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