Super Mario is an amazing game. It was so simple back when the original was released. You tried to reach the flag, hoping to dodge obstacles along the way. You could not save your game, however, which added to the excitement and sense of achievement when a level was completed. If the worst happened, which it inevitably did, you go a chance to try again from the start of that level. This was not always the case, however. If you run out of lives, you had to start from the very start.
What was good about that then?
The lack of saving came down to a boring fact that the NES cartridges did not have internal flash, which meant that they were read-only. Some games got around this but creating passwords in their games, but this didn’t really take on (who keeps a pad and pen next to their console!). But if you could save along the way on Mario, then wouldn’t it have made the game too easy? It was an amazing game, but it wasn’t exactly the longest game to compete (especially with the warm zones). Also, was there not more of an achievement to get ot the end of it knowing that you didn’t have a saving-safety net?
That being said, Mario would not have been the great game it was without some sort of safety net. It was not unusual to die on Mario, especially some of the underground jumps and the cloud thing throwing porcupines at you! Gamers would have not welcomed having to restart the game on every mistake.
The lives also gave creators another way of rewarding achievement. The green mushroom was worth something, since you knew that you had more than 3 mistakes in you when you started the game.
So if lives are so great, where are they now?
Modern games seem to shy away from lives. The advent of saving games has made them a bit pointless, although the Final Fantasy series got around this by only letting the player save at certain locations. This was great if you Mum shouted you down for dinner, or told you to go to bed whilst at one! But ignoring the growth of saving, why are lives redundant?
The advent of mobile gaming, and life-like 3-D effects have changed the picture completely for very different reasons.
Mobile gaming is required to fill a few minutes for the player. Most games are casual, so the player does not have time to die and try again. Instead of lives, which is a form of punishment, many mobile game promote achievement. Angry Birds, and others like it, rate you on how well you did. Although, the latest freemium Angry Birds 2 does now require you to watch adverts if you lose!
With the console 3-D games, especially the shoot-em-ups, there has been a need to make the gameplay more realistic. In the Call Of Duty games, you have one life, true to live. If you die, you restart the mission. It seems at odds with their focus on realism to include a very artificial construct. The games are also too large to force a player to restart, and level selects are so mainstream that they have become a requirement and expectation for audiences.
It appears that lives have had their day, with audiences wanting reward rather than punishment, and console games too large to force a restart after an artifical amount of tries.