There are games that, like a pair of acid-washed jeans pulled out of an attic box, act as a window into a certain time. Devil May Cry is very much a window into the year 2001, a snapshot of the post-Matrix pop-cultural moment where the black-clad, industrial noise-rock aesthetic had come as close as it was ever going to get to the mainstream. And series protagonist Dante is the bastard son of that moment: a wise-cracking, nigh-invincible, rock-n’-roll pretty boy with a giant sword on one shoulder and a massive chip on the other. Dante throws endless snark at his enemies, seemingly to hide the pain inside of being the son of a human mother and a demon father.
This collection, which includes the first three games in the series, is perhaps most useful as a reminder of why Dante felt so fresh 17 years ago. Because anyone looking for the game that made them feel like an unstoppable, silver-haired badass in 2001 will be mostly let down. Over time, the snazzy wallpaper has started to peel back on the original Devil May Cry, revealing more and more that it was initially developed to be a Resident Evil game.
The beautifully ornate baroque architecture is still unchanged, but in the year 2018, the gameplay now feels positively archaic. Dante’s moveset is extremely limited, his attacks and jumps stiff and jerky. Enemies hit harder and faster than you at every turn, even after you’ve piled currency into Dante’s upgrade system. This, too, is a product of its time: The PlayStation 1/Nintendo 64 era of games notoriously went easy on their target demographic, as developers focused less on challenging players and more on just figuring out how to translate 2D concepts to 3D, and by the time the first Devil May Cry came around, its unmerciful difficulty was a breath of fresh air.
The game, though, doesn’t have the kind of difficulty where the player can only blame themselves for their failures. Its difficulty is predicated on cheap hits from enemies that knock off your health in vicious chunks, weaponry that only barely gets the job done with any sort of efficiency, an unhelpful fixed camera, and movement dependent on said camera that can shift and change on a whim at the worst possible moments. It’s victory over immense, handicapped conditions, not over the fairly reasonable challenges presented.
Devil May Cry 2, on the other hand, swings too far in the other direction, and to the point where if Capcom’s name wasn’t on it, it’d feel like a cheap Dante-themed mod for an unrelated game. Enemies lumber around, waiting to be struck by a slower, more self-serious Dante, who’s more than capable of dispatching virtually any enemy throughout the campaign with the same moveset he starts with—and all punctuated by the same very annoying grunting sound effect. It’s laughably short campaign also barely makes an impression, which, at the very least, is exactly what gamers thought of Devil May Cry 2 the day it was released, meaning there’s no nostalgia to betray here.
Out of the three games in the collection, Devil May Cry 3 is the only one to stand up to the test of time. It’s a prequel that fulfills the promise of the first game. Dante is still an annoying little snot, but much-needed moments of deprecating levity put him in his place. This time, however, his arrogance is earned: Dante’s personality is no longer confined to cutscenes, but evident in his new, reckless approach to combat, somewhere between ballet dancer, ninja, and “mosh pit at a Slayer concert.” Everything grandiose and outlandish about Devil May Cry is pushed to new limits of delightful ridiculousness without every sacrificing the inherent fun in turning endless processions of demons into mincemeat. The difficulty remains, and the massive bosses are particularly aggravating at times, but new, reflexive movement options, multiple styles of gameplay, and the introduction of the ability to switch weaponry on the fly makes things far more interesting. Now, success or failure rides on the player’s imagination, not their struggles with the game’s physics.
Time has managed to smile on only two games in the entire Devil May Cry series: Devil May Cry 3 and Ninja Theory’s bafflingly under-loved reboot. The others, to varying degrees, have been out-classed and out-gunned several times over, especially by deposed creator Hideki Kamiya, who used the principles of the series to run off and make Bayonetta. It’s good to have the snapshot on hand when you want a hit of nostalgia, but the first two games in the series can stay in a box, because they don’t belong on a mantle.