Mortal Kombat And The Greatest Game Over Screens

Sometimes "Game Over" just doesn't sum up that feeling of heartbreak and defeat well enough...
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Sometimes "Game Over" just doesn't sum up that feeling of heartbreak and defeat well enough...


There are many things in gaming that we can all identify with regardless of the games we play, the system we use, the country we hail from or the age group we are bracketed into. With near infinite combinations of recreation available to us we somehow find commonality in the strangest of overlapping areas.

Where does the phrase “Game Over” originate from? Why is it those choice of words that have become so culturally significant? Well, back in the days when the first light-up pinball machines were the latest gaming phenomenon in the 60s, one of their incredible features was to be able to tell a player when they had run out of balls. A phrase such as “your game is now over” would slowly light up with each life lost, until a brightly lit and flashing declaration of failure was there for all to see. Due to space constraints and text size this was abbreviated to simply “Game Over” and that phrase was replicated on thousands of different machines across America.


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In time those that made the games decided to experiment, to create different ways of telling people that the game was indeed over and also telling the player how they had done. It’s like a doctor breaking bad news to a hopeful patient. Some want it head on, others with some padding. I might even go so far as to say a game without a “GAME OVER” is not really a game at all.

So what is the best way for a game to break the bad news to you? Here’s a look at some of the methods employed down the years:

The Brutal –

Friday 13th for the NES didn’t really take any prisoners. Based on the horror franchise it saw the player control teen counsellors who had to take on the responsibility of ensuring that no-one was murdered by Jason Vorhees. Of course, it being from the 8-bit age scares were a bit thin on the ground and not even the attempts to shock you with large blasts of awful synth music prove successful. Yet the game can still make you feel bad and make you resolute to play one more time… How? Well, when you lose the game not only do you die – no big deal in the grand scheme of things and nothing a reload won’t fix – but so do your friends. That’s right, you fucked up and you killed them. A heavy trip to lay on a kid, who probably shouldn’t have been playing this game anyway but no-one really seemed to care about age restrictions back then anyhow. All games were deemed suitable for kids, because it was felt only kids should be playing them. How many games actually guilt trip you into another go?

The Saviour –

With games like Final Fight and the legendary Ninja Gaiden, the game over screen would see the protagonist in some awful situation that only continuing could get them out of. With Final Fight it was being tied to a chair next to a bomb, desperately trying to blow out the fuse. For Ninja Gaiden, as you can see for yourselves… Well, let’s just say they weren’t pulling any punches once you were captured. Tied up underneath a descending buzzsaw AND surrounded by wolves seems a bit of overkill, even for a ninja. The thinking behind these game over screens was to hammer home the finality of death, but to give you an opportunity to avert it. Throw some more money into the machine before the fate is met – which would always lead to some desperate race against time, especially if you had one of those gammy coins that for some reason just would not be accepted by the arcade – and it’s all good. Play on, have some more lives, even continue from where you left off. It was a device employed by lots of games, but none so gloriously OTT as Ninja Gaiden.

The thinking behind these game over screens was to hammer home the finality of death, but to give you an opportunity to avert it.

The Melodramatic –

What if the “GAME OVER” sequence was so unwittingly comical that the game was worth firing up just for the opportunity to fail and have a laugh. The Metal Gear Solid series had always had such sequences when a life was lost, usually culminating with a character screaming “SNAAAAAAAAAAAAAKE” in a desperate voice prompting many chuckles from the player that likely just made him dive off the top of the top of an oil rig just for “the lulz” anyway. The series perfected this ludicrousness in Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty where the strangely effeminate Otacon goes to pieces all too soon when presented with the prospect of Snake having been killed or captured.

The Gory –

The Mortal Kombat series managed to make the GAME OVER segment something of a coup de grace, an opportunity for the player to end his opponents life in fashion via a fatality that served no other in game purpose but to look cool and show you could remember combinations of moves. This eventually expanded to Friendship moves, Animalities and Babalities. But it wasn’t enough to simply have all this choice when you were winning, they had to throw something in when you were losing too. Later versions of Mortal Kombat would see the player asked if they wanted to continue whilst they were in some fatal situation. Where this differs from “The Saviour” angle is that the gore at the end is sort of the money shot, so it encourages you – for the first few times at least – to see what happens when you finally do get to the bottom of that pit.

The Optimistic –

What if GAME OVER wasn't something to be feared, avoided, or was anything to worry about beyond just being one of those things. Hell, what if it was even cool? Sega Rally 2 knows how to do an end to a game. Yeah, you may have lost but at the end of the day isn't it just so awesome to be rallying in the first place. By adding a resounding "YEEEEEEAAAAAAHHHHHHH" after the Game Over announcement it lets you know that everything is alright and you are still very much the man.

What if GAME OVER wasn't something to be feared, avoided, or was anything to worry about beyond just being one of those things.

The Bonkers –

There was a theory going round that a lot of games developers had started taking mind bending drugs in a bid to find inspiration for their games. It would certainly explain the spate of alternative titles that all have fairly outlandish concepts delivered in a distinct visual style. This ranges from World of Goo to Patapon, quirky titles that do things completely out of the ordinary and defy classification. 1995’s Total Distortion was such a game, putting you in the “Distortion Dimension having to battle guitar warriors for fame and fortune. However, success wasn’t guaranteed by any means and when defeated what would follow was a two minute lament about just how very dead you were. Including lyrics that wouldn’t be out of place on a Cradle of Filth album – "Your heart has stopped and your brain is cold, you are so so dead" – it is probably one of the wildest game over screens in game history.