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Review: Pitfall! & Pitfall II: Lost Caverns

One of the most popular and successful games on the Atari 2600 was Activision’s Pitfall!, designed and programmed by David Crane. A proto-platformer, it featured running and jumping adventure in a jungle setting. Coinciding with the iconic blockbuster movie Raiders of the Lost Ark, released one year previously, it was arguably better at capturing the fun and spirit of an Indiana Jones adventure than the official Raiders videogame released by Atari.

As Pitfall Harry, you explore a jungle and found treasures such as gold, silver and diamonds, while avoiding obstacles and deadly animals drawing inspiration from Tarzan and Indiana Jones, such as snakes, scorpions, and crocodiles. Due to its brilliant technical execution which pushed the limits of the 2600 hardware, Pitfall! was one of the top titles of its era, and is still remembered fondly by retro gamers today.

Pitfall! gave us running and jumping, and swinging on vines, but didn’t really have platforms per se. There’s just two elevations to run along: a flat ground level, sometimes with holes to jump over, or vines to swing on, and an underground level, sometimes with ladders and holes connecting the two. The jump mechanic was a bit primitive, and limiting, compared to later platformers — Harry can only jump up or forward, and once you press the jump button, he always jumps the exact same height and distance, and he cannot change course in midair. While this limits the type of platforming action the game can offer, it was nevertheless enough to create an enjoyable, challenging game. A bit monotonous, perhaps, compared with later Super Mario platformers that would follow a few years later, but if we look to Mario in 1981, his jumping physics were also limited in much the same way.

The way the underground level relates to the above world is strange and mysterious. Pitfall! doesn’t scroll, so when Harry runs past the edge of a screen, the game advances one screen and we find him in a new “room”. But when he crosses the edge of the screen while underground, he advances several screens. Thus, the underground is a potential shortcut, allowing Harry to skip over screens and bypass the challenges there, hopefully to pop up closer to the next treasure. This isn’t really explained to the player, who has to discover it and puzzle through it on their own.

As well, Harry can run both left and right, and it’s not entirely clear which direction he should run — due to the direction of rolling log obstacles, it seems to be the intent that you should run to the right, jumping the logs as they approach you. But it’s a bit easier to run left, going with the flow of the logs — and there are treasures to be found either way. These ambiguous choices of this helped give Pitfall! a depth and replayability it would not otherwise have had.

The sequel, Pitfall II: Lost Caverns, released in 1984, was equally well-received, and in a number of ways was an even greater technical feat. In this installment, we to get see Pitfall Harry swim, and catch a ride on a balloon, and a larger variety of dangerous animals that Harry must evade. There’s even dynamic background music that plays throughout the game, changing situationally — pick up a treasure and the music becomes happier and more adventuresome; get injured and the music turns sad. Go for a balloon ride and hear a bit of circus trapeze music. By 1984, games were starting to come with soundtracks, but this sort of dynamic music was still years ahead of its time.

The game also features an innovative waypoint system that replaces “lives” — you can fail as much as you need to, but the game won’t end; instead you’ll be returned to the last checkpoint you touched, and resume from there. In virtually all games up to this point, games granted the player a number of lives, typically three, and allowed extra lives to be earned somehow. Pitfall II was one of the earliest, if not the first, to do away with this, and allow the player to explore and take risks without the threat of a “Game Over” ending the fun. Decades later, this checkpoints without lives system has became a preferred method for making difficult platformer games that aren’t excessively punishing or unnecessarily frustrating.

There were a number of other games released in the Pitfall series on other consoles, but after the disastrous 1986 NES port, Super Pitfall, I had lost interest in the franchise and moved on to other things, so I never played any of the other games.

Of the two VCS titles, most fans seem to prefer the second. But while I do find it to be the more technically impressive of the two, I find that I prefer the original. I feel that Pitfall II suffers a bit from repetitive sequences where you have to pass the same enemies an excessive number times. Toward the end of the game, you have to climb upward while evading level after level of condors, bats, and scorpions — and each enemy requires near-perfect precision. Make a single mistake and you go all the way back down to the last checkpoint. There’s something like 20 creatures in a row that you have to run under, and it’s frustrating and tedious. There’s no other way to get past them — no ducking, no shooting, just time your run perfectly and get under them, or jump over them, and if you screw up even once, it’s back to the last checkpoint to start over. This has always struck me as poor design, rather than a fun challenge, so I’ve always felt like the original had the superior design, even if the sequel may have had a lot of cool, innovative features.

Still, both games are among the best made for the VCS, and are historically significant innovators that established and advanced the platformer genre

Appreciating MegaMania

Megamania, published in 1982 by Activision for the Atari VCS and designed and programmed by Steve Cartwright, is one of the all time great video games, and is a standout on the Atari 2600 console and in the vertical fixed shooter genre. Inspired by the Sega arcade game Astro Blaster, but vastly better, it is an extremely well refined shooter for its time, and is a fun and challenging game to this day.

Above: Astro Blaster, an 1981 arcade game by Sega that bears some resemblance to Activision’s 1982 hit on the Atari VCS, Megamania.

Astro Blaster had many features, including digitized speech, that made it technically impressive for its day, but the design did not integrate the features particularly well, making the game overly complicated and clunky. By comparison, Megamania offers a stripped down, almost poetic experience, with elegant symmetry and proportions. Far from a ripoff of an original game, if anything it’s a refinement. Megamania expresses its beauty through minimalism and an elegant orderliness to its structure. This game is all about action and motion, and the original version just gets these things right. There is a rhythm to the game that a good player will develop a feel for, and learn to use to his advantage.

A major hit for Activision on the 2600, Megamania was later ported to the Atari 5200, and Atari 8-bit computer line, but the original remains the best play experience despite modest graphical improvements in the later releases. I’ll be discussing the original VCS version of the game for the rest of this article.

Here’s how Megamania looked on the Atari 2600:

Due to the hardware limitations of the 2600, the player is permitted only one shot on the screen at a time. The player can steer the shot with their ship as it travels upward, giving them the ability to guide their missile into the target. Somehow, despite their varied and erratic motion, the enemies often seem to line up just right so that if you’re in the right position and have the right timing, your next shot will rapidly find your next target, enabling you to clear the wave quickly and resulting in great satisfaction. But if you’re off target, the same proportions of speed and distance that line up your shots on target will cause you to miss frustratingly. It’s an elegant symmetry that provides both challenge (when the player’s timing is off) and reward (when it is on) with the same few, simple mathematical relationships, giving the game a subtle beauty.

The object in Megamania is to survive wave after wave of zany household objects that come at you from the top of the screen, as you shoot up at them for points. Your ship has an energy meter that slowly winds down, providing a time limit to complete the wave; when you complete a wave, your remaining energy meter is converted to bonus points, then refills, and the next wave begins. The waves repeat in cycles, in the following order: Hamburgers, Cookies, Bugs, Radial Tires, Diamonds, Steam Irons, Bow Ties, and Dice.

megamania enemies

There are two variations in the play mechanics, having to do with the way your shots behave:

  • In variation 1, the ship will fire continuously as long as the fire button is held down, and the shots are steerable, moving in line with the player as the player moves. This generates the rhythm that makes the game so fun, as I will show with some detailed explanation to follow.
  • In variation 2, the player must press the fire button each time to fire a shot, and the shot moves vertically only; once it leaves the gun it cannot be guided by the player.

Variation 2 requires more hand-eye coordination and greater attention from the player, and is therefore much more challenging, but I find that the feel of the game is not nearly as immersive as when you are able to steer your shots. In variation one, you feel at one with both your ship and its missile, and while you steer your shots to hit your target, you must simultaneously dodge to keep your ship safe. This creates an inherent conflict that causes the player to constantly be making decisions at a subconscious level. In variation 2, once your shot is launched, you have no further influence over it, and can only watch until it hits something or leaves the screen, leaving you only to avoid enemies and their fire until you can fire again yourself. And since there is no auto-fire in variation 2, the subtly clever timing that results from the relationship between the distance and position of the enemies, their speed, and the speed of your missile, is lost.

The sound effects, while rudimentary, are strong, and fill the game with noise from start to finish, despite being limited to your laser shot, enemy destruction, the energy meter countdown and refresh, and player death. The enemies, rather than explode, disappear with a brassy, synthesized “clang!” , while you fizzle away into nothingness when you are hit by a missile or collide with an enemy. The effects are blaring, loud and harsh, but with the volume turned down low they serve well.

The wave cycle in Megamania is particularly well paced, with a fantastic challenge curve, and a structure that reminds me of a sonnet or a fugue. Certain waves (metaphorically) “rhyme” with others, being similar in their motion patterns. Patterns established in earlier waves are elaborated upon in subsequent “rhyming” waves.

The odd-numbered waves (Hamburgers, Bugs, Diamonds, and Bow Ties) all move horizontally from left to right across the screen. In the first cycle, their motion is constant, while in the second and subsequent waves, their motion pauses periodically for a few seconds, then suddenly accelerates before settling down to normal, and then repeats. Starting with the Bugs wave, the horizontal scrolling waves add a vertical undulation to their motion, which becomes more pronounced with Diamonds and Bow Ties. Diamonds and Bow Ties “rhyme” further with each other by having a “winking” or “spinning” appearance. These are the easiest waves to clear, as the enemies pose no collision risk to the player, who can only be destroyed by enemy shots or running out of energy in these levels. As the first, third, fifth, and seventh levels in the wave cycle, they provide a breather between the more challenging waves. Each odd-numbered wave may be seen as an elaboration of the previous in the series: Hamburgers move horizontally; bugs move horizontally, and with a slight undulating vertical dip; diamonds move horizontally, have a more pronounced dip, and spin; and bow ties move horizontally, have the most dramatic undulation, and spin.

The even numbered waves all feature objects that pass vertically through the screen.

Wave 2, cookies, introduces the player to vertical motion gradually, as the cookies move primarily horizontally, while doing a two-step drop periodically, and reverse their horizontal motion as well. Cookies move in unison, all moving left or all moving right at the same time. Wave 4, radial tires, kinetically “rhymes” with cookies, but the radial tires dip more quickly, and the wave introduces a more complex motion where alternating rows of tires move left or right simultaneously. These levels are particularly dangerous, as in later cycles they descend increasingly rapidly, but a skilled player will learn, after the panic subsides, to make small, economical moves, and let the shots line up and rapidly take out strings of enemies quickly. At this point the levels remain challenging, but reliably beatable by a skilled player. You’ll die quickly if you get out of rhythm and fail to clear out enough enemies to give you adequate space to dodge, or if the computer gets lucky with one of its shots, but if you’re on your toes and in the zone you should be able to clear these waves with only an occasional death.

The next two even-numbered waves are of special difficulty, although their unique patterns do not “rhyme” with each other.

Wave 6, Steam Irons, uses a deceptive and tricky pattern. Three columns of steam irons descend, pausing and then sweeping irregularly from side to size at a speed that is very difficult for the player to track, as they seem to deftly weave right around your shots, and then descend again. The spacing of the formation is such that the player must shoot out at least one from each column, or else that column becomes an unbreakable chain when the column reaches bottom and wraps around to the top again, providing insufficient space between the rows to allow the player to squeeze in and get a shot off. If the player fails to take out at least one steam iron from each column, it is guaranteed that he will die at least once before completing the wave. The interesting thing about wave six is that it is the one wave in the entire game where the behavior pattern never varies, no matter how many times the player cycles through the game, the steam irons always move the same. Despite the lack of increasing challenge, the behavior is so frustrating and erratic that players often ascribe a sinister artificial intelligence to the steam irons. They are a constant threat to the player, no matter their skill level.

Wave 8, Dice, are special in that they are the only wave that is always the same color, yellow, no matter how many cycles the player completes. Dice are also unique in that they are the only objects that do not fire any shots at the player, and are therefore dangerous only due to collisions. Yet this is more than enough to make dice the most challenging wave to survive. The first dice wave is also the only level in the game where the objects move straight down. While their speed in the first cycle may seem overwhelming, their simple vertical motion makes it a fairly safe level. Simply stand your ground beneath a falling pair of dice and shoot, and your shot will surely find its mark, protecting you. But in the second and subsequent cycles, the dice move horizontally as well, in rows that alternate left and right, and create an almost bullet hell-ish level where dodging takes a great deal of finesse. The player has to move constantly on the dice levels to avoid fatal collisions, making it the most strenuous and challenging level, a climactic finish to the wave cycle. A skilled player can still beat the level without getting hit, but it requires great concentration and timing.

If we think of the eight waves that make up the wave cycle as a stanza in a poem, then the “rhyme scheme” suggested by the structure of the eight waves is as follows: A, B, A, B, A, C, A, D. The difficulty curve of a cycle is interesting, in that it does not simply progress in a linear fashion, but instead plots two different curves: the odd-numbered waves follow a more linear progression, while the even-numbered waves follow a steeper progression. This gives the challenge curve a continually escalating trend line while still affording the player a “breather” between two more difficult levels.

megamania difficulty curve

After three or four cycles, the difficulty does not ramp up further, and the game turns into an endurance match to see how many cycles the player can endure. If you can make it to 999,999 points, the game ends, effectively a killscreen.

One of the more interesting things to realize about the mechanics of Megamania is that (with the exception of the first Dice wave) the horizontal speed of all the enemies in the game matches the player’s horizontal speed. After the first cycle in the odd-numbered waves when the enemies accelerate to double time. The rest of the time, the horizontal speed of the enemy objects always matches the player’s horizontal speed exactly. This, combined with the shot-steering in variation 1 makes tracking the enemy objects easier, since you, your shot, and the enemy all move at the same speed, it is trivial to line up and guide the shot into the enemy on the odd-numbered waves. It also means that if you are behind an enemy, there is no way to catch up. Interestingly, players often don’t realize this, and novices and even moderately experienced players will persist in trying, to no avail, to catch up with an enemy that is just past the reach of their fire. Once you realize that it is impossible to catch up, and stop chasing, the player gains an insight that will lead them to higher skill levels — it is very common for a player chasing an enemy that they cannot possibly hit to accidentally run into an enemy missile, or run out of room at the edge of the screen and get pinned. But once you learn to avoid these two common causes of death, you become better at dodging, and the game opens up and becomes easier.

Another important realization is that the positioning of the enemies often is such that when you connect with a shot to destroy one, your very next shot will also connect with another enemy if you don’t move. It’s very common to chain together “string” of two, three or even more hits in a row, in very rapid sequence. This is key to success, and especially critical on the later cycles on the even-numbered waves, where the falling enemies present a collision danger, and taking a chain of them out immediately when the wave begins is crucial to carving out enough space to enable you to dodge and survive. When you realize this, the game becomes less about chasing aggressively and aiming, and more about being in the right position, and letting the enemies come to you. This is where the auto fire feature of variation 1 comes in to play, as once you have connected with a target, you are likely to hit again with your very next shot, and may start a chain of hits just by holding position and keeping the fire button pressed.

A final note of strategy helps with avoiding being shot by enemy missiles. Only two enemy missiles are capable being on the screen at any given point in time. What’s more, there are only two enemies at any given time who are capable of firing. If you see an enemy shooting bullets, you should avoid it and concentrate on eliminating the enemies that are not shooting, as they are less of a thread and easier to safely destroy. Don’t go under them when they stop moving, and wait for them to move again before tracking them. Then, take out the shooting enemies when they are moving, by matching pace with them. Enemy shots do not steer, so if you move in sync directly below a horizontally-moving enemy that enemy cannot hit you, and you cannot miss them. The most dangerous time in the odd-numbered stages is when are moving against their motion, from right to left, since this is the only time when you are likely to hit an enemy missiles.

Wrapping a formation of enemies

Another point of refinement that I find interesting is in the way the enemy objects wrap around the edge of the screen. Enemies in Megamania move together in large formations, but the way they wrap around the edge of the screen is interesting.

What I find innovative in this is that it doesn’t matter how large the formation is — looking at the odd-numbered waves, if you don’t shoot any of the enemies, they will form an unbroken chain as the first to appear wrap immediately behind the last. If you shoot a few, leaving holes in the formation, the holes persist and are not closed up — except if you shrink the formation at the leading or trailing edge. When that happens, the formation wraps sooner, closing the gap between the last still-extant enemy in the formation and the first. Thus, when the last Hamburger, Bug, Diamond, or Bow Tie is left in the wave, when it reaches the right edge of the screen, it wraps immediately to the left, rather than waiting for the space taken up by the no-longer-existing members of its formation. This is important because it avoids wasting the player’s time, as the energy meter winds down while no enemies are visible on the screen.

The tight, precise nature of the motion of the enemies makes Megamania a satisfying and exciting play experience, and feels complete despite a relatively small feature set. Megamania demonstrate that refinement and polish matter far more than feature count.

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