Hall of Fame Inductee
Original Release: 1982 (Atari 2600)
Designer: David Crane
Developed by: Activision
Published by: Activision
Platforming games were not as prevalent in 1982 as they are today. Video games back then were supposed to be quick experiences that you’d have fun with for a short period of time. This was very important for the arcades which relied on players to pump the machines full of quarters for as long as possible. Adventure games that gave the player a chance to play for an extended period of time were not good for the arcades because people would be spending less money. Home consoles started a different trend. While most people were happy to get home translations of their arcade favourites, many people wanted more from their high-priced machines. While it wasn’t first platform-based game, Activision’s Pitfall! made the genre accessible to the home market. It was fun to play and looked good, even though it was on the Atari 2600 which was a graphically inferior system compared to other home consoles and computers at the time.
The game stars Pitfall Harry (one of the first video game mascots to be born on a home console). Harry must make his way through the jungle and collect all 32 treasures. Unfortunately for Harry, there’s a twenty minute time-limit to complete this. It also doesn’t help matters that there are plenty of obstacles in his way in the form of enemies and pits. Harry can jump over enemies and grab onto vines to swing over the pits. Getting hit by an enemy or fire or falling down a pit will cause Harry to lose a life (as well as some points). The game isn’t completely linear as Harry can take shortcuts and backtrack if he needs to (and there is the possibility of Harry getting lost, which can make trying to complete the game within the time-limit difficult). If Harry loses all his lives or fails to complete the task before the time-limit expires, it’s game over. The point of the game was to find the 32 treasures with the highest score possible.
The idea of Pitfall! didn’t come overnight. In fact, it was several years in development. Designer David Crane thought up some of the concepts of the game three years prior to the game’s release. He knew that he wanted to make a game about a guy running from point A to point B. From there, he worked on the design by filling in the blanks. Crane in interviews has nonchalantly dismissed the brilliance in coming up with the game’s design, despite the fact that the game was unique when compared to other games on the market. He’s gone on record to say that coding the game was the most difficult part.
There some merit to the point about coding being the most elaborate part of the process. Usually we recognize the game designer first and foremost over everyone else. However, most of the time (and this is most true in games today), the game’s designers don’t handle much or any of the coding. It’s up to the programmers to put together the dreams of the designer. In this instance, the programmers need to be recognized for their work on this game. Even though by today’s standards the game looks pretty bland, it blew away everything else on the system. In fact, ports of the game on other consoles and computers with more powerful hardware didn’t improve all that much on the look on the game other than make the score text appear less blocky and added more colours to the palette. The game was fluid and there was no flickering or slowdown on a system known for graphical hiccups.
The game was an immediate success which was a good thing considering that the Atari 2600 had pretty much died because of the video game crash in 1983 and the rise of Nintendo on the home market. It was the second best-selling title on the system with four million copies sold (behind arcade juggernaut Pac-Man). For many, Pitfall! was the future of video games as it’s platforming formula became a standard in the industry.
Pitfall! was ported over to many consoles during its original run. It was released on the successor to the Atari 2600, the Atari 5200. Although it was graphically superior, considering all the problems with the 5200 console, the 2600 version was considered the best version. There were other versions available on the Apple II, Atari 8-bit, ColecoVision, Commodore 64, Intellivision, the MSX, the Sega SG-1000, and the TRS-80 computer. It was also released as part of the Activision Anthology compilation disc for the Playstation 2, Game Boy Advance, Playstation Portable, PC, and Mac.
The game was eventually made into a sequel to take advantage of its popularity (it was so popular it even had its own television series). Pitfall II: The Lost Caverns was release on most consoles as well as the arcade. While the game was well received by most people who played it, the video game crash of 1983 had damaged the potential for this game to reach the same success of the original. The next real sequel to the series was released on the Sega Genesis and the Super Nintendo in 1994 titled Pitfall: The Mayan Adventures. It was considered very good by those who played it. Sega also produced a version of their game for their flailing 32X system. It was later ported over to Windows computers, Atari Jaguar and the Game Boy Advance. 1998 saw a new game for the Sony Playstation titled Pitfall 3D: Beyond the Jungle. The latest release (as of the writing of this article) came in 2004 with Pitfall: The Lost Expedition on the Sony Playstation 2, Nintendo Gamecube, and the Microsoft Xbox (with a port of the Nintendo Wii coming a few years later).
Pitfall! is a game that, while it can be argued doesn’t stand up all that well today, was such an important game during its initial release that it needs to be considered as one of the most influential and notable games of its generation. It captivated a generation and was able to weather the storm of the video game crash well, to a certain degree. Despite the fact that Activision can almost print money anytime they want with a Guitar Hero or Call of Duty release, every so often they go back to their Pitfall! franchise to provide a top-notch platforming and adventure experience.