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 collectors’ 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, and 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, 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, including Pitfall, Donkey Kong, and Frogger. Since these games all had such bare bones 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.

Advertisements

Haunted House (Atari 2600)

Looks like I really urned this victory, eh? Wocka wocka wocka!

Happy Halloween, everyone! I started out this month with a horror gaming binge, so it’s only fitting that I end it the same way. I’m going all the way back to the oldest horror game in my collection with this one: The venerable Haunted House for the Atari 2600. Designed by James Andreasen and published by Atari themselves in the tail end of 1981, Haunted House is considered one of the first entries in the so-called “survival horror” genre, although that term wouldn’t be coined until 1996 when it showed up in marketing materials for Capcom’s Resident Evil. It’s definitely not the first horror-themed video game, though. The original home gaming console, Magnavox’s Odyssey, had a simple hide-and-seek type game for two players all the way back in 1972, also titled Haunted House. There was also Atari’s Shark Jaws arcade game from 1975. Atari hadn’t acquired the proper legal rights to adapt the Spielberg film, but it still did it best to play up the association by making the “Shark” in the logo as small as possible next to the eye-catching “Jaws.” Despite all this, it wouldn’t be at all unfair to say that Atari’s Haunted House was the earliest horror video game to actually reach a mass audience.

In Haunted House, you control an unnamed protagonist that the manual refers to simply as “you.” This was a simple, but effective way of building immersion at a time when depicting detailed human characters in games was still a considerable technical challenge. The setting is the sleepy town of Spirit Bay and your goal is to explore the dilapidated mansion of deceased recluse Zachary Graves and collect three pieces of a “magic urn” hidden within before escaping through the front door. Complicating your efforts, the mansion is pitch black and filled with vicious bats and tarantulas, not to mention the ghost of Old Man Graves himself.

The gameplay is a simple variation on Warren Robinett’s groundbreaking Adventure from the previous year. Your character, represented only by a pair of disembodied eyes, navigates the mansion’s four floors and 24 distinct rooms from an overhead perspective, avoiding monsters (contact with any of them will cost you one of your nine lives) and picking up items needed to progress. In the interest of replay value, the items themselves are distributed randomly throughout the house at the start of each new game. In addition to the three pieces of the urn, there’s also a master key for opening locked doors and a magic scepter that will make you immune to enemy attacks, though the ghost can still harm you on the higher difficulties, scepter or no. As in Adventure, you can only carry one item at a time, so knowing when to swap them out is an important part of the strategy. One common technique is to locate the scepter first and then use it to scout out the locations of the other items in relative safety before dropping it and snatching up the urn pieces in one quick go on your way to the front door.

What differentiates Haunted House from Adventure is the former’s darkness mechanic. Items are invisible, as are the very walls and doors of the mansion itself when playing on all but the lowest difficulty level. If you want to see what you’re doing, you’ll need to light a match using the action button. This will illuminate a small area around your character and allow you to see items and bits of the mansion layout therein. You can do this any number of times, but the appearance of any monster brings with it a blast of icy wind that will instantly extinguish your match and force you to flee in the dark or lose a life. You also have the option of toggling lightning on or off via the console’s left difficulty switch. If enabled, these periodic lightning flashes will provide brief glimpses of your surroundings.

That’s about all there is to it. Haunted House is a very simple game by modern standards, and even by the standards of the later 1980s. There are nine total difficulty levels, with each one increasing the speed and tenacity of the monsters, the number of locked doors, and a few other variables, but it all still comes down to grabbing the three urn pieces and returning to the front door where you started out before you run out of lives.

It’s not exactly a graphical powerhouse, especially when you consider that 80% of the screen is completely black most of the time and music is limited to a single short victory fanfare patterned on the classic Twilight Zone opening theme that plays whenever you manage to escape the mansion in one piece. There are some nice touches that bear mentioning, though. I love how the pupils of your character’s eyes follow your directional inputs and how they gyrate wildly whenever you lose a life. The use of sound effects is also excellent by the system’s standards. Your character’s footsteps and the sound of rushing wind add to the atmosphere and the dull thud you hear whenever you run into a wall can actually help you get around obstacles when you’re running blind from a monster that’s extinguished your light.

Whatever Haunted House lacks in depth and audiovisual pizzazz it makes up for with a surprisingly solid horror gaming experience. There are a number of key elements in play here that would go on to be mainstays in survival horror titles all the way up to the present: Fumbling your way through dark areas, a focus on evading rather than confronting threats, managing a very limited inventory, and conserving a vital resource (your lives, in this case). On higher difficulties in particular, the Graves mansion becomes an ever-shifting maze of locked doors and extremely aggressive monsters. When you’ve already found two out of three urn pieces and are frantically rushing down its lightless halls in search of the final one with an angry ghost on your tail, this crude 36 year-old Atari game can still be legitimately nerve-wracking. If you’re looking for a quick burst of spooky fun on a chill autumn night but don’t want to commit to another multi-hour journey through Raccoon City or Silent Hill, grab your trusty matchbook and make tracks for Spirit Bay.