The character action genre is hard to fully define considering how wildly different one title can be from the next, but it largely comes from the stylish combat defined by Capcom’s 2001 milestone, Devil May Cry. DMC’s action design was so strong that it could seamlessly transition between melee and ranged combat, where you can launch an enemy into the air with your sword and juggle them with gunfire. These fast fights are made from a simple yet complete moveset that works well at different distances. Director Hideki Kamiya translated hack ‘n slash games and brawlers into three dimensions, emphasizing twitch action and fair but challenging difficulty by imbuing it with fighting game mechanics and systems that grade your performance in real time. It offers players the means to create spectacular combat sequences where the goal isn’t just to defeat your enemy but to stylishly wreck them.
To understand how it all came together, we have to look at DMC’s family tree.
Devil May Cry is one of the most important things to evolve directly out of Resident Evil, but The Legend of Zelda’s heart beats in its chest. As game planner on RE and director of RE2, Kamiya had been translating A Link to the Past’s lock-and-key structure into 3D, using its iconic haunted mansions with sequentially locked doors to direct the player. Months after RE2’s 1998 release, Nintendo’s own Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time revolutionized third-person 3D combat with its Z targeting system that focused Link on a single enemy. Ocarina defined what sword fighting, and action in general, could be in 3D. Integrating Z targeting into Resident Evil made sense, especially after that series’ continued revisions resulted in Onimusha: Warlord’s feudal Japanese katana slashing, which further turned Resident Evil into Zelda. Team Little Devils, Kamiya’s group within Capcom Production Studio 4, smartly combined all this and put both Resident Evil’s guns and Onimusha’s sword at the player’s fingertips.
Giving Dante’s ranged and melee attacks their own separate buttons created the foundation for a new, energetic type of action game whose speed and control make it cool to watch, but what’s surprising about studying Devil May Cry is that classic Resident Evil’s placed camera shots are vital to the combat. Ocarina’s changing, subjective lock on camera shifts the player’s view behind Link’s back so you’re always looking at what he is, resulting in methodical combat. But Resident Evil’s static, objective camera scheme gives the player the same view no matter where the character on screen is looking, so adding Z targeting lets the game change targets quickly and increase the overall game speed. Add full analog control and the ability to jump and Dante is equipped to engage half a dozen enemies at once. And as with RE, DMC’s cinematic camera angles lend it a movie-like quality, further showcasing how deeply it carries the 2D brawler spirit.
Team Little Devils understood how to put an action game together, using core fighting mechanics to build out the gameplay. The launchers, the juggling, the aerial follow ups, it’s all straight out of fighting games, and with its emphasis on quick strikes and fast animations, well represents the linkable combat Capcom had excelled at for the previous decade, both in 2D and 3D. A few simple combo strings flesh out the fighting, and the ease with which Dante transitions between ground and aerial combat made it feel buttery smooth. Battles are fast and tight, and the physics have a good sense of weight, lending to tactile strikes. This is all complemented by special attacks whose more complicated button inputs can only be accomplished thanks to the R1 targeting keeping all movement relative to your foe, snapping the player onto a straight, 2D plane with the enemy like any other fighting game.
Interestingly, Dante’s stinger is the 3D equivalent of one of the most important fighting game special attacks: the shoryuken. Like that famous Street Fighter move, the stinger has no startup frames of animation and a long recovery time. In DMC, Holding R1 then moving towards your enemy and attacking zips Dante forward, sword pointed out. The move is a good way of clearing distance, but the time it takes for the animation to stop so you can get back to sword swinging leaves you open to attacks from the back and sides. This blunt attack knocks back weak, low-poised enemies or interrupts a mid-tier foe’s attack so you can continue your combo while they are staggered. Stinger is an amazing special that, like the shoryuken, is too easily abused so benefits intentional, controlled use.
Hack ‘n slash games and brawlers have some important differences in combat styles, but DMC is able to emulate both well; Your sword Alistor is soon joined by the flaming gauntlet Ifrit, whose chargeable punches and kicks complement and contrasts the sword’s swings. Rather than Alistor’s dropping aerial slash, Ifrit gets a diagonal dive kick; instead of the double jump, he gets a fire spin. As simple as Alistor and Ifrit are, combined they offer a complex set of moves and can be quick swapped between by clicking R3. Unfortunately, the weapon swap animation is long enough that it keeps the combat from being truly seamless but at least forces you to choose your weapon wisely. Regardless, the animation sets of these two weapons, one hack and slash and the other brawler, represent the union of both classic genres.
Now Dante may not be that maneuverable, but he excels at keeping close quarters with his enemies. His evasive roll offers great escapability from the fray and his jump allows him to reposition quickly. As the combat is about working in small places, Dante needs to constantly be reacting, predicting, and manipulating every engagement. Learning to position so that every strike hits multiple enemies is crucial to taking groups out quickly. Devil May Cry’s combat applies a ton of pressure into small areas, perfect for fighting through Resident Evil’s iconic mansion structure with different sized rooms and tight hallways.
If creating stylish, dynamic combat is a game’s primary mission, it needs a comprehensive idea of what that entails and the means to show off. Dante is cool because his moves are cool because Dante is cool. DMC knows that fluid, action-forward gameplay is cool and that blocking just slows things down. It knows that you want to see impressive looking moves done smoothly, so the early puppet enemies don’t present much of a fight and are easy to perpetually keep stunned, letting you see your graceful moves play out. Later enemies have more complex behaviors that complement each other, at which point you are skilled enough to link your moves in cool, dynamic ways.
Devil Trigger is a great implementation of classic berserker systems, increasing Dante’s speed and stats and granting additional moves and abilities depending on which melee weapon you’re using. At first, DT acts as a get out of jail card, refilling your life and increasing defense, the kind of thing you hoard until you need it. But as you increase the length of the gauge and prolong the time you get it, you learn to regularly add Devil Trigger to your combat flow, smartly switching it on and off when the enemy is vulnerable or to break down their defense. This is beautifully expressed in the skirmishes against Nelo Angelo, where you can trip up his offense by interrupting his attacks and control the fight beat for beat.
Like in life, confidence is the key to conquering Devil May Cry. Once you understand what you are capable of, battles become fast and brutal. Because it has a relatively simple moveset consisting of about a dozen total attacks, each strike is given more importance and does quite a bit of damage. You will learn to control situations, when to turn your focus from slashing the fool before you to unloading a shotgun blast to the one behind. The high damage means fights are decided quickly and dominating the playfield could end it in a minute. DMC summons that Zen state that only the best arcade games can. And with every improvement you make, you get closer to reaching that sexy “Stylish” rank.
Resident Evil has long had colorful boss battles against large “supernatural” creatures and they translated well into Devil May Cry. A good boss’s attacks should echo the player’s moveset, and the magma arachnid Phantom, swordsman Nelo Angelo, winged Griffin, and gelatinous Nightmare all challenge your abilities. They work in logical ways and create dynamic combat situations. DMC’s depth can be seen in the Phantom fights, where his fireball can be knocked back at him for massive damage, he can be mounted to unleash attacks from his back, and, in the second fight, can be tricked into jumping through a glass skylight to impale himself. Elements like these show that Devil May Cry was born from an arcade mindset that built games with practical depth and replayability.
Speaking of arcades, Mallet Island’s level structure is straight out of classic 2D action titles, twenty three goal-driven missions with breaks between. What’s interesting is that even that comes from the adventures in Racoon City, whose maps were designed to open up through series of lock and key puzzles. It was easy for DMC to attach missions onto this rhythm, each about reaching a key to open the next mission. The results are profound- since you can only save between levels, the player’s primary goal is to reach the end of their current level, a goal you need to repeat twenty three times before running out of 1-up granting yellow orbs. DMC is a different kind of survival horror game.
The structure freed Kamiya to customize his levels with a variety of objectives and activities. This started his trend of filling his games with homages, here referencing two of legendary designer Yu Suzuki‘s rail shooters: Space Harrier and Afterburner. These sections are inspired in theory but somewhat lacking in execution. That is true of the game as a whole, a collection of amazing ideas combined in strong ways, but with rough edges due to Kamiya’s little action game experience at the time. Still, what he and his team were able to accomplish with DMC is staggering.
There isn’t a single element that defines character action games, rather, it’s the cumulative product of every element working together well. A game isn’t stylish if it doesn’t have cool animations building its fighting system against varied and interestingly designed enemies. But even that wouldn’t matter if the game wasn’t fast and challenging, as the player wouldn’t be forced to quickly and efficiently use their toolset. Devil May Cry is made of impressive, glorious elements that only surface when the player is performing well. Once the player is unleashing moves with awesome special effects against bosses with their own unique attacks, it becomes clear that the genre creates spectacle, and celebrates achievement, in a way no other genre can.
Devil May Cry ushered in a new era of action games that spread out to other beloved titles like Ninja Gaiden and God of War, to say nothing of its own (mostly) amazing sequels. It’s a challenging game that comes at you fast but doesn’t arbitrarily cheat you. And when you beat it, the game immediately restarts on the next higher difficulty with the kit you’ve unlocked. As would become the standard, the first play through acts as a tutorial for the mechanics before throwing suped up enemies with new placements in a nod to side scrolling classics like Ghosts ‘n Goblins, turning the game into an endurance run that steam rolls you to the end. With Devil May Cry, Hideki Kamiya provided a blueprint for character action games that revel in beating you down but provide the means for you to get back on top, giving you only what you can earn with your sword.
DEVELOPER: Capcom Production Studio 4
PLATFORM: Playstation 2
Dane Thomsen is the author of ZIGZAG, a sport-punk adventure in a world of electrifying mystery. With the voice of her people as her guide, Alex walks neon purple streets thrown into chaos, wielding the concussive force of her baseball bat the mighty ‘.357’ against the forces of evil. Print and kindle editions are available on Amazon. For sample chapters and to see his other works please check out his blog.