The rose-coloured glasses of nostalgia can be a pain at times. We cling to things that were central to our development into the people we are today, always looking back on them fondly with an air of sanctity. These things can be anything: a television show, a series of books, or specific memories of bonding shared with a certain person over certain activities. Detached from any of these things inherent measurable quality, we will always have nostalgia to inform our particular affections towards them. Nostalgia is not only something that everyone is guilty of, it is used too often as a tissue-thin shield by the gaming community for whenever certain creative license is taken with an established IP.
These endeavors have generally been in bad taste. Michael Bay’s Transformers movies jettisoned any charm from the 1980’s animated show for pointless flash and spectacle. Another Michael Bay project, the infamous Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles reboot that fell apart, was destroyed by fans when it came to an allegedly leaked script that was met with massive disapproval. The Joel Schumacher Batman movies still live on in Internet infamy as being colorful and campy compared to the more mainstream accepted dark, gothic aesthetic. Even games aren’t safe with the likes of DOOM 3, Metal Gear Solid 2, the Mass Effect 3 Ending Controversy, and the many insufferable Tomb Raider reboots. The list goes on.
It’s almost part of some sinister pattern. Something comes out, everyone loves it, warts and all. They believe that this piece of media will stand the test of time. It was perfect in its own special way that certain ongoing elements of inconsistency or flaws are overlooked. Then a continuation of this piece of media happens that either attempts to take its scope or traits into a new direction that the newly minted fans condemn because it isn’t what they remember. Eventually the only way to keep the brand alive is to effectively start over. The dreaded reboot. The idea that the thing enjoyed by many will now be chopped to pieces, something that was beautiful and righteous and great, and reassembled into a pale shadow of what it once was.
The issue with this illusion of media revisionism is the idea that the piece of media in question was truly great and didn’t need to start over. Is that objectively true or is it a product of nostalgia? The most indicative example of the latter in my opinion is the amount of bellyaching and dismissal by many of Capcom’s reboot of Devil May Cry. That the demon slayer, Dante, was already a perfectly capable and well-rounded person with great struggles complimented by eternally engaging conflicts of complexity and depth. Try taking off the glasses of nostalgia for a moment and you’ll see that how such a radical breaking down of the Devil May Cry series into a reset button alternate universe isn’t the destruction of something great, but a possibility for rebirth.
When Capcom first released Devil May Cry 1 in 2001, the team at work was originally tasked with making a Resident Evil game after the success of RE 2. The issue was that the director, Hideki Kamiya, had a radically different philosophy to the project compared to the series’ take on Survival Horror, that Devil May Cry became its own intellectual property.
If this is taken into account, it paints the structure of the first game immensely. Dante is a demon killer tasked by a mysterious benefactor to fight an entire island full of hellspawn and to prevent the rise of a dark god. There is a mansion on the island, a thunderstorm happens halfway through the game, and if it weren’t for the hack-and-slash swordplay and Dante’s signature twin pistols that never run out of ammo, one could easily mistake the game as a bizarre mashup of Resident Evil with a big scoop of old school DOOM.
This was experimental gameplay that ultimately became the foundation for skill based action games such as God Hand and Viewtiful Joe, and for a first effort it is to be commended. However, the real loss of DMC 1 is how it handled Dante as a character. Revealed throughout the game, Dante is the half-demon son of a rebellious devil called Sparda, whose human mother was killed by the forces of Hell. Hence a justification for vengeance in his hobby. A pretty rote backstory for a late 90s/ early 2000’s “badass” supernatural character, but it works. However, the gameplay was so energetic and full of charm that a disconnect grew between the player controlled Dante and the authorially controlled Dante. During gameplay, Dante was a confident force of nature, capable of adapting to and overcoming his obstacles. In cutscenes, the tone shifts almost immediately to dark introspection and melodramatic angst.
The greatest example of this weird disconnect is near the very end of the game, where the main character of Trish appears to have died in Dante’s arms. In the cutscene he holds her close and bellows in tears, “I was the one who was supposed to fill your dark soul with LIGHT!!” This was a character Dante only just met, and the reason for such a hamtastic line was that she reminded him of his mother. Then ten seconds later, Dante grows demon wings and takes off for an aerial battle against the final boss. For all of Devil May Cry’s contributions in terms of gameplay experimentation, with hindsight its characters are well explored cliches and the dialogue can be nails-on-a-chalkboard annoying.
Devil May Cry 2, released in 2003, is another example of tonal inconsistency. The majority of the series’ fans don’t even acknowledge this game’s existence, and for good reason. Dante has now changed from being a melodramatic vengeance seeking anti-hero to a soft-spoken moody plot device. Hacking and slashing his way through repetitive environments and recycled enemies in order to stop some corrupt affluent business man who has control over demonic powers as well as a hand in illegal genetic experiments. From a gameplay perspective DMC 2 suffers immensely, and from anything in terms of characters doubly so. Any enjoyment gleamed from the gameplay is immediately quashed by Dante’s actions in cutscenes, still painting him as a detached force of nature.
Outside of guest appearances in Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne and the Playstation 2 version of Viewtiful Joe, Dante stayed out of the spotlight until Devil May Cry 3 in 2005. It is considered by many to be the best of the Devil May Cry games, and its hard to disagree. The hack-and-slash gameplay is absolutely top notch, the enemy and level variety keeps things fresh, but above all, Dante finally works as a character. As mentioned before, Dante is meant to be taken immediately from a visual level as a competent demon fighter, as opposed to the soapbox antics of DMC 1 or the taciturn nihilism of DMC 2. In DMC 3, billed as a prequel to the original, the development team seemed to have one goal with Dante: go campy or go home.
Dante in Devil May Cry 3 is a young punk who knows what he is capable of and revels in it, bridging the gap between his actions as a character with the input of a player. When the opening sequence of a character is a high tension kung-fu fight sequence where he is eating pizza and using his guns to ricochet billiard balls in mid-air to kill a bunch of demons, which then leads into level one where you as a player add to that Hong Kong style absurdity, something has gone terribly right. Also, in terms of plot, there is a rivalry with his brother Vergil, who is planning on taking over the world by summoning a giant tower of evil. All of which ends in Dante standing up to protect humanity against Vergil’s desire for power and dominance. A standard form of conflict made bearable by the entire presentation being energetic and done with a cheeky wink and a nod.
DMC 3 isn’t Shakespeare, but it manages to keep the series’ tendency for elaborate fighting and creative monster design and make it palatable with embracing the level of cheesiness of the whole production. The problem, unfortunately, is that that same manic energy that helped elevate Devil May Cry 3 into an interactive B-Movie becomes the series’ undoing.
Devil May Cry 4 in 2008 ramps up the camp to the point of nausea. It also doesn’t help that this installment tried to focus on a new character called Nero, someone who plays straight man to an ostentatious comic relief Dante to save the world from an evil threat. Dante at this point has become a self-parody, a mere shadow of his former self. No longer a straight-faced warrior or an energetic rebel with a wink and a nod, but a jokester, taking a back seat in his own series.
Looking back now with further examination, the sacred greatness that was the character of Dante and Devil May Cry that is being unceremoniously restarted might just be what the franchise needs right now. The half-demon who fights to save the world was something edgy and unexpected around twenty years ago and the trope is now tantamount to the norm. In terms of original gameplay, many subgenres have formed from Devil May Cry’s beginnings, the most prevalent being God of War and the more recent Ninja Gaidens. Also in terms of a consistent tone or style, the originals aren’t exactly cut from the same cloth. From a shaky start with Survival Horror overtones, a second outing that has been socially wiped from consciousness, a third installment that finally finds its beat only to overdo it on the fourth time out doesn’t exactly read as something confident in its own steps.
So what is in store for Devil May Cry’s massive mulligan? The big change is in the development studio. Capcom isn’t working on this title in-house, but is outsourcing to the UK-based studio, Ninja Theory, creators of the serviceable Heavenly Sword and the massively underrated Enslaved: Odyssey to the West. If it weren’t for Ninja Theory’s background in creating solid action titles notable for hack-and-slash gameplay, as well as solid writing, this would be cause for alarm.
What may be cause for some concern is what this will mean for the tone of the game. Japanese and Western development studios have very different design philosophies that always influence the final product in one way or another. Of course, this change in thinking can only benefit the final product from such uneven ground.
Case and point: the new setting and the new Dante. Dante is now comfortably a flippant punk who can back up all of his sarcasm and rebellious sensibilities with skill, usually provided by the player. The half-demon son of a devil with a heart of gold backstory has been dropped. Dante is now nephilim, a half-demon half-angel child, complete with the powers and abilities that come with it. A small change that now has the potential for conflict and even characterization of what could have easily been an excuse to rehash Dante as a static “badass” cliché.
The new world to which Dante will be spending his adventure is also worthy of examination. It’s a world in which demons have taken over and now rule over humanity by creating a false reality, complete with brainwashing media outlets, venomous food and drink, and a rigged hierarchy with which the Demon King holds all the cards. The result is a bizarre visual mashup of Constantine and the John Carpenter film, They Live.
In short, this new reboot has all the pieces of something great. Dante remains at the core of what players liked about him, but with some new pieces added that might stick. The setting maintains a solid, if heavy-handed, punk-style outlet for the narrative. But, most importantly, it has a solid sense of identity, change of studio notwithstanding. Whether or not this potential is realized remains to be seen.
Reboots and nostalgia mix together like oil and water. Too often, we protect something of which we have fond memories. But, if such a scenario like the re-imagining of Devil May Cry can happen, it bares the question of whether or not that nostalgia can be unfounded or misplaced. Furthermore, can a second chance make something nostalgic greater and more enduring?