When Sega first released The House Of The Dead into arcades in 1996, and subsequently onto the much-loved Dreamcast console a year or two later, there were few signs that it would give mutate and give Mavis Beacon a run for its money. The original game – and its sequels – was an on-rails light gun shooter. You pointed your pretend gun at the screen, you shot zombies, stress melted away almost as fast as the coins left your pocket. Until it got to the really hard bits and boss battles. Subsequent sequels would follow a similar pattern, until enthusiasm for zombie-blasting lightgun games seemed to peter out.
But before it petered out, it took one of the strangest left turns in videogaming history (I don’t say that lightly), as House Of The Dead became the best typing tutor game ever created. One spun out of a title ostensibly about blasting zombies and pretending to give two hoots about the plot.
The catalyst for the project appeared to lie with Sega WOW, later WOW Entertainment, an in-house division of the Sega company that was spun into a semi-independent entity, and then spun back again a few years later. It came up with the idea of an arcade cabinet laden with a QWERTY keyboard, taking the House Of The Dead game and adding an educational angle to it. It sounded an odd plan, and certainly when Typing Of The Dead arrived in Japanese arcades in 1999, there were many who would still have regarded it as such. But beyond the initial novelty value, it was quickly clear there was something to it.
The game really came to prominence, though, when a further Sega division, Smilebit, developed a version of Typing Of The Dead for the Sega Dreamcast. It did it in a tongue in cheek way, as the game’s characters now carried keyboards with them, and backpacks too, with the necessary processing power. The characters bashed away on words, as zombies melted away. It wasn’t always the most logical thing to explain to passers by, but personally, I tended to be too engrossed to try. Still, the game was released in 2000 (although it never got a European Dreamcast release), and a PC conversion arrived later in the year.
That version did make it to the UK eventually, and it’s here where I first encountered it. In hindsight, I think it may be one of the most stressful computer games I’ve ever played.
The idea is very simple. Instead of shooting things, you typed what appeared, and every letter you got right – assuming letters were typed in the right order, and other such demanding details – equated to a blast from your gun. Big zombies needed lots of blasts to kill (thus, long words, and occasional sentences), smaller ones could be flicked away with a mere Z. Or Q. Or T. Or whatever the game wanted you to press.
But as fast as you typed, you were never far away from another swarm. Thus, the excitement I felt at blasting the first few zombies that appear soon gave way to ohbloodyhell as four or five clambered off the floor and started walking towards me. And that was just on the easy level.
If you were bold, and went on the harder levels, the game started generating nonsense words. If you didn’t know your way around a computer keyboard, you weren’t getting far. Even if you did, you were in trouble, I’ve seen a professional typist virtually brought to tears by the game.
It’s worth contextualising all of this, too. At this stage, the PC typing tutor market was dominated by the Mavis Beacon series of products. First introduced in 1987, Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing soon became a hit, and the go-to application for those looking to brush up on their keyboard skills. Some trivia for you, too: Mavis Beacon never existed. Whilst the picture on the front of the box was originally of Caribbean model Renee L’Esperance, Mavis got her name from the singer Mavis Staples, and the idea that a beacon is a guiding light.
For all the qualities of Mavis, though, hers was a fairly by the numbers, playing things straight typing tutorial (albeit mixing in a few fairly tame games over time).
Typing Of The Dead was anything but.
It certainly lacked some of the subtleties that Mavis had to offer, but its strict approach to getting you typing – if you can’t get it right, you died, effectively – certainly had some merit to it. You could argue, not unreasonably, that what happened here was that the exact game was ported with just another control methodology bolted on top. Yet it was such a lateral idea, it’s easy to understand why someone felt it was worth a go.
I’m glad they did. Over a decade after I first bought the PC version, as many other computer games of the era gather dust in my cupboard, Typing Of The Dead gets a regular run-out. It’s because it’s far more than the novelty it appears. The core House Of The Dead game underneath it, with its multiple endings in tact (like many of us got to see them), is diverting enough. But trying to kill a zombie by frantically typing ‘ukelele’, ‘tango’, ‘throbbing’ and ‘piggyback’ into a beaten-up keyboard is something that I’ve never experienced anything close to in any other game.
Sequels have followed since, with the Grindhouse-inspired Typing Of The Dead: Overkill landing four years ago. But it’s the original that’s worth seeking out, long out of print and routinely fetching £15 for the PC version on eBay.
Why, I wonder, wasn’t all educational software designed with zombies as part of the package?
My colleague, Ryan, once argued of the excellent Alien: Isolation game that the one thing you could fault it for was that it so stressful and tense, it meant it wasn’t always fun to play. I think there’s an argument for that with Typing Of The Dead, too. But there’s also an argument for lateral thinking, for trying something different, and taking a bit of a risk. If that can get someone typing the word ‘dizziness’ correctly for the rest of their days too, then I think we can all agree that life has been enhanced by Typing Of The Dead’s existence…