By Marshall Garvey and Sean Willis
“Game Over.” No words are as deflating, saddening and sometimes devastating to a gamer. Part of the elemental fun of gaming is its inherent boundlessness. In many titles, you don’t have a life; you have extra lives. But even then, there has to be something that deters you from failing, something that penalizes you if you screw up too much. That’s why a game over screen can be painful for so many reasons. Whether you reached it out of sheer negligence, weren’t ready for a curve the game suddenly threw you, or gave 110% and still failed, there’s just a gut-punch sensation that hits you on a personal level. Whatever the case, you just weren’t good enough…and now you have to start all over. All the same, gaming wouldn’t be the immersive, psychologically riveting experience it is without those two words. The concept of “Game Over,” after all, gives the medium a sense of risk you can’t find in consuming any other form of art and entertainment.
Given these fatal words are ultimately an indispensable part of a game’s impact, it’s only fitting Last Token Gaming do a list saluting some of the finest examples of “Game Over.” After much deliberation, here’s our cream of the crop. From razor-sharp taunts to high octane nightmare fuel to bloody diarrhea, these are the most brutal screens to slam the door on our in-game experiences. As always, if there are any you feel we forgot, let us know in the comments!
(Note: All entries were written by Marshall, with additional input and brainstorming from Sean.)
- Prize Fighter – You’re basically left for dead in the ring after losing
While I’ve yet to play it myself, Sega CD’s 1993 POV boxing game Prize Fighter is, for all intents and purposes, a fuming hunk of shit. No snarky retrospective of Sega’s bastard console is complete without mocking it, and watching clips of the game, it’s easy to see why. The choppy controls that many still haven’t figured out, the cheesy and drawn-out cutscenes, the blocking mechanic that completely obstructs your vision, the fact that you only have four opponents for the entire game, etc. It certainly had promise, with a unique first-person perspective unlike other boxing games and a black-and-white look that echoes Raging Bull. Yet at the end of the day, it was par for the course for many of the console’s FMV titles: tons of emphasis on the novelty of the game’s full motion video component, with painfully little effort put into the actual gameplay.
But while Prize Fighter may not be the champion of boxing video games, it can lay claim to one of the most painfully brilliant (and borderline humiliating) game over screens ever. It occurs any time you lose three fights in a row. The first two times you lose a fight, you get a typical scene of your opponent rubbing it in your face, your corner reviving you and whatnot. Should you lose that third consecutive time, the screen briefly fades to black as usual. But this time, when you come to, you’re lying flat on your back on the ring canvas. As you crane your neck to look around, you find the entire arena is completely empty. The audience, sportswriters, referee, your opponent and his corner, reporters…even your own corner!…are nowhere to be found. The only other soul is the janitor sweeping up the ring, who barely acknowledges you before continuing his job.
(Skip to 9:14 in the video below for the scene, as well as a hilarious reaction from the vid’s maker, Blondeguygamer.)
The more you think about it, the implications of this shot are downright disturbing. Everyone….everyone….just decided then and there that simply because you lost three fights in a row, you’re worthless. (Granted, just about every damn person in the stands is obnoxiously heckling you like a Philadelphia sports fan during the fight, so the audience bailing on you is hardly surprising.) Not even the guys in your own corner bothered to peel you off the canvas, revive you, and kindly suggest you trade in boxing for a job in construction. You could have literally died from too many blows to the head, and nobody would have known or cared. The fact that you’ll likely see this scene because you can’t figure out the game’s godawful control scheme only amplifies the pain.
- Ninja Gaiden (Arcade) – Insert coins…or the ninja gets it!
Most game over screens, whatever their length or style, usually match the tone of the game itself. The first Ninja Gaiden arcade game, released in 1988, turns that practice on its head with a mindfuck for the ages. Aesthetically, the game is one of the defining entries in the sidescrolling beat ‘em up genre, making it accessible to players of all ages and generations. Should your health run out at any point, however, your eyes are suddenly assaulted with a blood-curdling sight almost too insane for words.
That’s right: Your punishment for getting hit too much is to sit and watch your character about to be butchered by a giant saw blade, his eyes bugging out as he frantically struggles to break free. If you don’t insert coins fast enough (and you’ll likely be too jarred to even do something as simple as that), the screen is splattered with blood as he lets out a drying shriek. The only way I could imagine this not freaking you out in the slightest is if you’ve watched every Saw movie a dozen times. But the idea that your character is sawed in half for simply failing to beat up enough thugs on a sidewalk is a whole other realm of the macabre. Imagine if it had been included in The Simpsons or Double Dragon instead.
- Oregon Trail – You have died of dysentery
Forever immortalized by elementary school and nerd culture t-shirt makers the world over, this could veritably be the cruelest entry on the list. It’s one thing for your character to die by being shot, beaten up, stabbed, sawed in half, or blown up. It’s another to die from bloody diarrhea. That’s right…bloody diarrhea. Dysentery, for those not in the know, is an inflammation of the intestine whose symptoms include fever, abdominal pain, and shitting that feels like it’ll never end. Throughout history, it’s claimed the lives of King John of England, Henry V, Francis Drake, Nathaniel Bacon, and some 80,000 Union soldiers during the Civil War…as well as the inappropriately named characters of millions of naughty third graders. On the bright side, the game allows you to write your own tombstone message, to the dismay of legions of school teachers throughout the 80’s and 90’s.
- Castlevania: Symphony of the Night – The Ultimate Evil Laugh
Few tropes are as relentlessly parodied as the villainous laugh. It’s a cliche that’s been run into the ground a million times over, to the point where it’s hard to execute it with seriousness anymore. Seriously, just do one right now: Does it feel like anything other than parody?
Which brings us to Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. The 1997 cult classic for PlayStation impeccably blends action RPG with atmospheric horror, earning a hallowed reputation that hasn’t waned as it nears its 20th anniversary. The game has the player side-scrolling as Alucard, the half-vampire/half-human son of Dracula who has to battle through a castle full of horrid creatures in order to stop his father from wreaking havoc on the general populace. Given the stakes, it’s apropos your death would trigger a truly epic game over screen, and boy, does the game deliver just that.
First, everything about this screen is superbly mortifying. The visual of the the demonic skeleton cradling the main character’s forlorn cross, with a layer of fog enshrouding Dracula’s castle and a blood-red moon in the distance, is staggering. The music is downright infernal, layering gothic choir and organ into an unsettling crescendo. All while a deep voice (presumably Dracula’s) bellows out, “Game, oooooovvveeerrr.” Not to mention, the message scrawled on the bottom (“Let us go out this evening for pleasure. The night is still young.”) really puts a ribbon on the goosebump-inducing package. You have to figure Dracula and his minions are all too eager to unleash hell upon the world now that no one can stop them.
And that’s before it all ends with the game over voice breaking into the evil villain laugh to end all evil villain laughs. Holy shit, just listen to that wicked chortle. Most villain laughs don’t register because they don’t provoke a feeling of intimidation. But this one more than does…it’s a spine-chilling laugh even Vincent Price himself would be hard-pressed to top.
- Resident Evil 2 – Nom nom nom nom nom nom nom
A frequent variation of “Game Over” is to instead say “You Died.” It not only conveys the same finality of game over, but it’s even more grisly in driving home the fact that your character is….well, dead. They are no more. They are bereft of life, and rest in peace. They are an ex-video game character. (OK, I’ll stop my forced Monty Python reference.) Naturally, it’s often employed in more violent games, an early example being 1998’s Resident Evil 2. Once your character’s been bitten or mauled too much, they collapse to the ground, opening up a buffet for zombies. Blood splatters on the screen, followed by a “You Died” screen that looks like it’s painted with dripping blood. Pretty simple.
Except it doesn’t quite end there. As “You Died” withers away, the camera lingers on the pack of zombies (or single one) devouring the main character, eventually pulling away as the stark, unfettered sound of gnawing on flesh continues to reverberate for a few seconds that instead feel like minutes. No music underscores the moment. Even today, when zombies are arguably the most played-out genre in gaming, this scene is uniquely unnerving.
- Friday the 13th – You and your friends are dead
So we’ve seen plenty of games, including the previous entry on this list, that simply say “You Are Dead” or “You Died.” Friday the 13th, the legendarily bad take on the horror film franchise for NES, goes the extra grim mile. The game has the player controlling one of six camp counselors at Crystal Lake, with the objective of stopping Jason Voorhees before he can kill the other counselors and children over three days and three nights. Doing this entails a terrible mishmash of timed events, navigating confusingly designed forest levels, boxing Jason Punch-Out style, and battling a floating Medusa’s head that is apparently Jason’s mother. Should all six counselors or all of the children die, the game dishes out this indelible line:
Where to begin with this one? Usually, a game over screen is directed at the player. It serves to specifically remind them of their ineptitude. (Or, more accurately, rub it in their face.) This screen, on the other hand, reminds you that you’re not the only one gored by Jason: *everyone* you care about has been murdered as well. Your failure is the cause of the grisly slaying of the entire camp. It’s brilliant…but like our #10 entry Prize Fighter, you’ll likely only see it because of the horrendous gameplay.
Additionally, this screen inspired one of the Angry Video Game Nerd’s signature moments:
- Zelda – Return of Ganon and the Moon Apocalypse
OK, so this entry feels a bit like cheating. It’s more appropriate to do one screen per entry on the list, but I feel like this is a worthy exception. After all, the Zelda series perfected so many integral tenets of gaming, from non-linear level exploration to combat to intricate storytelling. Thus, it isn’t surprising it features multiple game over screens that are bona fide classics.
First up is 1987’s Zelda II: The Adventure of Link. The only direct sequel to the first game, it introduced some of the core elements of the franchise gameplay such as the magic meter and Dark Link. Moreover, it upped the ante with respect to how “Game Over” screens are done. Once you run out of lives, the screen has a seizure-inducing flash as Link’s darkened silhouette freezes. Then, your television is engulfed in red, only filled by the darkened silhouette of Ganon, his eyes glowing with a menacing white. The text merely reads: “Game Over. Return of Ganon.” The message couldn’t be more blunt: Your failure means the evil boar can conquer Hyrule unopposed. (Bonus points for Ganon trademarking the Rock’s eyebrow raise 12 years beforehand.)
Second is a more unconventional choice, from 2000’s Majora’s Mask. Throughout the game, when you die on your last life, all you see is Link drop dead and the screen fade to black. So, technically, there’s no “Game Over” screen in the standard sense. But this is Majora’s Mask, after all, in which many comfortable notions of how a video game plays are eschewed in jarring fashion.
No element is more unconventional than the game’s progression. Instead of unlimited time to venture, you of course have only three days until the moon comes crashing down on Termina, forcing Link to constantly use time travel to reset the counter in order to complete every quest.
So, what happens when you let the three days run out?
What more can I say after that?
- Metal Gear Solid – “Snake? SNAKE??? SNNNAAAAKKKKEEEE!!!!!!!!”
In a series notorious for marathon cutscenes and an impossibly byzantine plot, you might expect the game over scene to be equally long and complex. Instead, this screen is brilliant in its brevity. Otacon’s (or someone else’s) increasingly panicked cry, the dramatic stabs of the orchestra, all while the words “Game Over” burn onto the screen like a laser. The overall effect is immediate, and devastating; it feels like a tragedy to see Snake die. Given he’s the only thing standing between peace and all-out nuclear warfare, the fact that you let him die because you didn’t take the time to hide under that cardboard box is especially unforgivable.
- Dark Souls – You Died….1,000,000 Times
While some games offer fairly elaborate versions of “Game Over,” others keep it simple. Games like Resident Evil 4 and God of War merely display the words “You Are Dead” in blood-red lettering, and that’s it. Dark Souls follows this path, with “You Died” as the only reprimand for a player’s shortcomings. So why, given how plain it is, does this particular screen rank ahead of some of the other brilliant entries on this list?
Simple: Because you will see it over. And over. And over. And over. And over. And over. And over. You will see these two words when you close your eyes, you will have weird dreams based on them, and you will expect to see them any time you die in another game. Moreover, you will see them not just for dying at one difficult juncture multiple times, but for dying at every juncture in every way possible.
Goddamn you, Dark Souls.
- Batman: Arkham games – Holy Villain Taunts, Batman!
As everyone knows, Batman is nothing without his brilliant lineup of villains. Each is not only a reflection of him in some regard, but they’re all genuinely intimidating. Of any rogues gallery, they’re the last one you’d want to be up against in real life. While they’ve had numerous incarnations in landmark comics and blockbuster films, the Arkham games might be their finest hour in all of Batman franchise media. Not only are the designs and voice performances superb, but there’s an element seldom (if ever) present in movies and comics: the event where they can defeat Batman once and for all.
Should Batman die at any point (and it will happen quite a bit!), the game immediately cuts to a baddie laying some verbal smackdown on the fallen Bruce Wayne. Each villain’s set of lines is written to perfection, chiefly because they’re delivered with an air of triumph. After all the times Batman has foiled their vicious schemes, they’re not holding back; they simply relish the opportunity to step on the Dark Knight’s throat, and boast about the hell they’re about to wreak on Gotham now that he’s been dispatched.
This isn’t to say there’s no potential for these cutscenes to drive you insane after a certain point. Unlike most game over screens, which appear once before you quit or restart, these taunts are far more lacerating because you have to see them every single time you die. Every. Single. Time. No skipping. If you die 16 times at one point in a stage, you’ll have to see the same few barbs from one villain each time. My personal milestone was the Iceberg Lounge in Arkham City, in which I became shark chow for a good 30-40 minutes. By the time I figured it all out, Penguin’s three caustic quips had practically worn grooves into my brain.
All the same, these taunts are a no-brainer for our #1 game over screen. Whether it’s Bane gleefully breaking Batman on his knee or Riddler smugly calling him a shaved monkey, they genuinely get under your skin and make you want to get right back at it. You take them personally, and are ready to lay a satisfying beatdown on the villain that said them. Many game-ending screens are just deflating, and blunt one’s desire to keep playing. But seeing these twisted freaks insult you so gleefully does the opposite: it galvanizes you to fight on. That’s how “Game Over” should be done.