Devil May Cry 4

G. Christopher Williams’ take on Devil May Cry 4 can be found here.

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American gamers have never been closer to weaning themselves from Japanese cultural influence. The dominant genre here, the first person shooter, has as much support among Japanese people — and developers — as an expanded North Korean nuclear weapons program. American developers have pulled ahead in genres in which Japanese games were always superior or at least more stylish. The best and most daring RPG of the past twelve months, Mass Effect, is an American game, and its pedigreed Japanese challenger, Lost Odyssey, is by most accounts an irrelevant nostalgia act. The huge Japanese action games of late spring, Ninja Gaiden 2 and Metal Gear Solid 4, will be eclipsed in press and sales by Grand Theft Auto 4.

There’s Nintendo, but they make games that are largely without language and plot, two main arteries for culture to flow into gaming. They’ve also been making the same set of five or six games long enough that their idiosyncrasies are no longer idiosyncrasies — What, you think there’s something strange about a mustachioed, Osh-Kosh-wearing plumber who murders turtles so he can use their shells to murder anthropomorphic mushrooms?

Mainstream American gamers are just not exposed to the cultural tropes and structures of Japanese gaming with the frequency that they once were.

But then, there’s Devil May Cry 4.

The game is ineffably, mischievously Japanese in a way that’s a little resistant to description. Sure, there’s an anime hero with hair that looks like a Brancusi sculpture and women busty enough to make Russ Meyer rise from the dead. But it’s really the unrelated little things that add up to the unmistakable texture of a game that rode in the belly of an All Nippon jet on its way to GameStop.

Unrelated little things: the cursed sword used for good; the unacknowledged fact that a Mediterranean port is directly adjacent to a snowy Ural peak, which is directly adjacent to a Congolese rain forest; the flamboyant wickedness of the ostensibly good religion — an oxymoronic word pairing in Japanese gaming; the disappearing platforms, which just never happen in American games; the giant toad boss with two autonomous, woman-shaped, lesbian antennae. I could go on.

What I’m describing is a game that refuses to make its various aesthetic whims cohere. It intermittently strives for a kind of high-Gothic camp — the castle where most of the action takes place looks like Amiens on uppers — but it jumps willy-nilly into steampunk, lasers-and-robots future shock, and lost-civilization exoticism. Devil May Cry 4‘s closest 3D action cousins have both chosen a principle of visual design and stuck to it: God of War has its epic formalism of scale and Ninja Gaiden has its country-ninja in the big city bombast. Devil May Cry makes no such commitment.

This visual diarrhea only starts to make sense in the context of Capcom’s total devotion to 16-bit ideas. Ideas that come from logic along the lines of “We’ve already had a city level, an ice level, and a castle level. What haven’t we done? Oh yeah! A forest level!” As graphics get more naturalistic — and the graphics in DMC are incredible — choppy design sticks out more and more. Capcom revels in the sheer game-ness of these choices: how else can you explain the way the game is split up into SNES-sized levels, complete with Mission Start and Mission Complete screens?

The temptation is to label Devil May Cry 4 as satire, a stage-winking mélange of the conventions of cartridge gaming made comic by bleeding-edge presentation. This seems way too generous, especially because January’s No More Heroes just set the bar for hilarious and fun gaming satire. Not that anyone played it; there’s a difference between satirizing and uncritically celebrating the past, and it has to do with money.

Capcom didn’t become Capcom by running a bad business. They know that nostalgia is the most easily commodified emotion in gaming; just look at the success of Xbox Live Arcade. That twinge of melancholy you feel at the oh-so-retro Devil May Cry 4? That’s Capcom leveraging your good feelings about your youth. So, feel your wistfulness being stroked as you notice the save (or rather, lack of in-level save) system! Longingly sigh even as you fume at the outrageous difficulty! Call your middle school friends that now work at 7-Eleven and reminisce about evil hands that come out of the ground and transport you back to the start of the level!

It’s a full-blown flashback to the days when action games prized mastery over fun. In other words, we’re not supposed to fault the game for its brevity and repetitiveness (at the midway point, you literally turn around and retrace your steps to the end); we’re supposed to view what game exists as a staging ground to get as good as possible. A King of Kong level of mastery is the prerequisite for playing the game on its unlockable difficulty levels and gaining what someone somewhere has no doubt called “the true Devil May Cry experience”. Of course, thanks to Xbox Achievements, everyone who cares to will know that you put in the work necessary to be this good. Depending on your age, this could really present the high or the low point of your public life.

Those who are willing to meet Capcom halfway with a thunderous high five and a throaty “thanks for reminding me of 1993!” — myself, unfortunately, included — will eat it up. Others will wonder why a developer that has clearly devoted so many resources to presentation has recycled so many gameplay and design conventions. That the three previous Devil May Cry games turn the exact same tricks highlights the slightly depressing fact that this nostalgia tour has been going on for seven years.

So it’s official: the series is in danger of turning into one of those miserable Broadway shows that never closes, just updates its lighting and set design. Alas, this makes the Devil May Cry fanbase the gaming equivalent of those waddling people who wear crewneck sweatshirts emblazoned with CATS or Miss Saigon or whatever and spend their rent money on front row seats where they clutch their Playbills (manuals, here) like little glossy bibles to their thrilled bosoms.

And our good friends from Honshu will continue to produce this rote revue until we stop buying tickets. Ignore your nostalgia. It’s the only way to stop the slow decline of the American perception of the phrase ‘Japanese gaming’ into sad synonymity with the phrase ‘flashy remake’.

RATING 5 / 10