Editorial: The Lives System – A dinosaur in the modern era

In my younger years, when I was hopeful and bright-eyed (if you can believe that), I was fascinated with the idea of going to the arcade, on the few occasions I could. In this magical land of bright lights and sounds, I could walk through aisles of machines and play whatever I wanted, with the investment of only a quarter or two.

Pac-Man, Galaga, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles were among some of my favorites. Nothing could beat finding a group of three people to join you on a run through the Turtles arcade game. Some would bow out due to a lack of willpower or perhaps coins, while others would hold out for the entire trek. Chaotic encounters, digital pizza, exciting platforming, and Turtle Power were to be had for those that succeeded in playing the entire thing.

But there’s something inherently archaic about these games. Lives. Arcade machines were designed to suck up quarters harder than a prostitute on Sucksville Avenue, if you catch my drift. After all, that’s how the machines paid for themselves and led to a profit, which is why the lives system is a dinosaur in the modern age and has no place amongst the home consoles.


A “lives” system is a concept in which a player is given a set amount of attempts to play through a game. In the event of all lives being lost a “game over” screen will appear and the player will be forced to play the entire thing over again or be required to put more coins in to continue playing. Dying was all too common and one would need a great deal of quarters if they intended on making a trip out of the ordeal.

The arcade machines stand responsible for a fair amount of the principles and concepts held today by home consoles. Racing, fighting, shooters, puzzle games, and the like all have a basis in the nearly forgotten “genre” of play. Some of these things can be seen as good, while others are best left forgotten.

Arcades have since fallen wayside to the home console and portable market, although the machines have become a “niche” in lieu of this. Modern titles could support the same if not better graphics and technical edge to provide an experience in the homes of players. No longer would one be required to endlessly place quarters, as if they had a vendetta against holding on to their coins.

So without the need to insert currency, the lives system surely must have been checked into a retirement community to be forgotten and rot away. How could it continued to be incorporated when the technical barriers (such as memory limitations) and lucrative issues were no longer a concern?

An Italian plumber

The concept of lives continued to linger throughout the several generations of consoles that have since passed. Today, one of the only notable franchises to still use it is Nintendo’s blue overall wearing, questionably Italian/Plumber/Ostensibly-single-due-to-a-giant-lizard, Mario.

Other franchises have certainly used it in the time since. Sonic the Hedgehog, Crash Bandicoot, Spyro, Banjo & Kazooie, and every egregious tie-in game ever made before the modern shift. I could go on, which spawns the question: Why? What was it about the notion that made it stick around?

It should be noted that the franchises mentioned above were very lucrative. The one series that stands out as the oldest and the strongest sales wise would be Mario, of course. As old as it is, the industry leads by example. There are certain tropes that linger in our “modern” era that could be seen as archaic in hindsight.

A sound business trope

Despite how infuriating a two-weapon, iron sight, and cover-based threesome with space marines can be; these things aren’t direct offspring of a corporation looking to run off with a consumer’s wallet. Well, “direct offspring” that can’t be labeled archaic (yet).

Lives were strictly designed to impose a limit; to keep coins rolling into the slots. If the patron ran out of money or eagerness to spend it, the experience would stop and the game would restart for the next person. It’s a sound business strategy for an arcade machine, but not for a home console where the consumer has already put in a far greater investment prior to playing.

It’s true the “retro” era of consoles used the permanent death or lives concepts, but this was due to memory limitations at the time. When memory cards and hard drives later played a role in giving players the ability to save their progress, why is the lives system necessary, as well?

The logic of the system today
In the recent portable outings Super Mario 3D Land and New Super Mario Bros., players have a set number of lives. Every main entry of the Mario series on Nintendo’s home consoles also employ the same system. If at any point the player is to run out of lives, a game over screen needlessly plays and the player must start over from the last checkpoint.

This raises several red flags. For one, the game has no ilk towards restarting the player from the last checkpoint before they run out of attempts. For two, the concept of a game over screen is arbitrary. There is no added challenge in having to restart a level after running out of proverbial “credits.”

In the age of checkpoints and making games more accommodating than the infuriating Battle Toads, there is absolutely no reason for this concept to linger. Nintendo remains one of the only developers left to cling to this.

The “lives” system was a necessary evil, but still a negative notion. I don’t fondly remember the drawbacks of “retro” gaming with an air of nostalgia. In these said titles, dying meant more coins to continue, or permanent death if it was on a home console. This made games gratingly difficult and unforgiven. Nintendo, by contrast, adopted the save and checkpoint system, while holding on to the lives system of yesterday.

Nostalgia is far too forgiving
Nintendo isn’t the sole developer still trying to bank on nostalgia, and for their insubstantiality there’s still entertainment to be had in a Mario game. The SEGA developed Sonic Generations decided to bring players back to the “golden years” of the character, which included an arbitrary lives system, as well as Sonic supporting characters no one except a devoted Sonic fan likes, long load times, and delusional self-congratulatory inclusions.

Digression aside, Nintendo and SEGA have decided to copy a system over to their modern equivalents in the name of nostalgia. If a concept was only present because of technical limitations and a lucrative purpose that’s no longer necessary, why would two seasoned development companies feel that nostalgia is a valid reason?

Neither Rayman Origins and Super Meat Boy, two modern era platformers with callbacks to their predecessors, utilize a lives system. Rayman Origins is a wonderfully brilliant experience with challenging gameplay, beautiful visuals, and platforming that keeps a constant flow. Super Meat Boy is an immensely challenging and quirky title that doesn’t feel unforgiving and bloated.

The concept of lives on top of the “Game Over” screen in Nintendo’s touted Mario titles no longer serve a purpose, unless needlessly being berated with strangely cheerful music is something you enjoy. A lives system at its best wastes a blip of your time, and at its worst sinks genuine fun into the realm of frustration.

Implementing a concept just for the sake of including something from past entries, perhaps to tug at nostalgic cords, is not a justifiable reason. It’s arbitrary, and refreshing platformers of late have proven its inclusion as unnecessary. It’s a matter of removing the brightly tinted glasses of nostalgia to notice the dinosaur you’ve been admiring in the middle of the road has been dead for years. Happy New Year.