This one has been on my mind lately after finishing the New Super Mario Bros. game on the DS. The little icon reminding you how many Marios remain with which to complete the rest of the game remains ever present. I guess it’s there because, well, it’s always been there, and this is a game about pulling some strings of nostalgia.
What happens when you run out of Marios? You get a screen that asks if you want to continue playing from your last save point. If the ‘penalty’ for running out of lives is the exact same thing that would happen if the user just turns the machine off perhaps you should rethink why, exactly, you are going to the trouble and expense of putting it there in the first place. I suppose I can understand what the motivation is. You want to penalize the player for repeatedly dying in the attempt to finish a level. To which I’d ask, why is it important for a videogame to penalize a player at all for just wanting to play the game? The difficulty and reward should lie in executing the mechanics of play. The only thing the ‘restart a little ways back’ penalty does is force the player to replay a level that they have already proven to themselves and the game that they can complete.
The question is perhaps most simply formed as, “How far back should I place the player when their character dies?” How about if there were a minigame or challenge of some sort which determined how far back your character was thrown when they die? What if there were the chance of getting a powerup during this game? Don’t make it clear the game is penalizing the player, make it ~fun~ to have to go back. That’s the whole point of making these diversions in the first place. Fun. Penalties are one of those things we’re turning to these things to get away from.