Pitfall! Review

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To some, this is going to seem pointless. To others, there may be a bit of intrigue. David Crane was one of the original pioneers at Activision. Long before it was the behemoth it is today. It started life, as one of the original indie studios. Looking to come up with something original on the biggest console of the early 80’s, Pitfall! became one of the biggest hits to ever grace a system of the era.

PROS: A classic that still holds up today.

CONS: Some versions don’t have the most responsive controls.

GATORS: Nearly four decades later, they’re still one of gaming’s most nefarious enemies.

Pitfall! was a smash hit. It spawned numerous product tie-ins, and even a Saturday morning cartoon. When you play it, it is easy to see why. The setting was something different. Instead of a high-action arcade game, Pitfall! is a platformer that takes place in a jungle. You play as Pitfall Harry, and his goal is very simple. You need to find 32 treasures within a half-hour. On three lives.

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The thing is, while your goal can easily be surmised in a sentence, actually doing so is very difficult. There are a lot of traps, and obstacles set up to impede or completely derail your progress. Barrels slow you down, most everything else will kill you. Unattended camp fires, snakes, all add up to the pressure. Two of the game’s key enemies are some of the most iconic. The trademark scorpions, and the alligators. You can cross lakes by jumping on their heads when their mouths are closed. If they’re open, you’re getting eaten, unless you happen to land on their eyes. Scorpions show up in the underground areas, and take a lot of practice jumping over.

Each screen presents you with a challenge to overcome. Some are non-existent, displaying only a couple of holes, and a ladder. Others are the aforementioned lakes, tar pits, and deadly creatures. There are no maps. You have to go out on your own, exploring the jungle screens until you find a treasure. Gold bars, silver bars, rings, bags of money, all waiting to be claimed.You’ll notice that there aren’t any weapons, or attacks in this game. The only thing you’re doing is running, jumping, climbing ladders, and swinging on the occasional vine. Which lets out a chip tune of the Tarzan chant.

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But despite the fact you’re really only given two commands, you’ll find the game has a bit of complexity. Aside from the challenges of the many traps, is the use of the underground tunnel system. Using the underground paths will take you three screens left or right, rather than the usual one. There are also brick walls placed to keep players from abusing this fact. This also brings about an overall puzzle to the game: Finding the proper path. You have only thirty minutes to clear the game. So unless you’re going to look for a walk through online, you’re going to play the game many times to figure it out. Even once you figure it out, it doesn’t make the game easy to complete. You still have to make each jump count.

But the rabbit hole goes even deeper. Because every treasure type you collect gives you its own specific point value. Every mistake you make that doesn’t cost you lives, costs you points. Fall down a pit, lose points. Touch a barrel, lose points. This means to be truly great at Pitfall! Not only must you have a shot at beating the game, you must have a shot at beating it without making any mistakes. Moreover, as quickly as possible. This makes the game one of the earliest speed runnable games in video games. In fact, Activision, Imagic, and others gave out physical rewards to players who could prove themselves contenders. In the case of Pitfall! The best players were sent exclusive iron on patches.  These can fetch a fair amount online when they turn up. In any case, getting a perfect score of 114,000 is easier said than done.

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The Atari 2600 original version of Pitfall! is probably the most impressive due to all of the limitations David Crane worked around to bring the game to life. In his GDC panel six years ago he talked about them, and the 1,000 hours of work it took to make. Even if you’re not technically proficient it is a fascinating story to hear.  The 2600 version also plays spectacularly well, has very responsive controls, and is easily one of the best games on the system.

But there were other versions that came after. The Intellivision port is very similar, with a minor bump in graphical fidelity. It retains nearly everything from the 2600 version, though the Intellivision controller is a bit stiff, making some of those split-second timings a bit more difficult to adhere to. As such the game is among the hardest versions. Though it is entirely possible to complete with enough determination.

The Colecovision version has similar controller issues to the Intellivision version, although the visuals are even bumped up more. This version was also used as a reference for the MSX computer port. The Commodore 64 version also looks similar to the Coleco port. But the C64 version has a different color palette, better sound, and more responsive controls. Mainly because it feels similar to the Atari 2600 original.

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The game also ended up on the Atari 400/800 computers, and the 5200 console. These look almost identical to each other. The game controls better on the former, mainly because of the 5200’s notorious controller problems. Finally, there was also a release on the Apple II computer. But despite the improvements some of the other versions add in the graphics, or sound departments, the 2600 version seems to have the most responsive controls. It’s also the most common version, making it the least expensive version. It has also been re-released several times over the last 30 years. There were a few Activision Atari 2600 game collections that included the game.

Pitfall! is a true classic that everyone who loves video games should play. It’s as important to the hobby as Space Invaders, Pac-Man, or even Super Mario Bros. are. While later games in the franchise may have tarnished its branding, The original remains among some of the best platformers ever made, with its emphasis on treasure hunting, pixel-perfect timing, and inadvertently becoming one of the earliest examples of speed runs. It’s a timeless game for good reason.

Final Score: 9 out of 10

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