Game over

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Game over in Super Mario Bros.

Game over describes both a video game term and mechanic. The term is used to inform the player that their ability to play a game has ended, while the mechanic ends a game before a victory condition is met and eventually leads to the game being reset. A game over is encountered when a player loses a game, typically by running out of lives or time. After receiving a game over, the player may be given the option to continue.


The first video games I played were designed in the 1970s and early 1980s and built with arcade mentality, so nearly all of them used the game over mechanic. Also, since I was only a child and not a very skilled player, I became very familiar with game over screens and quickly learned to hate them, as they meant losing all the progress I had made. Once I encountered unlimited continues, with games like The Legend of Zelda and Metroid, I began to see the game over mechanic as a flawed relic that should only exist in arcade games. When I began introducing my daughters into video games, I frequently hacked the games to give them infinite lives so they wouldn't have to deal with the same frustration I dealt with.


The rules of even the oldest games in history have conditions which end the game, but a game over is more than an ending. When purely mechanical games were first designed for use without an operator, it was necessary to engineer a way for the game to stop itself when a specific set of conditions were met and reset itself for the next player. Those games which did this were the first to use employ the game over mechanic.

The term "game over" is much more recent than the mechanic. The earliest know use of the phrase comes from a patent for an electro-mechanical bowling game filed in 1950 by Jerry Koci. One of the earliest video games to use the term is Gun Fight in 1975, but several other games used it in 1976 including: Amazing Maze, Blockade, Cops'n Robbers, and Sea Wolf which helped cement the phrase into the vernacular.

Although the mechanic was created out of necessity for arcade games, when those games were converted into home games, the mechanic was carried over as well. Most of the games made through the 1980s and 1990s utilized a game over. However, even as early as the 1980s, several designers realized there was no need for a game over in home video games, and the mechanic became less popular over the decades as they adopted variations of the continue mechanic or saving and loading. Games which function like this may still use the term "game over," but, since they don't require the player to start over from the beginning, are not using the mechanic. Today, the mechanic has been almost exclusively relegated to the arcade where it was initially developed, although, it is still seen in those modern games which are designed to play like arcade games, or simulate older games. For example, even a modern video game interpretation of Klondike solitaire would still need to make use of the game over mechanic.


To make use of the game over mechanic, a game must have conditions which cause it to end prematurely. Traditionally, in arcade games, this would be the loss of all the player's lives or reaching the end of the game's time limit, but designers have come up with other criteria as well, like getting the character stuck in such a way that they can't proceed. When these conditions are met, it trigger's the game's game over routine. This typically display's a game over message to the player and locks out most player input. At this point, the game may allow the player to continue. Failing that, the game resets itself so the next player can play.

Terminology variations

While the phrase "game over" has become ubiquitous, over the years, many designers have preferred different phrasing or expanded upon the traditional phrase.

Other games have unique game over screens which have become popular memes like the red "You Died" used in Demon Souls and Dark Souls, the "WASTED!" message in the Grand Theft Auto series.

Some games really went the extra mile like We Love Katamari where the game over screen has you ridiculed and zapped with laser beams until you shrink away into nothingness.

Clever game over screens

Early text adventures were filled with countless ways to die, and they pioneered clever or humorous game over messages to liven up the process, often incorporating puns and deadpan humor. When the genre evolved into graphic adventures, the humorous game over messages were carried forward. It wasn't long before the concept of humorous and clever game over screens expanded to other genres, and now they're quite common in games that don't take themselves too seriously, or as rare Easter eggs.

Game over after winning

Even after defeating the end boss in Arkanoid, you still see the game over screen.

In the 1980s, it wasn't uncommon for a game to display a game over screen even after a player won. This was more typical in arcade games, and, while it may seem a bit unusual today to have to tell a player their game was over after they won, it made sense at the time.

In the early 1980s, hardware was becoming strong enough for arcade game designers to implement a primitive story which usually consisted of a few cut scenes between stages, like in Pac-Man. However, hardware still wasn't strong enough to allow for many long complicated stages so most games still repeated a few unique stages and increased the difficulty with each loop. For example, in Donkey Kong, after the player guides Mario through the fourth stage and defeats the titular gorilla, they return to the first stage, with Donkey Kong looking just as healthy as ever, but at an increased difficulty. As the power of hardware increased through the 1980s, and games could include more unique stages and tell longer stories, it became possible for the ending of the game to actually function as an end. While it was still possible for designers to loop the game and let the player continue playing on their credit even after defeating the final boss (as seen in such games as Gradius), skilled players could just keep beating the game repeatedly which was not good for profits. So, designers quickly learned to force the game to end when the player reached the end of the story. However, since this was different from how earlier games functioned, they probably saw the importance of displaying the game over screen to make it clear to the player that they've gone as far as they can go on their quarter.

See Also