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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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But Other M was already a fantastic cinematic title.

Posted by 
 on: 03/29/12, 20:34:33
Nice write-up, and good explanation on why the game's style of delivery works within that title. In fact, in a way, I feel that it's sort of taking the natural progression from what StarFox 64 did--having each stage have specific dialogue to it at specific points. KI takes it a little further, but SF64 still had characters bickering, complimenting each other, talking smack to bosses, etc. It's just a very good idea for a game like this, and keeps the player's actively attentive to multiple things at once.

On the delivery and tone specifically, I definitely agree that this was a good route to take for the series. The game basically unfolds like a really good Saturday morning cartoon, with high stakes and crazy action along with a heaping helping of silliness and fun. And the delivery is indeed lovely, with several lines popping up after one-another rapidly, or even some lines overlapping others. I almost get the sense that it was recorded in the same room with numerous actors at times--it has a fun feeling of both chemistry and spontaneity a lot of the time.

No idea where Zelda's going after this--that's a whole other can of worms.

Posted by 
 on: 03/29/12, 21:04:42
@carlosrox Eh. It was a good game. The cinematics were not so good.

Posted by 
 on: 03/29/12, 21:08:00
great article... I think the Voice acting is up to not just the actor - but the director/producer.

Other M's 'creator' really messed up in that regard. While Other M's voice acting is not the worst, Sakamoto kept telling Jessica Martin (Voice of Samus) to keep her V.O as monotone as possible - her comments in an interview told us it was really hard to do that. I believe if she was able to act out the script (even though it wasn't the best) a bit better, Other M would not stand out as a Nintendo game that failed in the voice category. Other M wasn't bad..but it wasn't great either. It's not Martin's fault.

However I do believe that Nintendo can do a really decent job with a Zelda script - provided they delegate enough dollars.


Posted by 
 on: 03/30/12, 04:23:24
Just my 3 cents....

1. Kid Icarus Uprising is blowing my mind - it's so good. Gui touched on it but I just want to emphasize that the voice acting is good because the WRITING is good and the DELIVERY is good. The fact that they can keep it up for such amazing amounts is so far above and beyond it's silly.

Lots of modern games have voice acting. Lots of them are lackluster at best. But, people don't usually seem to have such high standards.

As with ...

2. Metroid Other M... a big part of the problem was Samus was so well-established and many people did not think she sounded/talked like she does in the game. So, there was a harsh cognitive dissonance and the result was the result. With Pit, the character only had one game prior, 25 years ago, and some baby-steps of voice acting in a fighting game. There was a LOT of freedom in place.

Also, Metroid fans, like myself, REALLY LIKED Other M.

Evidence: http://www.metroid-database.com/forum/viewtopic.php?f=11&t=3710

3. I thought the backlash to Other M would have kept Nintendo away from voice acting for at least another decade. Granted, KIU would already have been well in to production, BUT, it is possible that the glowing praise for KIU could make Nintendo reconsider future voice work in its projects. I just hope it doesn't think it always has to be silly or self-referential to do so effectively!

Posted by 
 on: 03/31/12, 09:58:31  - Edited by 
 on: 03/31/12, 09:58:57

Ehhhh... I disagree. Most modern games that have voice acting have good to excellent VA. I can't remember the last time I played a game and thought to myself "man, this voice acting is horrible". That was more a problem last generation, this gen pretty much every major HD release has quality VA. It's standard.

Posted by 
 on: 03/31/12, 11:09:47
@Oldmanwinter Usually the games that I think of with really shitty VA tend to be Japanese, and even there, we haven't had many games lately where it was like...egggggh...Except for maybe something like Sonic Generations.

Posted by 
 on: 03/31/12, 19:37:30

Well, when I said "lackluster at best" I was referencing a range from say "stilted" to "meh." Not "horrible."

Posted by 
 on: 03/31/12, 19:47:37
Great article, Gui. Up to your usual fine standard.

I agree with your conclusion that there's no reason to see Uprising as proof that Nintendo is committing to modern presentation values. But they definitely showed they could do it, here. (Or, at the very least, that they could get Sora to do it.)

Posted by 
 on: 03/31/12, 19:53:10

Translations can be tough as context and meaning can be lost when switching languages. In that sense, I think games that originate from Japan have a tougher hill to climb when it comes to quality English voice acting.

But I agree with OMW on this one. As a rule, I've found that Western-developed games have matured just fine in the voice acting dept. I'm sure there are stinkers here and there, but by and large I've found the voice acting from this territory to be on par with television and film production standards.

It just doesn't seem to be an issue or a nut to crack any more.

Posted by 
 on: 03/31/12, 20:09:31
Again, the acting part of "voice acting" is fine in a lot of games.

But watching the beginning of the footage here and comparing it to Kid Icarus, it's night and day.

Mass Effect 3 - Demo Gameplay footage 13minutes par Xboxygen

It doesn't flow. It's stilted. It doesn't sound like dialog in an action movie would sound at all. I'm sorry but I guess we'll have to agree to disagree.

Posted by 
 on: 03/31/12, 20:48:41

Because I had never watched a shred of Kid Icarus footage, nor do I own a 3DS to play it on I actually had to watch some videos to see what you are talking about.

Honestly the VA seems solid, like you said it's reminiscent of a good Saturday morning cartoon... in fact I think that's and excellent comparison based on the ten or so minutes of footage I watched.

I don't really see how it's better than pretty much any major release I've played this entire generation, and if we are being honest a whole bunch of games from last generation as well. I agree the flow between the characters seems to be natural and it works well given the apparent context of the game, however if the argument is now that this is the new standard by which games should be judged I'm just flat out not seeing it.

I mean here is Jak 3 which I believe came out around 8 years ago:

The voice acting was excellent, even the better part of a decade ago.

And as to Mass Effect I'm not going to deny that the video you posted didn't blow my socks off. That said, as we both know, the reason Mass Effect is considered to have good VA is due to the massive dialog strings you get to control, not the throw away dialog between characters (though seriously that video just confirmed why I haven't bought this game yet) as they move point to point.

All that said I'm not disagreeing with you that this game seems to have very good VA. It also looks fun as shit, honestly I had zero interest in this primarily because I don't own a 3DS, however if I ever end up buying one this will be day 1. Looks like a lot of fun.

Posted by 
 on: 03/31/12, 21:14:26
I think the thing to remember here is that this is a Nintendo-published title, and not a Nintendo-developed title. Kid Icarus Uprising was developed by a third-party company, as was Metroid Other M, and it was their decision, not Nintendo's, to use voice acting. So, don't take this as a sign of what's yet to come, because it's unlikely this means we'll start seeing voices in Nintendo-developed titles like The Legend of Zelda.

NinSage said:
With Pit, the character only had one game prior,
Actually, he had two games. There was a second game released on the Game Boy titled "Kid Icarus: Of Myth and Monsters."

Posted by 
 on: 03/31/12, 21:23:08
@Mop it up

Isn't it more second party developed than third party?

Posted by 
 on: 03/31/12, 23:43:25
@warerare I'm not entirely sure actually. I didn't think Nintendo owned Sora, but with the way they've been working with Nintendo recently, maybe they bought them out. Though, I thought Sakurai got tired of working under Nintendo's restrictions, which is why he left HAL, so I wouldn't think he'd want to be tied to Nintendo again.

Posted by 
 on: 04/01/12, 00:08:10
VA is one of the reasons I'd love to play KI...but for now I can't really buy any games anyway, and the controls just look abysmal to me.

Posted by 
 on: 04/01/12, 00:28:29
@Mop it up

Yea, yea, I know about the GB game but.... let's say he had 1.5 prior games. Since even fewer people are aware of that game and it was, to my knowledge, almost like a remake of the first game.

Posted by 
 on: 04/02/12, 07:25:56
Having finished the single player mode, I can attest to the fact the voice acting in Uprising is carried through flawlessly to the very end. There's simply a lot of great and genuinely funny dialogue throughout the game, with a large cast of characters besides Pit and Palutena. It can seem pretty overwhelming sometimes though, as the chatting becomes nonstop at times. When you're so focused at times on the intense battles it becomes more difficult to follow the conversation and it's easy to miss some of the subtle humor, but other times when there's a break in the action, the dialogue flows seamlessly from one section of the level to the next.

Because the game encourages replaying levels multiple times, you will easily have the opportunity to engage in the conversations all over again and pick up on stuff you may not have listened to the first time around. Now that's what I call great design.

And for those who get annoyed by the voice acting for whatever reason, at any point you can simply pause the game, go to options, and lower the voice volume as much as you want. You can even switch subtitles from the top screen to the bottom screen to reduce the clutter where the action is taking place, if you so desire. Options! So many options.

I definitely love it when they reference stuff directly from the NES Kid Icarus, and other Nintendo franchises are thrown in for good measure.

Yeah, I suppose this leap forward in voice acting and presentation is centered heavily on this particular franchise itself and the direction Sakurai wanted to take it, but I really hope this attention to presentation impacts other Nintendo franchises as well.

Posted by 
 on: 04/18/12, 17:22:53

I wouldn't call Of Myths and Monsters a remake of the original Kid Icarus. It definitely has its own thing going on. The only strike against it right now is its obscurity. When it comes to the 3DS store, inevitably, I suspect a lot of people will say they like it better than the original. That's not my view, but I think it's probably a respectable view to take.

roykoopa64 said:
Yeah, I suppose this leap forward in voice acting and presentation is centered heavily on this particular franchise itself and the direction Sakurai wanted to take it, but I really hope this attention to presentation impacts other Nintendo franchises as well.

Agreed. But even if it doesn't have an effect on other Nintendo franchises, I hope we get more Kid Icarus games from this same group of talented writers and actors. Keep 'em coming while the team is together. While I agree with OMW that this level of excellence isn't unheard of in the games industry, it's still in the upper percentile.

Honestly, I'd love to see a cartoon series. It seems like it could work in a classic TMNT, mug-to-the-camera sort of way. I mean, I might not watch it, but I'd be happy to know it was out there entertaining the kids.

Posted by 
 on: 04/18/12, 20:04:36  - Edited by 
 on: 04/18/12, 20:07:09
I think the VA in Kid Ick is pretty good. Personally I think the humor falters more than it delivers, but that's a personal thing; I think they successfully captured the morning cartoon vibe and that style just doesn't do all that much for me other than provide my eye roll muscles with some exercise.

Posted by 
 on: 04/18/12, 20:17:43
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