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How ‘1-Up’ Went From Pinball to Gamer Speak

Turns out Mario mushrooms owe a lot to pinball machines.

Extra life!
Extra life! William Warby/CC BY 2.0

Ever since the opening chiptunes of Super Mario Brothers started issuing from television sets across the globe, the term “1-Up” has been synonymous for an extra life. But as it turns out, the origin of the 1-Up goes back even further, stretching back into the world of pinball.

We asked pinball champion Bowen Kerins where the term began. “I really have no idea what was the first game to do this, but it clearly predates any electronic video games,” Kerins says. During the 1960s, terms like “1-Up,” and “2-Up,” and so on began appearing on the back glass of pinball machines. In this context the term would usually appear next to a score display, indicating both a player’s accumulated points and also which player’s turn it was, or rather which player was “up.”

Some older games like 1966’s Stampede machine, made by pinball manufacturer Stern, had their score readouts labeled “1st Player” and “2nd Player,” with the “Up” off to the side near an arrow that would light up on a given player’s turn. A similar labeling can be found on 1963’s Race-Way by Midway. Eventually, this labeling system was shortened to the X-Up format which we’re more familiar with today, and which became the standard throughout the industry.   

A 1-Up backglass from 1973.
A 1-Up backglass from 1973. Ryan Somma/CC BY 2.0

While the use of the terminology can be traced back to at least the 1960s, its exact first occurrence is not known, although Kerins suggested one back glass illustrator who may have had a hand in the term’s creation. “Note that both A Go Go and Capersville, even though built by different companies, were hand drawn by the same person (Jerry Kelley),” says Kerins. “Perhaps this person is the origin of the name ‘1 Up.’ Kelley’s very first artwork, in 1963 for Midway, also had the ‘Up’ but in more detail.”

As the popular focus of gaming shifted from pinball to arcade video games through the end of the 1970s and into the 1980s, some of the lingo transferred over as well. Arcade games identified their players in all sorts of ways ranging from the simple “1p” to more game-specific designations like Gauntlet’s fantasy classes, in which you were labeled a Wizard or a Rogue. But still others, like Galaga, just brought over the old 1-Up/2-Up system from the pinball days, even though an increasing number of the games no longer required players to alternate rounds of play.

Having made the jump from mechanical pinball machines to digital video games, 1-Up’s next logical transference was to the world of home console games, where it made its biggest impact. Whereas before, the 1-Up label was simply there as functionary indicator, probably going complete unnoticed by most, that all changed with Super Mario Brothers for the Nintendo. During the very first level of this beloved game, players could jump up at one point and find a secret extra life in the form of a green mushroom. Then, when the player collected it, the term “1-Up” floated out towards the top of the screen.

It was likely meant to signify, well, an extra life, described as another call out to the player first player. But whatever the original intention, 1-Up nearly instantly became synonymous for “extra life” in any video game.

Far removed from its pinball hall origins, 1-Up is still widely used slang for video game extra lives. The term 1-Up now adorns everything from websites to energy drinks, and is an ingrained piece of gamer grammar. But never forget that it belonged to the pinballers first.