If you’ve never played a Pitfall game before, it’s best to go back to the beginning to the original Pitfall! on the Atari 2600. One of Activision’s finest games, and one of the best on the console, or on home consoles of its day, period. Pitfall!’s adventuring theme was in style thanks to the popularity of the new blockbuster movie with Indiana Jones, but wasn’t based on the movie. Although it lacked actual “platforms” the game might be thought of as a prototypical platformer — the gameplay is all about running and jumping. Pitfall was followed by a sequel, Pitfall II: The Lost Caverns, which featured a more expansive map, engaging background music, and a real ending, but suffered a bit from repetitive gameplay. Overall it was still a highly regarded game and one of the most technically advanced titles released for the Atari 2600.
In 1985, Nintendo released the NES in North America, and put an end to glut period in the market that had plagued the industry from 1983-4. The consoles of the Atari generation were long in the tooth, but had been so popular in previous years that anyone who could was releasing anything they could burn to an EEPROM cartridge and slap a label on, regardless of quality. This resulted in a huge glut of terrible games, sales plummeted, and some analysts were saying that videogaming was just a fad that had seen its day come and go. Fortunately, Nintendo reversed that thinking, largely on the merits of Super Mario Bros., itself a sequel of sorts to their popular Donkey Kong, Donkey Kong, Jr., and Mario Bros. arcade titles from the previous generation. SMB was an innovative next-generation platformer, which advanced the state of the art over former running and jumping king Pitfall Harry, and introduced many, many innovations and superb level design and a forgiving, yet challenging difficulty curve.
A full two years after the launch of the NES, Activision released Super Pitfall. Only this time, they didn’t develop the game in-house, instead opting to farm it out to a company called Micronics for Pony Inc., I assume due to lack of familiarity with programming for the NES hardware. The game was a failure on so many levels, it’s difficult to enumerate them all, and unbelievable that the game got released at all given the quality of the competition at the time. It’s interesting to contrast Super Pitfall against Super Mario Bros. because fundamentally they have so many things in common, yet one game does everything so well, and the other does everything so poorly.
As a 12 year old, I was excited to play what seemed like a promising title — the Activision games for Atari were top notch and pushed the hardware past the limits of what many thought possible, and the Pitfall games were the creme de la creme.
I can’t promise an exhaustive list of all the ways that this game fails, but here’s my best attempt. Keep in mind I haven’t played this game since I was 12 or 13, so going on 22 years — THAT is how indellibly the “suck” was burned into my cerebral cortex.
Plotwise, Super Pitfall is basically just a rehash of Pitfall II: The Lost Caverns. You’re supposed to rescue your niece Rhonda, her pet cat Quick Claw, and find treasures. Apparently, no one at Activision had bothered to put any time into coming up with any new ideas since the release of Pitfall II in 1984. Did they think not enough people had played Pitfall II, and so the plot was still fresh? Did they think that plot didn’t matter for adventure games in the NES era? I can’t say; I can say that the game feels stale from the minute you start reading the instruction booklet. Come on, anyone who liked video games played Pitfall II in 1984; it’s been three years, couldn’t they have taken 15 minutes somewhere and wrote up a new plot?
It’s tough to appreciate how poor the graphics performance is in Super Pitfall without seeing a video. Still screenshots do not convey the problem adequately. There is so much flicker that it becomes easy to lose track of something on the screen because it’s been invisible for that long. Not only do the sprites flicker like a strobe light on low, but they are poorly animated as well. Pitfall Harry looks like Mario dressed up in an coal miner costume — nothing at all like he looked on the Atari. On the Atari, Pitfall is thin, and looks like he might be a tall, wiry guy. In Super Pitfall, he looks tubby, with a big nose and mustache, like Super Mario. This is at once both a sacrilege to the real Pitfall Harry, and a pale, pathetic imitation to Mario. Scrolling is very jerky. Rather than smoothly draw in the new background tiles as the screen moves, it seems to wait until there is space to draw the entire row or column of tiles, and then draws it in all at once. This creates a clunky, lurching effect that looks and feels horrible.
Hit detection is imprecise, to put it kindly. Often you die for no apparent reason. Stuff that looks like you’re clear by a good distance can still hit you. Worse, it appears to be inconsistent. Sometimes you die, sometimes you live, with little visually apparent distinction between the life and death. It’s as though the hit detection mask is a variable sized, invisibile object that orbits around the visible graphical sprite that is Pitfall. It is probably also a rectangle, rather than a precisely fit shape.
You move slowly, the controls respond slowly to player input, have barely any control over your jump once it’s initiated. It’s just about impossible to get out of the way of anything unless you see it coming well in advance, and it moves in a predictable way. The aforementioned flicker and hit detection problems make this far from simple. The poor jumping control is probably the most inexcusable flaw in the game, after the graphical glitches and performance problems. In a platforming game, jumping is crucial to get right. Super Pitfall blunders by conceding to realism the fact that in real life you can’t alter your trajectory once your feet leave the ground. In Super Mario Bros., you can control much more finely how far and how high you jump, and it makes jumping fun. Mario gets jumping right.
Also, Super Pitfall has a pistol available as a power-up item. The original Pitfall games were essentially non-violent. Pitfall could die from scorpion stings or eaten by alligators, but he himself never committed any violent acts. I’m not against new features, but again, the implementation was shoddy. And I did think that having guns in the game changed the spirit of the original Pitfall, to the detriment of the franchise. What I’m not sure about was the design decision to make the original games non-violent.
Pitfall Harry takes a lot of his cues from Indiana Jones, who only ever used a pistol once in all his movie adventures. So that’s one good reason for Pitfall Harry not to need a gun. As well, in the early 80’s there was a lot of concern about violence in video games affecting young minds, just as there is today. It’s hard to believe, given how cartoonish and low-res the sprite based graphics of the day were back then, but in the early 80’s there were crazy people who were worried that shooting in a video game would result in an increase of shooting in real life. I’m not sure if Pitfall was originally nonviolent due to pressure from these organizations, or due to the idealism of the designers, who maybe wanted to show that non-violent games could be fun, or due to technical limitations for how much you can cram into 4k of 6502 Assembly, or possibly a combination of all three. Partly, I think it was simply because there was only one button on the joystick, and it was for jumping. But the main, and best, reason is that the original games didn’t need a gun. It made for more exciting gameplay if you had to run, evade, and jump past obstacles rather than blast your way through them. Besides, many of the obstacles in the game (I call them obstacles and not enemies, because most of them are indifferent to your presence in the game, and only kill you if you blunder into them) are rare, exotic animals. It just doesn’t seem right that Harry would be willing to gun down some endangered species just so he can get through unimpeded.
Maybe they needed to give you something to do with that second button on the NES game pad. But it’s implemented terribly compared to games where shooting is the main point of playing. In a shooting platformer game, like Contra, you can shoot in any direction, have unlimited ammo, can have as many bullets on the screen as you want. In Super Pitfall, ammo is a resource that you have to collect, you can only fire one bullet at a time, and it sometimes takes several shots to kill an enemy, although I could never tell if this was due to bad hit detection or because there was a variable amount of damage done with the bullets and it sometimes took multiple shots to kill certain enemies. Regardless, killing an enemy feels like a cop-out to avoid having to jump over obstacles. But given how much the hit detection sucks, it’s worth it when you can. But the ammo is so scarse that you dare use the gun only when you’re faced with a situation that you couldn’t possibly jump through unassisted. The idea seems to be that they didn’t want to turn the game into a shooter, and so each bullet you pick up is almost a surrogate for an extra life, and you spend them whenever you see a situation where it looks likely that you’d die if you didn’t use them. It would have been better if they had allowed Pitfall to shoot himself and end the misery.
Hidden stuff, yet no clues as to where they are or what they are for:
Hidden secrets were a big part of Super Mario Bros. popularity. Finding all the hidden coins, bonus rooms, and warp zones was a smart design choice that gave the game a lot of replay value. Super Pitfall has many secrets, too. But again, it’s all spoiled by terrible implementation. Most secrets are discovered by jumping in specific locations on the map. This causes some secret item to appear close by. There’s never any apparent visual cue to tell you that you should try jumping in a specific location; the game sortof expects you to “mine sweep” through the entire map, tile by tile, jumping every step of the way, until you find a secret. Once you do, you’d better memorize it or mark it on a map, or you’ll never find it again. Many of these secrets are essential to making forward progress in the game — keys that unlock other levels, or even the actual gateway to another level. This means if you can’t find the secret, you can’t complete the game. You end up frustrated and give up. There’s no replay incentive to go back again and find secrets, since in order to beat the game once you will end up finding them all, or at least all of the critical items. The non-critical items (bullets, extra lives, bonus points) don’t aren’t necessary if you make it through without getting them, you’re just that much better at the game if you don’t end up needing them, and discovering them is so counter-intuitive and tedious that the less of them you need to find, the happier you are.
Game Map is next to impossible to navigate:
One thing I’ll say about the Lost Caverns that Super Pitfall takes place in: the designers sure gave a convincing feeling that you were lost. So many areas of the game look identical to other areas that it’s very difficult to determine if you’re in a new place or if you’ve somehow looped back to where you had been before. The different areas in the game are linked together through “warps” that take away your sense of geography and you lose your spatial orientation. I couldn’t even tell if I’d left “world 1” and proceeded to “world 2” and then to “world 3” when I warped, or if the entire game was open to me and I was simply warping from Point A to Point B back to Point A. In several places the connection points from one warp area to another are stuck in dead-end passages that you would have no reason to walk down. They look like they’re merely “filler” space on the map and have no purpose.
I was fortunate in that I discovered the game at a video rental store, so I didn’t waste my money actually buying it. A better title for this game would have been Super PitFAIL. This game was so bad it basically trashed the franchise. I never bothered even looking at any Pitfall title that came afterward. Activision’s execution here is abominable and inexcusable, a travesty to fans of the greatness that was the Atari-era Pitfall. This game has a lot of similarities to Super Mario Bros. when you look at a list of its features and the elements of play, but when you look further, the only real similarity these two games share is the word “Super” in the title.
To properly appreciate how badly designed AND badly constructed this game really is, you should watch a video of it on youtube. There are many, but one of the better one’s is by game reviewer Aqualung. (Warning, may contain objectionable language.)