I remember when I first finished Super Mario Bros. 3 way back when. I had exactly three lives remaining, and I was sweating bullets, because three more deaths meant Game Over and a trip back to the Game Select screen. Luckily, I was able to dispose of Bowser and enjoy my victory, after a brief scare from the Princess, of course. For those of you who haven’t finished SMB3, you can see it here:
In contrast, running out of lives was the last thing in my mind as I battled Bowser in the recently released Super Mario 3D Land. Without using any exploits or cheats, I found myself with over ninety Marios remaining as I got to the castle at the end of World 8. I was stressing a little as I jumped around dodging fireballs, but unlike SMB3, the fear of seeing that Game Over screen just wasn’t there.
As much as I’d like to think that "I’m That Damn Good," the fact of the matter was that the game was handing out one-ups left and right. I was getting at least two extra Marios in every level, and once I had over 30 in stock, I didn’t give the number of lives I had left a second thought.
Actually I did, and the thought was: what is the point of having lives in games anymore? Lives are holdovers from the arcade era. Back then, it was all about points and how many you could score before you ran out of lives. Once that happened, you had to drop another quarter in the machine to give it another try. As games started coming to the home, the concept of lives followed them.
Journey was 1337 before 1337 was cool.
I think that the obsolescence of lives has come about because of a fundamental change in how we play games. Games used to be about the destination: you played to get to the end of each level or ultimately passed all of the levels to finish the game. Nowadays, games are more about the journey, about all of the neat things you can see and find on your way to its end, like side missions, hidden areas, or hidden doodads. There is even a genre of games (sandbox) where the ‘story’ doesn’t have to be finished at all. These days, unless they offer something really compelling, games get ripped if they are strictly linear trips from A to B to C.
Hop, bop and BLOW STUFF UP!
Ratchet and Clank was one of the first modern games I played that didn’t have a limit on the number of lives. When you died, you respawned at a checkpoint that often wasn’t too far behind. I remember being curious as to why I never saw a “Game Over” screen, but once I realized it was never coming, it changed the way I played the game. Since I didn’t have to worry about running out of lives and starting a whole level over again from the very beginning, I was free to explore and take crazy risks. I would try long jumps that I wasn’t entirely sure of making and try strategies for difficult parts that probably had little chance of succeeding. Sure, I died a lot, but taking those risks was also a lot of fun.
Still hard as $%#! after all these years
In contrast to Super Mario 3D Land, Shinobi on the 3DS is an example of a classic reboot that uses a lives system that doesn’t get in the way. In Shinobi, the number of lives you start off with is directly tied to the difficulty you choose: infinite lives and infinite continues in Easy mode, and only one life and three continues in Very Hard mode. Shinobi’s ranking system also deducts a lot of points from your score each time you die. Thus, while you may have infinite lives, you don’t want to throw them away if you want to end the level with a decent ranking.
Each one bought a few minutes of adventure
The arcades I grew up with are mostly gone now, and while they were where it all began, some of the mechanics they birthed need to go as well. I understand that Mario is a classic title and having lives is part of what makes a Mario game a Mario game (1UP mushrooms, anyone?) but there has to a better way. I’m not going to pretend to have the answer, but when you can have over a thousand lives, then what’s the point?