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Arcade Flashback : Unwinnable Arcade Games

Pacman Kill ScreenThe late 1970s to the mid-1990s can be said to be the golden age of the arcade machine. This was before the mass production on personal consoles and hand-held computer games were still in their infancy and fairly limited as the games that could be played. The unsophisticated graphics made playing on small hand-held machines something of a trial after a fairly short period of time, so the video game arcade became the place for computer game aficionados to congregate. Arcades were strangely deserted in the morning and early afternoon, but began to buzz the moment school let out and anxious players headed straight for their favourite game, determined that this time, this day would be the one that saw total victory over the tempting, coin-gobbling machines!

The above paragraph is slightly misleading – as early as the 1920s there were games arcades in which players could try to compete against a contraption to win a prize. These games were usually mechanical, and of the ‘test your strength’ or ‘pitch till you win’ variety. They were usually to be found at seaside resorts and funfairs, and were a great place for young courting couples to meet up and get to know each other while remaining in company! Computerised arcade games came along decades later, and these became, very quickly, almost entirely the preserve of the young teenage boy – girls were allowed, of course, they simply did not have as much interest in the beeping, shuddering machines as their male counterparts did!

The discovery that some games were not winnable was no doubt a source of great anger and frustration on the part of such keen early gamers, who could spend hundreds of pounds, a few coins at a time, over the months as they battled through ever more difficult levels in the hope of seeing that ultimate prize, the words WINNER emblazoned, flashing, on the screen while the machine loudly admitted defeat! However, there were indeed some games that had, due to software issues or designer malice, levels that were unwinnable. Some of these at least booted players out of the game, acknowledging to some extent that there was an issue and that to continue playing was quite pointless. Others, more cruelly, would allow the player to continue battling villains and exploring the graphics, completely unaware that they had missed some small but vital power-up or unobtrusive exit and were now doomed to play on in this level forever, with no hope of making any more progress at all!

Donkey Kong Kill ScreenTwo of the most popular of all arcade machine games, Pac-Man, in which the yellow circular character munches his way around the screen, avoiding ghosts and other enemies, and Donkey Kong, the game that gave rise to that most favourite of all game characters, Mario, both have kill screens. Pac-Man’s kill screen, which occurs on level 256, is caused by an integer overflow, the glitch that was believed by many to be the basis of the fortunately mythical Y2K bug. Put simply, an integer overflow is the point when a counter resets to zero. In the latter part of 1999 many people thought that the act of internal computer timers changing from 31/12/99 to 01/01/00 would cause the computer to believe that it had gone back in time and would therefore ‘forget’ everything with which it had been programmed. Fortunately, or perhaps worryingly, computers were cleverer than we gave them credit for and recognised the change as being a small step forward, rather than a massive step backwards. However, Pac-Man’s internal computer was not so advanced and once a certain amount of memory had been used in any one game, it defaulted to the kill screen, throwing the player out. This usually took the form of one side of the screen (usually the right-hand-side) scrolling with the random numbers and characters that make up the programming, and the left hand side becoming too jumpy and unpredictable to allow for smooth movement and reaction. The kill screen in Donkey Kong is described as a glitch in the programming that kills the character soon to be known as Mario after a few seconds. This occurs on the 22nd level, or on the 117th screen. It is believed to be a result of the ever-shortening time allowed to complete each level – eventually the time allowed is too short for human reflexes to play in any meaningful way.

Some early versions of the arcade machine version of Tower of Druaga were unbeatable due to a glitch in the programming. Later versions contained fixes for this glitch – which probably means that those early, glitch-ridden machines are worth an absolute fortune to the right buyer! – and the game is still going strong today, although in a different format to the original.

Arcade games are still dear to the hearts of many former (and current!) avid players who will fondly spend hours reminiscing about their battles against the machines until, at last, victory was secured. Even those who were unfortunate enough to battle through to the final moments on unwinnable games must still feel a certain fondness and understand that although the game did not acknowledge their victory in the traditional way, with bells and whooping and their name proudly saved in the high-scores list, it was in every way, still a win!


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