In the post below, I credited Capcom with historically providing "hyper-responsive gameplay." I was thinking specifically of the Street Fighter series, but the same description could be fairly applied to Mega Man, Viewtiful Joe, and Devil May Cry. I'm currently playing my way through Devil May Cry 3, as part of my attempt to catch up on the notable games I've missed during the current generation (this will probably also merit its own post at some point).
Imagine having to learn Street Fighter again from scratch. I'm talking tabula rasa. Imagine not knowing how to do a quarter-circle motion on the d-pad, or how to charge backwards for two seconds. Imagine not knowing instinctually how to buffer attack commands. Not only would you suck at the game, but you'd probably give up trying pretty quickly. This is how I felt about DMC3. It took me about two hours of gameplay before I stopped tumbling down the sheer face of the learning curve.
The comparison isn't perfect, because DMC3 shares a lot of the action/adventure prerequisites like double-jumping and item-based puzzles. But the combat system is conceptually more similar to Street Fighter than to Prince of Persia. I'll try to explain it as quckly as possible before your eyes glaze over.
Dante, the main character, can attack with a sword and with a gun interchangeably. One button is mapped for each type of weapon. Additionally, he can carry two of each type, and switch between them on the fly. So, without any interruption in gameplay, you can attack with four different weapons about as fast as you can press four different buttons. You can do several different attacks with each sword, based on different directional inputs. You can do aerial attacks and interact with environmental objects like poles and walls. Although you can lock on to a given enemy, unlike in most games that doesn't preclude the horde of other fiends from also attacking you. Finally, you are rewarded for accruing "style" points, which basically means that failing to make your attacks as diverse and creative as possible results in a penalty. On top of all that, the enemies and boss fights are difficult to the point of cruelty.
It's an amazing game.
It's amazing because there's no point at which you're not in complete control of what's happening onscreen. Hence the difficulty, but hence the reward. There are games in which a small input on your part results in a disproportionately large action onscreen. There are also games in which you feel like you're really outworking what you're seeing on your monitor. Devil May Cry 3 requires serious manual dexterity -- you have to have a finger on all four shoulder buttons at all times -- but it all pays off in the feedback you get. Because Dante's foes can absorb so much punishment, there's no shortage of extended, eye-popping combos you can pull off. And just like in Street Fighter, the combos work because at any point you can change what you're doing. You don't have to wait for your sword-swinging animation to finish and reset before you can start blasting away with your pistols.
This is something I wish more game developers would try to focus on from the outset. I'm certainly not against fancy animations or the context-sensitive action commands that have been popping up everywhere lately (such as in Tomb Raider: Legend and Capcom's own Resident Evil 4). But it's important to remember that any kind of barrier between the control pad and the onscreen action had better be there for a damn good reason.
(Devil May Cry 3: Special Edition is available for $20 as part of the PlayStation 2 Greatest Hits collection.)