Once upon a time Sega, in a moment of what can only be described as pure and perfect Seganess, decided to take their popular zombie-shooting arcade title The House of the Dead 2 and replace the lightguns with… keyboards. In arcades. And they did this on purpose. Against all odds, common sense, and frantic calls from investors The Typing of the Dead was a huge success for a game that unapologetically mixes touch typing drills with an undead outbreak, spawning multiple sequels and more home ports than anyone imagined arcade zombie typing would, could, or should, ever do. And if zombies can make typing for typing’s sake an enjoyable pastime, then what else can they do? Wait, what can’t they do? I can only assume this was the fragmented thought process that lead to English of the Dead, Sega’s educational reimagining of a city-wide monster panic with handwritten English letters replacing the quickfire keystrokes and virtual bullets of old.
Your heroic task this time around is to view incoming Japanese words and then quickly and correctly scribe their English equivalent on the DS’ touch screen, each word awarded a rank from C up to S on completion depending on how fast you filled in the blanks. Although fraught with potential technical pitfalls even with only the standard DS stylus in hand stroke recognition is quick and accurate when under undead pressure, the only misfires arising if there happens to be a big difference between the way the game expects you to write English characters and your personal handwriting style. The good news here is you’re not left desperately scrawling in the dark as the manual dedicates a few pages to clearly illustrating the expected stroke order and direction for every letter, and the game is not so strict you have to trace print-perfect characters onto the screen – or even bother dotting your “i”s – so long as you produce something along the lines of what it’s expecting and you’ll be fine.
Unlike the arcade game its based on your route through this scholarly mayhem is a fixed one: Some people will always die (sorry, That Guy In The Little Red Car), some doors are always shut, and a few locations have either been appropriately adjusted or skipped entirely for the hardware’s sake. You’d think this would feel disappointing – especially if you’re a huge fan of the original’s optional twists and turns – but between the gleefully absurd gameplay and the simple fact Sega were able to get a recognisable and educational remix of one of Sega’s ambitious and impressive arcade titles running on the DS at all can only feel incredibly impressive under the circumstances, and to ask or hope for anything more would only feel unreasonable and unrealistic. To further ease the load on the DS (and your fingers) chapters are split into three segments each with a continue/back to the main menu screen at the end of them as well as the ability to stop playing at any point before then at the touch of a button, resuming that part (rather than the entire chapter) from the beginning whenever you feel the need to. From the main menu you can also choose to play any chapter you’ve reached so far, work your way through a short but very helpful interactive tutorial, or tackle just the end of stage bosses alone. This easy access to whichever part you want to have a go at all helps to emphasise the welcoming nature of the game’s challenges: This is supposed to be something picked up for fun or as a quick bit of language practise, it’s not supposed to be a serious sit-down “please turn over your papers now” test.
But isn’t it cheating just a little bit if you play when you already know (American) English? Well… that really depends on the difficulty level you’re playing on, as well as exactly what you’re hoping to get out of the game: If you choose to play on easy (and it is a choice – goodness knows nobody has any business policing how someone else plays a zombie-themed language learning game) the Japanese text is always accompanied by the entire English word underneath, so all players need to do to succeed is copy out the English characters before the monster attacks. While nobody fluent in English has to engage with the Japanese text on this difficulty level it does still have its uses for the language-curious, simply by giving people the opportunity to see the same word displayed in two writing systems side-by-side. Normal difficulty displays some, but not all, English characters underneath the Japanese text, and hard only tells you how many letters are needed to spell out the expected English translation, meaning English-fluent players will have to either be able to read the Japanese text or wait for the game to speak out the correct English word instead. Personally speaking I do find it useful – any chance to have Japanese vocabulary thrown at me can only help, and it even brought up a few words it hadn’t occurred to me I didn’t know yet (such as the Japanese for “garlic”).
To inject a little variety into proceedings – usually at least at a segment’s mid-point as well as the boss – a mission will pop up, asking you to do something like select a word to complete a sentence, match a Japanese phrase with the correct English one, construct the correct sentence from a limited set of words, or to write out words themed around a particular subject – colour, for example, within a tight time limit. Successfully completing the task awards a helpful item that can be used if things tricky later, for example auto-revealing English text for a short period of time so the user only has to copy out the answer. Further assistance on all difficulty settings comes in the form of a hint button on the lower screen – a quick prod of this will reveal one letter of the current word, so long as your hint bar (located across the bottom of the main window) has got enough energy in it to activate this help. Still not sure what you’re supposed to spell out? Just jab the button again!
Whether you’re playing to learn or playing because you can’t quite believe English of the Dead actually exists the game really is a lot of fun to play – it revels in its absurdity and frequently makes family-friendly concessions to its wider educational audience in the most comedic ways it can imagine: Zombies shamble on screen carrying anything from squeaky hammers to bananas, and when Goldman throws himself off the roof at the end of the game the redesigned cutscene takes great pains to show a bright yellow bungee cord attached to his leg that then stretches until its taut, and then bounces him right back up to the same place he started in. The game even makes a point of recapping the plot of the first The House of the Dead – just, y’know, so you’re properly up to speed on all the really important details of this zombie-riddled adventure before you get down to some Sega-developed learning.
As easy as it is to call English of the Dead silly, I cannot stress enough that it’s always silly in a sensible way, the bizarre disconnect between the setting and being asked to spell out “Rat” then “Pancake” by some monsters leaping out of a canal, or standing before a towering boss monster with an open chest demanding you pick the correct English response to “How was the movie?”, encouraging recognition through genuine understanding rather than rote memorisation (enemy placements are predetermined, but the words they bring up are not) or educated guessing through context. By repurposing an already ridiculous arcade game Sega have softened the edges of what can sometimes be a dull or discouraging learning experience, reaching an audience who may have otherwise found themselves struggling to connect with hefty textbooks, dry audio clips, and “please label all the rooms on this crude drawing of a house” exercises (pulling examples from my – and sadly my son’s – school language lessons there). English of the Dead is no replacement for good teaching or organised and dedicated self-tuition, but it’s an enjoyable way to get some meaningful practise in without even realising you’re being taught.