How hearts became health: 9 video games explain


The image of a pixelated heart has been used in video games, immortalized in tattoos, and slapped on basically any product that wants to appeal to gamers.

But how did this simple symbol come to represent the entire medium and the concept of life itself?

The 1985 NES game Chubby Cherub stars a cupid-like characters and uses hearts to represent lives — much like Galaga used ships or Super Mario Bros. used Mario icons.

Dragon Buster, released earlier that year, is credited as the first game to have a visual health bar to represent how many more hits a character could take before dying.

The Legend of Zelda combined those ideas, using a row of hearts as its health bar.

Hearts quickly became a common symbol for health pickups, including in other Nintendo games like Super Mario Bros. 2 and Paper Mario.

It wasn't universal, though. Castlevania used hearts as ammo for special attacks.

But the health symbolism was so clear and recognizable that games soon parodied it, like the Sega Genesis game Decap Attack using a row of realistic human hearts for its health meter.

Horror-themed beat ‘em up Splatterhouse used the same twist on the symbol.

Primal Rage took it a step further, with a beating heart at the end of each player’s health gauge that exploded when they were killed.

It's not as common these days, but Minecraft is keeping the tradition alive.

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As for why it represents life, the heart was known as a vital and spiritually significant organ in ancient cultures from Egypt to Mesoamerica.

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Video games didn’t invent the heart icon, which dates back at least to the Middle Ages, but it’s not clear exactly where the shape came from.

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For most of its history, the heart symbolized love rather than health, appearing in everything from religious iconography to “I ♥ NY” t-shirts.

Heart-shaped patterns called inome (literally “boar’s eye”) appear on Japanese weapons and armor as well as shrines, symbolizing bravery and determination.

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As Link bears the Triforce of Courage and fights for Princess Zelda, it’s fitting that a symbol of bravery and love also represented his life.

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