With Fire Emblem, Nintendo’s Attitude To Voice Acting Keeps Getting Stranger

With Fire Emblem, Nintendo’s Attitude To Voice Acting Keeps Getting Stranger

Nintendo has always done its own thing, and that has arguably never been more apparent than in the last two console generations. While the Switch has spanned both and enjoyed huge success, Microsoft and Sony leapt from the Xbox One and PS4 to the Xbox Series X/S and PS5 together. Where modern gaming places a huge emphasis on photorealism and gritty, grounded narratives, Nintendo knows it lacks the technical power to rival that, so most Switch games avoid realism in favour of stylised design.

In many ways, this is to the Switch's credit. While its games aren't as advanced as other consoles under the hood, they still rank among the favourites of the generation for both critics and fans, and if you take three of the top ten Switch exclusives, they look more visually distinct from each other than any three games exclusive to either Xbox or PlayStation. But one of the biggest differences with the Switch is its baffling attitude to voice acting.

It's easy to suggest that Nintendo just doesn't care for voice acting much, but that's an oversimplification that loses the truth. Breath of the Wild, the definitive Switch exclusive, is fully voiced (aside from Link, who has always been a silent protagonist). Meanwhile Fire Emblem, one of Nintendo's big guns a rung below the world-renowned likes of Zelda, is also fully voice acted. Cutscenes, conversations in your downtime, relationship building, victories, losses, and levelling up all come with substantial voice lines. Bayonetta 3, another major Switch exclusive, was also fully voice acted. But then, Bayonetta started as a cross-platform game, so it has a history to consider.

This is perhaps part of the point. Nintendo has been relying on the same stars for decades now. Nintendo's biggest games in the '90s were Mario, Pokemon, and Zelda. It's the same story today. The lower reaches have shuffled around – take out Metroid, add in Animal Crossing – but it's the same old Nintendo. Having a rich history that blows its competitors out of the water has been an important part of the Switch cornering the casual and family market, but it also needs an eye on the future.

Zelda has understood this. It keeps the legacy of Link but elevates the game for a modern audience who expect to hear their characters talk. With Super Mario Odyssey, especially on a replay, you notice how strange it is that the characters grunt and whine like they're playing tennis with a mouthful of spaghetti. Pokemon is even worse, with characters coughing or laughing for half a second to signify words leaving their mouths. It was odd playing Fire Emblem Engage, a series with less clout and more lines, have every single word enunciated when Pokemon still can't keep up.

I've fixated on Pokemon before, notably when New Pokemon Snap promised (read: lied) that it was going to have substantial voice acting, and when Pokemon: Legends Arceus couldn't even keep up with that. Voice acting is standard in modern gaming. It has been for a long time, but Nintendo has always gotten a bit of a pass for doing its own thing. But as some series modernise and others stay loyal to their legacy to a fault, it's starting to feel like a major divide. Fire Emblem Engage has some great vocal performances, but hearing them I couldn't help thinking what we had been robbed of in Mario and Pokemon.

That's not fair on Fire Emblem, if nothing else. I even prefer Fire Emblem to Mario, but it still felt strange that a game so clearly in their shadows as a Nintendo exclusive had a major advantage over them. It's not like Pokemon can't afford it, and for all Scarlet & Violet's faults, the narrative was its strongest asset and deserved a chance to develop fully. Nintendo has always done things differently, but with voice acting, maybe it should start following the crowd.

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