This week’s journal may become the first in a series. I have a fair amount of topics that fall under the banner of “the importance of voice casting.” Let me know in the comments if that’s something you’d like to hear more about and if there are any specific shows or other projects that you think should be highlighted!
If you know me personally, you know I love video games. It’s no great secret; I’ve been playing them all my life, and, honestly, I’ve made a lot of my friends over the years through our mutual love of games and gaming. My first system was the Super Nintendo Entertainment System, and one of the first games I can remember playing was Super Punch-Out!! (I’m not just throwing exclamation points in there willy-nilly; that’s how every Punch-Out!! title is) I have very fond memories of renting the game with my brother and trying to see how far we could get that week.
Cut to around 2015 or so. Punch-Out!! for the Wii had been out for about six years and was released on the Wii U’s Virtual Console. I’d been meaning to play the game for a while, so I decided to pick it up digitally and play. I quickly became entranced and played through as much as I could before I returned to school. Unfortunately, once I put it down, it would be years before I came back to it.
During those years, however, I continued educating myself on voice acting. Not just on techniques but also on industry practices and trends.
Last year, I rediscovered the Game Grumps and decided to watch some of their series. One I particularly enjoyed was Punch-Out!! for the Wii. I soon began devouring a lot of YouTube videos on Punch-Out!!, both old and new, and two that really stood out to me were Gaijin Goombah's take on Punch-Out's!! racism and Extra Credits’ analysis of Punch-Out's!! animation. Both spoke to me because of a common theme: the update of the original NES Punch-Out!! to the Wii and what it meant.
If you don’t want to watch the videos, what they boil down to is this: Next Level Games took a game full of ridiculous stereotypes based on race and turned them into characters. Extremely stereotypical characters, but ones with charm and personality instead of uncomfortable racist overtures. While I don’t think that the series is completely absolved of its problems, I absolutely think that it’s a step in the right direction, and I think a huge part of that step is because of the voice casting.
According to my research on Behind the Voice Actors and IMDB, the voice cast in Punch-Out!! were chosen not based on their talent but instead on their native languages. That’s not to say they aren’t talented. In fact, I would love to hear all of these actors in more projects, especially if they were to reprise their Punch-Out!! roles. But if you look closely at the cast, with the exceptions of Richard Newman, Kenji Takahashi, Juan Amador Pulido, and Takashi Nagasako, this game is their one and only voice credit. I have found no other evidence that they have done any other voice work or even any other acting projects, though that may simply be due to a lack of a relevant information database in English.
What this tells me is that the priority for Next Level Games was not to hire voice actors who could approximate accents and languages for these characters but to instead have speakers from the same countries as the characters in order to achieve authenticity. They still hired actors who did an amazing job (I’m personally particularly fond of Erse Yagan’s Bald Bull) and that added to the overall charm of the game. A quick caveat: I’m not certain if Stephen Webster, who plays Aran Ryan, is Irish, so this claim might not be true for all of the English speaking roles.
This can be compared to the early years of voice acting becoming prominent in video games. If you are unfamiliar with what I affectionately refer to as “the dark times,” I encourage you to look up cutscenes from Mega Man 8, Mega Man X4, and Resident Evil. ...I just realized that all three of those were from Capcom, which was completely unintentional. But I suppose I can go from there. Capcom, in all of these games, chose to use takes from the actors that sounded good to them as Japanese speakers. Unfortunately, this led to some very questionable choices and ultimately some inadvertent and infamously hilarious voice over work. Eventually, localization moved out of Japan and the voicework improved overall as a result.
Of course, this is all coming from the perspective of a native English speaker. If you or anyone you know speaks one of the languages represented in Punch-Out!!, please let me know if the performances are as good as I think they are.
In any case, my hat is off to you, Next Level Games, for trying something different. It makes your game stand out in such a positive way, and I hope you do similar work in the future.
Before I begin, I wanted to explain the purpose of this journal. It will be a collection of ideas, opinions, and speculations related to voice acting, voice actors, and practices by studios. It is important that I say that these opinions are my opinions and mine alone. They may be derived from other sources, which I will do my best to credit, but overall, I want to use this space to express my thoughts on certain aspects of the VO world. They will not be about clients I have had, classes I have taken part in (without the teacher’s permission), or agencies/studios/other voice actors I’ve worked with at any point. There may be anecdotes about experiences I’ve had (this particular post is full of them), but I will never make a blog post lightly unless the subject material itself is of a light nature, and I will never belittle or shame anyone. Thank you.
One of my very first memories of recognizing a voice actor was while watching CatDog. During an episode where Cat and Dog imitated and mocked each other, I listened to Cat’s Dog-voice and had a rather sudden epiphany: I was hearing the voice of Bonkers D. Bobcat. I needed to know who this actor was, but as my family didn’t have any sort of internet, my only resource was to look through the credits of both shows and do my best to see which names came up in both. Thankfully, it wasn’t too difficult to realize that the incomparable Jim Cummings was the talent behind both. As an unintended result, however, I began noticing that Jim wasn’t the only actor in multiple shows. Suddenly, I became more aware of actors such as Tress MacNeill, Rob Paulsen, Maurice LaMarche, Cree Summer, Billy West, Grey DeLisle, Phil LaMarr, Kath Soucie, Corey Burton, Tara Strong, Jeff Bennett, and many many more.
Shortly thereafter, my family did get the internet, and I became well-acquainted with the Internet Movie Database. For about five years, one of the most common things you could hear me say was “IMDB is the source of all knowledge!” Though obviously not true, it would not be an exaggeration for me to say that IMDB was my obsession. Before the days of TV Tropes and Reddit, I was scouring IMDB for every bit of voice acting trivia I could find, mostly in regard to the actors themselves, and I even submitted some information of my own.
The internet changed a lot for me. Suddenly, I had names and faces for people I hadn’t previously known who were responsible for large sections of my childhood. I became familiar with Andrea Romano, who is still my favorite voice director of all time. I saw what Jim Cummings looked like. I found pieces that these wonderful actors had written.
My ultimate goal at the time, however, never came to fruition. No matter where I looked, I could not find places to send fan mail in either digital or physical form. I couldn’t let these people who were so important to me know exactly how important they were. Eventually, I gave up on the goal and settled for writing MySpace posts about them. (Yes, I am of the MySpace generation)
Skip forward to the year 2012. I had been a resident of Seattle for about five years at that point and had been attending Emerald City Comic Con on and off for about four of those years. Suddenly, I saw an absolutely huge announcement: there were going to be voice actors at ECCC! And not just any voice actors, but Kevin Conroy, the voice of Batman! Tara Strong, the voice of Bubbles and the new voice of Harley Quinn! John DiMaggio, the voice of Wakka from Final Fantasy X! Billy West, the voice of Fry and Doug Funnie! Rob Paulsen and Maurice LaMarche, the voices of Pinky and the Brain! I didn’t talk to many of the actors, sadly, mostly because I was simply starstruck. The people I’d spent years admiring from afar were right in front of me.
From that point onward, I went to ECCC every year and met some of the most fantastic voice actors. Most of them I’ve already mentioned, but I wanted to highlight a few in particular.
I’ve also met plenty of “normal” celebrities at ECCC as well, including David Tennant, Gina Torres, and Alan Tudyk. There’s no denying that meeting them has also been a blast and a half.
There’s something special about meeting voice actors. Something absolutely unique and fantastic. Something that seems to separate voice actors from other celebrities.
The best voice actors are surprised that you know them.
I’m not kidding. Time after time, voice actor after voice actor, I would see these people I’ve admired, worshipped even, come out, see the people waiting for them, and their faces would just shine with amazement. And when you talk with them, they are genuinely surprised with how much you know of their work, how much it means to you, and how important they are to you personally.
I’m not trying to demean other celebrities. They are fantastic people and deserve the praise that they get. But there is a difference, and I think it all has to do with visibility. For the longest time, voice actors have been unseen with the exceptions of specials highlighting them. But they’re behind-the-scenes people. They generally don’t worry about fame or notoriety. They don’t have to get on Hollywood’s Top 10 Best Dressed or anything like that in order to stay relevant, to keep their careers afloat. Voice acting is an arduous journey, and I’ve yet to meet a single voice actor at ECCC who didn’t absolutely love their work. They have to. And it shows in how they react to their fans, the ones they didn’t even know they had.
Honestly, who knows if this will stay true? With the internet integrating itself in our lives more every day, voice actors are more visible than ever, for better or worse. I’d like to think for the better, but I’m also willing to bet we’re going to see more “prima donna” voice over artists. For myself personally, I’m just excited that I have ways of reaching out to my idols and letting them know how much they matter.
I’ll still come see them at cons. Because nothing beats meeting your favorite voice actor. If you don’t believe me, give it a try. If it doesn’t make your day, I’m willing to bet, you’ll make theirs.