“Dull” reads the game’s judgement, punched across the top-right corner of the screen in a disappointed font. Dante throws his shoulder, thrusting his blade into the marionette a second time.
Later, once Dante has become a proper daddy’s boy, he’ll impress the game he’s trapped inside to the highest tier of its letter-based rating system. Devil May Cry (2001) is a game in pursuit of being “Stylish!”
As a theater of aesthetics, Devil May Cry cares little for anything else. The stage is an ancient castle dressed up to the nines: Gothic arches, cobwebbed corners, eerie portraits, phantom doorways. The actors are a half-devil man with silver hair and a big red overcoat, a woman in a corset and high heels, and a grotesque demon king that dresses himself up as a marble statue of a god. Dialogue includes such treats as “Woah, slow down, babe,” in response to a woman unexpectedly riding a motorbike through the doors of a shop, and, when that same woman is seemingly killed, the painfully cheesy yelp of “I should have been the one to fill your dark soul with light!”—delivered with a dramatic tossing back of the head on that last word.
Oh, and the leather. There’s enough black leather here to turn the castle’s grand entrance hall into a dry-wipe sex dungeon.
The stories behind Devil May Cry support the idea that it was made as a careful patchwork of Christian iconography and late medieval architecture. Director Hideki Kamiya sent a crew out to Europe for 11 days to photograph Gothic statues, stonework, and pavements to use as textures. But, as with everything else in the game, it got spun through Kamiya’s perverted pastiche; rather than a faithful imitation it became a histrionic entertainment. It’s telling that Devil May Cry’s theme of “coolness”—read: stylish exaggeration—was deemed too much for it to be an entry in the camp-as-hell Resident Evil series, as was originally planned.
One of the most enjoyable parts of Devil May Cry’s all-consuming aestheticism is seeing what hideous, grouchy-mouthed beast will come prowling out of the underworld to battle Dante next. By the time you’ve seen an oversized griffin with a beak like an exploded anus and a decomposed, five-limbed “living toxin” that throws giant eyeballs at you, you might think you’ve seen it all.
But no. It’s in its latter stages, when Dante pushes through the pulsing tissue of the underworld, that Devil May Cry reaches the peak of its aesthetic efforts. This is embodied by the game’s antagonist and final boss, Mundus, who, through his behavior, appearance, and name, serves as a blender for various underworld mythologies. He’s not just the devil, he’s an exquisite atlas of devil concepts as seen throughout history.
First, the name: Mundus. It’s derived from a ditch in Roman theology that contained an entrance to the underworld, the mundus Cereris. The stone that covered this supernatural pit was removed three times a year so that the dead could feast on the harvest in commune with the living—not quite the demonic takeover of the world depicted in Devil May Cry. As if to confirm this origin, Mundus is also identified as Pluto twice in the game, after the Roman god of the underworld.
Next up on this Hell Edition of videogame bingo is Mundus’s appearance. For that we turn to the Christian Bible and the downfall of Lucifer. There are two important aspects of Mundus’s design to consider: 1) his angelic statue form contains three eyes, and 2) his true form is a festering mess of eyeballs and hands, a bulbous pile of rancid demon goo. This aligns him with Lucifer, the fallen angel, who it is said left God’s hand in a perfect state. It’s this that led to Lucifer’s big problem. He was so impressed with his own beauty, intelligence, and power that he fancied the honor and glory reserved for God for himself. He became corrupted by pride and, having been granted free will, decided to rebel against his creator—this was the origin of sin, predating the incident in the Garden of Eden. For this, God banished Lucifer from heaven and destined him to spend a millennium in a pit, after which he would be thrown into the lake of fire. It was also at this point that Lucifer’s name was changed to Satan, or “adversary.” Popular art from across history also depicts his banished form in a changed state (the Bible implies this, but is vague on the details).
“Hell” detail with Satan depicted at the bottom, from The Last Judgement, by Fra Angelico, 1425-1430, via Wikimedia Commons
No longer an angel, Satan has been drawn as everything from a foul goat-like figure to the tragic human hero of Paradise Lost (1667). One of the most outstanding renditions of Satan, however, is described in Dante Alighieri’s The Divine Comedy (1320). He’s said to have his legs encased in ice, to be as ugly as he was once beautiful, and to have three faces—a perversion of the Holy Trinity—each perpetually chewing on one of the ultimate sinners. All of this is reflected in Mundus, whose three eyes could be a reference to Satan’s three faces, but especially the infliction of ugliness on a once beautiful being, as seen once Mundus breaks out of his statue form that depicts his younger self. Mundus even experiences the same descent as Lucifer, as his statue is first seen sat at the top of Devil May Cry’s castle, but after suffering defeat in battle to Dante—losing his angelic wings in the process—Mundus appears as a writhing mass of living tissue in the castle’s sewers.
The frequent appearance of mirrors and mirror images throughout the game are Mundus’s way of attacking Dante with appeals to his vanity. Mirrors appear in a number of forms in the game—including as a whole Mirror World—and each time trigger a conflict. The most potent of these is an actual mirror, from which Dante’s long lost and corrupted twin brother Vergil steps out from to combat him. While Vergil takes the form of the “Black Angel” Nelo Angelo, the battle is first implied through Dante’s living mirror image as a fight against himself—the narcissist metaphor made real. It’s what Mundus and Lucifer saw in the mirror that led to their downfall; the reflection of the self is what led to the creation of the devil. It’s no coincidence that satanic imagery is often a ‘mirror image’ of Christian idolatry; the inverted cross, inverted pentacle (representing earth), Hell versus Heaven, and a devotion to the moon in opposition to the sun worship of primitive religions. To the devil, perhaps the most evil and powerful weapon is self-destruction, and through mirrors, Mundus finds a way to wield it against Dante.
Both of the remaining underworld myths wrapped up in Mundus play out through his behavior, specifically the weapons he uses to combat Dante before the final fight (besides mirrors). The first is Nightmare, which is described in the game as a “bio-weapon created by the Dark Emperor,” aka Mundus. Dante battles it three times in total, it first appearing in the cathedral as a “strong surge of evil coming from [a] puddle of water.” After Dante stares into that puddle, Nightmare bubbles out of it in its invulnerable “gel-form.” The game is very sterile in its descriptions of Nightmare, which is among the grossest living shit in the game, it being a liquid that contains the corpses of those it’s killed, all steaming piles of bones and sickly black glop. It recalls the River Styx of Greek mythology—the river that forms the boundary between the underworld and Earth, and which is often depicted with the dead reaching out of it. Just to stack up the disturbing imagery, once Nightmare’s restraining tools are activated (moving it into its vulnerable state), it encases itself in hard armor like the alien, biomechanical creatures H. R. Giger drew in his Necronomicon (1977).
While being gross and temporarily invulnerable should be deadly enough, Nightmare’s greatest attack is being able to absorb its foes into some unknown inner plane where their trauma is turned into physical enemies. It’s a form of attack that, similar to how Dante is assaulted by himself in the castle’s mirrors, is metaphorically psychological, but in the action of the game means you have to face the bosses you previously slain. Which, to put it lightly, is a royal pain in the ass, essentially meaning any encounter with Nightmare has the potential to have several sub-bosses to defeat at its middle. It’s also within this inner Nightmare realm that you encounter the Sargasso, a lower class of demon named after the Sargasso Sea in the North Atlantic Ocean, referred to as the “sea without shores.” The significance of these floating, chattering skulls is that they confirm Nightmare’s connection with Styx, as the in-game descriptions inform us that they feast on lost wanderers, condemning the spirits of their victims to an eternity wandering the endless sea of the underworld.
The last of Mundus’s psychosomatic tactics against Dante is the most successful. This comes in his mimicry of the temptations of the Demon King Mara from ancient Buddhist scripture. The demon Mara (meaning “destruction”) is said to have schemed against Siddhartha Gautama while he reached enlightenment to become the Buddha. Mara’s first method was to arrange his most beautiful daughters and have them try to seduce Gautama while in meditation. While Mundus in Devil May Cry doesn’t have any daughters, he does create a puppet woman named Trish under his control, and gives her the face of Dante’s deceased mother. Trish is the person who arrives at Dante’s demon-fighting agency and asks him to come to Mallet Island to stop Mundus from invading Earth. It’s a guise, of course, but Dante falls for it as he sees his deceased mother in Trish’s face.
Mundus’s reason for luring Dante to the island and its castle is so that he can throw his demon generals at the one person who might stop him from taking over the human world. Mara is said to have used a similar tactic against Gautama, forming vast armies of monsters to battle him, yet Gautama sat untouched, as does Dante by the game’s end. Marta and Mundus also sling the same insult at their respective targets as a final attempt to thwart them. Marta tells Gautama that a mortal cannot claim the seat of enlightenment and so it rightfully belongs to him, a supposedly superior being. In Devil May Cry, this is translated to Mundus mocking Dante’s human heritage, saying that it has “spoiled” the devil blood he inherited as the son of the legendary dark knight Sparda, who previously defeated Mundus and sealed him in the underworld.
In response to this insult, Gautama had the earth itself talk in his defense. Of course, Devil May Cry can’t be so humble, instead having Dante’s eyes glow red with devil energy to deflect the lasers Mundus zaps at him, before they both tear off into a pocket dimension for a showdown that dwarfs any conflict in the Bible. Gautama’s victory led to Buddhism, while Dante was succeeded by Bayonetta (2010)—Kamiya and his team’s derivative creation that traded “coolness” for “sexiness.” It starred an amnesiac witch who walks on gun stilettos in a skin-tight suit made of her hair, which she also uses to summon demons (rendering her naked) to fight against the angels of the game’s extravagant version of Paradiso. All the campy melodrama of Devil May Cry is spun tenfold in Bayonetta, but it doesn’t quite have a single figure so rich with historical pastiche as Mundus. He’s truly one of the most excessive devil beasts contrived in a work of fiction. The devil four-in-one, for all your demonic needs.
It seems right that Bayonetta, probably Kamiya’s most theatrical character of all, should have the final word on his wild, eclectic approach to remixing those holiest and unholiest of the metaphysical realms. “Heaven and Hell can tear each other to pieces for all I care. I’ve got my own problems to worry about.”