Since Nintendo first gave us the opportunity to K.O the Iron Mike Tyson in 1987’s Punch-Out!!, the gaming community has been somewhat obsessed with the concept of popular figures of the day popping up in our beloved gaming landscape.
We’ve had everything from the downright outrageous, with Michael Jackson and the Clintons following in Tyson’s footsteps and donning gloves in Ready 2 Rumble Boxing: Round 2, to the more appropriate recent entry of Terry Crews turning his hand to the aptly explosive Crackdown 3 (seriously, check out the opening cutscene when you can, it’s worth his fee alone).
Seeing this playable version of an Old Spice commercial got me thinking though, of the highs and lows these appearances have brought over the years. Consequentially, I have taken it upon myself to collate a list of such moments, to take you along on this ride with me. I’m only including either whole performances or mere cameos from those not usually associated with the medium, meaning no Mark Hamill’s Joker, and no pre-existing characters, so Negan rocking up in Tekken 7 is ruled out too.
5th Worst: Revolution X – Aerosmith
Back when the industry was still trying to figure out the best way to implement celebrities into games, this little gem of an on-rails shooter was released. As players attempted to rescue the rock group Aerosmith from a corrupt, music-hating government (yes, seriously), this appearance reeked of a cash grab.
The band feature for no discernible reason other than to put cash in their pockets, and recognizable faces into the game. But trust me, the distorted audio of classic tracks terrible appropriation of Steven Tyler will have you mistaking them for the enemy, not the hostages.
5th Best: Little Big Planet – Stephen Fry
Talk about a match made in Heaven. When Little Big Planet was first announced, with its homely aesthetic and quaint platforming, it was hard to imagine how developer Media Molecule could get the game to appeal to a wider audience. Enter, Mr. Stephen Fry. The Brit’s immense charm and comforting tones slap you in the face from the second you boot up the game, totally immersing you in Sackboy’s world.
Fry even drafted in his good friend Hugh Laurie (aka House) for the sequels just for good measure, but the original title nevertheless stands as an excellent template for completely understanding the tone of what you’re putting your name to, and running with it.
4th Worst: RAID WW2 – John Cleese
I just cannot see the logic behind this one, why employ a member of arguably the greatest comedy group of all time, only to shoehorn them into an action game? The result was… jarring, to say the least. Cleese appears in full motion scenes before missions, as a special forces handler, spouting expository dialogue and pep talks that clearly were not written with such a legendary figure in mind.
This appearance stays relatively higher up the list since these scenes are arguably the high point of this otherwise mediocre game; it’s hard not to smile when you see John Cleese, but what a waste of the talent available.
4th Best: Grand Theft Auto Series – Various
Is this cheating? There’s just too many to choose from! In particular, GTA 4 included stand-up sets from Ricky Gervais and Frankie Boyle, before its sequel gave Cara Delevingne her very own radio show. Little touches like these really help sell the believability of the world, making it feel more lived in, the kind of attention to detail that sets Rockstar apart from its contemporaries. The pinnacle performance of these games though, comes from a certain Samuel L Jackson, taking on the role of LSPD Officer Frank Tenpenny in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas.
The rival series Saints Row attempted to emulate this success by taking things to the other end of the spectrum, with the likes of Hulk Hogan, Keith David and Burt Reynolds lending their voices to suitably caricatured cast members. But, none better encapsulated their respective universe better than Jackson’s layered and nuanced portrayal of a corrupted cop; someone you just love to hate.
3rd Worst: Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare – Kevin Spacey
Age has seriously ruined this one. Upon release, Spacey felt a good fit as the inevitably evil military contractor, thanks to his undeniably stellar work in roles within Se7en and House of Cards. Nowadays though, just… ew.
After various sexual misconduct allegations lead to many shunning his entire body of work, seeing the actor in a position of such power simply has too many negative connotations, bringing an awkwardness that overpowers the entire performance. A man like that trying to take over the world? Too real. Let’s move on, quickly.
3rd Best: Call of Duty: Black Ops – Call of the Dead’s Entire Cast
Now, this is more like it, Call of Duty. A pure love letter to the work that the Zombies game mode arguably owes its very existence to. Throw together some icons of the genre, including Buffy and Freddy Kreuger themselves, and have them be chased by a virtually invincible grandaddy of the undead? Tell me you aren’t excited.
Even aside from this incredible concept, each member of the cast does a stellar job. Fully embracing the campy B-movie tone, portraying the pinnacle, yet new, version of their respective known works, each actor’s performance feels definitive and unique. With cheesy lines, over the top delivery and a constant sense of awareness, this is a triumph of understanding your audience and celebrating your medium.
2nd Worst: Fallout: New Vegas – Matthew Perry
Similar to John Cleese’s attempt to enter the gaming world, Matthew Perry is possibly too closely associated with his past work to convincingly sell himself to an audience of a new genre. Unlike Cleese though, this isn’t even a particularly good showing from the actor. Despite being a fan of the series, the performance is as flat as a pancake, with Benny being arguably the least intimidating gangster even put to screen.
Whilst possibly due to some poor writing, with cliche after cliche coming from Perry’s lips, there just still lacks a pop, a spark that could grab the player’s attention. This should’ve been a passion project from the most charismatic actor best known for a show about likable people, but came across as a high tier Kickstarter reward.
Anyone could have voiced Benny and the results would have been about the same, with many not even identifying the big name providing the voice, begging the question of why such a figure was brought in in the first place.
2nd Best: Brutal Legend – Jack Black/Ozzy Osbourne
The best celebrity appearances are the kind that can only be played by one name. Jack Black’s performance in Brutal Legend is such an appearance; it simply wouldn’t be the same game without him. Unlike the previous entry, this character was clearly written with a specific actor in mind and reaps the benefit of such a clear vision. Black is suitably exaggerated as Eddie Riggs, a roadie tasked with preventing armageddon in basically his dream universe. His delivery perfectly encapsulates the tone of the game, with a kid in a sweet shop kind of wonder seeping into every line.
This heightened, nod and wink vibe is reflected in the game world too, with various references to rock royalty scattered throughout the landscape. The best of which (and arguably the highlight of the whole game), is Ozzy Osbourne’s cameo as The Guardian of Metal, whose brief appearance somehow manages to upstage the veteran Black. These roles don’t just serve as fan service, they elevate the whole experience to another level; turning it to eleven if you will.
THE WORST: Destiny – Peter Dinklage
Cashing a paycheck is the only way to describe this utterly bland performance. So, you’re experiencing your first steps in the highly anticipated new series from the creators of Halo, and your guiding voice, the one aid you have in this strange new world, couldn’t sound less interested if they tried.
This entry earns its place as the lowest of the low on this list because of the potential it held – you’re constantly, painfully aware of who the voice belongs to and the type of performance he can give. Instead of the sense of grounded wonder usually associated with the Emmy Award-winning actor, we ended up with line readings which constantly felt like a first take. Hardly gripping stuff.
It was so bad, most people have erased it from their memory. When I asked the other members of the n3rabl3 team for suggestions for entries on this list, no one even mentioned Dinklage’s turn. Peter. Dinklage. One of Hollywood’s biggest names, part of arguably the most popular TV show ever, just completely skipped over. If that doesn’t tell you how spectacularly dull this performance was, then check it out for yourself; just make sure there’s a bed nearby, you’re going to need it.
THE BEST: Portal 2 – Stephen Merchant
Simply put, Stephen Merchant is Wheatley. Holding his own against heavyweights such as the iconic Ellen McLain and experienced J.K Simmons, Merchant carries this entire story, with his arc propelling the plot through every twist and turn. Fittingly then, the performance is such a rollercoaster itself: with Merchant endearing himself to you within the opening scene, making you miss the ball bearing when GLaDOS seemingly disposes of him, before ultimately transcending his comedy roots by turning in a performance in the latter half of the title that is genuinely villainous; making Wheatley an actual force to be feared.
Every line uttered by this stupid AI just works. Every joke lands, the emotional beats are powerful and his change of heart is a classic plot twist template, surprising, yet foreshadowed through the performance’s subtle mannerisms. Unlike every other entry on this list, Wheatley is quotable in a way gaming characters do not usually achieve, for all the right reasons. This is gold standard for video game voice acting in general, let alone from someone outside the gaming bubble, it will most certainly stand the test of time for decades to come.
I had to sit through some truly terrible clips as research for this post. I saw some things that have scarred me forever. Fortunately, though, it was much harder to choose between the many positive performances from celebrities than it was to identify the missteps from them. As time goes on, developers have developed a much better understanding of how to get the best out of their famous puppets, getting them to contribute to the overall experience instead of serving as mere shock value. Who knows where we go from here, with titles like Death Stranding featuring a cast most movies would be proud of, but I for one am damn excited for the performances the future holds.