Death by the Decade: The evolution of dying in games

There are several ways to gauge how far videogames have come since their bleep-blorp beginnings. You can look at graphics, gameplay complexity, or as we’re about to illustrate, how your character actually dies in the game. As technology improved, so did the deaths suffered by the myriad protagonists, eventually progressing to the point where, today, you live through that death in the first person, forced to watch your hero’s grisly final moments.

Above: Thanks to science, you can now live firsthand the excitement of a good mauling 

This is by no means a collection of all the worst gaming deaths – it’s a look back at how, over time, games managed to connect the real-world player with their in-game death, and actually make you come to dread dying at all.

Yes, games existed prior to 1980, but in terms of “dying” there wasn’t much to make the player care about losing other than missing out on a high-score opportunity. That finally changed with Pac-Man, which featured the now-iconic fade-away-into-nothingness animation seen here:

Letting Pac-Man get tagged by one of the rainbow-colored ghosts sent him into a death spiral that has since become a part of mainstream pop culture. The next game on this list though, took things a step further and showed a vaguely humanoid avatar eating it.


At the time it was easy to picture yourself as Pitfall Harry, leaping over alligator heads and avoiding deadly scorpions. You’d breathe a sigh of relief every time you landed on a gator’s head and didn’t slip right into its toothy maw. A connection between real life and game life was made, making Pitfall one of the first games that made some kind of basic connection between human player and human character.

Then there was Dragon’s Lair, starring a hero you couldn’t keep from dying without hours of trial and error:

The first two minutes are how the game plays if you know what’s going on. The last bit is more indicative of actual gameplay, where Dirk is dying every five seconds in some new and unusual way, be it spontaneous skeleton-ing or burned alive by the goofiest dragon in history. It was hard to feel for Dirk, as you barely controlled the game in the first place, but no mention of early videogame deaths is complete without a nod to the first game where dying was part of the appeal.

Moving into the mid ‘80s, character sprites became involved enough that you could finally make out what was happening to ‘em when they croaked.

Above: We sure saw a lot of this 

Super Mario Bros., along with any character-based NES, Genesis and Super NES game, brought along varying animations of death, from the cartoonish ending seen above (where Mario throws his limbs out in a “wha happen!?” gesture) to many, many robots exploding into pieces.

Above: Mega Man bursting into bits of light

Above: The super-awesome M 308 Gunner from Metal Storm erupting into flames

The most prominent death from this era is one that, like Pac-Man, has become something of an in-joke that just about everyone understands – the flickering-until-you-disappear death from countless beat ‘em ups.

Above: You’ve just been beat to death. What next? 

Above: BINK! You zap out of existence, instantly replaced by another “you”

Flickering deaths were used extensively in arcade and console games from the mid ‘80s well into the ‘90s, most notably in stuff like Final Fight, Sunset Riders, X-Men and The Simpsons. Functional, yes, as it gets you back into the game quickly without much fuss, but doesn’t do anything to make you care about the character in any way. Lives are as disposable as the quarters you’re pumping into the machine.

Moving further into the 1990s, we start to see the first truly graphic depictions of death, from spinal columns to exploding heads to decapitations aplenty. Let’s check ‘em out!


  • nyef - February 19, 2009 8:45 p.m.

    nice job gamesradar. pretty informative. I still love the "WTF?" look on mario whenever he dies to this day
  • nyef - February 19, 2009 8:46 p.m.

    ... oh yeah... FIRST!!! <('.'<) <--- Kirby :P
  • FrozenImplosion - February 19, 2009 9:19 p.m.

    You have no idea how surprised i was when i first got my head cut off. And also, it wasn't even more than twenty minutes into the game!
  • Corsair89 - February 19, 2009 10:32 p.m.

    Oh man, I remember the scene in the Darkness vividly. Thart scene was burned into my memory as much as the Bioshock twist.
  • flare149 - February 19, 2009 11:01 p.m.

    The Darkness is the one game I compare all other characters and story too. it was amazing and I've never seen any other game do so much so well. I swear it would've gotten 10's across the board had it not had the mediocre multipalyer tacked onto the side. Really looking forward to a second one.
  • DaBadGuy - February 19, 2009 11:46 p.m.

    Very great article, every week you guys come up with great stuff, keep it coming.
  • aequitas13 - February 19, 2009 11:59 p.m.

    +1 for the Tomb Raider 'broken neck' montage...
  • bamb0o-stick - February 20, 2009 1:19 a.m.

    Will we ever see The Darkness on PC? I really am bummed out that this game never got ported and I am really interested in this game. I stopped the video on the Darkness halfway through in this article because it just felt so deep and emotional. I didn't want to have the game ruined for me. I sure hope Seabreeze doesn't screw PC gamers over.
  • RebornKusabi - February 20, 2009 1:43 a.m.

    I gotta say, I'm with you on a comment you made that Jericho has some cool moments (said death is one of them) but it has some problems. If it would have been done by a better developer, I honestly think it would have been a great game. As is, it's just an okay game.
  • revrock - February 20, 2009 1:53 a.m.

    Sonic the Hedgehog drowning in 2D always disturbed me... The music building up and them BAM you are dead.
  • vic88 - February 20, 2009 5:21 a.m.

    really? no link to the RE4 death scenes video on youtube, thats full of die'n
  • iKOemos - February 20, 2009 9:32 a.m.

    I love The Darkness... Jennie's death scene was really well done.
  • jdog2491 - February 20, 2009 11:49 a.m.

    lol the hunter eating a grenade made me lmao and quake 4 was the best one on here
  • Xplosive59 - February 20, 2009 1:05 p.m.

    great article but on the last page it was more about deaths in cutscenes that are uncontrollable such as the cod 4 one where you have to go through that phase to continue the game, compare this to the resi 4 death as it is controllable and you dont need it to happen making it into a death animation but if it was an article about deaths in uncontrolable cutscenes it would have been perfectly ok
  • norid - February 21, 2009 12:40 a.m.

    "And that......well that was the first time i died" :( saddest ending for me.
  • RaIdEn - February 21, 2009 1:55 a.m.

    when i played that level in COD 4 i was standing up and he fell to his knees when he died
  • NelosAngelos - February 22, 2009 8 p.m.

    "Awww, what did they do to Jenny?" She didn't deserve to die...not like that. But she did. That game did it better than any move ever could in a death scene.
  • MrSegraves - February 19, 2009 9:08 p.m.

    That moment in the Darkness was one of the saddest moments I've ever seen in a videogame, especially after they had sat on the couch together, watching tv.
  • Zslasher44 - February 19, 2009 10:51 p.m.

    Goes from Mario's jump - death after walking into a COD4's crawling misery through an irradiated Middle Eastern country How the times have changed
  • somthing42 - February 19, 2009 11:26 p.m.

    Holy fuck, that Quake 4 scene was dramatic

Showing 1-20 of 35 comments

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