Death in games can make you a nervous wreck. You can fight a big boss with one hit point to go and no matter what happens, its stressful. Even with checkpoints in modern games of today, you still feel that there’s a breaking point to your gaming. No matter how you see it, death in games affects you as a player. In the old days of the Arcade and console era, death came at a cost but wasn’t intimidating like today. That’s why I still love 1-ups and extra lives in games.
We all can remember a time that a good run on a Arcade game could result in a extra life. For most console players, it was getting the 1-up mushroom in Super Mario Bros. on the first stage; even then, you could collect a hundred coins and received a extra life. There were ways to continue your game as long as you continued playing.
Yes, the 1-up, or extra life if you want to call it that, was the key item to beating games. The more you acquired, the more you were able to progress further along. It was always guaranteed that you would find it by accident or get it by score. You knew you would do everything in your power to achieve it and keep it as long as you can.
So why is it important to have it in modern games? Well, for one, 1-ups have greater meaning. It doesn’t risk messing up a save file. It actually rewards you and other players who may be new to games and working on their game play skills. It also tends to bring relief and excitement. Where checkpoints can do a little of that, it keep you motivated to go on.
Titles like New Super Mario Bros., Contra Rebirth, whatever Sonic game you played, and even Streets Of Rage 4, have a lives system that determines how far you can progress. Especially if you’re going for a no death run of a game, the lives system makes each move and decision you make valuable. Trust me, I can beat Contra on the NES without the Konami code, but the life system makes me a more engaged player. It really keeps me focused.
A lot of gamers believe this system needs to go, but for what reason? If you look at the design of some games, you get a “second chance” moment. Trying to replace or substitute the system won’t make you a better player or keep you invested. It only motivates you to play until you lose interest. It allows players to be rewarded for being sloppy or just gives you a false sense that you’re doing “real good”. Some people will say “play Returnal and see if that logic applies,” and I wish I could, but there’s some PS5 shortages going on at the moment.
Now, you may bring up the Mega Man series being the balance for a lives/checkpoint system working together. Remember though, Mega Man is designed with patterns in mind. Knowing the patterns, enemy placement, and how you react, will make the lives system important and that checkpoints are far from each other. You only get two checkpoints in levels, so you can’t actually rely on them if you’re not prepared. You may get lucky receiving an extra life from a regular enemy, or if you make the right moves, you can obtain one from a secret area.
I love 1-up items and getting them in games. Hearing a special sound effect or music cue for getting one feels splendid. Even after all the headaches from some games, getting an extra life makes games worthwhile. The times you played a game with a friend or friends, where everyone has to use their own lives or it’s grouped, probably has provided laughs or some form of gamer anger you are realizing. For now, the extra lives will probably live on forever.
What are your thoughts about 1-ups and life systems? What memories do you have with receiving an extra life when you desperately needed one? Let us know in the comments and on our Discord channel.
Eddie V. is a co-founder of Boss Rush Games who writes, podcasts, and loves video game trivia. You can find him on Twitter with @thatretrocode.