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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Readers debate the pleasures and perils of extra lives

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Get A Life

This week, Anthony John Agnello made a case for eliminating extra lives from games, that once-ubiquitous convention of having multiple tries at a stage before a “Game Over” and a major setback. The games that still use this system, he argued, would be better off without them, focusing on their actual challenges rather than implementing an arbitrary barrier that just drags the whole thing out. Other games, like the newest Mario adventures, just throw lives around willy-nilly, rendering them little more than collectibles and nostalgia fodder. Down in the comments, jakeoti provided an example of an old game that was definitely made worse by tacking on extra lives and a newer one that played with failure in an interesting way:

For an early and good example of how extra lives hurt games, look at Zelda II: The Adventure Of Link. That game gained absolutely nothing but copious amounts of frustration from its terrible extra life system. It was already a tedious slog in a lot of ways, but having to go all the way back across the map from the start if you died one too many times in a temple was frustrating. The only good to come of it was the iconic Game Over screen.

One of the best alternatives to extra lives is the Fiend’s Cauldron used in Kid Icarus Uprising and brought back for the singleplayer in the latest Smash Bros. games. For those not in the know, at the start of every stage in Uprising, you devote money to the Fiend’s Cauldron to raise the difficulty level. The more money you put in, the more brutal the level will be, but you also earn more money, better weapons, and certain achievements. But if you die in the level, the cauldron will dump out a bunch of the hearts you invested and lower the difficulty. It feels like the game is mocking you for losing, telling you “It’s okay, we’ll just make it easier for you.” Some of the challenges call for you to beat levels on the highest difficulty, meaning that not only do you have to make it through the brutality of a Level 9 stage but you also have to do it, in theory, on one life. At the same time, if you’re just trying to play the game for fun or the story, it’s not going to hurt too much if you lose.


And Unexpected Dave points out that many of the hardest old games are grueling challenges even when you use modern technology to remove the consequences of losing all your lives and might be more fondly remembered had they taken a different approach:

It’s interesting to play old games on different platforms and see which ones are still fun and challenging when you take away the limited lives. Playing an arcade beat-em-up with “infinite quarters” tends to feel really sloppy, as you just power through any challenge that ostensibly requires practice and skill. A lot of NES games, on the other hand, are still very difficult even with infinite lives. Battletoads, for example, is not a game you can simply power through. The checkpoints are set up in such a way that you need to learn how to beat several obstacles in succession. If Battletoads had infinite lives, or even just infinite continues like a Mega Man game, we would be calling it “brutal but fair” rather than simply “brutal.”

Venerable Monk posited that perhaps the answer lies in changing the ways players are punished for failure, and provided a few recent examples of games where it’s fun to lose:

Recently I’ve found that there are games that make failure something to be enjoyed in its own right, rather than merely a barrier to progress. By some cosmic magic, my best examples both happen to be space exploration games. Affordable Space Adventures for the Wii U has an interesting two-stage failure system that had my partner and I laughing out loud when we’d inevitably fail.

The short version goes like this: It is certainly possible to wreck your ship, forcing the game to respawn you back at a checkpoint. But there’s also failure states that don’t permanently damage the ship. Early on in the game, it’s possible to fly too close to some storm clouds and be struck by lightning. Instead of exploding and respawning somewhere else, all of your ship’s systems die and it drops out of the sky like a rock.

Once your ship hits the ground, it has to go through a reboot cycle that’s displayed on the Wii U’s gamepad screen, and the operator has to restart the engine and all the control systems by hand with a few taps of the screen. Dropping out of the sky like that never lost its humor, probably because it was totally our fault for flying into a storm cloud, and because you don’t lose any progress at all (unless you fall through a laser beam or something, which is even funnier).

My other example of failure as fun is Kerbal Space Program. It’s very satisfying to plan out a mission, build a rocket with all the right specs, and carry that mission out to perfection. But what’s even more fun is trying to build the most ridiculous rocket you can imagine, and hoping it’ll hold together long enough to get into orbit. It’s unreasonable how much fun you can derive from watching your creation fall apart and explode in completely unexpected yet totally plausible ways.

Elsewhere, GhaleonQ reasoned the threat of losing significant progress provides a valuable layer of risk vs. reward when lives start to dwindle:

Aside from it working very well in some genres like shoot-’em-ups and pinball games, we just disagree with what makes games interesting.

Anthony writes, “Put more simply: The fun of Super Mario Bros. isn’t managing how many lives you have; it’s trying to make the jump in front of you.” It’s not both? Some people adore replaying games to let the familiarity of the surroundings and pleasure of the mechanics wash over them. Games are magic, though, with a finite amount of surprises, tricks, arcs, and challenges, and something you experience can never be new again. Yes, the “aha” of eventual revelation is one of the best things about video games, but so is the feeling of gripping a controller too tightly as you manage a game’s expectations against your own skill, of debating whether to take a riskier option or a safety life, of chastising yourself for squandering a life by letting your guard down on something you know how to do correctly, of doing things correctly the first time because you’re just that good. Games don’t need to stress you out, but we shouldn’t forget that they can push you to succeed, not just pull you.

I ask, have none of you ever excitedly told a friend how you conquered a difficult boss or level “with one life left!”? Everyone has, and if you remember the, admittedly, artificial thrill of topping a game’s best test by the skin of your teeth, you wouldn’t trade that.


DrFlimFlam summed up the opposition to that stance:

Yeah, but for every “that was my last bullet!”, there are five stories of failing before then. Game design has to hit a tough sweet spot, where you’re trying to make a game that you can’t just whip the first time but also isn’t so hard that many players will never finish it. There are exceptions, your hard games for masters and your easy games for kids and family play. For the most part, I don’t mind redoing a little, but not too much, and don’t double punish me with even more progress lost because there was an arbitrary stock of lives I was supposed to manage better.


And DL thinks the difference here is just a matter of perspective:

I feel like these discussions for or against lives are two sides of the same coin. Success or failure is ultimately all about the human resources, not the game’s resources. That story of defeating a boss on expert with few resources remaining is demonstrating the toll the game took on one’s skill, patience, and stamina, not the game’s lives, health, or continues.

Look at how we glorify the speedrun, the single-life completion, or the 100 percent “perfect” completion. Those eschew all arbitrary limitations set in a game and define their own, such that we see only the human achievement over the game, not the game’s failure of itself.


Let’s Playlist!

This week also saw the return of Let’s Playlist, where the Gameological staff and community puts together a themed playlist of great video game music. The topic for this installment was “songs in the spirit of the season,” tracks that have a distinct wintertime sound. This theme garnered the best response yet. We’ve added more than 30 songs to the list, making for one spectacular, snowy collection. You can find the finished product embedded above or on YouTube by clicking these blue words right here. Without further ado, here’s the list of reader additions:

And if you’re looking for even more wintry tracks, Wolfman Jew posted a wonderful comment that called out and explained a few personal favorites. Here’s a sample:

“Corridors of Time,” Chrono Trigger: Yeah, this is nothing but a dirty cheat, and I don’t care. The end of Chrono Trigger‘s second act takes place mostly in a sky city, far above the Ice Age that’s devastating the land. While it may be free of the snow, its tone is cold, mysterious, and possesses an indefinable but inherent sense of danger. That’s great for snow levels, which, with their reflective ice sheets and poor visibility, are perfect for worlds that test a player’s mind. And it’s great for winter, where we might just be a little more reflective.

Level theme, Ice Climber: These 30 seconds somehow manage to create an audio impression of cartoon characters scaling a mountain. So, I kinda feel it gets at least bonus points. [Editor’s note: It also happens to be one of the most supremely badass NES tunes around.]

“Freezy Flake Galaxy,” Super Mario Galaxy 2: Another “pure fun” song, which soundtracks a level that literally starts you off right next to a log cabin before sending you to play with snowmen, slide down an ice tunnel, and…um…destroy a brick building? Regardless of how well or poorly Mario Galaxy stays on message, it’s propulsive and lovely. As is Mario 3D World‘s general ice level theme and “The Bullet Bill Express.”

“Route 2017, Pokémon Diamond & Pearl: It took a surprisingly long time for Pokémon to get around to ice levels, and while not amazing, this was a really good, memorable piece in the game’s soundtrack. X & Y‘s Snowbelle City theme is even better, a little more melancholic as it’s the endpoint of the story.

“Kamui,” Ōkami: Most games conclude with ice levels. It’s a sensible choice: The environment is cold, harsh, mysterious, and utterly picturesque. It makes sense for a game literally about creating art and restoring beauty, and the level theme for the coldest reaches of Japan captures its constant sense of drama and finality. It’s difficult and sad, entirely fitting for the season.

And finally, “Mount Wario” from Mario Kart 8: This hits the performative, grandiose part of the season. It’s a time of celebrations, holidays, and energy amid the cold, and throwing that slowness out of the passenger seat, slamming on the gas, and driving down a ski resort is a damn fine way to do that.


That does it for this week, Gameologerinas. We’re heading into a bit of a holiday break, but not until after we’ve told you about our favorite games of the year. And the next time I see you on one of these Keyboard Geniuses pages, we’ll be talking all about your favorite games of the year. I’ll see you then.