Nintendo fans have debated for years whether characters like Link should be voiced. Voices can add substantial depth to storytelling, but games that minimize voice acting can be imaginative and charming experiences in their own right. Nintendo has used both approaches where appropriate, though it’s fair to say that the majority of Nintendo’s games use little spoken dialogue. Mario’s handful of catchphrases and Link’s infamous grunts are defining aspects of those characters, which contrasts with more narrative-driven series like Fire Emblem with full voice acting. The divide between story and gameplay-centric titles seems like a clear-cut guide for when voice acting is appropriate, but Nintendo has straddled this line in recent times with examples like adding voice-over to The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. Nintendo is trying to find new value in voice-overs and that begs the question: Do Nintendo games need voice acting?
The charm of Nintendo
Love it or hate it, Nintendo has managed just fine without voice acting so far. In many respects, it makes perfect sense. Shigeru Miyamoto is famous for his approach to game design that prioritizes gameplay over stories. Most Super Mario games are remembered for their platforming mechanics, and the Legend of Zelda series has also received boundless praise for its gameplay and design over its storytelling chops (though not for lack of trying).
If you pick almost any Nintendo franchise at random, the chances are you’ll find a similar result. A lack of voice-overs hasn’t affected the widespread praise and success of Nintendo’s biggest hitters, even when those games place a bigger emphasis on story, such as with The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening.
Nintendo’s philosophy on gameplay over story seems to be a carryover from the NES and SNES eras, where limited hardware space imposed restrictions to storytelling. But over time, the short catchphrases of mascots like Mario have become defining traits of the characters. If part of the charm of Nintendo is the simplicity of its characters, it seems unlikely that it would want to mess with that formula.
Nintendo also likes to let its players insert themselves into the roles of the protagonists, which is likely why Link remained silent in Breath of the Wild. However, this mixed approach to voice acting in Breath of the Wild also signals that contemporary Nintendo might be trying to find new value in the potential of voice acting.
Would voice acting add anything to Nintendo games?
Broadly speaking voice acting might add value, but it depends on the type of game. Story-driven series like Fire Emblem or Xenoblade Chronicles with branching dialogue options or intricate cutscenes strongly invite voice acting. Voice acting can make characters more sympathetic, reduce the likelihood of misinterpreting a scene, and enhance the impact of important moments. The Star Fox and WarioWare series especially showcase how voices can add more humor and personality to a game. Voice acting absolutely adds value to Nintendo games with colorful personalities or elaborate narratives.
Games like Super Mario or Donkey Kong are a different story. Given that these series have minimal cutscenes and more memorable catchphrases than actual dialogue, it’s unlikely that voice acting would add anything worthwhile. Voice-over is therefore completely optional in gameplay-driven titles, until the day that Nintendo decides to craft grander tales for future entries in these franchises.
So, is the answer to restrict voice acting to Nintendo games with a bigger narrative focus? Unfortunately, it isn’t that simple. Breath of the Wild is the prime example of Nintendo trying to have its cake and eat it too. Voiced characters alongside a mute Link was a test with mixed results. It added gravitas and impact to the central story beats, but with Link silent while others spoke, it left a disconnect. (Dragon Quest has faced this same disconnect.) Breath of the Wild demonstrates that there is potential in the value voice acting can bring, but it depends on how far Nintendo is willing to go with it.
It should remain optional
Nintendo might be investigating the potential of voice acting. It is constantly experimenting with how to introduce more creativity in game design, and voice acting could be a part of that. Instead of thinking about the distinction between story and gameplay-focused titles, it seems Nintendo might be more likely to consider voice acting on a case-to-case basis. Breath of the Wild’s cutscenes are few and far between, but when they appear, the voice-over work usually adds extra depth to the characters, even if the results are mixed. If Nintendo is willing to experiment like this, then perhaps we could see more voice acting in Nintendo’s future.
The Zelda series seems like a natural candidate for this, and perhaps Metroid Prime 4 would also benefit if it has some well-produced cutscenes and an impressive narrative. In the cases of games like Donkey Kong, it probably wouldn’t be worth adding, and with series like Splatoon, it might actually take away from the fictional voiced language that characters already use.
Perhaps Nintendo will experiment with the concept a little more and reserve it for a brand new franchise down the road. It could also be handy if Nintendo ever decides to reboot a series such as Golden Sun. Regardless of what Nintendo decides to do, voice acting clearly isn’t a necessity, but it could be an appreciated surprise for any new IP or major reinventions of legacy titles in the future.
Would you like to see Nintendo do more with voice acting?