The transition into 3D gameplay was a challenge for many developers, but there’s always something magical about playing the first game in a series that really gets it right. The first Devil May Cry is certainly a good game (and that’s not nostalgia talking – I played through this entire series for the first time in 2020), but its fixed camera is an obvious relic from when it began development as a failed attempt at the next Resident Evil. Unfortunately, what works in survival horror won’t necessarily be the best option in another genre – especially when many of the controls are contextual based off the character’s relative position. Despite this, the seeds of a great series were obvious even then.
After a major blunder in the form of Devil May Cry 2, Capcom came back with what felt like a total refinement of what the first game promised. Though the original laid the foundation, Devil May Cry 3 defined what would become known as the Character Action Genre. A controllable camera was key, but an extra emphasis on weapon and attack variety really highlighted the style meter.
Where more traditional action games can sometimes devolve into running up to an enemy and mashing the attack button, DMC3 rewards you for changing up the pattern. The meter’s constant depletion encourages frantic action while a single hit resetting the meter requires grace. Combat thus demands your total attention, a constant juggle between attacking one enemy, avoiding the others, and changing up the way in which you are attacking. Your options are diverse enough to make this seamless; an enemy moving in for an attack can be the perfect time to combo your current target into the air, a dodge and attack mixed together in one fluid motion.
A great combat system is not enough alone; Devil May Cry 4 made several improvements, but 3 reigns supreme because it simply has better enemies to use that system against. The game is constantly barraging you with new enemy types, all requiring new patterns to combat; there’s never a routine option to safely fall back on.
Even better, pretty much every boss fight here is phenomenal. Cerberus, Agni & Rudra, Nevan, Beowulf; each requires a totally unique approach. This game perfects the hard but fair boss fight; everything’s so fun that getting to fight these bosses a few times feels more like a gift than a punishment for failure. When you finally figure out the trick to take out something like Agni & Rudra, it sticks with you.
Standing above all of these is Vergil; the Devil May Cry series enjoys tossing the bosses at you again and again as you near the end, but nothing is more satisfying than the way Vergil evolves between stages. The first encounter passes as a simple sword fight with a few neat tricks; a perfect change of pace from the giant monstrosities you usually face. But that final boss fight flips everything on its head; the super-powered devil trigger ability which has been the saving grace during these difficult fights is finally used against the player. The evil twin is a common trope for boss fights, but few make you feel quite so powerless in the face of your own abilities as Vergil.
The gameplay is far from the only stylish feature of Devil May Cry 3. The original game is ‘cool’ in that early 2000s video game way, the type which falls quickly into cheese to anyone outside of edgy teens. Devil May Cry 3 ramps this up in the best way possible, going so hard in over-the-top cheesiness that it somehow wraps back around to being cool in its own odd way. Dante perfectly straddles the line between suave and dorky. He literally does a front flip while riding a motorcycle up the side of a tower.
Even beyond its phenomenal string of boss fights, the conflict between Dante and Vergil is one of the classic video game rivalries. Vergil is the perfect foil, cool in all the opposite ways. His calm and collected presentation suggests a quiet confidence in his abilities; he doesn’t need to show off for us to be impressed by him. They really feel like two sides of the same coin, further highlighting the familial nature of the conflict.
Plenty of games ooze coolness during their cut scenes only to fall back on bland presentation as soon as they hand over control, but Devil May Cry 3 perfectly integrates its aesthetics into the gameplay itself. Though games continue to evolve visually, DMC3 is a perfect representative of the moment when action games moved into the modern era. There have been many imitators, some better than others, but nothing will ever reduce Devil May Cry 3 to a mere nostalgia piece. The gameplay is too smooth, the boss fights too fun for this to not hold up as a true video game masterpiece.