In the beginning, there were Nintendo Hard games which you had to finish in a single sitting. To make these games more fair, creators implemented "lives" so that you wouldn't have to start all the way at the beginning of the game if you failed — only when you ran out of lives. It was a good idea, and it added an extra element of strategy to the game as it made characters collect these extra lives along the way to save them up for the harder levels near the end of the game.
Then came game saving, a feature that allowed the player to quit and start again later more or less where they left off. The Legend of Zelda and Metroid were the first few to do this — and note that they had no "lives", since the concept of having lives and the concept of saving are more or less contradictory. If you can save the game, it means the game can't force you to start at the beginning when you run out of lives — the farthest back it can take you is the last place you saved, reducing the ability of a Game Over to be any more damaging to the player's progress than any other death.
But some developers didn't care. They liked "lives" and wanted to keep them despite having save features. People expected them to be there. Hence Meaningless Lives.
This can be caused by the following, but not always:
Having a "game over" serve no purpose besides making you lose your level checkpoint and returning you to the title screen, where you can simply re-load your game and pick up where you left off. (Basically any time Death Is a Slap on the Wrist.)
Resetting your lives to three or some other default value every time you re-load your game.
Having infinite continues (on console games that don't require money like arcade games).
Having the most difficult levels have an obvious, easy-to-obtain, respawning 1-Up which can be used to try the same level unsuccessfully forever.
Even worse, having two or more of these at the same place. Your continued failures will actually increase your life count.
Allowing — or even requiring — levels to be replayed, and saving the number of lives.
Having a game that is really, really, really easy.
Downplayed in the Lost Levels, as even though you can max out your life counter at 127-8 (depending on the version) in the first level, you can still easily lose them all before beating the game. Played straight in Super Mario All-Stars, in which Lost Levels is the only game in the compilation where the player can save his progress at the last stage he played, a benefit not featured in the other games in the compilation.
The SNES version of Super Mario World allowed you to quickly rack up lives by replaying certain levels, but the life counter was not saved. The GBA remake saved it and also extended the life counter to three digits. It was not uncommon to accumulate hundreds of lives without even trying by the end of the game.
The GBA version of Yoshi's Island took this even further, since, like the original, it featured bonus games which could reward you with dozens of lives each play.
Super Mario Sunshine specifically had 1-Ups that respawned every time one entered a level and came back. This means every time you die, you'd get that life back if you start near the 1-Up spawn.
Super Mario Galaxy is guilty of practically every single point listed above. The Lobby has about 5 1-Ups scattered across, most of which are easy to reach (and of course, they are back every time you return), and you frequently get letters from the Princess with free 1-Ups attached. And most levels have 1-Ups as well, and you get them for every 50 Star Bits or coins collected. And of course, exiting the game resets your life count to 5 (and Peach's letter is always available when you reload). And the most difficult challenges don't have checkpoints anyway. Strangely, Mario loses a life for losing races, as well. It gets to the point where on some levels, the number of lives you have is actually directly proportional to how badly you're doing, since you get more lives than you lose on the tough challenges.
Super Mario Galaxy 2 is this to about as much degree at the first game. The hub has the usual five odd lives, as well as an infinite supply in the basement via the Chance Cube in the casino (aka, about 20 possible lives to get for about a 100 coins apiece). And the standard five from Princess Peach's letters to Mario. And the Chance Cubes in most levels. And the fact unlike most 3D Mario games, you keep any lives you gain in a level if you exit without beating it, meaning easy 1-Up farming.
New Super Mario Bros. Wii and U have over a dozen intentional ways to get infinite (or high numbers of) 1-ups, and in Wii they're all documented in videos in the game. In other words, the game tells you how to get them. Although getting lives is trivial, losing them holds a little more weight as 7 deaths in one level (except on hard levels) makes the Super Guide block pop up which means your file can never have shiny stars. Also, in multiplayer there isn't time to collect as many 1ups unless everyone cooperates, and running out means you need to sit out the level until it's completed or everyone dies.
Super Mario 3D Land does things similarly to New Super Mario Bros. Wii, having a fairly easy infinite-life trick in the second level of the game. The game even rewards you for finding the trick by letting you get over the normal maximum number of lives. Just as in New Super Mario Bros. Wii however, losing too many lives in a row causes the game to give you help and take away your Bragging Rights Reward of shiny stars.
It seems Nintendo simply doesn't care anymore with New Super Mario Bros. 2 - the central theme of the game is collecting as many coins as possible and the game is filled with ways to collect massive amounts of them very quickly, including: gold fire flowers whose massive fireballs turn anything into coins, gold enemies that drop extra coins when defeated, blocks you can wear on your head for a steady coin output and even bonus levels that literally have coins raining down from the sky! In addition to this, the game is about as generous with the 1-Up mushrooms as Mario's other recent outings, so it's very easy to reach a life count in the triple digits without even trying. And in fact, maxing out your life counter is needed to earn one of the stars on your save file!
The original is just as bad. The only negative effect getting a Game Over will have is resetting your score when you're on the second half of a level. If you were aiming for a high score, this isn't any worse than dying normally — you lose the time you accumulated from the previous area, so your high score is now moot, meaning Game Overs technically have no consequences whatsoever. Of course, that doesn't stop the game from forcing you to play bonus games if you get all the presents to win... Get this... More lives.
Mario and Wario, a japan only Mario puzzler controlled with the SNES mouse, losing all your lives gives you a game over and... you can restart at the last level you were on, with no penalty at all.
In the Mega Man platformers that aren't Nintendo Hard, losing your lives restarts the level. Big deal. Your life count is also reset every time you reload.
Mega Man Powered Up allows players to farm lives up to 9 and save quite easily in the new version. Beating the boss of the level the free life is in isn't even required (though Roll bugs you about being "a little fast"). These lives aren't totally useless, as Mega Man loves its cheap shots in jumping puzzles (see Guts Man's level).
Mega Man X 5/X6 were especially ridiculous, as getting a Game Over did not even make you lose your level checkpoint. Also, the littering of hostages in many stages, each of whom granted an extra life, meant maxing out at 9 lives was too easy.
The latter parts of the Mega Man Zero series, and the ZX series seem to have begun to find a nice balance. You can save, yes, but only at certain locations in the game world - the trans servers. Lives, on the other hand, return you to the last 'checkpoint' in the level; normally the point where the screen went black for a moment loading the next area. Given how hard these games can get, lives suddenly become valuable - they let you resume without losing all your hard work by being sent back to your last save.
The early Mega Man games didn't let you keep your energy tanks if you decided to go dancing on the spiky floor until game over, but not to worry: if you grabbed of a copy of Wily Wars back in the day, you'd find that it had not only forgotten that little downside and also gladly saved your tanks between plays.
A lot of Mega Man games don't restore your weapons when you die, but they do make sure to save which refills you've already picked up, so you can't pick them up again. They also love to have obstacles in the final sequence that require or are made much easier with specific weapons, so if you're out of that weapon, all lives are going to do is make it take longer to get Game Over.
In Castlevania II, you literally continue from the exact same spot if you lose all your lives. The only catch is that you would lose all your hard-earned hearts.
The original Tomba! had lives... and the game saved how many you had left when you saved the game. This could actually screw you if you ran low, as the game booted you back to the opening menu if you ran out. The sequel ditched it.
In the GBA ports of the Donkey Kong Country games, the player can save anywhere on the level select screen, restart from a level checkpoint at any time, and keep all lives when saving the game; all these features were absent in the original SNES versions, and they make lives largely pointless.
The multiplayer-oriented The Legend of Zelda: Four Swords Adventures has fairies that can be collected, representing lives. The fairies are everywhere, and you get at least two just for beating a level. If you die, you lose one. It almost eliminates the need for lives altogether—especially in multiplayer, where lives are only lost if every player is down at the same time, which is an unlikely event as a downed character auto-revives after ten seconds.
Attempted subversion in Gex: Enter the Gecko, where running out of lives would erase all your progress and force you to start again. At least, that's the theory. The problem was that the game had to prompt the player to overwrite their save file, making it incredibly easy to avoid the punishment.
Conker Live And Reloaded would reset your lives to 3 if you lost them all and chose to retry. You were thrown back to the previous checkpoint, but since literally every new room was a checkpoint this was not much of a penalty.
Stinkoman 20X6 gives you three lives, but the levels have no checkpoints and you can choose from any of the levels right from the start of the game. The only points at which lives matter are the boss battles, because if you have lives left when you die to a boss, you start at the boss rather than the beginning of the level. (And a glitch makes lives worthless against the first two bosses as well, since you respawn to instant death.) At all other times, you lose nothing but a few seconds of time by just refreshing the page and going back to three lives when you die.
Yoshi's Island DS is a difficult game, but an actual Game Over is rare. By the last world you'll lose 50 lives per level, but that doesn't matter because you get 70 1-Ups in the process.
Banjo-Kazooie: 1-Ups (Banjo trophies) are easy to find, and they reappear every time to return to their area (Spiral Mountain has two 1-Ups, for example). Of course, they serve little purpose, since if you lose all of your lives, you simply get sent back to the entrance to Gruntilda's Lair. However, death itself was far from a slap on the wrist. Upon death, all 100 notes in the level would be reset, meaning that the only way to get them all is to do it in one life (in the original version; the Xbox Live Arcade port changed this). Banjo-Tooie ditched the lives completely and made note collection much easier to boot.
Ghouls N Ghosts (at least, the Genesis version) has infinite continues, making what was a near-impossible game merely really really hard.
Sonic Unleashed for the PS2/Wii does this one a little differently. You start with 2 retries, fair enough, but during the game you can get non-renewable 1up items that expand your stock on a permanent basis. Thus, you essentially have infinite lives; just a given number in any one stage. The 360/PS3 version is more in line with the trope, with extra lives lovingly scattered around the levels, many directly after checkpoints, all of which respawn when you die. Some of the Werehog sections, however, are so frustrating and so long, however, that those lives are far from meaningless.
Sonic Rush and its sequel, in modern 2D platformer fashion, still allow you to amass more lives than you'll ever need.
Sonic the Hedgehog 4 (the Wii version, at least) is a huge example of this. A mediocre player could end up with over one hundred fifty lives at the time of beating the final boss.
Sonic 3 & Knuckles made lives even more pointless with the introduction of save files. Every time you complete a zone and reach a new zone, the game is saved, so you can quit and pick up where you left off later. The only danger a game over brings is booting you to the level's start instead of a checkpoint.
Hell PlatformerSyobon Action has the ultimate in meaningless lives: The game never checks to see if you run out of lives. So the lives-remaining indicator can start at 2, and be -52 by the time you beat the game.
Averted in Starfighter: Disputed Galaxy. The game saves your progress as you go and allows you to stock up to ten lives at a time (which can be repurchased or refreshed altogether on buying a new ship). However, if you manage to run out of lives, the game resets your progress completely and forces you to start over.
Averted in the original Rayman. It had both lives and saving, but the lives were justified because the levels were Nintendo Hard, long enough for your level checkpoints to feel precious, and it had limited continues.
Variation: Prince of Persia gives you infinite lives, but a limited amount of time to complete the game, and the timer does not reset when Death restarts you at the beginning of the current level. However, you can get your time back as well simply by saving at the start of every level and reloading whenever you die.
In the PSP game Prinny: Can I Really Be the Hero?, your character starts with 1,000 lives and the game consists of 10 levels. The game can be pretty hard at times, but you won't ever expend the 1,000 lives you start with, with most people losing somewhere between 100 and 300 over the course of the entire game.
Speak for yourself, dood! Seriously though, the game also allows you to learn an ability that allows you to attack enemies with your life stock (That is to say, launching the other Prinnies at them).
Lives are not quite as meaningless in the original Crash Bandicoot 1996 as they are in future installments. Loading the game or using a password resets your lives to 5, and you're going to need as many as you can get. However, collecting the green gem opens a shortcut in the level "Castle Machinery", which will take you to the exit in 10 seconds and give you 25 extra lives.
From Crash Bandicoot 2: Cortex Strikes Back onward, most levels have a bonus section that will usually give you somewhere around 2 lives for successful completion. Besides that, the games begin saving your life count, so if you lose more lives than you care to, you can reload your game and try again. So long as you save regularly, Game Overs are inconsequential.
The first Ty the Tasmanian Tiger game was pretty fond of this. Sure, lives weren't exactly dotted around like raindrops, but they were juuust frequent enough (that combined with the lax difficulty), that you were never really in any danger at all.
Glover. Oh Lord, Glover. See, there was a cheat that turned you into a frog. In the hub, there were insects flying around. Eating them as a frog gained you an extra life. And they respawned. It's possible to break the life counter - it starts showing powers, then gives up and letters and symbols appear instead. In essence, you had infinite lives.
You didn't even need the frog code. If you were doing card runs, you'd start racking up obscene amounts of lives anyway, and you'd break the life counter about halfway through the game.
Jazz Jackrabbit 1 would reset everything (lives included) when a game was loaded and also if you selected 'continue' after game over.
Commander Keen invokes this trope starting with Keen Dreams (episode 3.5), which introduced the ability to save your game anywhere and 1UP pickups to the series. The first three episodes only allowed saving on the map and only gave you extra lives every 20000 points. Being able to save your exact progress anywhere in the second half of the series rather rendered the three methods of getting extra lives meaningless, unless you were trying to play the whole game without saving. For the record, the methods were every 10000*2^N points, a 1UP pickup, and collect-100-for-a-life pickups (the latter being introduced in episode 4).
Star Fox Adventures not only has more extra lives than you need, but there are more lives available than you can carry (once you buy the holder, the maximum is ten). Aside from maybe one difficult sequence where slow reflexes may cost you a couple of lives, you're not going to be going long enough between finding health to lose more than two or three lives over the course of the whole game, even on your first play through.
R-TypeDimensions offers an "Infinite Mode" in which you have infinite lives and respawn in place (contrary to every other R-Type game in existence, save for R-Type Leo)...but you have a life counter that goes up every time you die, and the object is to complete the game with as few deaths as possible.
Averted in MediEvil, where your "lives" are Life Bottles - extra life bars. Dying causes you to empty one, and if your health bar is full when you get a health pick-up, it overflows into any empty Life Bottles. Kind of like a succession of renewable Zelda fairy bottles.
With the easy availability of emulators for older gaming systems, complete with the ability to save and load a state at any time, even games in which lives were once desperately needed for success have fallen prey to this. Games in which you could save only at certain checkpoints now have those checkpoints as Meaningless Saves.
Older Than They Think: The NES version of Section Z gives you three lives every time you begin the game. You lost a life and five energy points every time you physically touch an enemy, forcing you to restart the stage. However, losing all your lives does nothing other than resetting your score and forcing you to restart the section where you died and the only way to truly "lose" is to lose all of your energy, which happens every time you're hit by enemy bullets: in such cases, you simply warp back to the very first section of your current stage.
The Famicom version was actually released for the Disk System and thus had a save feature. Losing every life and getting a Game Over is the only way the game prompts the player whether he wants to continue or save his progress to resume another time.
Ray Crisis's Special Mode drops so many extra life pickups, you practically have unlimited lives.
The LEGO Adaptation Game series gives you four hearts. When you get hit four times or fall into any pit you die and respawn exactly where you were and at worst lose a tenth of your money/studs.
Monster Bash may not save your exact location in a level, but it still invokes this trope via the easy-to-remember cheat code in the registered version for full lives. Of course, considering the Difficulty Spike in the registered episodes, anyone who has finished this game will almost certainly have used said cheat a few times. Especially on the swamp levels in episode 3.
Spyro the Dragon has a fantastically superfluous bonus life system. In addition to a rather generous number of bonus lives scattered around as loot, you also get small orbs whenever you defeat an enemy you've already beaten. Ten of these makes a bonus life. Oh, and if that's not easy enough, sometimes an enemy will drop a full extra life instead of an orb. On the other hand, you might need them, depending how good you are at the game's jumping puzzles...
Street Fighter 2010 has unlimited continues that takes you the same exact stage where you died, which is no different from losing a single life. The only real penalty for getting a Game Over and continuing is the fact that your score is reset.
Wolfenstein 3D likewise has lives, 1-up pickups, and score that gives you lives in a first-person shooter where you can save at any point. Apparently, Id Software needed time to shake off the platform game conventions while working on the predecessor of today's FPS's.
Serious Sam 2, a First-Person Shooter, released in 2005, that you can have as many saves at any moment as you want in, has lives. Possibly as part of its Denser And Wackier theme that also harkens back to the old console games of yore. Still a rather pointless feature.
The GBC version of Donald Duck Goin Quackers rewards you with one life per 20 blue pegs collected as well as one per... well... "Donald". By the end of the game, you're likely to have stocked up on roughly 90-99 lives, making a desperate chase for more quite redundant.
There's no punishment at all for running out of Lives in Kirby Super Star. The score isn't even reset.
In the Metal Slug games, the player character respawns immediately after dying, even if you needed to use a continue. You respawn with 10 grenades, which are rarely found otherwise, and continuing drops a Machine Gun powerup, making suicide a viable tactic against some bosses. Console releases generally have infinite continues available, with the game displaying how many were used on the ending screen. The only penalty for dying is losing credit for rescued prisoners.
In NES game The Bugs Bunny Birthday Blowout, 1-ups are very plentiful, and if you run out of lives, you are sent back to the title screen, but can continue playing where you left off. So this is possibly one of the biggest examples of truly meaningless lives in all of video games.