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.