Before video games became the cinematic, multi-faceted explorations of humanity that we know them as today, things were a bit different. The transition from 2D to 3D meant that games could be a bit more ambitious and characters would go from text bubbles to sometimes fully-voiced avatars. So as games like Metal Gear Solid and Legacy Of Kain: Soul Reaver were creating the template that other games would follow, many of the early attempts weren’t so fortunate. But while that may seem like a bad thing, it managed to create a diverse catalog of games with voice acting that managed to endure to this day.
Due to the CD-based nature of the PlayStation 1, developers were granted a large playground of disk space to work with. This meant that their main competition, the Nintendo 64, was left in the dust in terms of the ability to produce games with voice-overs. The N64 could certainly do it, but the size advantage of PS1 couldn’t be ignored. These titles had to make do without the complex performance capture and top-notch recording studios of today, relying on the charisma and honesty of the actors.
Koudelka was a fascinating and often forgotten gem from the 1990s that shares a bit in common with games like Parasite Eve and Vagrant Story. It’s a survival horror role-playing game that ultimately led to the creation of the Shadow Hearts franchise. The humble beginnings of this series started with Koudelka, a title that makes use of some of the most spectacular CG cutscenes seen on the platform. Combining brilliant cinematography and gorgeous lighting, the visuals of the story sequences were hard to beat. But when it came time for the characters to speak, things took a turn.
The halting, stilted nature of the performances is exacerbated by the hollow quality of the recordings. Some of the dialogue sounds like it was recorded in the basement of the manor where the game takes place. But there is a sort of earnestness to the acting, featuring a cast of likable protagonists and a collection of somewhat goofy villains that lean into their pest-like roles.
7 Alone In The Dark: The New Nightmare
As a franchise, Alone In The Dark was on something of a hiatus after the third entry released in 1994. In 2001, Darkworks and Infogrames released a reboot on the PlayStation with the subtitle The New Nightmare that brought series lead Edward Carnby out of the roaring twenties and into the then modern day. Along with Aline Cedrac, Edward sets out to solve the murder of Charles Fiske.
The two leads make use of a beefy script, one that is dripping with B-movie bona fides. Their chemistry feels oddly natural, even while the line deliveries are leaving a lot to be desired. In a way, it feels as if Alone In The Dark was rebranded as a television show in the vein of something like The X-Files or Smallville. The villains are draped in cheese and the NPCs are suitably awkward. Each part adds to the intriguing mystery that unfolds over the course of the game, while each new character and performance contributes to the surreal vibe.
Marvel’s flagship hero has spent a lifetime in video games, first appearing in the self-titled release on the Atari 2600 and Odyssey 2 published by Parker Brothers. Since then, he has starred in his own solo titles and guest-starred in others. But it was the PS1 game that was the first to feature a fully-voiced version of the web-slinger in a video game. While this sounds like an amazing thought, the performances err on the side of cheese more often than not.
Ultimately, they all have one thing in common; all of them sound like they are ripped out of some sort of bizarre, forgotten 1990s Spider-Man cartoon. Mysterio edges just on the side of camp, while Rino Romano is taking his previous performances as the webhead in Spider-Man Unlimited and ramping it up to 11. It’s corny, goofy, and altogether strange, but at the end of the day, it feels like a silly Bronze Age comic book come to life.
5 Castlevania: Symphony Of The Night
Today, Castlevania is an IP that Konami appears to be slowly bringing back from the dead after two well-received collections of legacy titles. But before it slowly sank into the ether, Castlevania was one of the most ravenously popular franchises in the industry. From a strong library of handheld releases on the Nintendo DS and Gameboy Advance to its iconic roots on the original NES, Castlevania went on to inspire many an indie game developer.
In 1997, Konami released Castlevania: Symphony Of The Night on the PS1 to universal acclaim. Renowned for its map design, music, and pixel art, the one area of Symphony Of The Night that ended up as a brilliant misfire was its voice acting. Whether it’s the now iconic “What is a man?” speech, Richter and Alucard’s unusual conversations with Maria, or the humorously operatic performance of the dark priest Shaft, there’s absolutely no shortage of strange and surreal line readings in this landmark title.
4 Dino Crisis
Capcom was riding high on the wave of survival horror frenzy after releasing Resident Evil in 1996, which lead to Shinji Mikami leading a new division inside the company known as Production Studio 4. One project completed by this studio in its early days was Resident Evil 4, while the other was a fascinating new title named Dino Crisis.
Like Resident Evil, Dino Crisis featured 3D polygonal characters rendered from fixed camera angles, but this title used 3D environments as opposed to 2D pre-rendered backgrounds. Another familiar aspect of the game from previous survival horror entries by the company was also present; a cast of 80s-style action heroes and numerous bouts of unintentional comedy. The gruff, commanding officer known as Gail is a hammy, over-the-top caricature, while Rick and Regina feel very much at home in the brash, headstrong hero archetypes.
3 Mega Man Legends
By 1997, Mega Man had become a superstar in the realms of the 2D action-platform genre. Whether it was the mainline series or the X spin-offs, Mega Man had become a staple of 2D. But Capcom wanted to do something different with the Blue Bomber, leading to the development of Mega Man Legends. This 3D action-adventure game is set in an impressive world that feels very free and open to explore, easily the game’s best asset.
Meanwhile, the voice acting tends to range from downright bad to hilariously brilliant. Each character is packed with expression, however, thanks to the game’s fantastic texture work. The end result is what feels like a long-forgotten English dub of a Japanese anime. Characters are overtly broad and often silly, making odd noises and shrieks. It’s endlessly charming in its absurdity.
2 Syphon Filter
It didn’t take long after Metal Gear Solid launched to critical acclaim in 1998 for other companies to want a stealth-action game of their own, leading to the development of Syphon Filter. After a one-page synopsis was delivered to Edetic, later acquired by Sony and renamed Bend Studio, the game released to positive reviews.
But like so many games in the early days of voice acting, it was cursed by what afflicted so many titles at the time. Gabriel Logan is doing his best Solid Snake impression, while the terrorist group known as the Black Baton are led by the delightfully cheesy Erich Rhoemer.
1 Silent Hill
While Capcom had the survival horror genre on lock, Konami was full-steam ahead on a different approach; psychological horror. Silent Hill was all about trauma, focused on the intricacies of the human psyche. So while their competition was focused on action heroes fighting off hordes of monsters, Konami took a left turn.
All the characters in Silent Hill sound bored or like they’re sleepwalking. The baseline feels like it starts at zero and stays there for the duration, which creates an odd, dreamlike quality to the game and all of its characters. None of it sounds natural or real, but there is something about the vibe of it that feels soothing to listen to even all these years later.
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