Last week we looked at one of the most important games in history. It was one of the first platformers. One of the best early console, and home computer games. It was also one of the best games to debut on the seminal Atari 2600. So a sequel was only natural. Unfortunately, the great video game industry crash meant that a lot of people never got to play it when it came out. Which is a shame because once again, David Crane’s Pitfall Harry, performed a few more major firsts.
PROS: Improved visuals, added music, effects, and more!
CONS: In some ways, this is an easier game.
SCORPIONS: Even deadlier now thanks to a glitch.
Pitfall II: Lost Caverns is not only one of the best games on the Atari 2600, it is one of the most memorable experiences to come out of the golden age of video games. This is partly due to it being one of the earliest games to have features we take for granted today. The object of Pitfall II is also a little bit different here. In the first game, you’re trying to figure out a path through a jungle that will lead you to all of its treasures. All under a time limit, on two lives. All while doing it in the shortest time possible, with the least amount of mistakes.
In Pitfall II, Pitfall Harry has to find a very specific diamond ring, as well as rescue his niece Rhonda, and pet mountain lion Quickclaw who have gotten themselves trapped in a cavern. These characters were first introduced in the Pitfall cartoon. So their appearance in this game could make the show canon. At least in the eyes of some. Gameplay is built off of the core of the first Pitfall. You still have a flip-screen mechanic when going left to right. But when going vertically the game adds scrolling into the mix.
It isn’t even something you question. It just feels like a natural extension of the game play. While you won’t be swinging over ponds, tar pits, and jumping on crocodile or alligator heads you still look for treasure. Sure, saving your relative, pet, and getting that diamond are the main goal. But if you want any hope of a perfect score you need to find every last gold bar too. Pitfall II also introduces a checkpoint system.
These days, many games have checkpoints. But back in the days of names like Atari, Coleco, and Commodore the concept was rare. On home computer platforms you could save your progress in some RPGs. or your high score in some arcade ports. But checkpoints were especially rare on computers. They were non-existent on consoles. The fact you don’t have to start the entire game over if you make a mistake in this game was sorcery at the time. It also doesn’t have a count down, which may make you calmer.
Still, the one drawback to checkpoints in Pitfall II is that it makes the game much easier. There are also unlimited lives. So really it is impossible to lose. As long as you can get to the three main targets you can beat the game. To alleviate this sticking point, the game still has a monetary punishment for mistakes. You see, like its predecessor you lose a lot of money if you have to go back to a checkpoint. In fact, the further ahead of the last checkpoint you touched (a small cross on the ground you walk over), the more money you’ll lose. You also lose money if you fall, and land on your feet. So if you miss a jump, and land two or three levels lower (you can change your trajectory a few pixels by trying to move as you fall) your score gets lighter. You gain money for finding gold bars. You gain money for hitting each of your three metrics.
Though there may not be a clock winding down to a Game Over for you should it get to zero, there is a clock. The game times you for your overall performance in hitting your three metrics. Which makes Pitfall II a speed runner’s challenge. Whereas before, the challenge was getting it all done in less than a half-hour making no mistakes. Now it’s about finding every last bar of gold, your ring, pet, and niece in the quickest time possible. Also without making any mistakes. Because you want to be the one with a perfect score in the shortest amount of time.
So while beating Pitfall II is easier than beating Pitfall, Pitfall II is actually harder when you put the restrictions of a speed runner on yourself. Because the dangers are not very easy to avoid. The very first enemy you run into will dash your hopes. If you fall into a hole early on you’ve missed the first bar of gold, and a perfect score. Playing the game with the mindset of a classic gaming champion can potentially keep you playing this game for years.
Visually the game sees a respectable jump over the first game. Little graphical details like the indents, and grooves on a boulder pop up immediately. The wider variety in enemies is also noticeable quickly. There are killer birds that I’m convinced were analyzed deeply by Konami’s designers. Because Castlevania’s Medusa heads fly in an eerily similar pattern. You also have bats to deal with, electric eels, and of course the classic mutant scorpions that are just as big as Pitfall Harry.
And little glitches don’t break the game but add new challenges. If you climb a ladder to find there are scorpions above, and below you sometimes being in just the right place on the ladder will make them pace right where you need to climb off of the ladder. Sometimes the wave in the pattern of the flying birds may change, meaning you have to quickly realize where the arcs in it have moved to.
Of course, Pitfall II let’s you explore at your own pace. So when you’re first starting out, you may miss the diamond ring, or Rhonda on your first pass. Congratulations. The game doesn’t end, a little creature forces you out of Quickclaw’s cowering space. Now you have to go explore again. If you do beat the game, Harry jumps about with excitement as the theme song speeds up again.
Speaking of music, Pitfall II was such a massive game at the time, that David Crane engineered a sound chip that is embedded in every copy of Pitfall II. The game squeezes every last bit of processing power out of the Atari 2600, and to even play music during it, would have been impossible otherwise. So Pitfall II is one of the earliest video games featuring some sort of tech being piggybacked onto its ROM cartridge. Something we wouldn’t see much again for a while. This can almost be seen as a precursor to Nintendo’s MMC chips used in some NES Game Paks.
Pitfall II: Lost Caverns was also ported to a wide variety of platforms. The Commodore 64 version is one of the better known versions being redone from the ground up by Tim Shotter. The end result is a nearly 1:1 experience compared with the 2600 version. The Atari 800 version, and Atari 5200 version were given an additional subtitle called Adventurer’s Edition because the coder Mike Lorenzen added an entire bonus cavern as well as a second ending for those who beat the game, and then beat the bonus cavern.
These versions look a little bit closer to the 2600 version than the C64 version does, though the C64 version gets a slight edge in the audio thanks to the superior sound processing power of its SID chip. Pitfall II also saw versions on the Colecovision, Apple II, TRS-80, and the IBM PCjr. One of the most interesting ports of Pitfall II is Sega’s. Sega got the rights from Activision to make their own version of the game for arcades, and for the SG-1000 console in Japan. This version is less a Pitfall II port, and more of a blend of Pitfall, and Pitfall II: Lost Caverns.
Of course every one of these ports has its own charm but the Atari 2600 original stands out due to its historical significance. That said, if you collect games for any of the platforms it appeared on, Pitfall II is a game you should pick up, and play.
Final Score: 9 out of 10