Whatever happened to three lives and you're dead?

Written by Ben Mansell

May 15, 2012 | 09:08

Companies: #bit-tech

Whatever happened to three lives and you're dead?

The first computer game I really played came bundled with the Amiga 1500 that my Dad purchased in 1990. It was a port of a classic coin-op run’n’gun platformer called Toki (the arcade version, with handy infinite continues, you can play online here.

Like many games of its era, it was unforgivably difficult. It took around 12 months and the joint efforts of three family members to finally beat the game. I remember vividly running around the house with uncontrolled excitement because my elder brother had beaten the level five boss, and that wasn’t even the end of the game. The key reason the game took so long for us to conquer wasn’t just because the game was difficult, it’s because it was unforgiving of failure. Dying was beyond easy, lives were incredibly limited, saves hadn’t been invented and you were never more than a handful of mistakes away from the Game-Over screen.

Whatever happened to three lives and you're dead? Whatever happened to three lives and you're dead? (Page 1)
Sonic: three lives, lots of rings


Whether modern games (especially Triple-A titles) are easier than their older counterparts has been extensively discussed, but the real difference is the approach to failure that many contemporary games take. In the past, mess up more than a couple of times and you could find yourself having to restart completely. Mess up a modern game, and chances are the last checkpoint will be no more than a couple of minutes behind you.

Clearly the arcade games of yesteryear are a totally different beast to the modern bestseller in more respects than just the difficulty. The pay-to-play model of coin-ops necessitated a design of game that was short and intense. Simple enough to have you coming back for more, but hard enough to require a constant drip-feed of 50 pence pieces. That’s not to say it was a bad way to design games: the classic Lives/Continues/Game-Over sequence became a recognised staple, and even games that were never designed for the arcade (like Mario and Sonic) used the same design structure.

Saved By Save Game?

This all changed with the advent of the Save Game. By allowing the player to permanently secure their progression through the game, the entire concept of lives and continues became increasingly redundant. Most influential was the save-anywhere feature originally popularised in PC based games. Not only could players now secure their progress, they could do it anywhere and at any point. At the time, there was a great deal of debate over how this might negatively affect gameplay. Some games integrated saving into the gameplay, such as Resident Evil and its typewriters. Others took more direct action, such as the first Alien Vs Predator which allowed saves anywhere, but limited their number in a given level.

Over time, even these began to disappear, and through the rise of consoles the modern iteration of saving emerged: auto-saving. Regular checkpoints that automatically record your game, ensuring not only does the player not have to worry about retracing any of their steps should they fail, but they don’t even have to worry about remembering to save.
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