Kill Screen

kill screen by James Flames

A kill screen is a stage or level in a video game (often an arcade game) that stops the player’s progress due to a programming error or design oversight. Rather than ‘ending’ in a traditional sense, the game will crash, freeze, or behave so erratically that further play is impossible. Pac-Man has a famous kill screen often referred to as the ‘Pac-Man Bomb Screen.’ The game’s level counter was a single 8-bit byte and could therefore store only 256 distinct values. Reaching the 256th level causes the counter that is used while drawing the fruit to overflow to zero, causing 256 fruits and seven blank spaces to be drawn.

Kill screens were much more common during the Golden Age of Arcade Games. Games from this era were often written with the assumption that the player would stop playing long before the numerical limits of the game code were reached; most games from this period were intended to continue until the players lost all of their lives. Additionally, the limited hardware of these early machines often meant that programmers could not spend memory on logical checks of the game state.

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