Published on January 7th, 2022 | by Jeff Thiessen0
Hey, Remember When? – Devil May Cry 3: Dante’s Awakening
Hey, Remember When? is recurring column at The Feedback Society, where Jeff Thiessen takes a look back at some truly baffling decisions found in videogames.
Hey, remember when Capcom inexplicably decided to make the ‘hard’ difficulty found in the Japanese version Devil May Cry 3: Dante’s Awakening the ‘normal/default’ one in the copies available here in North America?
This one is really hard to unpack from any reasonable angle, and if you’re reading this and can offer any proper explanation, well, I’m certainly all ears. Let’s contextualize this a little bit for those who don’t know the backstory of the franchise.
The original Devil May Cry, released in 2001, was a pretty huge hit for Capcom both critically and commercially, selling over two million copies and still being considered not only a massive breakthrough in the hack n’ slash genre, but also simply one of the greatest games of all time. Featuring brash demon-slayer Dante (the first game was loosely inspired by Dante’s Inferno, both in terms of aesthetics and narrative choices), it provided gamers with a near constant dopamine drip system that would auto-refill with every slick, expansive combo Dante would pull off on any punk-ass fiend who happened to be unlucky enough to find themselves in his path. But even though it was mostly cherished for its over-the-top stylistic features, a deep and rewarding combat system is what really kept the gamers coming back for more, especially since it was paired up against some seriously gnarly foes. DMC1 was for lack of any better phrasing, fucking hard. Margin of error was pretty slim against basically any horde you’ll face, and even thinner against the brutal bosses Dante has to take on.
It didn’t land for me personally, as I didn’t fall in love with the genre until I played Ninja Gaiden: Black for the Xbox a few years later (still one of my top five games of all-time), but it’s really hard to find many things wrong with the original. A bonafide masterpiece in just about every sense of the term.
Capcom then released Devil May Cry 2, and at that point everything immediately went to shit for the future of the franchise. I won’t get into the autopsy of this heaping pile of trash too much, but let’s just say the studio took everything the hardcore fans of the original loved, and went with the inverse, which is always a brilliant move for a sequel in any medium. One of those things was the difficulty, almost entirely nerfing everything about DMC1 that made it so tough to get through. To say this game had a backlash is putting it lightly; it was such an undercooked disaster that was so horrific that at times certain areas seemed to be almost trolling the player (lookin in your general direction, Trismagia, or any of the ‘infected tanks’).
Basically, nobody would’ve been entirely surprised if Capcom kiboshed the franchise completely following that abomination, but thankfully they pushed on and at present day it’s considered maybe the best title the genre has to offer. In fact Devil May Cry 5 released in 2019 might just be the most complete example of a flawless hack n’ slash, so at least this bizarre story has a happy ending.
But that does bring us to 2003’s Dante’s Awakening. And let’s get this out of the way right now, it’s a bloody terrific video game. The ship got more than righted, as everything from first one came back ten-fold, this is the sequel that should’ve followed DMC1. Capcom dragged Dante from shallow grave DMC2 threw dirt on with an absolute home run, and if we’re being honest with ourselves, I’m not sure the franchise would’ve survived anything less.
So yes, with this game being such a brilliant comeback effort, that makes this decision even more vexing when assessing the entirety of Dante’s Awakening.
Let’s start with the maybe the biggest head-scratcher – um, Capcom is a studio based out of Japan, so you’d think they especially would know what the rest of the world already knows…that Japanese gamers have always been considered to be superior to us shmucks gaming over here in the west (this has changed considerably over the years, most notably with speed-running and within the fighting game community, but it’s still impossible to argue we are stronger as a whole these days).
Making this weird decision that applied some hilarious/artificial gaming cred to gamers in the west was not only a decision that was extremely easy to mock on a fundamental level, but it proved to be a financially damaging one as well.
Actual ‘normal’ mode (which is subsequently labelled ‘easy’ on our copies), was already hard as nails. It was a perfectly balanced difficulty completely consistent with what DMC1 asked of its players. The ‘hard’ mode we had no idea we were doing however, was extremely punishing. The game is comprised of 20 levels, none of which have any checkpoints. Not only that, but when you’re starting out, Dante is a wimp of enormous proportions, getting hit only 2-3 times results in certain death. You combine all that with him also having none of the powers you don’t obtain until about mid-game, and this is starting to really feel like a perfect storm of agony, one that many gamers surely unknowingly stumbled into.
Straight up, players were renting the game and just swiftly quitting with clear plans to not purchase DMC3. The game’s first real boss, a giant Cerebrus, felt like a final boss to many people new to the genre, and if you can make it through the gauntlet third level, another insane boss fight awaits Dante who is still firmly planted in sissy-form here: Agni and Rudna, a very dangerous and aggressive dual threat, complete with two separate health bars and all attacks packing a wallop. Playing the first three levels of DMC3 didn’t just felt overwhelming to players, it felt broken in relation to every rudimentary unwritten law in games they had subscribed to since they picked up a controller for the first time.
Reviews came in hot and with an abundance of high scores, but also very quick to draw attention to just how unwelcoming this is to anybody not well versed in the genre. The nicer ones, like Greg Kasavin then of Gamespot (now at Supergiant, the wonderful studio behind Hades), also warned gamers of this default-setting bullshittery, and implored gamers to switch to ‘easy’ mode. But this was 2003, and while internet reviews were starting to carry a lot of weight in terms of a game’s success/failure, the rental market was still a thriving one, and one many gamers counted on when deciding if they should buy a game and from that side of things, one has to assume Capcom lost a huge amount of potential sales with this insane decision, especially when paired with the game’s brutal early hurdles. This didn’t just feel like a middle-finger difficulty, to many it felt like an inherent flaw in game design.
And even if a player was aware of these deceptive settings found on that introductory menu, I’m sure many players familiar with hack n’ slash games would just feel a little dirty picking the ‘easy’ option. Sure, it’s not easy by any stretch of the imagination, but many of those gamers (sadly myself included), would never want to get that word to flash at the title screen when selecting difficulty. That’s probably why I stuck with the ‘normal’ mode when I finally decided to give this game a genuine shot.
When I bought DMC3 on the cheap in about 2005, I had already gone through hell with Ninja Gaiden, so I felt good enough about my chances – and for the most part I was right, as I did finish it on ‘normal’ without a huge amount of trouble. It was a tough game and certainly balancing was not one of its many strengths, but definitely a tier below the Gaidens and Bloodbornes of the world. Not that I’m a gaming god or anything, but I really acquired a lot of patience with my Ninja Gaiden experience, and DMC3 really does open up a lot once you start gaining new abilities and figuring out how the game wants you to approach combat. Which is really a shame, as I’m sure that stupid difficulty subterfuge and first three levels really prevented a lot of people from wanting to push past it. They all missed out on a wonderful game, but whose fault is that Capcom?
So again, why did the studio make such a baffling setting decision? How in the world did they think just North American gamers needed to have their experience slyly jacked up to a difficulty level they normally would never have willingly chosen? If you can formulate a reasonable theory as to their thought process here, you’re smarter than me. They lost a large chunk of the rental market/prospective buyers with this nonsense, not to mention some review points in the gaming press. And they gained what exactly by lying to us about what difficulty we were playing on?
Do you have any examples of incredibly strange decisions made by game developers? Drop me a line and let me know, I would be glad to write about it!