When travelling through an arcade, you will notice an incredible variety of very different games, each of which has one element in common; they all will end eventually.
Laser tag ends once the group’s time runs out, as do most other games, whilst others provide a set of attempts and stages a person can play before they need to insert another coin.
However, some games attempt to go on forever, endlessly getting faster, more difficult and providing less time until, inevitably, most players will reach a point where they cannot get any further and are treated to a game over.
However, some games that allegedly go on forever do have an accidentally established endpoint, typically caused by either a glitch or an oversight that leads to the game becoming unplayable.
This state is known as a kill screen and appears in, amongst other games, two of the most famous machines ever made.
Arguably the first game that people associate with the concept of a kill screen is Pac-Man.
Pac-Man has 255 levels which take place in the same maze with the same ghosts, albeit with different patterns of behaviour. Once all 255 are beaten, which can take upwards of six hours, level 256 appears and it looks somewhat different.
Only half of the maze appears normally, whilst the other half is made up of random garbled characters. This means that only nine of the necessary dots appear on the corrupted side of the board, not enough to trigger the next level. A perfect Pac-Man score is thus limited to 3,333,360 points.
The other famous kill screen is from the game Donkey Kong, in no small part due to a notable scene in the documentary The King Of Kong where a player reaches it on a live arcade machine.
Unlike Pac-Man, where the kill screen is a dramatic display of corrupted graphics, Donkey Kong’s kill screen is simply a level that is impossible to complete.
The way the game is coded means that on the 22nd level (each level consists of four screens), the game gives the player only seven seconds to complete the board.
Both Pac-Man and Donkey Kong’s follow-up games each have a kill screen, but interestingly enough it is not the same one as the original.
Ms Pac-Man has a kill screen after level 133, although it is not made clear exactly how long after. Between one and eight levels later, the entire game is drawn upside down and immediately resets.
Meanwhile, Donkey Kong Jr has “Level F”, where much like in Donkey Kong, a player simply does not have enough time to complete the level.
Dig Dug has round 256, stylised as “Round 0” where only one enemy spawns directly on top of the player, killing them instantly until they run out of lives.
Galaga is a strange example of a game having a difficulty-dependant kill screen. On Rank A the game crashes immediately on level 256, but on Rank B and Rank C the game displays a “Stage 0” but no enemies.