Pitfall II: Lost Caverns (Atari 2600)

Still hangin’!

It occurred to me recently that I take a lot of pictures of video games. Screenshots, that is, not shots of the cartridges themselves. And why not? It adds a fun scrapbook element to my little reviews and it’s the easiest thing in the world to do now that digital cameras never seem to be out of arm’s reach. It did get me thinking, though, about the very first time I took a picture of a game screen. The year was 1984 and the game was Pitfall II: Lost Caverns.

Like most of Activision’s early releases, Pitfall II had a nifty promotional gimmick in the form a high score club that players could join. According to the instruction manual, all I needed to do was accumulate at least 99,000 points and mail photographic evidence of the feat to Activision and I’d be inducted into the Cliffhangers. Sure enough, a few weeks after sending in my picture, I was the proud owner of an iron-on Cliffhanger patch and a congratulatory form letter from Pitfall Harry himself! As a six year-old, it was just about the coolest thing ever. I’ve been fascinated by video games since I can remember, but this was my first real gaming accomplishment and it still means much more to me than most. I wish I’d been able to hold onto that little patch, as they’ve become stupidly expensive collector’s items in the years since. Oh, well. At least I can still pop the game itself into my 2600 and relive my kindergarten glory days.

Designer David Crane’s 1982 original hardly needs an introduction. Pitfall’s 255 interconnected screens of hostile jungle added exploration and player choice to the platforming toolkit and were instrumental in pushing the genre beyond its single-screen arcade origins. In so doing, it became just the second game of its kind (after Nintendo’s Donkey Kong) to really matter. It’s also the second best-selling 2600 game of all time, a fact that really must have irked Atari’s management, considering that Activision was a “rogue” third party founded by their own disgruntled ex-employees.

Crane wanted to push the boundaries even further for this 1984 sequel. So much so that the unaided 2600 hardware just wasn’t going to cut it. To this end, he engineered and patented the Display Processor Chip, a device that would piggyback on the cartridge’s circuit board and work in tandem with the console to provide extra memory management and audio capabilities. That the DPC also shares initials with its creator is mere coincidence, I’m sure.

All this extra oomph was not wasted. Pitfall II is a radically ambitious game that builds on its predecessor’s strengths as an exploration-based platformer by adding a vertical dimension to the gameplay. Instead of simply running to the left or right, Harry must also descend into the depths of the earth in search of treasure and his lost adventuring companions. While the horizontal movement still uses a flip-screen style reminiscent of the first game, the vertical areas employ smooth scrolling. This is no small feat for the primitive hardware. Neither is the soundtrack, which not only plays continuously over the course of the game, but also shifts tempo contextually depending on how well you’re doing. Pick up some loot? The music becomes more chipper and upbeat for a few bars. Run into an enemy? The theme slows down, resembling a dirge as you’re dragged back to the last checkpoint.

Yes, checkpoint! Pitfall II’s most experimental and forward-thinking aspect by far is its total rejection of the limited lives and game overs that define the overwhelming majority of 20th century action games. Instead, the floors of the Lost Caverns are dotted with red cross insignia and taking a hit from an enemy will cause Harry to flash and float back to the last cross he touched. Even though this doesn’t count as a death in the traditional sense, there is a downside: Your score will rapidly decrease during the entirety of the trip back to the checkpoint. The further away you are from it when you slip up, the more points you’ll lose. Since the treasures that Harry can collect for points are finite, this means that even one mistake will prevent you from attaining a perfect score on that playthrough. Still, no amount of missteps will ever end your game prematurely, even if your point total reaches zero. There’s also no time limit to worry about. Players are given total freedom to explore the Caverns for as long as they wish and make as many mistakes as they need to along the way. The scoring system is still present to encourage careful, precise play, but nothing in the game’s design requires it. Tracing the through line of unlimited trial and error gameplay from Pitfall II to something like 2010’s Super Meat Boy is quite fascinating and Crane deserves much credit for his early willingness to embrace design elements that simply wouldn’t work in an arcade environment.

The story of Pitfall II sees globetrotting fortune seeker Pitfall Harry on the hunt for the missing Raj diamond. Harry’s search leads him to a network of underground caverns in Peru, accompanied by his niece Rhonda and cowardly pet mountain lion Quickclaw. Unfortunately, the party soon becomes separated and now Harry needs to rescue his friends while still recovering the diamond. Grabbing as many other treasures as possible along the way can’t hurt, either.

Although it seemed natural to me as a kid, the inclusion of Rhonda and Quickclaw in the game is very unusual. These two weren’t in the original Pitfall. Rather, they were created for the Saturday Supercade cartoon show that aired on CBS Saturday mornings in 1983 and 1984. The show was my absolute favorite at the time and included segments based on many popular games. Since these games all had such sparse storylines, the writers were forced to invent all sorts of new supporting characters, most of which are long forgotten. Remember Donkey Kong Junior’s teenage greaser sidekick Bones? Probably not. Yet here we have Saturday Supercade characters in an actual game! It’s always surreal to me when material from a spin-off property makes its way back “upstream” to the main product line like this. The Blaster Master novelization from the Worlds of Power series being adopted as canon in the sequel games is another prime example. So weird.

Anyway, in order to win the game, Harry must locate Rhonda, Quickclaw, and the Raj diamond. These can be collected in any order and play will end immediately upon touching the last of the three, leaving the player with a final score of between 10,000 and 199,000 points. In Harry’s way are a host of animal antagonists, including the white scorpions from the first Pitfall, as well as bats, condors, frogs, and electric eels. Harry has no means of attack, so avoidance is key. The scorpions can simply be jumped over. Bats and condors must be carefully dashed under when they’re at the apex of their wave-like flight patterns. Frogs test your climbing skills by hopping back and forth in front of ladders. Finally, the eels must, of course, be swam around. Harry’s ability to swim is novel for the time, but it’s not his only new means of travel. He can also grab onto floating balloons to ascend to higher portions of the caverns (to the tune of Juventino Rosas’ “Sobre las Olas,” no less). If there’s a downside to Harry’s expanded movement options, it would be that the iconic vine swinging mechanic from the first Pitfall is nowhere to be found here. Apart from this and the relatively low number of distinct enemy types, however, the gameplay is superb.

To put it mildly, Pitfall II is a trumph. A game years ahead of its time, it pushed the aging 2600 to its limit and beyond. Some have hailed it as the single greatest release for the system and it’s easily my personal favorite. Most gamers have a story about the first game they found themselves truly immersed in; the title that swept in out of nowhere and blew away all their previous preconceptions about what a game could be. For others, that game may have been a Legend of Zelda or Final Fantasy installment. For me, it was Pitfall II with its wide open world that I was free to run, jump, swim, climb, and even fly through for as long as I wanted in search of glittering treasures. It was a true revelation that will forever hold a special place in my heart and was well worth bugging my parents to break out the camera for.

So the next time someone brags to you about their collection of platinum PlayStation trophies, feel free to remind them that all the best achievements are iron-on.

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