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Welcome to Level 256. Yes, this really is Level 256.


Homestar: Hey Strong Bad, what's a kill- kill- Kill Screen?

Strong Bad: Oh, that's when you play a video game for so long, and get a score so high, and have a life so depressing, that you break the video game!
Strong Bads Cool Game for Attractive People Episode 5: 8-bit is Enough

Ah, the iconic games of our youth. We humbly sit at the 256th level of Pac-Man, proud of our meager ach--WHAT THE HELL HAPPENED TO THE SCREEN?!

Yep, the Kill Screen, enemy of completionists of yore. The result of an Endless Game being played for such a long time without a Game Over, and the player advancing so far that an internal counter (like the current level number) reaches its inherent limit (often 255) and "overflows" (e.g. resetting itself back to zero), causing a Game Breaking Bug to result.

The results ... are not pretty: Pac-Man, for example, goes horribly wrong as it attempts to load Level 256, causing half of the screen to become filled with unreadable garbage, rendering the level (almost) Unwinnable in the process.

A Kill Screen can apply to anything: be it a sequence, a level, or even a respawn error (though the latter is quite rare).

Most definitely related to and/or cause of Unwinnable, although the act of merely reaching the Kill Screen may be considered (in and of itself) a form of victory).

This site explains the Kill Screens for Pac-Man and Donkey Kong — and actually contains patches that fix them.

Compare and contrast Minus World, a level that is found by exploiting a glitch (such as world -1 in Super Mario Bros.), and is at least semi-playable, rather than breaking the game outright.

The Missingno is a game sprite that exists because of similar internal bugs.

Actual Kill Screens:

  • Pictured is the Stage 256 error in Pac-Man. You can actually purchase it as a T-shirt, too.
    • In Pac-Man Championship Edition DX, the 65th on the right side will affect the right-hand side it is collected on instead of the left-hand side it's supposed to. This can result in pellets being stuck in walls, making it impossible to continue, and if the player is smart (and aware) enough to clean out the side of pellets first, no more fruit spawn. Here's an example of the glitch in action. This does (in theory) place a cap on the "Half" course that cannot be beaten, but only Free Mode is affected, as the "Half" course is only ranked on Time Attack courses.
  • Happens in Donkey Kong, in which the overflow sets your death timer to 400[1]. Very few have gotten there legitimately, as shown in the documentary film The King of Kong. Interestingly, the kill screen is right around the point where a very-top-level player can score a million points before reaching it.
  • After clearing round 255 of Dig Dug, you go to round 0, a completely messed-up level with a Pooka starting right on top of Dig, killing him instantly before he can do anything. (If you clear this level via a cheat, the game loops back to round 1.)
  • Heroes of Might and Magic 3 had a glitch that would crash any game after the third "month" of play. This was corrected, though.
  • The original NES Tetris becomes impossible at Level 29, at which point the pieces drop too fast to move them into the extreme left and right edges of the screen, which is why later games adopt the "lock delay" mechanic, first seen in Sega's 1988 arcade version of Tetris, that allows a piece to still be moved around when it hits the stack or floor.
    • Tetris prior to the 2001 reform also featured a largely theoretical "kill sequence", whereby the random flow of pieces can include a stream of S- and Z-shaped blocks that cannot be used to create complete lines. Assuming a perfect random number generator (and that the programmers have not spotted the problem), such a sequence is bound to happen in a game that is long enough.
  • In RC Pro Am, the cheating yellow truck eventually makes the race literally Unwinnable. While you only need to avoid last place, the other trucks will eventually speed up as well.
  • In Duck Hunt, a kill screen occurs at Level 100 in Game A (1 duck). The level is displayed as "Level 0", ducks fly at insane speeds and jump around the screen so fast they're unshootable, and then the dog repeatedly laughs at you until you get a Game Over.
    • Interestingly enough, if you accomplish this in Game B (2 ducks) or Game C (clay shooting), it causes everything to become incredibly slow, after which it proceeds normally to level 1. In Game C, you even get to see up-close blast animations that are almost impossible to get at normal speed.
  • In Galaga, clearing 255 stages will yield Stage 0, which crashes the game unless the DIP switches are set for the toughest difficulty level.
  • Many games from the infamous Action 52 do this, eg Thrusters starts blinking on and off in the second level, Atmos Quake has an invisible death barrier at Level 5, and Star Evil displays a blank gray screen on Level 4. In other version of this cartridge, some of these levels won't crash.
  • Super Paper Mario for Wii had glitches in PAL areas due to a problem with conversion from NTSC to PAL. This meant that on the Haunted House level, talking to a certain character basically caused the disk to freeze and buzz endlessly until the Wii was turned off completely. Luckily, Nintendo would let you get a new copy, free of charge, but some people just turn their language setting to German and it works fine.
  • Bubble Bobble Revolution had a later level that was unbeatable because the boss failed to spawn.
  • Bioshock 2's DLC Minerva's Den has a mini-game called Spitfire. If you get the highest score, you get a "kill screen" that show all the sprites, some large numbers, a large R and a golf club.

Parodies, references, and Lampshade Hangings:

  • The page quote comes from Episode 5 of Strong Bads Cool Game for Attractive People, where one puzzle involves deliberately triggering the Kill Screen in "Gel-arshie's Pro Fruit-Boarder". The reward is Gel-arshie himself as a party member.
  • The back cover of Scott Pilgrim Vs The Universe has a picture of 8-bit Scott opening a door to Subspace, which apparently looks like a Kill Screen.
    • In the Tie-In Videogame, Subspace actually IS a Kill Screen. Made it on purpose though.
  • In an episode of Chuck, the Hollywood Nerd must get the secret codes to a Cold War satellite by getting the Kill Screen in Missile Command.
  • The webcomic 2P Start referenced the Pac-Man kill screen in one comic.
  • The high-brow gaming magazine Kill Screen is named after this.
  • In White Devil of the Moon, Nanoha, playing on the Sailor V arcade game the Sailor Senshi use to train, manages to get 999,999 points on her first try, resulting in the game suddenly ending and her getting extra prizes.
  • NCIS had an episode built around the Kill Screen as a theme.
  • On an episode of The Venture Brothers, Henchman 21 despairs at having seen everything life has to offer. He lists "the Donkey Kong kill screen" alongside "attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion".
  • Parodied in Filibuster Cartoons here.
  1. which is about 4 seconds and is doubtlessly impossible