A bonus stage (also known as a bonus level or bonus round) is a special level within a video game designed to reward the player or players, and typically allows the player to collect extra points or power-ups. Often a bonus stage will have no enemies or hazards, or may contain them but the player character is invulnerable to attack from them and cannot be harmed. Some games have bonus stages where the player character can be harmed by enemies or hazards, but will not lose health or lives if killed. Many bonus stages need to be activated or discovered in some manner, or certain conditions must be satisfied to access them, making them secret levels. Some games also contain bonus stages that are not secret but are compulsory and must be played, often at the end of the regular stages. They are often much shorter than regular stages.
Unlike most regular stages, a bonus stage does not normally have to be completed to move on. While a regular stage must be replayed until completion, possibly using up lives or continues upon failures, when a player begins a bonus stage they normally have one chance at it, although not compulsory to reach, some bonus stages do contain an end location or condition to reach, but regardless if the player succeeds or fails, game play resumes at the next regular stage after one attempt. Other bonus stages have no end to reach, the player must simply survive as long as they can before inevitably failing at some point. Some bonus stages have a short time limit, where the player must either complete the stage before the time runs out, or simply survive until the clock runs down to zero. As bonus stages are often shorter and over in one attempt, players cannot as easily practice and perfect their play through of them in the same way as regular stages that permit or demand more play throughs upon failure.
In some games, bonus stages have an interface and game paradigm that is completely different and disconnected from the rest of the game, as in the slot machine bonus stage of Super Mario Brothers 2. Other bonus stages use the same gaming paradigm as the rest of the game, as in the car smashing bonus stage of Street Fighter II or the bonus stages in Super Monkey Ball where you collect bananas to earns extra points and lives. In the Bomberman series, they also have enemies in bonus stages with the goal being to defeat as many enemies as you can to earn items and power-ups. In addition, the player won't lose a life from touching the enemy or being caught in a bomb blast during the bonus stage. Many games feature bonus stages somewhere between the two extremes.
The type of modern game which most commonly uses bonus stages is the platform game.
The first games containing a bonus stage are widely believed to be Namco's Rally-X (1980) and Galaga (1981). In the latter, the level would begin with the text "Challenging Stage" and would feature enemies that do not attack. The player is then rewarded extra points based on how many enemies could be eliminated.
Since few modern games use points as an incentive for gameplay, most modern bonus stages reward the player with power-ups rather than points. Modern games have often blurred the traditional distinction between bonus stages and ordinary levels. Most first-person shooter games allow players to enter bonus rooms within larger (non-bonus) levels to temporarily power up. Some games have optional bonus stages which must be discovered and whose completion impacts the mechanics of the rest of the game, as in the "Star Road" levels of Super Mario World. There are bonus levels in most Crash Bandicoot platform games, save for Crash Twinsanity and Crash of the Titans.
Comparison with secret levels
Bonus stages are often confused with secret levels, however, in the majority of games, they are two distinct things. This is especially obvious if a game offers both bonus stages and secret stages within. The key differences are the following:
- Bonus stages are often mentioned within the manual or during in-game hints. In comparison, a secret stage is more or less hidden, and only vaguely mentioned in the manual or during gameplay (for instance, on the world map).
- In most of the cases, a bonus stage must be "earned" by collecting various extra items, getting a sufficiently high score, killing specific (or a certain number of) enemies, and so on. Entering a secret level requires no extra efforts, it is usually available through a hidden exit.
- Secret levels are usually more difficult and challenging than bonus stages; they could feature enemies, death-traps and various hazards, even introducing special, new hazards or enemies which are not present anywhere else inside the game, perhaps even an extra boss-fight. Most games have little to no resistance or hazards on bonus levels, and even if they do, they are considerably easier to annihilate or avoid than on secret levels.
- Many bonus stages have a time limit, especially which focuses on collecting power-ups or increasing high score, otherwise the player could obtain unlimited high score. Therefore, many bonus stages doesn't have any exits either, the clock shall yank the player out of the level eventually. Most secret levels have no time limit at all and their exit must be located to progress further in the game, just like any other regular level.
- Secret level can be part of the game's storyline or plot, sometimes offering a branch or a second solution for the current mission. Bonus levels are not part of the plot, as they are extra stages focusing on items and power-ups, not the actual storyline.