Welcome back to That’s Edutainment, which looks at educational video games of the past and considers whether they hold up today, focusing on their development and on the relationship between education and entertainment.
Today, we’re looking at one of the more unexpected educational titles of the early 1990s, a game born of two seemingly disparate genres: Mario Teaches Typing. We’ll examine the trends that contributed to the title’s development (with an in-depth look at its forebearer Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing), its commercial and critical reception, and its remarkably enduring legacy.
The header image is from MobyGames, and all references, visual and otherwise, are cited throughout.
Meet Mario: The Superstar Plumber
By 1991, Mario was a genuine phenomenon, both as a character and as a brand. Introduced as Jumpman in the 1981 arcade game Donkey Kong, the monosyllabic plumber quickly grew in popularity, becoming the mascot of his own franchise two years later with the 1983 arcade game Mario Bros. It was moderately successful, but its follow-up, 1985’s Super Mario Bros. for the Nintendo Entertainment System, eclipsed it in commercial success and critical acclaim, selling over 40 million copies worldwide.
Multiple similarly successful and acclaimed games in the series followed; 1988’s Super Mario Bros. 3 would later be included in the Library of Congress as one of the most important video games of all time, and 1990’s Super Mario World sold more copies than any other title made for the Super Nintendo Entertainment Console. It was only natural, then, that spinoffs and franchising opportunities would emerge – especially in the fields of television, puzzle games, and, to no-one’s surprise, the burgeoning genre of educational software.
At the same time as the Mario franchise was building and expanding throughout the 1980s, however, another phenomenon was on the horizon: the rise of touch-typing software.
Meet Mavis Beacon: The Face of Typing Software
Designed to improve the user’s typing skills, touch typing is said to have been invented by an American, Frank Edward McGurrin, after he won a typing contest in Cincinnati in 1888. It would take just under a century later for touch typing to be utilized in educational software, and more specifically, edutainment.
In the 1980s, typing software ran the gamut from instructional products, such as IBM’s Typing Tutor, to more entertaining fare often themed around space, such as Typo Attack, developed by fourteen-year-old David Buehler and published for Atari’s 8-bit computers in 1982.
Typo Attack, with its gameplay reminiscent of arcade titles like 1978’s Space Invaders, is a clear example of the ‘arcadeification’ of educational software that occurred in the 1980s. (This may come as no surprise, given that it was created by a teenager.) The most popular and perhaps best-remembered touch-typing program from this period, however, was designed with a more instructional bent.
Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing was developed by U.S. studio The Software Toolworks and released in late 1987. Software Toolworks was founded in Sherman Oaks, California in 1979 by programmer Walt Bilofsky and expanded in 1983 with the help of his cousin, Joe Abrams. The very first iteration of the game was by Berkeley-based programmer Charles R. Haymond, and was subsequently adapted for MS-DOS by Bilofsky and two other programmers: Mike Duffy and Norm Worthington.
The idea for Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing was conceived by Les Crane, a Grammy-winning, larger-than-life figure who had previously worked as a radio jockey and ABC talk show host in the 1960s and 1970s. (One of his claims to fame was being the first talk show host to book the Rolling Stones on U.S. television, bringing him into direct competition with Johnny Carson.) Crane eventually pivoted to the software industry, becoming the manager of distributor Software Country, which merged with Software Toolworks in 1986.
Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing “stars” Mavis Beacon, a fictional teacher who only appeared on the box art in the game’s initial release. Beacon was portrayed by Haitian model Renee L’Esperance, who Crane met in 1985 when she worked as a perfume saleswoman at Saks Fifth Avenue in Beverly Hills. L’Esperance had the “warmth and compassion coupled with confidence” sought by Crane for the character, and Duffy described finding L’Esperance as “like [legendary actress] Lana Turner being discovered at Schwab’s (drugstore).” Mavis Beacon’s first name was inspired by iconic R&B singer Mavis Staples – “a favourite of Crane’s” – and her last name was “from beacon, as in a light to guide the way.”
L’Esperance, dressed in a “conservative outfit that befitted a typist” (a suit purchased by Crane), posed both for the cover – with what Crane described as her “three-inch fingernails”, impractical for a typing instructor, placed carefully out of frame – and for a full-length photo with a “pupil,” in actuality the five-year-old son of Software Toolworks employee Joe Abrams. The entire photo shoot took less than a day, for which L’Esperance was paid only $500.
Creating a fictional character played by a real-life figure to serve as the face of a computerized title was a familiar strategy for Software Toolworks, who had previously anthropomorphized their game Chessmaster 2000 by hiring character actor Will Hare to appear as a wizard on the title’s front cover, to great success. (The Chessmaster photoshoot cost $10,000, but it’s unknown how much (if any) of that money went to Hare, who passed away in 1997.)
The fact that Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing had a Black woman on its box art led to concerns that it might affect sales in less progressive areas of the United States (and the title did have lower-than-projected advance orders), but a positive review in The New York Times in November 1987 spurred sales and cemented the game’s popularity. (A quote from the review even adorned the box art of subsequent releases.)
Despite the game’s enduring commercial success, L’Esperance – who was reported in 1995 as living in the Caribbean – never received residuals for her work. (Abrams admits that Software Toolworks fell out of touch with her after 1990, when the company moved from Los Angeles to San Francisco.) The only money she ever saw was the $500 she received for that one-day photoshoot, over three decades after the game was first released.
As educational software, Mavis Beacon is at once fairly straightforward and impressively detailed; its exercises include a metronome and a clock, as well as charts to track one’s progress.
Most relevant here might be the title’s racing minigame, which is the closest Mavis Beacon comes to the ‘entertainment’ side of edutainment. This minigame may have reinforced that touch typing could not only be presented in an edutainment context – it could also be profitable. I was unable to find how many copies were sold of the original Mavis Beacon, but the Seattle Times described the title in 1995 as “by some estimates … the bestselling program of any kind for Apple’s Macintosh.”
It’s important to understand just how popular touch-typing software – and in particular, Mavis Beacon – had become in the late 1980s; how much sway Software Toolworks held over the market; and how much potential existed for that market to grow and become competitive.
And this is where Mario joins the party.
Duelling Studios: How Mario Teaches Typing Was Born
Perhaps surprisingly, Mario Teaches Typing was not developed or published by Software Toolworks. Instead, it was made by Interplay Productions, a developer/publisher founded in 1982 in Irvine, California. Interplay was marked by a youthful energy despite its employees’ experience; in 1987, “all of [Interplay’s] employees were still well shy of thirty.” By 1990, the studio was already well-known for its roster of popular and commercially successful adventure and role-playing titles, including Bard’s Tale, Neuromancer, and Wasteland.
Mario Teaches Typing’s executive producer (and Interplay co-founder) Brian Fargo spoke to IGN in 2017 about the studio’s inspiration for the title and how Nintendo got involved:
At the time, Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing was the big hit, and I knew Les Crane, from Software Toolworks. I had seen somewhere that over half the people were buying it to teach their kids how to type. So I thought, “A teacher? What’s more interesting than a teacher but Mario, right?” I went to Nintendo and I pitched them, and they loved it.
Why Nintendo went with Interplay remains a mystery. The development team appears to have minimal experience in the field of educational software. (Fargo founded Interplay with the intention to make “drill-and-practice” titles for World Book Encyclopedia, and a $60,000 contract was proposed, but it seems that the deal fell through.) All went on to have careers completely divorced from the edutainment genre. (In 1997, Interplay released perhaps their most influential title, a little game called Fallout.)
Software Toolworks was the more experienced studio, and it showed clear interest in working with Nintendo; going so far as to acquire developer/publisher Mindscape in 1990 primarily (if not solely) for its license to develop and distribute Nintendo-brand games. (There’s probably a story in Interplay somehow beating its ‘rival’ to the punch, but surprisingly little information about Mario Teaches Typing‘s development process exists.)
It’s important to note that Mario Teaches Typing was not the first game to use a beloved Nintendo mascot for educational purposes – but it was the most high-profile at the time, and carried weighty expectations on its shoulders. In 1983, Nintendo had released the first two titles in its NES Educational System, the company’s attempt at branching out into the edutainment market by making in-house educational software.
The first, Popeye no Eigo Asobi (Popeye’s English Game), sought to teach Japanese players English and came out in Japan for the Family Computer in November 1983. The title never saw a North American release, seemingly because the Nintendo Entertainment System couldn’t handle translating English words into Japanese.
The second title in the series, Donkey Kong Jr. Math, made by Nintendo’s Research & Development 2 department (one of the company’s four R&D divisions), did see North American and European releases in 1986, three years after its publication in Japan. However, the game was enough of a failure — especially abroad — that it kiboshed Nintendo’s future plans for the Educational System. A third title, Donkey Kong Music Tutor, was already in development but shelved not long after Jr. Math‘s lacklustre performance. Whether anyone at Interplay knew it or not, there was a significant amount of pressure for their game to succeed.
Mario Teaches Typing exists in two formats: its original release for MS-DOS in 1992, and an enhanced CD-ROM version for Windows and Macintosh that came out in 1994. The MS-DOS version includes three modes or ‘worlds’ — Smash & Dash, Wet World, and Tunnel of Doom — incorporating settings, gameplay, and characters from the Mario franchise. In these modes, one can play as one of three characters: Mario (voiced by Ronald B. Ruben), Luigi, or Princess Peach. The title also includes Expert Express, the most difficult exercise in the game, and the most focused on straightforward instruction.
The 1994 version includes a storyline in which Mario and Luigi are tasked with finding the pieces of a magical typewriter that, when joined together, would destroy Bowser’s castle. It also marked one of Charles Martinet’s earliest titles as the voice of Mario; Martinet would go on to become the character’s primary voice actor. Overall, there are some vague echoes of Mavis Beacon; but Interplay, to their credit, made something that feels fairly original and uses Nintendo’s characters in an engaging and unusual way.
As Fargo noted, Mario Teaches Typing was indeed a hit; the Macintosh version reportedly sold more than 500,000 copies. Crane was allegedly furious at the game’s success, even giving Fargo “the stinkeye” at an industry event, but later made up with him. (Crane may have still held a grudge, something that might have influenced his studio’s own educational output; more on that later.)
Washington Post journalist C.J. Houtchens, reviewing the 1994 enhanced version, wrote that the game was “the most entertaining of the many excellent typing tutors now on the market,” and that the Mario franchise’s “skidding turtles, exploding blocks and … bizarre assortment of antagonists … translates nicely into this hybrid teaching/entertaining title.” The game even spawned a sequel, 1997’s Mario Teaches Typing 2, an enhanced version of the 1994 release that perhaps most infamously features a giant, rather eerie floating head of its title character, voiced by Martinet.
Present-day reception of Mario Teaches Typing has been less enthusiastic. In 2010, David T.A. Wesley and Gloria Barczak of Northeastern University characterized the title as among “a flood of ill-conceived Mario spin-offs” released in the 1990s. “Instead of driving innovation with new unique games as it did in the 1980s,” they wrote, “Nintendo followed the advice of marketing consultants who suggested that they exploit Mario for all he was worth,” and argued that this “onslaught of mediocre Mario games nearly destroyed Nintendo’s most valuable franchise.” (This may be hyperbole.)
According to Fargo, Interplay’s Mario games were popular not only with players, but with Mario’s creator (and Nintendo director) Shigeru Miyamoto as well. Unfortunately, the studio’s relationship with Nintendo came to an abrupt end in the late 90s not long after the release of Mario’s Game Gallery, which was published by Interplay but, unlike Typing, developed by an external studio, Presage Software. As Fargo recalls:
We did Mario Teaches Typing, and then we did Mario’s Game Gallery. [Shigeru] Miyamoto liked what we were doing, and so everybody was happy. Then somebody else came out with some Mario product that was not high quality, and so [Nintendo] came back and [said], “No more with Mario.” We said, “Yeah, but you like us!” [Nintendo] said, “Brian, we do … but no more.”
The titles alluded to by Fargo might include the geography-themed Mario is Missing! and the history-based Mario’s Time Machine, both released in 1993. Perhaps ironically, Interplay’s rival Software Toolworks developed and published both games; whether Crane’s frustration with Interplay’s success manifested itself in lacklustre products is unknown. (Mario is Missing!, a peculiar offshoot of Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?, probably deserves a re-evaluation.) Software Toolworks finally had the chance to make the Nintendo games of their dreams – and, somehow, failed.
Interplay’s Mario’s Game Gallery was later renamed and remade as Mario’s FUNdamentals. This remake was developed by Interplay’s Brainstorm edutainment division and published by Mindscape for Macintosh in 1996 and by Stepping Stone (Presage’s edutainment division) for Windows in 1997. FUNdamentals and Mario Teaches Typing 2 remain the final Mario educational titles ever released.
1997 marked the end of Mario’s edutainment adventures, but the legacy of Mario Teaches Typing itself remains strong. The game’s commercial success and warm critical reception essentially kicked off the trend of licensed educational software that began in the early 1990s and lasted for the rest of the decade. It may also have inspired other major video game companies, such as Sega and Ubisoft, to produce and release edutainment titles starring their characters. (These efforts ranged in success, from Sega’s widely-panned Sonic’s Schoolhouse to Ubisoft’s more well-received platformer Rayman Junior.)
Touch-typing edutainment didn’t die out, either – it reappeared throughout the 1990s and early 2000s in a variety of forms, ranging from the family-friendly JumpStart Typing to the more unexpected zombie arcade shooter The Typing of the Dead, and remains an active genre.
Despite its middling modern-day reception, Mario Teaches Typing has been more influential than its creators, or anyone in the ‘90s, might have expected. Its unusual combination of gameplay styles and its incorporation of a well-known brand set the tone for the decade that followed, in which educational software would develop in strange and often unexpected ways.
Join us next time as we resume our journey through the Humongous Entertainment catalogue with 1994’s atmospheric underwater mystery, Freddi Fish and the Case of the Missing Kelp Seeds. See you then!