If there was ever any doubt that Sega was the leader in video-game innovation, the string of games bursting with fresh ideas released during the current Dreamcast generation will surely lay any such fears to rest. Has there ever been such a wide variety of techniques, approaches or just plain whacked-out, kooky ideas from one publisher? I really don't think so.
A perfect example of such creative, atypical game design is Typing Of The Dead—published by Sega and designed by in-house team Smilebit. Typing Of The Dead is a bizarre little game, the likes of which has never been attempted before to my knowledge. Typing Of The Dead takes the entire content and framework of the arcade-style shooter House Of The Dead 2, but replaces the light-gun with a keyboard as the main method of interaction. Players still progress through the game in a first-person perspective while countless hordes of zombies, monsters and various other enemies attack, but the twist here is that each creature has letters, words or phrases floating in front of them. Players eliminate the unsavory elements by typing the appropriate combination of characters in a speedy and (hopefully) error-free manner. To add some spice, each stage contains one or two short challenges with special requirements in addition to the general task of zombie depopulation. The game also includes a full-fledged tutorial which instructs the virtues of touch typing, as well as a choice between Arcade, Original, Drill or Boss modes for gameplay enjoyment once a sufficient level of secretarial skill has been mastered.
Typing Of The Dead is a crazy, irreverent game, and such madness needs to be cherished whenever it appears, in my opinion. There's definitely an intrinsic, enjoyable quality to blowing off a zombie's head by typing the words "Rhythm Method." While some may not immediately see the appeal or value of a game that is played by typing, all it takes is five minutes on the keyboard to turn a crowd of naysayers into party people having a good time.
The main draw here is that the game is just raw, unadulterated fun. While House Of The Dead and its sequel House Of The Dead 2 were good gun games, Typing Of The Dead is just so much more enjoyable due to the funny words and phrases which add to the level of irreverence Smilebit aims at itself. With phrases and snippets like "I'll take him for 8 dollars." "La Dolce Vita," "Stop chewing on my toenails" and "Golf is seventeen holes too long," the silliness factor is a perfect match for the incredibly cheesy voices and stiff story scenes that the House series is famous for. The difference here is that it while it was embarrassingly bad in House Of The Dead, it works to create a comical B-movie atmosphere that makes people crack up while delivering the big sleep to hordes of evil leg-draggers in Typing Of The Dead.
A brilliant way the game subtly increases the appeal to people looking for a good dose of fun, the game has an excellent difficulty-adjustment system in place which makes sure players don't get overly frustrated. While going through a stage, the game will throw out long words and phrases with the first few zombies. If the player can type out the words quickly and with few errors, the zombies' floating marquees get longer and progressively more difficult the further a player goes without taking damage. Conversely, if a player's fingers fumble and you start losing chunks of flesh to the rotters, the game picks up on this immediately and shortens the required inputs starting with the very next enemy. Going from "Burned lingonberry pancakes" to "Disco ball" is a big difference, and makes it more enjoyable and accessible to those who aren't good friends with Mavis Beacon.
The negatives of the game itself are quite few in number, and not even really worth mentioning here in this review. That said, the biggest problems players should know about are actually the meta-game issues: hardware and ergonomics.
While playing with the Dreamcast keyboard (and also while using it during Phantasy Star Online) I noticed that it isn't a very high-quality piece of hardware. Frequently, letters that I'd type wouldn't register, resulting in misspellings and precious seconds lost while surrounded by slavering brain-eaters. Taking hits because I can't type "Taurine Hitman" is one thing, but taking hits because the keyboard isn't acknowledging the "R" stroke is quite another.
While speaking of the keyboard, I think it's also worth mentioning that typing under this kind of pressure is quite a different experience than typical keyboard users might be used to, and you may find yourself getting fatigued fairly quickly. Getting the keyboard set up in front of my video-game area while making sure it wasn't at a height harmful to my hands was a bit of a challenge as well, and I couldn't play it for very long periods of time no matter where I put it. The necessary combination of mental concentration and comfortable typing position can be very demanding, both physically and mentally, especially while trying to meet some of the game's required conditions. A comfortable desk and chair are both a must when getting into this game.
Finally, this game can be tough if you can't touch-type. I'm more than speedy when it comes to hunting and pecking, but the last two levels were really giving my neck a mild case of whiplash since I was looking up and down at such a rapid clip. It's not really a negative, but more of a warning to those with weak necks, or who lack previously acquired typing skills.
When all is said and done I'm not quite sure if Typing Of The Dead is a game that includes a typing tutorial or a typing tutorial which includes a game, but it ends up being one of those chocolate and peanut butter situations where the result is definitely more than the sum of its parts. The person working for Sega who approved this game for domestic release either had nerves of steel or just didn't give a damn. Whatever the true case may be, American players are the ultimate winners here by being exposed to this unique, quirky and incredibly fun experience. Those looking for something off the beaten track can't afford to miss it, especially considering the Dreamcast's uncertain future.