In video games, death rules supreme – and nowhere is this more true than in the feudal world of retro games, where one false move meant oblivion. This was the era of the one-hit death, where simply walking into a hedge could induce a visit from the grim reaper. It was also the era of the game over screen, and the prompt to ‘insert coins’ to continue.
To this end, I’ve compiled a list of the most memorable player deaths from gaming’s first two decades.
1. Pac ManPlatform: Arcade An odd choice you could argue – though I’ve always found Pac Man’s death strangely poetic, as his disembodied, pill-gobbling head folded in on itself and vanished into the inky void to gobble no more. (Sorry.)
2. Ghosts ‘N’ GoblinsPlatform: Arcade Arthur’s suit of shining armour may have looked tough, but the slightest touch from this classic game’s legion of the undead left the brave knight shuddering in his spotty undergarments. A second hit left him in a heap of fleshless bones – an amusing and (for its time) well animated touch in one of Capcom’s most bastard hard games of the eighties.
3. Final FightPlatform:Arcade Take one too many kicks to the head and you’d be presented with an ‘insert coins’ sequence with a difference – the game’s beefy hero Hagar tied up and surrounded by dynamite. As the countdown ticked from ten to one, everyone’s favourite wrestling mayor became increasingly desperate, eventually resorting to blowing on the fuses as they sputtered to his explosive demise. It was a sequence which evoked a similar response in the player as he patted frantically through pockets for more ten pees.
4. Missile CommandPlatform: Arcade Failure to protect your vulnerable cities from the continuous bombardment of nuclear missiles resulted in a blood red screen on which appeared the ominous words ‘The End’ – for kids growing up in the last years of the cold war, it was enough to chill you to the bone.
5. Prince Of PersiaPlatform: Apple Mac/various An entire top ten list could be compiled from the deaths in this game alone – legendary designer Jordan Mechner appeared to take great pleasure in depicting every last detail of the hapless Prince’s deaths. And were they grim – the scream of anguish and the crunch of bones as he plunged to his death from a great height; the gory aftermath of an unsuccessful bout of sword fighting; the Prince’s broken body impaled on a spiked trap. But a special mention has to go to the clanging jaws of death – mistiming the Prince’s jump through these gnashing metal gates left him cloven in two, the blades streaked with a column of gore.
6. BarbarianPlatform: Commodore 64/various Palace Software’s sword-and-loin cloths beat-em-up may have provoked more attention from its advertising campaign (which featured page 3 model Maria Whittaker posing in little more than a strip of tin foil and big eighties hair), but there was actually a pretty good game buried beneath all the salacious marketing. If nothing else, Barbarian pioneered the finishing move in the one-on-one fighting genre – a skilfully timed twirl with your sword would leave your opponent shorn of his head, several years before Mortal Kombat’s spine ripping excesses. Unfortunately, your opponent could do precisely the same to you if defensive measures weren’t taken, and it wasn’t unusual for a game to end with your head being kicked along the floor by a hunchbacked homunculus as he dragged your corpse unceremoniously behind him.
7. Jet Set WillyPlatform: ZX Spectrum Reclusive programmer Matthew Smith revealed his fondness for Monty Python in his classic Manic Miner. The now legendary game over sequence showed the luckless Miner Willy stood uneasily atop a doric column before his tiny pixelated body was crushed out of existence by a giant booted foot straight out of a Terry Gilliam animation.
8. Another WorldPlatform: Amiga This ‘interactive movie’ from the age of 16-bit computing may have been but a small shuffle forward from the laserdisc tomfoolery of Dragon’s Lair (where the game amounted to pressing a button at the correct time to view the next bit of footage), but Another World still captured the collective imaginations of me and my school chums, not least because of its then-impressive graphics (just look at them now – they’re like South Park). Ginger protagonist Lester Knight Chaykin’s range of deaths threatened to rival Prince of Persia for sheer macabre imagination. Death by laser gun was by far the most impressive – a hit from one of these left Chaykin a blackened skeleton that smouldered for a moment before crumbling into a pile of ash.
9. Ninja Gaiden/Shadow WarriorPlatform: Arcade Tecmo’s little played and seldom mentioned arcade beat-em-up (featuring Ryu Hayabusa, fact fans) was an exercise in button-mashing futility, but at least it had a good ‘insert coins’ game over sequence going for it. Taking its cue from Final Fight, this depicted Mr. Hayabusa tied to a table as a circular saw gradually descended – failing to shove more coins in the slot resulted in a crimson screen and much agonised wailing. Considering the quality of the game, I suspect many players stood and watched this sequence with their arms folded and their change left safely in their pockets.
10. Theme ParkPlatform: PC/various Bullfrog’s 1994 management sim – where you had to build and finance a theme park, funnily enough – makes the list for one of the most unexpected and downright disturbing game over cut-scenes ever. Financial failure resulted in a sequence depicting the theme park owner flinging himself from his office window, all reflected in the framed photograph of his wife and children. Is this a family game or what?
Ryan writes his gaming column every week at Den Of Geek. Last week’s is here.