hideki Kamyia’s Viewtful Joe (2.5 out of 5 stars).

For the David Lynch version of “lol, video games,” Exhibit G is Shinji Mikami’s God Hand (5 out of 5 stars).

For the final word on “lol, western video games,” Exhibit Q is Shinji Mikami’s Vanquish (4.5 out of 5 stars).

Whereas DMC’s 1 and 3 (nobody, not even me, has become cool enough to re-examine DMC2 yet) were jokes because they delighted in their video-game-ness, DMC4 is a joke because it’s a Devil May Cry game ~~~that ~~~isn’t ~~~funny.

Devil May Cry 4 is Weird Al Yankovic creating another act to parody his own parody persona before somebody else could parody him first.

In the parlance of substance abuser, Brick Pollitt, as played by Paul Newman in the film adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, “Yes sir, the click in my head that makes me feel peaceful.” Please, notice the joke in video games and the click will set you free.

It’s only game. Why you heff to be mad?

Bottom line: Devil May Cry 4 is an embarrassing college yearbook capturing your most carefree days.

How about instead of giggling and eating pizza while listening to death-rock out of a 1950s malt shop jukebox, like Dante in DMC3, Nero boy-shrieks in dead-serious rage alongside his ice-piss rap-rock? How about instead of familial spite motivating the character, like Dante in DMC3, Nero was motivated by a distaste for the current political / theological climate? How about instead of literally being upset the game’s love interest shoots him in the head, like Dante in DMC3, Nero threatens to FUCKING KILL the Pope for going near his girlfriend?

Yup. That’s funny. It’s funny because a child trying on an adult’s oversized pants and scuffling around the bedroom is always funny.

The more you examine the Devil May Cry series, the funnier DMC4 becomes. Because it’s a joke on itself. Every NPC Nero meets side-eyes him like he’s a substitute civics teacher, prying with both hands at the curious shell of hate surrounding this oh-so-serious character that’s wandered into their traditional Devil May Cry funhouse. With the advantage of hindsight, and with a guest-appearance by Dante himself in DMC4’s back half, once again giggling at all the slow-mo anime earnestness, DMC4 is now a living reminder that 10 years ago, your standard video game-liker observed himself as unmoored, hostile, and hopeless.

Devil May Cry 4 was more than happy to point out how lame that was.

“Hostility is never coolness,” Devil May Cry 4 said. “Not in 2008. Not ever.”

part ii: Die, Motherfuckers! Die, Motherfuckers! Die, Motherfuckers! Die! — Winter, 2005

I threw up a lot in the winter of 2005. I was a sophomore in college. I had nearly failed a class in the prior fall semester. I had appendicitis. The college health center misdiagnosed my symptoms and gave me milk of magnesia. I threw up again outside the health center and told them I’d walk to the hospital. Partway to the rugby practice fields down behind the art building, college security picked me up and drove me the rest of the way so a doctor could cut open my abdomen and remove the ruptured organ later that afternoon.

In January, I took one writing class that met three days a week. I wrote a story about medical patients hypnotized into believing they were in prison on a space station orbiting earth. I wrote a story about a group of people in mourning while a serial killer resembling their dead friend terrorized the city, garroting random victims with harp strings. I wrote a story about a gray-goo nanobot cloud that let you see God if you breathed it in.

The appendectomy surgery had caused my stomach muscles to atrophy. You could grab it like bread dough. During this time, I drank beer alone in my room, wrote on my laptop, did sit-ups, and played Devil May Cry. After a few weeks, I resembled a hairless pygmy werewolf. I never got as good at drinking as I did at Devil May Cry, writing, or sit-ups. I’m happy with the result, but I wasn’t invited out much, to say the least.

dmc1-nightmare3.gif

Devil May Cry, Nightmare 3, circa 2001.

With the knowledge Devil May Cry 3: Dante’s Awakening was coming in February, 2005, I was determined to finally beat DMC1 on the ultra-difficult Dante Must Die setting. Without total mastery over the combat’s minutiae, an extra-powered up character across multiple playthroughs, and awareness of items throughout the map, you’ll find the game impossible.

I arrived in the late-game living-hell dimension section with a decent loadout. This is where the third encounter with the Nightmare boss occurs. This is where terminology like charge-shots, DPS, Devil Bursts, and grenade launcher roll-cancels become mandatory. After each failed attempt, I did sit-ups, attacking the encounter with my mind like Jet Li fighting Donnie Yen in the film, Hero.

I determined it was a matter of always generating devil-trigger fuel. Always attacking. Always taunting the boss. Always dodging. Never ceasing. No wasted moments. It’s a heck of a video game, that DMC1, let me tell you.

After a week of trying, I found success. The Nightmare melted. I’d mastered Devil May Cry’s every nuance.

Look, there’s this part in the movie Office Space where the protagonists smash a broken printer in an empty field with a baseball bat. Here’s the scene, for reference.

“Die, Motherfuckers! Die, Motherfuckers! Die, MOTHERFUCKERS! DIE!!”

That was the first thing that passed through my mind and out my mouth upon finally defeating the Nightmare. Somebody passing in the hallway knocked gently on my door. She paused. I was quiet.

“Everything okay in there?” she asked with caution.

I was okay. I’d figured out how Devil May Cry worked. I’d seen the edge of the flat earth and filed the now-curved image into my brain’s solid state drive for future reference. DMC’s lesson was simple. It was a matter of keeping cool. It was a matter of style.

Always. Be. Stylin’.

But you must never be hostile. Because then you miss the joke.

part iii: How Stylish Will My Action Get?

Devil May Cry 4 is nearly the perfect role-playing game, by the loosest definition. Its modern cousin, NieR: Automata, is our blessed next evolution of what thorough, adventurous mathematicians imagined with their dice and paper.

To wit, Dungeons and Dragons was designed for a group of people who enjoy using imagination to manifest an adventure. Tools required:

  1. Graph paper
  2. Dice
  3. Monster manuals
  4. Time
  5. Fellow players / competition

Video game role-playing games provide players the opportunity to take similar systems into an audio / visual medium. Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy demonstrate how successful these adventures can become. Now, D&D and RPGs run on turn-based dice roll systems because the litany of potential actions your adventurer requires to survive couldn’t be processed in real-time on graph paper or inside an NES cart.

dragons-dogman.gif

Dragon’s Dogma, dir. Hideaki Itsuno.

Time’s passage has presented 1,001 action RPGs attempting to torch-weld Gygax’s monster manual onto a real-time video game fight-system. Devil May Cry is perhaps history’s most successful action-RPG series (except maybe Dragon’s Dogma, another game directed by DMC4’s Hideaki Itsuno). The DMC games escalate from simple sword swings and gunshots all the way up to demonic dimension-ripping laser-blasts in DMC4. These are done with button presses, never pausing, tasking players with innumerable nano-moments to manipulate their avatar to live, thrive, and survive.

Survival means point-scoring and character growth in Devil May Cry. The game’s systems grow as you grow.

Vital: mere existence and destruction of one’s enemies leaves you eeking out that existence of inglorious destruction. To grow in DMC, you must deliver in style and in variety.

The game’s mandate is quite literally: Become Cool Or Get Blasted.

The coolest role to play is an embodiment of hard, stylish action. An action game can still be solely about destroying your enemies and living to destroy the next enemy, such as in God Hand or Ninja Gaiden Black (5 out of 5 stars), but we aren’t talking about those games today.

(Although, the Xbox 360 version of Ninja Gaiden II (3 out of 5 stars) will be 10 years old in June, 2018. Shout me out in the comments if you’d like me to write 5000 words about Ninja Gaiden II later this year.)

Devil May Cry 4 achieved two heroic feats in its action game design.

Heroic Feat no. 1: DMC4 recognized the fun in power-smashing an enemy into the distance with a terrific blow in DMC3. But! It’s less fun to lope after your victim of choice to finish them off. DMC4 introduces the devil bringer technique to Nero. Hold R1 and circle and reel in the enemy by its short-and-curlies with your blue ghost-hand. Now what? Now, get creative. You’ve an entire language of attacks in DMC4 with verbs like push, pull, elevate, and condemn. You’re a comedian in Devil May Cry 4 and it’s your job to talk these idiots to death.

While we’re talking about comedy, let’s discuss DMC4’s motorcycle sword.

dmc4-motorcycle-sword.gif

The Devil May Cry 4 motorcycle sword.

Heroic Feat no. 2: Nero’s one and only melee weapon, the Red Queen, is a sword with a throttle and a clutch on its hilt. Okay, first, that owns. I love it. It’s aesthetically bonkers. It’s also integral to gittin’ gud at DMC4. Nero can rev the sword while it’s literally idling on his back like a piece of heavy-metal van-art. Once revved, you can cook any idiot in your way with an extra-powerful fire-slash, coupled with a jet-airplane / lion roar sound effect.

However, there is seemingly mysterious, analog subtlety to revving the Red Queen. In the jumble of Nero’s health and character data at the top of the screen, wreathed in decorative, ornate, wrought-iron jumbliness, is a tachometer indicating your sword’s RPMs. You need to either feather the R2 button to work up some steam on this mechanoid beast-blade, or you’ll need to Mario RPG-style timed-hit enemies to earn extra throttle power.

At peak levels, manipulating Nero and his full-throated throttle-sword is a ceaseless yellbox of fire and blue hands, magnetizing demonic marionettes right up into your shit before burying the needle like the transmission’s gonna drop to the pavement and cutting the black stuffing out their guts. All the while, technicolor weird words in slanted fonts catapult across the screen at a terrific, alphabetical speed:

Smokin'!

Atomic!

Brutal!

Carnage!

Dope!

Etcetera!

These style-hyping, sugar-fingered, nano-decisions show up all over DMC4 in many attacks and maneuvers for both Dante and Nero. Holding buttons. Swiveled sticks. Timed counterattacks. Bouncing enemies. Canceling attacks. It all serves the player’s ability to spice up what could’ve been demon-destroying mundanity into the goofbag yo-yo Olympics.

part iv: Time Enough, At Last

Devil May Cry 4 ramps difficulty like a video game should. It’s fine if a video game doesn’t demand a player’s total life-focus. After all, the ultra-competitive FPS and MOBA leagues transform players into hateful gatekeepers with stunted non-personalities fueled by bad politics and worse comedy, so how can we trust any game to inform a player’s sense of style and self? What was once escapism in 2008 has become culture by 2018 and our game-culture is omnipresent, thanks to technology. This means the coolest way to live, if you’re a hardcore game-liker, is to be hostile, all the time.

I reject professional PvP as the highest form of competitive video games. I believe Player Versus Environment (PvE) games like DMC4 ought to be praised with equally-high compliments because they are not simply a person against a video game world, they are you (and maybe some fellow adventurers) versus a team of design artists. Can you engage this haunted puzzle box of mood and trickery, developed for months and years, and discover just how many secrets the game’s creators have hidden within? Perhaps they’re governed by a interconnected death-maze of systems and background knowledge, like DMC.

dmc4-bloody-palace.gif

A haunted puzzle box of mood and trickery.

Perhaps the systems are dead-simple, like God Hand or VIDEOBALL (5 out of 5 stars), where your wits are your greatest asset (I realize VIDEOBALL is primarily a PvP game, just hang with me).

Look, the lesson of DMC4 is simple: if you can master this sort of hardcore action game and speak its language, you’ll have learned an entire Wikipedia’s worth of design comprehension snapping around that brain of yours AND you’ll also walk home with the intangible, priceless ability to notice system fixtures in lesser games. If you can play Devil May Cry games, you’ll earn the ability to not have to play other games that aren’t worth your time.

Devil May Cry makes you so much more than a dim light riding meat with feet.

After completing Dante Must Die, I noticed anything in a video game is technically possible. It taught me what to demand of games. It taught me which flaws I can accept in games and which I can’t forgive. It’s the cool confidence we embrace from Dante. When you recognize this, you can read a game and determine if you want to engage the game’s loop. Is the earned skill satisfying? Is the audio-visual feedback pleasing?

If so, weigh the experience against potential time spent and decide if you want more.

Devil May Cry teaches players to see the future and even paves the rainbow road leading there.

Devil May Cry taught me style is one thing, attitude is another. Loving one game does not mean hating another game and that mantra extends into reality. Loving DMC4 doesn’t mean I can’t love DmC: Devil May Cry, or Bayonetta (5 out of 5 stars), or Ninja Gaiden. That’s the joke. Revel in video games’ self-deprecating good-times, never be cynical, and be glad some psycho thought up the motorcycle sword.

-- Alex Crumb
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