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Voice acting and presentation in Kid Icarus Uprising: Nintendo getting it right?
Editorial by 
March 29, 2012, 07:53:59
Nintendo has been slow to adopt voice acting in its games, to say the least. In fact, the process is still ongoing, as most of its major franchises are doing without it, or very little of it. Link is still mute, and Mario yelps, and the inhabitants of their worlds continue to express themselves in speech bubbles. After experiments with the Super Metroid intro (which contained a brief clip voiced by one of their employees) and fully voice acted cheese in StarFox 64, someone at Nintendo must have said “If we’re going to do things on the cheap, we might as well not do them at all”. And then the voice acting stopped.

Nintendo has since produced fully voiced games such as Eternal Darkness and certain Rareware titles, and the quality was on par with contemporary games, but one must wonder if the fact that these games were made by western studios, staffed with directors and producers who spoke the language natively, led to this success.

The most recent Nintendo title with voice acting before Kid Icarus Uprising, Metroid Other: M, was not generally well-received by fans or critics alike, and seemed to support my fear that Nintendo would not put the resources necessary into voice acting to make the endeavor worthwhile. Nintendo is notoriously cheap when it comes to certain presentation elements that some fans clamor for: sure, you can count on them for hiding away load times or making games with a clean, polished look, but hiring an orchestra for the soundtrack of a game? Unthinkable! So it only makes sense that the same Nintendo that doesn’t want to pay musicians would not especially want to spring for decent voice actors and voice directors.

Kid Icarus Uprising challenges that idea, however: the people who dislike the banter between Palutena and Pit are definitely the minority. By and large have praised it, and so have Negative Worlders, definitely.

Is Kid Icarus Uprising evidence that Nintendo finally “gets it”, heralding a new era for Nintendo’s games, one finally in line with the values of contemporary AAA blockbusters, with Hollywood talent and orchestral music (because KIU has that too)?

I’d like to think so, but I am afraid it is way too early for the people who wanted Nintendo to “get with the times” to cry victory yet. I think a lot of the success of Kid Icarus Uprising’s cinematic presentation hinges almost entirely on the game’s tone and design.

The tone, yes : the game is a comedy. The hero Pit and the invisible goddess helping him, Palutena, constantly exchange quips with their tongues firmly planted in their cheeks, breaking the fourth wall continually by making references to the original game on the NES. References not to the events in the game, but the video game itself. The dialog is actually clever and well-written, which should surprise no one who has played the Mario & Luigi or the Paper Mario series: Nintendo of America's Treehouse (their localization team) know how to write comedy.

That comedy is delivered with all of the energy and irreverence you'd find in a well-made Saturday morning cartoon. Now I will not argue that comedy is easier than tragedy for an actor as I've too often seen good jokes made flat due to poor delivery. That said, it may be a bit easier for the audience to understand what the actor is going for: exuberance sounds exactly what it sounds like, there is no confusion possible. Whereas the actress aiming to give Samus an emotionless or detached voice in Metroid: Other M can easily be thought of simply being monotone or doing a poor job.

The game's design also plays a huge part in the success of the voice acting: timing and pacing are very important when trying to keep dialog lively and interesting. But how can you ensure that your dialog will flow well when players might decide to go off exploring on their own, ignoring the creator's desire to keep the quips coming and the banter smooth? You put the player on-rails, of course! Half of the game is actually an on-rails shooter, after all, and is arguably the most robust mode in the game.

But even when the game gives you control over your own feet about midway through each level, they still heavily restrict what you can do and where you can go. A lot of time is spent in corridors, just one narrow path that you must walk down on. Sometimes, you might have a bigger room that you will quickly have seen every inch of, and then there is no other way to go but forward. The game even blocks you if you try to retrace your steps! All of this ensures that it never takes long before the next bit of dialog is triggered, and keeps the story and the jokes flowing.

Now my point isn't that you can't have good voice-acting in a more open game, obviously that is not true. But I do think that you cannot achieve the same effect. Personally, I've only seen this kind of banter that never skips a beat between the protagonist and his sidekick in two other games: Uncharted, and Batman: The Brave and the Bold. And both are also very linear experiences that constantly push you forward with their design. Have the same actors and the same writers as Kid Icarus work on the next Zelda, with its NPCs that you can visit and revisit and have repeat the same thing over and over again, and I assure you it will not impress you nearly as much. ESPECIALLY if the game still requires you to press A to trigger the next line of dialog.

So in conclusion, Nintendo has hit the voice acting ball out of the park with Kid Icarus Uprising, however I would not take it as a sign that Nintendo will nail that aspect of presentation consistently from now on. KIU happens to be particularly well-suited for memorable dialog that flows naturally, so much so that it may very well have been designed around it. It is definitely a good omen for parents tired of having to read the text in Mario games to their preschoolers, but Zelda fans hoping that their favorite franchise will get the same treatment may have to brace themselves for a few more Other M-like efforts yet.

And if nothing else, we've got at least one FANTASTIC cinematic game from Nintendo now, and that is something I didn't think could ever happen. This is crow I'm eating with a huge smile on my face.

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Posted: 03/29/12, 07:53:59  - Edited by 
 on: 03/29/12, 07:57:37    
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Very well written! Couldn't have said it better myself.

I love the voice acting in this game and it's comedic presentation. And from what I have read on other message boards and heard from other people, the majority are loving the game. There are a few that complain about the non-stop chatter, but I think these people have no sense of humor, or maybe they just wanted something with a more serious tone.

Life overall is taken too seriously, I want that smile to be put on my face and I want to laugh out loud.

Yea, I think Nintendo is getting it right, at least with this game. Heck, I've even seen several peeps refer to the game as a system seller. Makes sense to me.

Posted by 
 on: 03/29/12, 08:13:26  - Edited by 
 on: 03/29/12, 08:13:46
I don't have the game yet but, one of the things I'm most looking forward to, after watching video of it, is the banter between Pit and Palutena. It makes me wonder if they will eventually do something like this for Link and any future companion.

Posted by 
 on: 03/29/12, 09:35:44
Great editorial, Gui.

Posted by 
 on: 03/29/12, 10:39:40
First off, Gui, this is a fantastic editorial; however, I have my own opinion on this matter. I never understood the hatred of text reading in certain games that Nintendo makes. For example, Skyward Sword never bugged me, Super Paper Mario was perfectly fine, even with all of its insane amount of text, and games such as Mario Galaxy and other platformers were fine without voice acting. BUT, I feel that Kid Icarus, and star fox, to that extent received voice acting out of necessity. Those games are about all-out-action and to stop between levels for dialogue would be unthinkable. A fast paced action game of this calibur NEEDS fluid voice acting to keep the momentum going and the game interesting. The voice acting, however, turned out to be brilliant in Kid Icarus and that is due to the writing and the actual talent of the actors.

With that said, I would not be upset if Nintendo still ignored voice acting. Do I think the upcoming Paper Mario or Animal Crossing 3D needs voice acting? NO. I actually think those two games would lose charm with it. Do i think upcoming games such as Fire Emblem and Luigi's Mansion 2 need voice actiong? OF COURSE.

Posted by 
 on: 03/29/12, 15:11:05

I don't have a problem with having to read text either, and in fact I've said before that I'd rather not have voice acting than bad voice acting, or even the risk of bad voice acting. And it's kind of what made me write the editorial: I had always thought that Nintendo's first efforts would be painful to hear just like what we've heard from them before, and that they would never invest enough into it to truly make it good. But Kid Icarus got it so right, I have to eat crow, though ultimately I don't think it will work this well with all their franchises.

The problem with text in Skyward Sword or Twilight Princess is how goofy it looks during many cutscenes. More and more in Zelda games, we get close-ups of the characters faces and we even see them move their lips... silently, as a text scrolls in a box. At best we get a moan or a laugh (done by an ACTOR)... voice acting is desperately needed if they are gonna continue on that route.

Posted by 
 on: 03/29/12, 15:22:41
One of the few Japanese-developed Nintendo games in recent memory that I can think of (besides the aforementioned Metroid: Other M) that had lots of voice acting was Super Mario Sunshine. It wasn't fully voice-acted; just during "important" cut scenes. And I suppose F-Zero GX also had lots of voice acting (especially for a racing game) but I'm not sure if that counts. It was developed by SEGA's former Amusement Visions team, not Nintendo. And then there have been the console Fire Emblem games, which again featured voice acted cut scenes, but not during general gameplay (not unlike Super Mario Sunshine).

There have also been some Western-developed Nintendo games that have a ton of voice acting; Punch-Out!! comes to mind of course, as well as Retro's Metroid Prime 3: Corruption. And I thought those were great for what they were.

Honestly, I don't believe Nintendo has been *too* far behind with voice acting. The most prominent example of them being "behind" is of course with The Legend of Zelda. Everyone wants those games to be fully voiced, but Nintendo (or more specifically, Miyamoto) keep saying no. But outside of that franchise, have Nintendo *really* not been doing voice? I mean really? I'm not entirely convinced. And I think the only game that has honestly questionable voice acting is Metroid: Other M, but even that isn't the worst I've ever heard. Some Namco games come to mind sooner than that as far as examples go for bad voice acting. The story in Other M wasn't great, but it wasn't the voice acting that held it back.

Also, one more thing:

Guillaume said:
Now my point isn't that you can't have good voice-acting in a more open game, obviously that is not true. But I do think that you cannot achieve the same effect. Personally, I've only seen this kind of banter that never skips a beat between the protagonist and his sidekick in two other games: Uncharted, and Batman: The Brave and the Bold. And both are also very linear experiences that constantly push you forward with their design.

Have you not played Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time or Prince of Persia: The Two Thrones?

------- Other than that, this was a fun read and I enjoyed seeing things from your point of view. And indeed, Kid Icarus: Uprising rocks!

Posted by 
 on: 03/29/12, 15:22:46  - Edited by 
 on: 03/29/12, 16:40:55
@Guillaume I think the next Zelda NEEDS voice acting, but it doesn't need back and forth banter from link and other characters. Link can remain silent. BUT, can you imagine if skyward sword had voice acting. HOW EFFING ANNOYING would Fi have been if instead of a flasghing icon, she was constantly telling you to get more hearts, etc. Zelda needs voice acting, but the presentation and style of the game would have to change a lot.

Posted by 
 on: 03/29/12, 15:40:08
Also: does Xenoblade count as a Nintendo-developed game? It includes a lot of voice acting, and I'm pretty sure Monolithsoft is owned by Nintendo. Right?

... well, at the very least, we can chalk that game up as another "Nintendo-produced" title with lots of (from what I understand, pretty decent) voice acting.

Posted by 
 on: 03/29/12, 15:52:43
@GameDadGrant yeah, xenoblade is technically a first party game. Nintendo owns monolith and they funded the development.

Posted by 
 on: 03/29/12, 16:13:52
Great write up.

I'm anxious to see what Nintendo does with their flagship titles on Wii U in this dept. Kid Icarus makes the future look bright indeed.

You raise an interesting point about dialogue pacing in association with linearity in games. While I agree that a developer can deliver a more focused narrative by strictly controlling pacing through linearity, I've seen too many examples in games with a different framework that show pacing, narrative and voice acting can all work in concert even in titles of a more open nature.

Posted by 
 on: 03/29/12, 16:44:00

Right. I know there are other Nintendo games with adequate voice acting. But I'm not satisfied with "adequate video game voice acting". The bar is extremely, extremely low. I know I'm pickier than most in this respect and that many others disagree, but frankly voice acting in games needs to improve drastically before reaching the level of cartoons. And I don't think the fault lies in the actors hired, but more in the way the dialog is directed, edited and presented.

@New Forms

And I'm sure I'd disagree with that list, haha. It's really not all about the talent of the voice actors, for me. You could have the best voice talent in the world, if the dialogue doesn't flow naturally, then it feels like lines of dialogue being read aloud. And that's bad. I know you liked Deathspank, for instance, and I think the voices themselves in that game were good. Deathspank sounded like the pompous idiot that he is, so in that way, the voice acting was spot on. But the delivery was too slow and, worse, the pause between two lines during dialogues was a beat too long. And because of that, IMO, the whole thing fell apart. The game wasn't as funny as it could have been.

Posted by 
 on: 03/29/12, 16:59:54
I'd credit this more to Sakurai than Nintendo. This may be similar to how he throws in a billion options in Smash Brothers while other Nintendo franchises ignore them (looking at you Mario Kart). Or just how his games in general are... different. I suppose we'll have to wait and see if this game spurs on anything similar from Nintendo in the future.

Posted by 
 on: 03/29/12, 17:18:33

I'm talking more about the tools that devs use to deliver story rather than the quality of the voice acting itself.

I totally agree that a game with a strictly linear path has an easier job of delivering a tightly-paced narrative. If it's on rails then the dev calls all the shots on when and where to deliver story points.

However, I do think titles outside of that structure can be equally effective in the storytelling dept.

When you think about it. Storytelling in all games is about the player hitting trigger points where the next piece of the narrative is unveiled. It can be direct conversation. a voiceover, a cut scene, a bit of text found in a book, whatever. The point is that when the player reaches a certain node point, the next part of the story is unveiled.

In more open games, this can be done about as effectively as linear games even though the developer has less control over the pacing. In BioShock, the player found voiced audio logs scattered throughout the game world that fleshed out the story of Rapture. The framework makes sense because you are essentially alone in a underwater city after the “normal” people were long gone (kind of like Metroid Prime’s scanned data entries).

In full-on open world games like Red Dead Redemption, the player sets their own pace and main/side stories are doled out as they please when they activate the next part by triggering available mission nodes. I like this style of gameplay as much as linear titles, but only in a different way. In RDR there was a bunch of solo stuff you could do outside of the story like hunting, botany collecting, etc. I like the freedom of open-world because I can play any way I want based on my mood at any given moment. Sometimes I would come home tired, and just want to putz around, collecting animal hides, looking for hidden items, treasure hunting from maps, etc. Other times I wanted to plow through the story parts and get lost in the narrative.

Thing is, I don’t think the narrative suffered in RDR in the least because of the freedom given to me. In fact, the ending in RDR is one of the most effecting and memorable ones I’ve witnessed this gen.

So all in all, I think developers set out with different goals in mind when deciding what kind of game they’re making and what level of freedom they’re giving the player. Ultimately, strong narrative can be presented regardless of which route they choose.

Posted by 
 on: 03/29/12, 17:41:10
@New Forms

Yes, there are many ways to effectively tell a story in a game, sometimes nearly completely silently, like in Super Metroid or Limbo, etc. Narrative and storytelling aren't the focus of this editorial, however.


You may have a point. Still, people at Nintendo gotta be playing Kid Icarus right now, right? Fingers crossed...

Posted by 
 on: 03/29/12, 17:59:32  - Edited by 
 on: 03/29/12, 18:00:45
@Guillaume I hope so. Nintendo is confusing though, sometimes it seems like the left hand doesn't know what the right hand is doing. Well, I guess pretty much all large developers are like this, but Nintendo is the one I care about most so I notice it most.

Whoever the heck is making Mario Kart needs to look long and hard at Smash Brothers one of these days.

Anyway, to get back on topic, I will add myself to the list of "Kid Icarus has good voice acting" people. It's fun and entertaining. I actually thought it would be more obtrusive based on early videos but it works fine.

Posted by 
 on: 03/29/12, 18:04:40

Right. I read a lot of the editorial as a study on pacing in game design and how it effects the quality and impact of narrative.

That's what I was addressing.

Posted by 
 on: 03/29/12, 18:06:10
@New Forms

Fair enough, it just wasn't a concern of mine when I wrote it. Sure, the game's story is conveyed through this voice acting, but it's almost incidental. Most of the banter is just Palutena, Pit and sometimes the boss shooting the shit. Same with Batman: The Brave and the Bold, same with Uncharted.

After the buddy movie, the buddy video game. What the hell, I'm getting the urge to give Kane and Lynch a shot right now...

Posted by 
 on: 03/29/12, 18:09:54  - Edited by 
 on: 03/29/12, 18:11:12
Metroid Prime 3: Corruption also had some limited voice acting and that was on par with other contemporary 3rd party games. I think as long as development is not in house there is a good chance for Nintendo published games to have appropriate voice acting. Other M's script just plain sucked so I am not sure if it was the VA's fault or the script's fault there. And Kid Icarus was developed by Project Sora which isn't an in-house Nintendo studio as far as I know.

Posted by 
 on: 03/29/12, 18:14:29  - Edited by 
 on: 04/02/12, 18:58:53
More like: Nintendo going above and beyond the industry standard.

Kid Icarus should be a trend setter when all is said and done, a game that is used as a blueprint for how to do light-hearted voice acting right, for years to come.

Posted by 
 on: 03/29/12, 18:20:07
I think Prince of Persia: Sands of Time was an earlier precedent for the whole 'banter during gameplay' thing. That game was a bit less linear, so it didn't flow as well, and Farah and the Prince weren't commenting on the actual gameplay so much, but it still worked very well.

But here's the real question: Do you really WANT Navi to be voiced?

Posted by 
 on: 03/29/12, 19:51:11
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