Why Games Should Do Away With Extra Lives

Image by Flickr User: Yoshi Gizmo
Image by Flickr User: Yoshi Gizmo

I grew up playing video games that used extra lives.  The old “Mario” games had them and the old “Donkey Kong Country” series, too, and it was just a feature that you had to deal with.  As you played through such a game, level by level, it was always on your mind how many lives you had left.  And as you played, your main purpose being to complete the level, it was always a bit of a secondary objective to collect more of these extra lives.  I remember how very satisfying it was every time I collected enough bananas in “DKC” to acquire yet another balloon in the upper corner of the screen.  Each life meant extra chances.  It meant security.  One more time you could slipup and still be all right.  They were a good thing and one item I sought after most.

But, sometimes, extra lives were a hassle.  I remember every time I started playing a new file of “Donkey Kong Country 2”, I would just rack up tons of extra lives during my first hour of gameplay.  I collected so many darn extra lives, I was effectively unstoppable.  I could die as many times as I pleased, and it mattered not.  I’d go from world to world, and when no save point was yet available, it didn’t matter, because I had those extra lives.  And then, I’d stop playing for the day, and when I returned, the lives were always reset to a much smaller number, my hard work collecting lives the previous day all for naught.

And the problem is, that’s when I really start to need them.  When the game was easy, I collected extra lives with ease, but I also didn’t use them much, either.  Then, when my supply of extra lives is more scant, the game starts to get harder and harder, and I start to really focus on that little number up in the upper corner of the screen.  Every time that balloon pops and the number goes down, I wince.  And I think to myself as I start a new world, oh my gosh, I must finish two more levels now before I reach the next save point, but…I only have one life left!  What am I going to do?  Panic sets in, and as I play, I may get lucky and get another life, prolonging my wretched existence for just a short while longer, or the mere knowledge of my less than abundant supply of extra lives inspires me to play better, allowing me to make it to that wondrous save point.  Oh, happy day!  Or in the less-desired case, watching that little number 1, haunting me, mocking me, I can’t play as well as I ought to with that distraction looming over me, and I fail just one too many times, causing me to get the dreaded Game Over screen, and then I must start over once again from the previous save point, forced to redo levels I had just struggled through.  Forced to suffer through these trials and ordeals, these ordeals and trials, yet again, with the hope that I don’t meet the same fate as last time.

Extra lives are found most often in platformers, likely because they are a genre where you’re most likely to die in a variety of ways and die often, such as running into baddies, falling to your doom, or getting crushed, and in theory, extra lives do make sense.  Of course there should be a punishment for dying in a video game.  It’s a game, and so there must be consequences, good or bad, to our actions.  But, you know what, I hate extra lives.  And I really think they are more bad than good.

And what really got me thinking about this topic was after I recently played two games, “Rayman Legends” and “Sonic Heroes”.  The former is a really fun platforming sidescroller, and while it can be challenging, it has no extra lives.  If you die, you simply start that one section over again.  And I love it.  I can die as many times as I want, and never am I forced to start from a previous save point or start the level again from the very beginning (except for a few special levels that have no checkpoints).  But, this does not make the game easy.  The game can indeed be challenging, as was its very similar predecessor, “Rayman Origins”, which was even more difficult than “Legends”.  I died a lot in those games.  I mean it.  I died so many times.  But, the lack of lives allowed me to try things I wouldn’t do in a game that only gave the player limited chances to make mistakes.  It allowed me to explore new sections of the screen, even if I decided to jump down somewhere that was not a platform as I thought it was, causing me to die.  But, it didn’t matter.  I had the freedom to have fun with the game, make mistakes, and even purposely kill my character off just so I could start the section over again and try for a perfect score.  It didn’t mean sacrificing difficulty; it only punished the player less for mistakes.

Then, I played “Sonic Heroes”, and I remembered once again just how much I hate extra lives.  This game is also a platformer, but in all other ways, it is very different.  I don’t find it nearly as fun.  I also find it to be more challenging (not just because of the extra lives), but not in a good way.  And I find it to be really finicky.  When I cite games that have cheap deaths and bad controls, I often talk about this game.  There are so many instances where I barely press a button, and my characters speed off a cliff and die before I even knew I did anything.  There are times I attack an enemy and get injured, even though I could have sworn I attacked the stupid thing and was not just standing there like a moron like the game seems to believe.  This game caused me so much grief, and it doesn’t help that every time I die, whether it be because of my own lack of skills or because the game itself caused the death, I see that little number signifying extra lives go down yet again.  (I also get really mad when I collect 98 rings, and then I lose them all due to a cheap death or injury, thus being cheated out an extra life I came so close to.)

Like I said, games should have consequences.  Games should be challenging.  It wouldn’t be much of a game if there was no challenge, and when you die, you can start over right from where you died an infinite amount of times.  I don’t expect that.  But, should games punish players?  I think not.  The consequence of dying is starting that section of the level over.  That is the consequence in both the “Rayman” games and “Sonic Heroes”.  So what point is there for that second consequence of losing a life in the latter game?  Why must I be punished a second time after already being made to redo part of a level?  Losing a life is like an extra slap in the face when you already got in trouble for your past gaming actions.  It makes the game harder, but not in a fun way.  Why should we have a limited amount of tries?  And why should I be punished in a game when it’s the game’s fault my character died and not mine?

And so, this is why I think extra lives should be done away with.  A lot of games don’t have them.  Some series had them and no longer do.  The original “Rayman” did (at least, I know the GameBoy Advance version did), and it was a pain.  The game was hard enough without having these darn extra lives to worry about, and “Rayman Origins” and “Legends” were far more enjoyable without them.  I had the freedom to start an area over as many times as I wanted to because I didn’t have to worry about losing a life, and that’s my business, not the game developer’s.  Extra lives are not required to make a game challenging, and they certainly don’t make a game more fun, but rather, more frustrating.  This is why I am taking a stand against those pesky extra lives and ask them to leave us gamers be.  I ask for an end to their tyranny.  Or else, I may just play a game without extra lives instead….

Extra Ducks

5 Comments Add yours

  1. I kind of agree assuming the dev can find the right checkpoint system. Make them far enough apart so you still care if you die because of the progress you lose, but get rid of the extra life thing which feels a little outdated now.


    1. duckofindeed says:

      Exactly. “Rayman Legends” did pretty good with this. Even though no lives were lost when you died, some areas were still pretty challenging, and I had to redo certain sections countless times before I could get to the next. Plus, if you miss something in a previous section, you still must do the level over again to get it. So instead of being punished for dying, there were more likely to be consequences for missing a Teensie cage or not collecting enough Lums, and this was better, as it felt like I had merely made a mistake rather than I was being punished for something I did.


  2. Hatm0nster says:

    Extra Lives are a relic from an earlier era of gaming. Genres the traditionally used them have grown beyond the need for them. However, I also believe that part of what made the old games as great as they were/are was that added level of tension that only having so many tries before being sent back could bring. Live systems made difficult levels truly nerve-wracking and dared you to either better yourself or die trying. That and the payoff when you finally overcome a challenge gave you so much frustration before, is something that I think many games these days are missing. (Which is probably why games like Dark Souls are so popular, it’s got that tension that other games simply don’t have.)

    I’m not saying lives should be brought back, they had their day in the sun, but current systems should try to capture the best aspects of the live system instead of trying to forget it.


    1. duckofindeed says:

      Extra lives can indeed add tension to a game. Lots of it. And I will admit that it could be quite thrilling when I got by on just one life. Such victories were most satisfying. Nevertheless, extra lives probably caused me more heartache than anything. Especially in “Sonic Heroes”. Because that game is just not fair. At least my countless deaths in “Donkey Kong Country” were my own fault.


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