Wisdom teeth used to be pretty useful. Back in the good old days of human development, our ancestors apparently had bigger jaws and more teeth to help with chewing raw plants. As our dietary needs changed alongside our growth as a species, folks just didn’t need a third set of molars for grinding up greens. Yet all these years later, our genetic coding still occasionally pops out a couple of these teeth. For a lot of people, they’re harmless. For others, the impact of giant honking bones in the back of their mouth causes severe pain and structural disruption to the rest of a tightly arranged jaw.
When you fire up a video game in 2015 and it explains that there are extra lives, a set number of times you can die or fail in trying to accomplish a task before the game ends entirely, it’s a whole lot like finding wisdom teeth poking out of your gums. Sometimes game lives are harmless. Sometimes they’re painfully damaging. But no matter what, they’re vestigial evolutionary remainders that might as well be removed for good. It’s time for 1-ups to die.
Back in gaming’s early days, 1-ups made sense for a number of reasons. Whether you were building a game for living rooms or for a grease-stained cabinet at the mall arcade, giving the player a set number of tries made both good economic and design sense. Arcade games were built around a three-minute experience. Someone had to walk up to Pac-Man for the first time, put a quarter into it, and then quickly understand you’re supposed to eat a bunch of dots while avoiding ghosts. That part’s easy; what’s hard is not getting touched by the ghosts. One quarter gets you three attempts up front, your tries represented by a little icon of the character on the bottom of the screen. The typical player could only last a few minutes before it was time to pop in another quarter. The lives and the tries both coaxed more cash out of the player and baked an addictive anxiety into the game. Fail too many times, and it’s game over.
Lives were still useful after games moved into the home, even though they no longer demanded constant transactions. Playing Mega Man or Super Mario Bros. didn’t require you to keep pumping coins into the machine, but they did have to last a goodly while as entertainment because they were expensive. Would people keep dropping $40 on Mega Man games year after year if they could be finished in less than a half hour on the first try? Having extra lives established arbitrary but effective tiers for blocking off progress as you overcame the game’s steep challenges. 1-ups not only lengthened a game’s learning process, they made for brilliantly memorable icons. Pick up a little Mega Man face or a green mushroom in Mario, and you not only get another shot at a tricky jump but you hear a shimmering chime.
The pleasurable iconography of the 1-up is all that’s left at this point, though. Classically styled arcade games that brutalize players into pumping cash into them are rarely made. Having something as simple as extra lives as a lure for small monetary transactions was effective when your player was standing in front of a big honking box at Chuck E. Cheese’s, but developers have adjusted that model for the new breed of short-burst, small-payment game design. iPhone games like Terra Battle give you a set amount of time to play before you have to pay rather than a set number of tries, while others like Clash Of Clans let you buy extra items to support your troops as they battle against your friends. Some monumentally successful short-play games still use lives, but they’re often as sinister as they are effective. Candy Crush lets you try and fail just like Pac-Man did, and while you can wait for them to regenerate for free, you can also buy more on the spot or beg lives from Facebook friends, thus creating a stream of advertising for the game while you get another shot at level 445.
Beyond arcade gaming’s descendants in the mobile world, though, it became clear long ago that limiting access to the rest of the game because you ran out of lives didn’t enhance longevity. Lives just create a barrier between the player and the central pleasure of the game, detracting from overcoming the active challenges inside. 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.
Super Meat Boy is a prime example of what’s possible when you remove the vestigial irritation of lives from a platformer. It lays down difficult obstacle courses full of vicious traps, and while it kills you regularly and quickly, it also lets you restart those courses with almost no delay between death and rebirth. Rather than make the game a pushover, it lets us engage directly with its physical challenges. The game-lengthening barrier developers perceived a need for in the ’80s ultimately wasn’t necessary at all. If the player will fail at clearing a jump, then it’s smarter to make a jump that’s fun to attempt and let them keep trying until they succeed. It’s obvious that even the creators of Super Mario Bros. recognize that. Whether it’s Super Mario Maker or New Super Mario Bros. U, the games now drown you in 1-up mushrooms and never realistically threaten you with the need to restart. They truly are harmless vestigial growths, present for no other reason than tradition.
The problem is that designers beholden to that same tradition end up injecting lives into modern games where they become damaging. The most galling recent example is Prope’s Rodea The Sky Soldier on Wii U. While awkward controls and a camera that never fails to center on anything but the main character seem to be the chief cancers rotting Rodea from the inside, both would be surmountable if you were allowed to simply tackle the game’s enemies and stages an unlimited number of times. The ’90s-anime infused story of a flying robot trying to save his homeland is appealingly weird, but engaging with Rodea’s best parts is painful because of that pacing.
Some stages take upward of a half an hour to complete, and when you reach the boss fight at the end, you can easily die before even spotting what you’re supposed to fight. It’s possible to lose all of your lives in one-tenth the time you’ve devoted to a level, and lose all that progress. Rodea The Sky Soldier would still be a rough game if there were no extra lives, but at least gluttons for punishment and a taste for the strange could enjoy its eccentricities without so much hardship if the damn lives weren’t there at all. What does the game gain by having them besides a funny little cartoon head of the main character with a number next to it, just like the good old days?
As many designers have demonstrated in recent years, the styles and conventions of the past can still be exciting. JoyMasher’s brilliant Odallus, for example, is an ingenious slice of world design directly inspired by classics like Castlevania. Two of its central joys are trying to live long enough to reach the vendors selling health-restoring meats in the middle of the stage and revisiting stages to find hidden items or paths. Both pursuits are hard enough without needing to worry about extra lives, so what do they add outside of a nod to the past? Even on the final boss, it’s more efficient to reload a saved game than to die and start again after losing a life and wasting your precious supplies.
By comparison, Shovel Knight, a game equally inspired by 8-bit classics, does away with extra lives entirely and replaces them with new incentives to stay alive. Get killed by a boss or fall into a bottomless pit, and you lose a portion of your stockpiled treasure that now floats on the spot of your untimely demise. If you can make it back to that spot without dying again, you can reclaim the goods, thus encouraging you to learn and do better in a way that never forces you to redo things you’ve already mastered. Does it lose anything by not letting you collect little Shovel Knight helmets that ring out when you find them, marking the number of times you can try to fight a boss or clear a series of tricky jumps? Like a mouth without wisdom teeth, it loses absolutely nothing while benefiting from clean, modern design.