One argument that is brought up periodically is that the life system in games is outdated, that it hampers the flow of the game. This argument has been out there so long that the industry has become to believe it.
The life system originates from the arcades, where your quarter usually corresponded three lives or so depending the dip switches used. When given lives were used up, another coin with ten second timer would give three more lives to go with. The player could also earn more lives by certain point intervals or finding 1-up items. The latter is rare in arcade games, but more common in their ports and in console games.
The life based system creates interesting challenge; if you’re not good enough, the game’s over before you notice it. The lives limit the game and forces the player to become good at the game rather than just breeze through.
Why was the life based system abandoned? As mentioned previously, some argued that it was an archaic system from the old days. This is, as you might expect, completely wrong. The argument came from computer players who were frustrated at the difficulty level of console and arcade games. Computer games rarely had a proper life system, and if they had, the games using them were console games on PCs. This lead the developer slowly abandon the life system, and as a side effect some games suffer from having bad life system. As with any mechanic, the life system needs to be properly applied to any game with good crafts skills.
Let’s take a look at Mega Man Zero, a game that has completely useless life system. The 1-Ups are scarce and rare, only found around few spots in each of the games. The thing is, because you can reload your saved game after every failure the life system is completely stupid inclusion. Another way to screw up the life system would be to give more lives to the player than enough, a think modern Mario games, 2D and 3D alike, do so much that the player has more than 99 lives before the end of the second World.
The life system, by all means, was to make the game harder, but also encourage the player to try again. Now that most games have underwent a complete PC transformation the life system has been discarded and now the player almost has to do the job so that they can die. It takes a lot to get the game balance just right in order to life system to work. Because nowadays these creative heads of game studios barely do any work (of any kind) the game balance is totally screwed, but players do not notice this because the life system is not present and you barely ever find yourself returned back to the main screen.
We barely have any games that pose a challenge, games that make you work to get better at the game, not good with the controls.