Extra life

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A green mushroom from the Mario series gives an extra life.

In video games, an extra life, also called a 1-up or free guy, is an increase in a player's total lives. Extra lives are typically given to the player as a reward for complex game play to help them stave off a game over.


Flipper Parade was the first pinball machine to award extra balls.

Despite being a video game term, the "extra life" game mechanic has its origins in pinball. In the 1940s, wooden pinball tables had special conditions which, if met, entitled the player to a replay. A replay functions more like a free continue giving the player a new compliment of balls after they get a game over. However, when state governments in the USA began outlawing pinball under the false belief that it was gambling, a new mechanic was created where the player would be awarded an extra ball for their current game, typically upon performing complex shots or reaching a high score. While this wasn't all that different from a replay, it did allow pinball to get around some state laws so the manufacturers could continue to sell the tables. The first pinball table to award extra balls was Flipper Parade released in 1961.

As the entertainment industry shifted from electro-mechanical games to video games in the early 1970s, most of the first generation of games were played for a set length of time or until a player reached a score. However, in the late 1970s, video game designers began adopting the concept of lives, and, just like before with pinball, it wasn't long before they adopted the mechanic of extra lives.


At its base, extra lives are a reward for skilled play, which allows the player to enjoy the game for a longer length of time. However, there is enough variation to give game designers a lot to consider with how the mechanism will be implemented. If extra lives are awarded too easily, players will find the game boring, but, if they're too difficult to get, they will only serve their function to the most skilled of players. Designers must not only balance when extra lives are awarded, but also come up with novel ways to award them.

Many modern action games have eliminated lives altogether by switching to spawn points or some other mechanic, and, consequently, don't bother with extra lives. But, for those games that still use the mechanic, it can be implemented in a number of different ways, several of which are discussed below.

Amassing a score

This method, just like in pinball games before it, rewards the player with an extra life upon reaching a particular score, or a multiple of a score. This is one of the most primitive ways of handling extra lives and is seen across many early arcade titles. Arcade cabinets usually had DIP switches which would allow the owners to adjust how many points would be necessary to award extra lives. For example, Breakout could be configured to award an extra life anywhere from 100-800 points, or none at all, Space Invaders gives an extra life every 1,000 or 1,500 points, and Asteroids gives an extra life every 10,000 points.

This method has the benefits of being simple for the programmer to implement and easy for the player to understand. However, it also has several disadvantages. The biggest problem is, the moment players become sufficiently skilled to reach the score threshold on a single life, they can essentially play the forever and monopolize the game for hours. The owners of arcade games make profit by ensuring players frequently rotate through the game, so a player going hours on a single quarter hurts their bottom line. This problem was partially solved by increasing the points necessary for subsequent extra lives. For example, in Galaga, the player is awarded their first extra life at 20,000 points, but will need to get 70,000 for the second and subsequent lives which makes it that much harder to play forever. The number to reach can continue to increase, or, some games could be configured to simply stop awarding extra lives after several were given.

A second deeper problem is that fact that this method is not very interesting. Since the player is already trying to maximize their score, it doesn't require any additional effort on their part, so they aren't challenged to do anything outside their usual behavior; just strive for the standard goal, and, if you do it well enough, you'll get an extra life.

Collecting objects

Using this method, an object may appear somewhere in the game and the player must acquire it to gain an extra life. The object is usually depicted as something befitting the game and designed to catch the player's eye. There are two particularly popular ways to handle this method: putting the object in a difficult to reach location or hiding the object so the player must discover it. When the object is difficult to reach, it employs a risk–return tradeoff, when it's hidden, the player is rewarded for exploring the game world. Xevious was an early game to feature hidden extra lives that could be collected.

This method has become the most common way to handle extra lives and it has several advantages over other methods. First, it's easy to understand. Having the player's character "get" an object by colliding with it is a pretty universal concept in video games. Second, it's easy to implement. Since most games already have the programming in place for characters to collide with in-game objects, it doesn't require much additional programming. But the best advantage is that it's more interesting than the score method. Map designers can do all sorts of things to entice the player to take risks and players are always pleased to stumble upon a hidden 1-up.

A slightly more complicated way to handle this method is to require the player to collect several objects before rewarding them with an extra life. This allows designers to decorate their game world with the objects in interesting ways, often utilizing both the hard to reach and hidden concepts. This was pioneered with the coins in Super Mario World.

Feats of agility

Some games reward the player with an extra life if they're able to perform a complicated series of movements. This is one of the most difficult methods to employ as it not only requires the designers to come up with criteria for the extra life, which the programmers must implement, but it must be balanced in such a way as to not be abused. A popular example of how this can go wrong can be found in Super Mario Bros.. Stomping on multiple enemies in a chain will eventually yield a 1-up, but enterprising players discovered they could repeatedly do this to an enemy on a stairway to get as many lives as they desired. Depending on the complexity of the motions, these methods may be harder to explain to players, and, by their very nature, are harder for players to execute. However, for that same reason, they are among the most rewarding methods for handling extra lives. Many video games also include a special bonus stage or minigame to let adept players earn extra lives.

The idea of performing a difficult task for an extra life also comes from pinball on tables where players would be expected to manipulate the ball in a number of complex ways to earn an extra ball.

Buying them

Some games allow the player to buy extra lives with in-game currency. This is similar to collecting multiple objects for a 1-up, but the fact that the currency may be spent at the player's discretion makes this method different enough to mention. Buying extra lives is also easy to understand and implement as it piggybacks onto the game's existing economic model, but it's no more rewarding than buying any other item in the game.

Other methods

There are countless ways in which extra lives may be handled, this is not meant to be an exhaustive list, but here are several other methods.

Real money

Typically, in an arcade game, when a player loses their final life, they will be allowed to continue by buying another credit. This usually clears their score, preventing them from simply purchasing their way onto the leader board. However, some early arcade games really did give an advantage to the player with the most quarters. At the start of a new game of Wizard of Wor, a player can dump in as many quarters as they like with each new credit increasing their compliment of lives. This could only be done at the start of the game, not during game play, but it made it far more likely that a rich player would get a higher score than a poor player.

That style of buying lives didn't go over very well, and most arcade games adopted the continuation model we see still today. However, in a move widely panned in the gaming community, Sonic: Lost World brought a similar method to the home console by offering 25 extra lives to those customers who pre-ordered the game, a sleazy tactic usually reserved for low-budget ad-heavy mobile phone games.

Taking them from other players

In a 2-player game of the NES port of Contra and it sequel, Super C, when one player loses all their lives, they can take one of the reserve lives from the surviving player. While this pooling of lives has the benefit of keeping the firepower of both players active at all times, it has the downside of causing fights when the player whose lives are being taken doesn't want to give them up.


Many games with a fantasy theme, as well as RPGs and action/adventure games, feature ways to bring slain party members back to life through the use of spells, items, or other methods. When in a science fiction setting, this method is usually described as "clones" or "energy." Although this isn't not the same as how an action game uses an "extra life," there are enough similarities that it's worth mentioning.


Many arcade games have settings which are adjustable through DIP switches or in the service menu. For those games which have it, the the owner is allowed to change the starting number of lives which is very similar to giving the player extra lives. This was done to entice players with an easier game when sales were low, or promote turnover by upping the difficulty when the players were getting too good. A similar settings menu was carried over to many home games.


Several games feature built-in cheats which allow the informed player to gain extra lives. The famous Konami Code, for example, gives an extra 30 lives to the player in the NES port of Contra.