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Pitfall! (Atari 2600) Review
~by tankMage (January 2019)
One of the most Important Games Ever Made
As a newcomer to the Atari 2600, I’m often surprised by the versatility of the system and the ingenuity of its developers. Just about every genre of game, from FPS to RPG, got its start or was further explored and refined on the Atari 2600…well more accurately on Atari products since a lot of these games were arcade ports. This brings us to Pitfall!, a humble little side scroller that likely set the paradigm for the next decade of gaming. To be fair, Pitfall! certainly wasn’t the first platformer, but it elaborated on design concepts touched upon by its predecessors and did a damn good job in the process, helping to popularize the genre with its success.
Players are given lives, a time limit, treasures to gather, enemies to leap over, and even traps to avoid, which quickly became the defining elements of what we call a platformer. I want to make it clear that this game is very simplistic and primitive, so the “A” it received was in part an acknowledgement of its historical importance. That said, I first encountered this game hidden in Pitfall: The Mayan Adventure for the SNES many years ago and was fascinated by it, having never seen or played an Atari game before. In fact, I had to ask my dad what an Atari was and was shocked to learn that the NES wasn’t the first console… oh the naivety of youth.
Anyway, Pitfall! is a good place to start for both veteran Atari fans and noobs like myself. The gameplay is fairly complex, with each screen presenting an obstacle course that the player must traverse quickly if he or she wants to get through all 255 screens within the 20 minute time limit. The graphics are about as good as it gets in 1982 and there’s even a cool rendition of Tarzan’s patented yell. My only complaint is that the game just stops if you run out of lives or complete the final screen, but that was not unusual for Atari.
In 1982 video games were still somewhat in their nascence and the limited storage capacity of cartridges at the time made it difficult, if not impossible, to tell a complex verbal story unless the game was text only. So what we have for Pitfall! is the blurb on the back of the box which explains the story in a few short sentences. Basically, Pitfall Harry is an adventurer who has set out to comb the jungle for treasures. Why gold bars and diamond rings have been strewn around the jungle is not addressed in the blurb, but it at least gives Harry a good reason to risk his life, I suppose.
To a modern gamer, Pitfall! will appear laughably primitive, but it’s actually one of the best looking titles on the Atari 2600. The developer, David Crane, had to come up with special code to get the game to fit into the cartridge’s sparse data limit while looking good at the same time. With that in mind, the simple stick figure, swinging vines, and snakes that appear in Pitfall! are engineering marvels that must have blown players out of their seats. Sometimes it’s hard to tell exactly what you are looking at when dealing with games this old, but nearly everything in Pitfall! is easily identifiable. Snakes, scorpions, and crocodiles populate the jungle and the crocs are even animated. In addition to terrain like tunnels and ponds, there’s also a background, which gives the game some extra atmosphere. While a background may not seem like a big deal, it was probably more impressive in 1982 and we can thank the success of this title for helping to popularize such innovations. I did have trouble identifying the logs that sometimes roll across the screen, since they looked like barrels or even wagon wheels, still the graphics are very good all things considered.
Music and Sound
Pitfall! doesn’t have a BGM as we would think of it, unless you happen to consider the Tarzan yell or the funeral dirge that plays when Harry falls prey to a rattlesnake a soundtrack. The sound effects are also sparse and repetitive, but all this was normal for this generation of console, so there’s not much room to complain. Once again, storage space as well as RAM constraints were major issues in game design and music generally got the ax in favor of content, which was probably for the best.
The controls for this game are fairly tight, though they take some getting used to thanks to some design features that may seem counterintuitive to many players. For example, Harry leaps from ladders when he reaches the top, which may land players used to simply stepping off of ladders in bad situations. Players will also have to press down to let go of a swinging vine instead of using the jump button. Harry jumps very slowly, which can take getting used to. That said, the controls aren’t bad and most players should be able to adjust to them in a few minutes. I did find it annoying that the game would simply freeze once the time was up or if I ran out of lives. This was common at the time and I guess Crane had to forgo a built in restart function in favor of more content, which is not a bad thing.
Maybe I’m crazy, but there’s something beautiful about the simplistic design of games from this era and Pitfall! encapsulates that zeitgeist almost perfectly. The goal of the game is achieve a high score by collecting the treasures that appear every few screens. This simple task is made challenging by the various obstacles the player will encounter along the way. Everything from snakes to pits that suddenly open under Harry stand between him and the treasures. There are 255 screens in total, though some sources report 256, either way that’s a lot of content for a console that was released in 1977. Each screen is split into an upper and lower level. Lower levels can be reached by climbing down ladders or falling into holes, with the latter costing the player 100 points every time it happens. The benefit of traveling in the tunnels is that they will advance Harry three screens instead of one, but he may also encounter dead ends as well as deadly scorpions in the tunnels, so a good memory is necessary to make effective use of the shortcuts.
The overworld has its fair share of dangers as well, including crocodile infested ponds, the aforementioned holes that open up in the ground, snakes, rolling logs and even camp fires. Sometimes Harry will find vines that he can use to swing over dangerous terrain, other times he will have to traverse crocodile ponds by jumping on their heads or cross quicksand pits with careful timing. The crocs also have a habit of opening their mouths and swallowing the player whole, so you’ll need to cross quickly or stand on the safe spot at the back of the croc’s head. While logs won’t hurt Harry, they will lower your score if they hit you.
As simple as the game may be, it embraces the “easy to learn, difficult to master” philosophy and it takes quite a bit of practice to reach the final screen (a feat I admittedly did not accomplish) let alone get a perfect score. In order to get a perfect score you’ll have to memorize the tunnel routes, treasure locations, and time your movements to squeeze everything you can out of the twenty minutes you are given to reach the end. A lot of the concepts that appear in Pitfall! are things we take for granted today, so much so that they have mostly become passè and it’s interesting to be able to see a living snapshot of how gaming has evolved. It’s also fun in its own right.
Looking back, I would have never imagined that one day, I would take time to review the original Pitfall! when I first played it over two decades ago. Back then, it was startling to see how much gaming had changed over the course of just over ten years and to realize that there was an entire era of gaming that was completely alien to me. In many ways, Pitfall! set me on this path, because there was a certain magic in experiencing something so many people had forgotten or simply did not know about. While it would be many years before I would seriously consider playing Atari games, I did dust off my NES and began searching for old carts. Pitfall! and David Crane deserve a huge thank you for their lasting contributions to the gaming world and the countless hours of fun they’ve provided gamers.
Pitfall! is one of the first places anyone interested in the Atari 2600 should start and even those familiar with the console should give it a try if they haven’t already.
Thanks for reading my Pitfall! review!