Disturbing Game Overs, part I: A Quarter Can Save a Life

It’s been argued that one of the most interesting things about games is that they allow the person engaging them to feel guilt and responsibility for their actions, something that can’t be done in more passive forms of media. Designers have actually been utilizing this since the early days of the medium as a way to belittle players’ lack of skill (and, hopefully, inspire them to invest more time/money to get better): think of how Missile Command used “THE END” when you lost all cities instead of “GAME OVER.” Guess what, jerk, your failure with the trackball just doomed humanity! Even a small change like that left a big impact on player psyches, and the medium has since evolved, finding plenty of new and exciting ways to make you feel really bad about what you do in games.

But for whatever reason, I’ve always been fascinated by the game over guilt trip. While most games just come to a screeching halt once the lives and health have run dry, others really go the extra mile to make you feel awful about your failure. I’ve spent a great deal of time over the years looking into these , and over the course of my research, I’ve come to the conclusion that there are two types of disturbing game overs:

A. Things are exceptionally grim, and only the power of a continue can stave off this impending doom! You will continue, right? You don’t want this horrible thing to happen, right?

B. YOU DONE FUCKED UP BUDDY, NOW DEAL WITH IT

Both of these are fascinating in their own way, but as a fan of old arcade games, A is particularly interesting. Arcade games are about spending money for play time, and the end goal for the operator is to maximize profits, so keeping play time down (so other folks can spend money for a turn on the machine) is an ideal. Continues might seem opposed to this concept, but they actually play right into it: You’d get more time-for-money-spent value if you started the game over than you would if you credit-fed, as difficulty tends to scale higher the further you get and credits usually last for shorter and shorter stretches of time. It’s why the one-credit clear is such a mark of pride among the biggest arcade: you’ve basically given “the man” trying to squeeze you for money the middle finger with your mad arcade game skillz.

So, in the interests of getting players to continue more, the devs began to put in continue screens that insinuate that a terrible fate awaits if you don’t put that next quarter/yencoin in. Some, like Blue’s Journey/Raguy by ADK, make a heartfelt emotional plea (and then call you names).

Others, meanwhile, place your character – or their loved ones – in more immediate danger. Won’t you spare a quarter to save our heroes from their doom?

Let’s start with a classic. When you bring up “freaky arcade game over sequences,” many folks bring up the continue screen from Tecmo’s Ninja Gaiden/Ninja Ryuukenden, in which Ryu Hayabusa is put in a dangerous situation as his foes seemingly look on in glee:

It’s not the only distressing continue sequence to come out of Tecmo’s arcade development team, however. There’s another game, called Wild Fang in Japan and Tecmo Knight abroad, that features a very similar motif.

If you haven’t tried out Tecmo Knight, I really suggest you do, because this game is super weird in all kinds of endearing ways! You play as a strange pygmy-knight riding either a giant loincloth man or a tiger (or a dragon, if you get the right power-up drops) who fights what appears to be an army of vicious orcs, monsters, and furries in comically bloody fashion. I’m surprised there wasn’t some outcry about the title at the time: it’s a game where you were bloodily decapitating your foes years before Mortal Kombat even hit the scene… though maybe it was seen as less offensive since foes weren’t human? It’s also filled with cheap hits and insta-deaths, but thankfully MAME makes that not even matter, so you can just revel in its sheer strangeness.

We’re here today for the Game Over screen though, and it definitely delivers:

I really love that transition from BLOODY HEAD-SEVERING COMBAT to HORRIFYING CONTINUE SCREEN AND GAME OVER MESSAGE ending in HIGH SCORE SCREEN WITH TECMO’S CUTE RABBIT MASCOT AT THE TIME.

So we’ve had a couple of Tecmo showcases, but Capcom in the CPS1/early CPS2 days were truly the masters of emotional appeal to get you to plop in some more coinage. Surely, everyone remembers Final Fight’s continue sequence:

Man, Guy has the doofiest face in this. It makes for a perfect header image, I must say!

Anyhow!  Even when Final Fight left arcades for two SNES-exclusive installments, the tradition of “impending doom” continue screens persisted. Here’s Final Fight 2, which leaves me wondering where Mad Gear’s water dungeon is located in Metro City:

And Final Fight 3, which kinda feels like the least creepy of the bunch, simply because most platform game fans are very used to “death by falling spikes” sequences.

But the company’s more obscure brawlers had some stuff that was on par – or more distressing – than Final Fight.

Cadillacs and Dinosaurs has you staring down the barrel of a gun while being taunted, making it clear that death is inevitable unless you insert another quarter.

Finally, The Punisher, based on the famous Marvel anti-hero of the same name, prompted you to insert a coin in order to make CPR more effective. How they convinced Marvel to let one of their characters DIE if the player didn’t put more cash in is a mystery.

Some Capcom stuff, though, is more subdued, only being really distressing if you’re familiar with the property the game’s based on. Take the Predator continue screen from the Alien versus Predator arcade game. It doesn’t look like much, but if you know the mythos, you know that your character’s self-destruct sequence is being initiated:

There’s also the Game Over countdown for the CPS3 Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure game, where D’Arby’s going to claim your soul:

The thing about most of these manipulative continue screens is that there’s usually a “fade to black” or an otherwise abstract indication of what happens should you let time run out. But Mortal Kombat 4, being the notoriously violent series that it is, didn’t do this – it shows the violent, bloody fate you’ll meet should you decide not to put in your quarters in time. But really, wasn’t seeing bloody ends kind of the point of MK at this point in the series’ life?

And then there’s Toki/Juju Densetsu, which really takes the crown for “CONTINUE OR YOU ARE A TERRIBLE PERSON” emotional ploys:

You can’t get worse than your girlfriend screaming that she is going to get killed if you don’t continue playing. Is that quarter really worth an innocent woman’s life, you horrible excuse for a human-being-turned-big-headed-ape?

Well, that’s all for Part One. Join us in Part 2 to see games that rub your nose in your tremendous failures!