Bear in mind, this article will contain spoilers for a variety of older games. Be careful when reading if you don’t want to be spoiled!
Devil May Cry 3 is a hard game. The early bosses are tough but, in a way, manageable. There is a turning point in the game however. A point where you meet someone who is on another level and you realize just how little you know about the game and your skill set. I’m talking, of course, about the Vergil fight.
In video games, a strong antagonist is paramount to making a good game. If there’s no threat, nothing we do holds weight. Most enemies fall into one of two categories: The giant boss leader, like Bowser, who commands a massive army of foes all under his sway while being a formidable monster himself. The other type is the all-powerful beast. While these types might have a legion, the true threat is them. Ganondorf would be a good example of this, as the scariest thing about Legend of Zelda ends up being his existence.
In my mind, neither of these enemies is a particularly strong villain. Sure, they can be written well and designed well, but they serve as a mere odd to overcome. Beating the covenant in Halo feels good because we waded through an army as a singular super soldier. Destroying Chaos at the end of Sonic Adventure feels amazing because we’re spitting in the face of a supposed godlike being. To me, the absolute best villain is the rival. The antagonist who is a dark mirror of the protagonist. The “Vergil”.
So why do I find this compelling?
Rivals and Personal Growth
For starters, the stakes are set-up to be on a realistic level. The Vergil (Which I’ll be calling this amorphous enemy for the article duration) isn’t some unstoppable godbeing or some swarm-like army. The Vergil is you. Where the Vergil differs from you is that he’s you at the peak. He’s the person you could never hope to be in terms of skill, power and otherwise. As you lose to him, you can’t blame him being too powerful or having too many enemies. He’s just too strong and you’re not good enough.
This theme of rivalry is core and major to story development because it serves as someone we strive to either meet or surpass. The Vergil doesn’t even have to always be an enemy either! In Megaman X, Zero serves as the Vergil and the person you’re striving to become. He is you at your peak, he is the you that you want to be. He is the Vergil you hope to strive for.
Another important fact about the Vergil is that he has to mirror the protagonist in ability, power or talent. Take Jetstream Sam from Metal Gear Rising. Sam is a swordsman just like Raiden with similar cybernetic enhancements. He fights like Raiden, he loves the thrill of fighting and he doesn’t have many tricks you wouldn’t expect. Sam is, of course, the mirror to Raiden and thus the fight is strongest when reflecting that.
Much of this likely sounds pedantic. “Oh well duh fighting someone on equal level is cool” and such. What I want to drive home, however, is how many games get this wrong. The idea of a Vergil that’s never expounded upon or shown to be anything more than a mere rivalry. Take one of the final fights in Warcraft 3: Arthas vs. Illidan. By all accounts, these characters should be the twin rivals, two characters who both forsake their humanity (or in Illidan’s case, his elfhood) to protect their people. Yet these characters don’t feel like rivals. This isn’t a battle of ideologies or a battle of two enemies on equal footing. This is “It’d be so damn cool to see Illidan fight Arthas”. These are two pawns (albeit neat pawns) fighting for masters.
Cool Factor and Doing it Wrong.
Alternatively, designers or writers will dial up the cool factor with no proper build-up or stakes in the fight. Azel in Godhand is a mysterious man who is said to be Gene’s equal. Despite this, we never get a scene where we see Azel wipe the floor with Gene. We’re just told Azel is his equal before being thrown into the final battle. Sure, it’s enjoyable to see these two titans square off but the payoff feels unearned.
Perhaps the most important part of a Vergil is the eventual surpassing. When you first fight a Vergil, you will be beat. Hard. Maybe in the game, maybe just in a cutscene, but you’re going to clearly be no match for him or his power. This is the core motivation. This is where the seed is planted that you wish to go stronger. Later in the game, when you finally do fight him, it serves as the remeasure. It’s the point where you stand your ground and tell the Vergil that you’ve gone on your own journey and your growth will beat his own growth. This idea of being disempowered or losing isn’t often a popular idea to gamers or designers, hence why Vergils are so often ignored or not done at all.
In reading all this, you might be curious: “Who does the Vergil best?” “What company creates a Vergil with every game they make?” The answer is simple: Platinum Games. Masters of the third person action brawler, Platinum has honed their skills and refined their craft to the point where they can create countless fantastic Vergil-type characters. While I don’t want the article to go on too long, here are just some examples of character-rivalries they’ve made that I consider amazing:
Bayonetta and Jeanne (Bayonetta)
Wonder-Red and Prince Vorkken (Wonderful 101)
Raiden and Jetstream Sam (Metal Gear Rising, Revengence)
Sam Gideon and Victor Zaitsev (Vanquish)
A2 and 2B (Neir: Automata)
It’s also worth noting that many games from members of Platinum Games, such as Viewtiful Joe and Godhand, would be prototypes for this. Special note to Hideki Kamiya, who was a director on Devil May Cry and part of the skilled group that helped bring the concept of the Vergil to life.
But what does Platinum do that no others do? What do they nail that creates such an entertaining Vergil?
You’re Trash at the Game (and that’s good!)
To me, Platinum is a company not afraid to tell you that you’re bad. It’s a company that’s willing to laugh at that participation trophy you got. It’s a company that does not pull punches. You’re better than this and Platinum knows it. Where other companies are afraid to remove your power, even for a second, Platinum understands that this is core to your growth. It’s only against adversity, against an enemy who is the ideal you that has mastered everything you barely scratched the surface of, that you grow as a player. They might seem cruel but this tough love follows you to the end, all the way to Platinum cheering you on as you face your rival, evolved and ready to show your growth.
The Vergil is a tough concept to execute. It’s a concept that you have to be careful of. Even when perfectly executed, it’s not for everyone. Yet this type of rival is often necessary and I leap at the chance to have more of them in video games. I want that terrible feeling of powerlessness as I face someone better than me. I desire that looming dread of having to fight them later down the line. I crave the fearful steps as you walk into the boss room and see your Vergil waiting to show you that he’s still better.
And most of all, I yearn to show Vergil that I’m the one who has beaten him.