It’s the last quarter of 2001, you’re an owner of a PS2 and you want a new game to play. So you go to your local game store and peruse the selection. You’ve already played Silent Hill 2, Metal Gear Solid 2 isn’t out for another few months, and nothing else on the shelf really seems all that exciting.
That’s when you see it. Or more importantly, him. Red coat, white hair, a gun, and a sword whose blade looks like it’s coming out of the mouth of a roaring dragon. The name of the game?
You notice the Capcom logo, you know them. They make Street Fighter, Resident Evil, and so many other classic franchises. Capcom’s a logo that inspires a sense of quality. You read the fluff text on the back, take notice of the blonde woman clad in black leather, and you decide to spend your cash on picking the game up to see what the ride will be like.
And oh what a ride. Part Resident Evil, part something entirely new, the game is a rock and roll nightmare through a haunted castle filled with baroque visuals, odd puzzles, and enough monsters for you to slash and shoot through along the way. It’s awesome, even if the voice acting is completely cheesy.
So when the sequel came out you got it. Of course you would, it’s Devil May Cry, that game ruled. This one though? It’s… bad. Like, really bad. Worse than that it’s boring. Sure Dante looks cool, but now he’s just a wooden plank. The bosses are lame, the levels are just city streets and buildings and nothing feels as good or snappy as it did before.
And you ask yourself; What happened?
Wracked with that disappointment you wait when the third game comes out. Sure the trailers make it look neat, but after the second one, you can’t bring yourself to take the chance. It’s only when your friends start raving about it that you decide to check it out. To your surprise, it’s good. Better than good it’s incredible.
The gameplay, the music, the characters, everything crystalized into one amazing game that built upon the first but turned it into something unforgettable. It’s humorous, goofy, and as extreme in its earnestness as it is in its action packed combat. It’s the kind of game you want to master, playing on its hardest difficulty settings to engage in that ballet of demon smashing combat.
All that time though that question still lingers. Even though the series is good again, you want to know what went on that caused such a drastic series of changes over three games that make their central character almost unrecognizable. Well, thankfully, there’s answers, as well as comparisons to draw from on what through lines were kept from game to game.
A Crisis of Self
Devil May Cry’s first three games are all wildly different from one another in terms of their gameplay intricacies, and practically feature a different protagonist each game. Sure the red coat, two guns, white hair, and big sword are always present, but Dante is not the same person.
Yet despite this, he’s regarded as one of the most iconic characters in gaming, with guest spots in multiple games and fans that even through a decade of no content, still wanted more of the legendary demon hunter.
Though many of the established character qualities people expect of the half-man/half-demon were introduced in Devil May Cry 3 and onwards, they’ve become the standard for how people view Dante as a character. But it took time, and a lot of trial and error to get the pizza eating, rock n’ roll loving hero down pat.
Styling An Icon
Designing an iconic character is hard. Most of the time it’s done by accident, and usually a character has to go through many iterations before the perfect distillation of traits form to make an iconic character who they are. Dante was no different. From his roots as Tony Redgrave in one of the many scrapped versions of Resident Evil 4, to where he is now under the direction of longtime series director Hideaki Itsuno, there have been a lot of tweaks along the way.
So what happened in three games that turned Dante from wisecracking, cool headed devil hunter, to a dour, almost monotone anti-hero type, and then finally into the braggadocious wacky, woohoo pizza eating goof we all know and love? Well, quite a lot really.
As just mentioned, Devil May Cry started life as the earliest iteration as the seminal classic Resident Evil 4. Directed by Hideki Kamiya, the game centered around a strange man named Tony Redgrave who was trying to discover the mystery of his body after developing strange powers. After the game was said to be straying too far from the zombie horror series’ roots by Resident Evil creator Shinji Mikami, he told the team to go and make their own title.
From there Kamiya rewrote the plot away from Zombies and towards demons, and redesigned the protagonist to a red coat wearing, stylish individual who represented everything that the developer thought embodied what being “cool” was. This included influences from the classic anime series Cobra, as well as Kamiya designing Dante to be someone that seemed familiar to audiences, but kept an air about him that would make him “a character you would want to go out drinking with.”
Combined with the gun juggling, stylized, acrobatic fighting, and a name change from Tony to Dante (of Divine Comedy fame), we have Dante Mk.I. Though he’s a far ways off of what he would become, the best way to describe this Dante is smooth. He talks with a light rasp and rattles off one-liners like “Flock off, feather face!” with aplomb. However there’s something about the character that feels missing.
Though Dante is shown to be a bonafide bad-ass whose ability to go toe to toe with demons gives him an earned confidence, he almost seems bored, or worse annoyed at many of the greater challenges he faces. Even moments of excitement, such as him defeating a boss or attaining a new weapon are often undercut by Dante’s too cool for school attitude.
And then there’s the melodramatics. Devil May Cry is no stranger to melodrama, and some of the series’ best moments are dripping with the stuff, but Dante in this game is just corny. And not in a fun way. Those familiar with the franchise are familiar with Dante wanting to fill dark holes with light as his voice cracks with pubescent fervor, as well as other scenes where the game tries, and fails to be a serious, mature story.
Still, for a first attempt in 2001, it’s a solid starting point. One that clearly landed well with people as it sold over 2 million copies. Capcom had a hit on their hands, and they wanted to strike while the iron was red hot.
Being the sequel to a game that became the map for modern action titles can be rough. It can be even more rough when your original development team is not involved, and the game changes directors less than half a year before launch. Coupled with changes to gameplay that made it feel more limited, easier, and slower paced and you can say that Devil May Cry 2 was set up to fail in a lot of ways. It had a rough first act to live up to, and this second act, well, it wasn’t going to measure up.
If Dante in the first DMC was smooth, then this one would be stiff. His design has been updated to a sleeker coat fitted around his upper body with flowing tails, and his hair a bit more coiffed. Much of the red on his coat is offset by strong blocks of black that create a sleek, sharp appearance that is probably the best thing to come out of DMC2. Shame then that it doesn’t apply to his personality, or really anything about Dante in this iteration.
With his creator gone, an unnamed director helming most of the project, and Hideaki Itsuno brought in to clean up the game and get it to market, Dante is adrift in this game. There really isn’t much to say about it, because there isn’t much to say about him. He’s bland, monotone, and his quips lack any fire or drive. Coupled with the gameplay tweaks this is a Dante that lacks any semblance of fun or style. Though he looks cooler than he did before, he’s not that at all. He’s kind of just there. It’s a lackluster version of a character that at least before had some life to him. Here he’s just become a well dressed piece of cardboard.
Devil May Cry 2 didn’t sell as well as the first game, but it still did respectable numbers built off of the success of the first. However the reputation of the series had taken a hit, and that meant something wild had to be done to save it. Thankfully the team at Capcom thought so as well.
Three’s a Party
The question on what to do with a franchise and character after a lukewarm sequel is one that happens often. Something has to be done to breathe new life into a series. Something Crazy.
Looking at what made the first game great, and then blazing new trails, Devil May Cry 3 took the things that made Dante fun from the first game and injected him with a shot of adrenaline. In DMC 3 Dante is not smooth, nor is he stiff. He’s free.
Free from the shackles of the prior games, free from the things that dragged the prior iterations down. Director Hideaki Itsuno and writer Bingo Morihashi took the story of Dante and set it before the events of the first two games, giving a look at a younger Dante just getting started in his life as a demon hunter. This opened up their narrative possibilities, and effectively gave them a clean slate to change whatever they wanted to Dante as a character to shape him into something that suited their vision for the project and story.
I don’t know if they knew then that it’d be the best thing to happen to the character at that point, but I’d like to think in hindsight they can appreciate that decision.
Dante is cocksure in DMC3 much like he is in the first game but there’s something much more animated and lively about him now. He flirts with characters, playfully taunts and banters with enemies, and carries a playful, fun loving, excited personality throughout the game. He’s a kid on a non-stop wild ride, and he loves it. Even in moments where he loses his cool or patience, it seems like that of a teen that just wants to get to the point or the next cool thing in his journey.
It’s something that is reflected in his design as well. Daigo Ikeno, one of the art directors and character designers at Capcom made radical alterations to how Dante looks. Though he still has the staples of his red coat, silver hair, sword, and his twin pistols, the rest got tossed. Stark blacks are largely exchanged for browns as the secondary color in his outfit, and the fitted nature of his clothing was made more loose and baggy. His hair sits in his face like an uncombed mop, and Dante can’t even be bothered to put on a shirt before grabbing his coat to start his journey. All these changes were done in service to hammer home this younger, cocky Dante that was carefree.
And it works. Coupled alongside the game’s new style system, ridiculous weapons like Nevan, an electric guitar that turns into a scythe that shoots demon bats, and an incredibly fun, though admittedly dated performance by actor/stuntman Reuben Langdon (who would go on to play Dante in the future sequels and guest appearances), Dante finally feels like Dante. Something that is odd to say given that in the first two games he was so radically different.
More importantly, his new personality makes his definition of cool timeless, and it is his definition now. These new aspects to his personality aren’t there to impress you. Throughout the game as you control him Dante is doing these things because he thinks they are cool. And while it comes off goofy at points, the sincerity and earnestness is something that is timeless.
It’s something that clearly resonated with people. Though the game’s sales were more modest at the time, the game was a critical darling that continues to this day to be lauded as one of the greatest action games of all time. More than that, it gave a framework for Dante’s personality going forward with the team sticking to this new foundation for the character going forward when seeing where next his adventures took him.
For many, that image of Dante as this fun loving, metal listening, pizza eating cool weirdo is the default from which the future versions evolved from. Like all great things though, it took a lot of time, effort, and a few costly mistakes along the way to get the legendary devil hunter we know and love today.
Fifteen years out from release, two sequels, and a strange reboot later, Dante is always going to have begun as that teen braggadocio surfing on rockets and beating up demons with a motor-cycle for many people, regardless of what the truth actually is. While that might seem odd, it speaks to the power of iterating a character concept, and seeing the potential in certain aspects while trimming away bits that are unimportant until only their strengths remain. After all, Jason Voorhees took three movies to dawn the iconic hockey mask.
It may have taken Capcom three tries to really find Dante as a character, but once they had, they’d created another long-lasting icon in a list that is rivaled by only a few others. Not every franchise gets so lucky, but it does make it worth looking at other longstanding franchises, and seeing how a character changed from version to version. Though not all will be as drastic, you might find yourself surprised at how an early version of a familiar character is totally unrecognizable to their modern counterpart.