Life counters have been in video games for almost as long as games have been around. The concept actually began with pinball machines, giving players a limited number of tries before they received a “game over” and had to restart. From there, the concept moved into arcade games, which made a lot of sense for the same reason. This limited the amount of time a player could spend on a machine. People had to have a motivation to keep spending quarters and it also kept the line moving for anyone else waiting to play the game. After consoles began dominating the market, it still made sense for many games. Games that revolved around getting a high score or accomplishing as much as possible with three lives needed those lives to provide a clear start and end point to a run.
When the NES came out, games started getting harder to artificially increase their playtime. Many NES games are much harder than they should be simply to stretch the game out as long as possible. Limiting a player’s lives was a popular and common way to do that. If you run out of lives, you would get a game over and potentially have to restart the game. The problem is that this life mechanic continued on much longer than it should have and is still sometimes used today. Some modern games still use lives, long after they have served any real design purpose.
Mario games are the most obvious example. They have evolved pretty far from their roots, but they seem to carry over a few of the wrong things from the NES days — lives being one of them. Since forcing the player to restart completely at a “game over” would be too frustrating, nowadays they simply makes you restart the level or sometimes the world. This means that you lose any checkpoints in the current level and sometimes have to spend a lot of time just getting back where you were. All it does is interrupt the flow of the game.
It’s even more obvious in modern Kirby games, where a “game over” just kicks you out of the level and back to the overworld. It’s not even a punishment gameplay wise; it’s just a waste of time. It seems like Nintendo feels like it should have lives for nostalgia’s sake, but they became outdated decades ago.
Some games do use lives in interesting ways though. New Super Mario Bros. 2, despite being a Mario game, was actually somewhat unique in how it handled its life counter. For anyone who hasn’t played it, the basic theme is collecting as many coins as possible. The game is littered with coins and coin-generating powerups. 100 coins gives you a 1-up, so you quickly end up with far more lives than you will ever lose. It essentially turns the life counter into a progress bar, letting you see how many coins you have collected throughout the game. It also inches closer to 1,000 lives as the game progresses, which gives you a goal to strive for.
Games have dealt with death in many interesting ways, but forcing the pace of the game to a crawl, especially in genres like platformers and shooters, is not the right way to go about it.