As video games evolved from their humble, quarter-eating arcade cabinet origins, so too did their protagonists’ health systems. While one-hit kills were enough to churn through all but the most seasoned arcade gamers, the market’s shift toward home-based gaming presented developers with a customer base far less accepting of unforgiving and difficult entertainment. It’s easy to side with the consumers on this one — dropping $27.95 for a new copy of Space Invaders in 1980 would be like spending $93.82 today.
This nascent pastime might have died on the vine were early developers not savvy enough to pivot to game design that prolonged the user experience and staved off frustration. The crude “life” system prevalent in arcades was soon in the shadow of console and PC games touting characters that could take multiple hits per life or Heads Up Displays that incrementally conveyed the player’s remaining health. Though a few ahead-of-their-time wildcard health meters like heart rate monitors and decaying chicken dinners emerged during that shift, the primary method of showing the loss and replenishment of life force was (and still is) a thin, horizontal single bar graph.
As video games built upon the successes of one another over the decades, and generations of gamers inured themselves to the increasingly universal language of gameplay, the health bar became a mainstay that needed little explanation.
Building upon both this and users’ growing familiarity and complex gameplay possibilities presented by increasingly powerful computers, devs started building health bar spin-offs.
With Dungeons and Dragons now well over a decade old, and the Venn diagram between its players and gamers almost a perfect circle, mana bars were soon commonplace as RPGs transitions from tabletops to desktops. And once it was clear gamers had no trouble managing both HP (hit points) and MP (magic/mana points), it was off to the races.
In the ensuing years, the gaming community has learned to also juggle stamina, fatigue, hunger, sanity, posture, and countless other physiological and psychological metrics. For the most part, the resources being managed in all these non-health bars — mana included — can be distilled down to one simple concept: energy. It’s the thing your character needs to shoot spells, sprint, stay awake, or otherwise function at the peak of their abilities. Most of the time, the consumables and pickups collected to replenish these meters follow a relatively grounded form of video game logic — coffee, energy drinks, elixirs, and the like all make sense as feasible boosters for a character. But some games are determined to push the limits of our suspension of disbelief.
Here are just a handful of our favorite unhinged energy amplifiers from throughout gaming history.
Children - Michael Jackson’s Moonwalker (1980)
The SEGA Mega Drive port of The King of Pop’s hit licensed arcade side-scrolling beat-em-up made a few changes to the initial formula. The one that most aged like milk was SEGA’s decision to center the story around Michael tracking down minors. According to the game lore, dozens of tweens have been kidnapped by the villainous Mr. Big (not the SATC character) and only a multi-platinum pop star has what it takes to save them. This one-man Sea-HE-he-l team works his way through the levels, high-kicking and moonwalking Mr. Big’s goons into submission for this noble cause. Unfortunately, his special attack — a “Shamone”-worthy spin attack — also drains his energy a bit. But as luck would have it, the act of releasing underage prisoners from their ersatz cells has the power to replenish MJ’s meter.
Cigarettes - Bioshock (2007)
One of the perks of stumbling onto a failed Randian attempt at a sub-nautical Libertarian utopia is you just know the place will be packed with all manner of intoxicants. There are plenty of games that have used the small jolt of a cigarette drag as a delivery mechanism for energy over the years. But Bioshock, which told a cautionary tale of the drawbacks to hedonistic, rugged individualism over a decade before “late stage capitalism” had entered the public lexicon, is the poster child for the gameplay device. Over the course of the game, players will likely recharge most of their psychokinetic powers — measures as a plasmid-based resource called “EVE” — with countless syringe intections. Their ransacking of Rapture will also turn up a lot of booze and ciggies. Consuming both will raise the EVE bar, while hurting other stats.
Neon signs/chimneys/street lights - Infamous series (2009-2014)
When you’re a newly christened superhero with not-fully-tested powers, you take your energy re-ups wherever you can get ‘em. For Sucker Punch’s gritty-light action series, our protagonists refill the gauges for their newfound pyro, electro, and neon-based powers just as you’d imagine: by sucking up the output of chimneys, busted circuit breakers, and historic neon signage with their bare hands.
Rocket - Fallout: New Vegas (2010)
Meth resources are a dime a dozen. Many a video game dystopia has leaned hard on the crutch of amphetamines. We get it. They make for great shorthand about the setting’s overall societal decay, while simultaneously providing the player with an energy-replenishing consumable. And when a moralizing debuff is tacked on to the usage, it’s rarely too debilitating. Where the Fallout series stands out above the rest is their commitment to exploring the variety of ways speed junkies would modify these drugs. The inhaler-applied drug, “Jet,” first introduced in Fallout 3, got a bevy of upgrades in New Vegas. The standout variant of these is colloquially referred to as “Rocket,” and involves mixing the base drug with laundry detergent and radioactive soda. What can we say? Drugs are a hell of a drug.
Long Taffy Treat - The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (2011)
RPG players have long had fun with the absurdity of pausing a battle to heal by having their character binge an ungodly amount of food. And when that doesn’t scratch the itch, they find other ways to play with that inventory. Of the myriad food items one can consume in the most popular entry in the Elder Scrolls series, the long taffy treat has got to be the best. There’s just something about the Dragonborn holding up a finger to pause a foe while he essentially downs a Fruit-by-the-Foot that tickles us.
Monster Curry - The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild (2017)
We get that Link has spent so much time slaying monsters around Hyrule that they’re completely normalized to him and no different than if you or I were to vanquish a pesky rodent invading our kitchen. But I don’t think anyone reading this would then incorporate a dead rat into a recipe. There’s a good case to be made that Link’s just living in our near future, full of bug-based fake meat and climate apocalypse survivalism. But I don’t care how many stamina circles these dishes refill. I’m still willing to call his use of monster extract in rice balls, cake, and curry kinda sus. (But hey, try it yourself!)
Dog lard - Kingdom Come: Deliverance (2018)
Serving as the spiritual antonym to the power fantasies of RPGs like Skyrim, Kingdom Come challenges players to consider what life in the 1400s would actually be like for someone like them: an uneducated, unimportant nobody with a dearth of innate weapon skills. While the central character, Henry, can be slowly elevated from serf to someone over the course of the game, one should not expect to reach any sort of overpowered God mode by endgame. And while players grapple with the indignities and banalities of Medieval living, they’ll also be confronted with some of the historically accurate slop losers like Henry would have been forced to endure. Thankfully, there’s enough loose produce scattered around the map that few will be forced to top off their nourishment meters with pure lard, let alone lard derived from the village pooch, but the fact that the option exists gives you a good idea of just how bleak this game can get.
Nutrient block - Subnautica (2018)
The recent spate of survival games has produced a ton of derivative nonsense, but a few gems as well. Subnautica, the underwater explorer is one of the genre’s bright spots. Our main gripe is that the pioneers cataloging this bountiful ocean planet, teeming with creatures they know can be converted into the best form of sushi imaginable would ever settle for a disgusting, tasteless "nutrient block." We’ve seen Snowpiercer. You ain’t slick.
Monster Energy - Death Stranding (2018)
For many a gamer, one of the more jarring elements of Hideo Kojima’s continent-traversing masterpiece was the shoehorning of a recognizable stamina-replenishing energy drink brand into the protagonist courier Sam Bridges’ regular diet. Not only is the sickly green logo a permanent fixture in Sam’s safe room home base, but the game tells you that, while out on a delivery, future science has made it so any water you scoop up on your travels will be automatically be converted to Monster.
Real-world currency - Every mobile game
If you dig deep enough, the rise of mobile phones as the primary platform for all gaming has probably done lots of good. On the other hand, they’ve cleared a pathway for the freemium model that every game has tried to implement since Candy Crush started making a trillion dollars an hour. Sure, you could spend a buck or two to unlock the next energy heart and play (and likely fail) than next-level a few hours early. But is your dignity really worth so little? Stiffen up and wait to get your daily dopamine hits like the rest of us.