Getting injured in video games is usually inconsequential. The hero loses a chunk of his health bar, maybe bleeds a little on the floor, but as soon as he's dealt with the enemy and marches on, you'd never be able to tell he's just been perforated by a gunload of hollow point bullets. Or take the amazon warrior, who needs no protection aside from her metal bikini, as her skin proves just as impenetrable as the steel her risque fashion choice is made of.
There's various reasons for that. Of course technical and workload limitations are always an issue, but aesthetic choice probably also spared us beaten-up, teethless brawler protagonists and RPG love interests covered in scars and bruises. Less superficial accounting for wounds also brings extraordinary game design challenges: How much fun is it being a platformer hero with a realistically depicted broken leg?
That doesn't mean that no one has ever tried showing us players what's going on with our alter egos on the screen. Here is a look at games that went through the lengths of visibly abusing their characters for our enjoyment. While there are tons of cars, tanks, planes and mechas that have been torn to shreds in the history of video games, we're only looking at characters of pixellated or polygonal flesh and blood. Gratuitous death animations aren't enough to qualify, either—characters have to live with their injuries, at least until the next health pack shows up.
Ghosts 'n Goblins (1985)
In the old days of low resolution and few colors, wounds on a player character simply wouldn't have been recognizable as such. There weren't many pixels left in between Arthur's beard and his helmet to make any scratches identifiable, so to show that he's now more vulnerable after a hit, the clever pixel artist at Capcom just took away his armor, leaving him running around in his underpants. A second hit then will leave nothing but hsi crumbling bones. This mechanic lives on in the game's various sequels, and is even picked up for the series reboot Maximo (2002). Capcom's own Black Tiger (1987) and Natsume's Pocky & Rocky 2 (1994) work similarly, too. (picture right: Super Ghouls 'n Ghosts, GBA; below: Maximo)
Super Mario Bros. (1985)
Released just a little bit later than Ghosts 'n Goblins, Super Mario Bros. shows another workaround for the fact that Mario's face can't take any more red pixels beside his cap and moustache. When he gets hurt, he simply shrinks in size. One could argue about the eligibility of this example, though. In the original, the small size appears to be his natural state. In Super Mario Bros. 2 (1988, pictured), however, Mario starts out big, and in the later 3D games that drop the feature, he's no dwarf, either.
Fighting games seem to be the predestined genre for this. But fighting game characters also start out with stripping their clothes instead of ripping their flesh. Hits on the different parts of a characters' armor will make them fall off, another hit on the now unprotected part kills. It is interesting to note how at least the Japanese version knew no discrimination of the sexes and shows the female warrior just as bare-chested as her male counterparts.
Developer Allumer refined the concept with their 1992 game Blandia, and it has since been imitated in various other, predominantly Japanese, fanservice-y fighting games like Fighting Vipers (1995) and Soul Calibur IV (2008), not to name all those Doujin strip fighters. Many gamers have been very curious what pieces of armor Ivy was supposed to lose.
Art of Fighting (1992)
NOW we're talking! Art of Fighting is the first game were players really can beat each other's faces to pulp. Towards the end of the fight, both combatants are often hardly recognizable, anymore. The game also became infamous because Yuri and King could get their shirts blown off when finished with a fireball attack, which carried over into the first King of Fighters games. Art of Fighting 2 works in the same way, but unfortunately SNK dropped the feature for the 3rd episode.
Time Killers (1992)
In the wake of Mortal Kombat came this new epitome of bad taste. The game featured fatalities just like its role model, but character's arms could also be severed during combat, forcing them to go on with a limited moveset. Continued with Bloodstorm (1994), where combatants could also go on without their legs, skidding over the floor on their intestines.
Wolfenstein 3D (1992)
Most first person shooters automatically disqualify for this list because... well, because you never get to see your character. Wolfenstein 3D circumvented this issue by placing the head of hero Blascovich into the on-screen display, where you can see it growing bloodier and bloodier the lower your health gets. id used the same feature in Doom (1993), and the animated mugshots were also adopted by the later Might & Magic games.
Robinson's Requiem (1994)
Another first person game, but Silmaril's science fiction retelling of Robinson Crusoe befittingly is a survival adventure. Visible damage comes into play on the player character's profile, which is used to apply bandages, makeshift splints and medication. This game is one of the rare occasions where your health also affects your general performance. As an extreme, your character literally goes blind when birds hack at his eyes! Continued with the sequel Deus (1996), which also adds an infrared view with your skeleton. Both games are available bundled at GOG.com. Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth (2005) features a simplified variant, so does Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater (2004), although the latter without visually showing the damage.
As our first example of story-driven damage, Götzendiener falls back to the old hurting=stripping formula. The heroine in this very short game starts out in cpativity of a demon. A knight in shining armor comes to rescue her, but dies together with his foe. No longer under watch, the resolute damsel takes her rescue into her own hands, losing parts of her garments with each chapter.
Many later games have taken the same approach: Die Hard: Arcade (1996), Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (2003), Heavy Metal: FAKK 2 (2000). The latter has the heroine frequently changing her attire to counteract to the textile decay, which doesn't mean she's gonna show less skin that way, as her outfits just get skimpier and skimpier.
Resident Evil (1996)
Capcom's horror shocker didn't modify Chris' or Jill's models or textures to show how grave their condition is, but the animation. Injured zombie hunters started limping, which also made them significantly slower.
Kinda adopted by Silent Hill (1999), only Harry Mason always runs like he's just been shot in the foot.
Super Mario 64 (1996)
One of the innovators of the category makes his return. Mario doesn't shrink anymore, but when he's at the last quarter of his health, he's visibly out of puff. This becomes a very popular feature in cartoony 3rd person games, even just on the N64: Mystical Ninja Starring Goemon (1997), The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, Conker's Bad fur Day (2001) ... the list goes on.
This has also been seen in 2D games like Mega Man X4. Do you know any examples that predate Super Mario 64?
Bushido Blade (1997)
Bushido Blade and its sequel do away with the silly health bar convention in weapon based fighters entirely, and instead semi-realistically accounts for damage done to indivudual body parts. It doesn't have any of the instant gratuitous feedback of Time Killers, but characters start to limp when injured, and they'll wear bandages in the following fight.
Deathtrap Dungeon (1998)
The game that motivated this post. From my article on the title: "There is, however, one really cool feature that got dropped in the conversion [to the PSX]: On the PC, all the damage the adventurers took would show on their body. You see their bruises, cuts — even arrows keep sticking in their flesh until healed." 'nuff said...
Jurassic Park: Trespasser (1998)
Almost doesn't count, because it's not actually the heroine's body that changes appearence, just the tatoo on her chest gets tainted red.
Another interesting variant on cloth damage, and also a really surprising twist on New Game Plus. Eriko has to rescue her friend from a cursed amusement park, but whenever she fails and one of her friend dies in a second playthrough, her clothes get ripped apart a little more, posing a real moral dillemma for the young male player. If you really screw up, in the end she'll be covered by nothing more than smears of mud and three tiny shreds of cloth at three laughably convenient spots.
Tao Feng: Fist of the Lotus (2003)
Possibly the first fighting game to bring Art of Fighting's approach into the third dimension, the failed comeback of a former Mortal Kombat developer featured quite impressive damage ranging from cuts, dirt and bruises to torn clothes.
Fable sure as hell didn't go for short-lived diversions. In Peter Molineux' most persistent obsession yet, you don't get a love interest, you get spouses—lots of them. And you don't get merely injured, you get scars. By the second game those were the least of your worries, though, as skilled characters automatically turned into monstrous beings suffering from gigantism and shiny blue varices all over their body.
Fight Night 2004 (2kduh!)
As a genre were endurance is one of the deciding factors for victory, sports games simulated fatigue in some way or the other since 8-bit times, with slower movement, weaker passes or whatever. With growingly powerful hardware, especially wrestling and boxing games started to go to great lengths to convey how exhausted the combatants got. The most excessive example yet is the Fight Night series, where characters not only get cuts, black eyes and bruises, but also sweat like pigs and start dribbling when they've no energy left in their bodies. (picture below: Fight Night Round 4)
"Don't worry, that's not my blood."
The girls of the Bikini Samurai Squad turn into a bloody mess when they hurt others. Zombies bleed all over them with their cursed blood, eventually forcing them into a murderous frenzy. They also occasionally have to shake the blood of their swords, lest they become useless. Particularly tasteless: Some of the games offer settings to vary the color of the blood, white being one of the possible choices. It looks naughty.
Retro Game Challenge / Game Center CX: Robot Ninja Haggleman (2007)
Although it is predominantly a hommage to Ninja Jajamaru-kun, the fake-classic action platformer series also contains a nod to Ghosts 'n Goblins—only the little ninja doesn't lose his armor, instead is eyes bulge out. The spin-off Haggleman - Koume Version on Game Center CX: Arino no Chousenjou 2 features the ninja's sister, who has her arm in a sling after a hit.
Batman: Arkham Asylum (2009)
Actually another entry from the Götzendiener school, but nonetheless deserving of its own entry, because Batman also gets scratched here and there, and grows awesome stubble on his chin over the course of this longer-than-planned mission.
Mortal Kombat vs DC Universe (2008) and Mortal Kombat (2011)
You'd think that the one series so famous for its sadistic treatment of its characters would have jumped the train earlier, but up to Mortal Kombat vs DC Universe, characters may have lost gallons of blood, but they could only really be injured—and instantly killed—with Fatalities. The 2011 reboot goes one step further with x-ray vision for special combos.
The 3rd Birthday (2011)
Another stripping game, only here Aya Brea's clothing status is directly tied to her health. She can lose an impressive amount of fiber, but scratch marks also prove the monsters didn't just want to see her naked.
El Shaddai (2011)
It may be the shittiest high-profile game of this console generation, in El Shaddai instead of a health bar you see your armor cracking and shattering, revealing that the protagonist doesn't actually have huge man-boobs.
Tomb Raider (2012)
In Tomb Raider Underworld, the grave robbing brit could already get wet and dirty. (No, not what you're thinking!) Now trailers of the new reboot show a very beaten-up Lara Croft soaked in blood. It remains to be seen how it will all work out in the game, though.
Screenshots taken from Strategy Informer, GameFAQs and GOG.com.