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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Plok (Super Nintendo)

Thanks, you odd little whatever-you-are.

Everyone and his brother was making video games in the U.K. back during the 1980s. I’m not just speaking metaphorically of the “bedroom coder” boom touched off by affordable domestic microcomputers like the Spectrum and the BBC Micro. I’m talking literally. You had the Stamper brothers (Tim and Chris) founding Rare, the Darlings (David and Richard) over at Codemasters, the Follins (Tim, Geoff, and Mike) composing some of the best chiptune music of the era, and the Bitmap Brothers churning out massive hits like Speedball and The Chaos Engine. Okay, so the Bitmaps weren’t actual brothers. I’m still counting it because this is my review and you’re not the boss of me.

Ahem. Anyway, Ste and John Pickford are yet another set of British brothers with a passion for gaming. Fresh out of secondary school in the early ’80s, they took jobs in the industry as an artist and programmer (respectively) and soon added game design to their portfolios. They’re probably best-known on this side of the pond for their work with Rare, particularly Solar Jetman and the two Wizards & Warriors sequels on the NES. Around 1990, the Pickfords were hard at work on an arcade game called Fleapit that was intended to run on Rare’s upcoming Razz hardware. Unfortunately, plans for the Razz board ended up being scrapped and the mostly finished Fleapit followed suit. Not being ones to let a good idea go to waste, Ste and John moved on to Mancunian studio Software Creations and reimagined Fleapit as the 1993 Super Nintendo platformer Plok.

Who is Plok the Exploding Man? The instruction manual informs us that he is, among many, many other things: “The king of the beautiful island called Akrillic, part of the archipelago Poly-Esta…a true hero, with a heart of gold and joints of the highest quality Velcro…a grade-A, first class prime cut.” What is Plok? That’s tougher to say. Whatever he’s supposed to be, he’s got a set of cute cartoon eyes peering out from what looks to be a red executioner’s hood and he’s able to fire off all four of his detachable limbs as deadly missiles. Yes, Plok is a European mascot platformer starring a hero that attacks with his floating projectile limbs two years before Ubisoft’s Rayman. I reckon someone across the Channel has some explaining to do.

Being the (wholly self-proclaimed) king of Akrillic, our boy Plok has quite the healthy ego. You can just imagine the outrage that ensues when he steps out his front door one morning only to discover that the giant flag with his face on it that he flies from his rooftop has been snatched away in the night by parties unknown. All fired-up by this affront, Plok sets off by boat to nearby Cotton Island to retrieve his flag. There’s no world to save, no princess to rescue, no fallen comrades to avenge, just this absurd, pompous weirdo rambling around the countryside seeking to assuage his wounded pride by any means necessary. Did I mention that this game’s humor is very, very British?

The early stages on Cotton Island are no-frills affairs that have you making your way from left to right on the way to a goal, Super Mario style. They function as an elegant tutorial on Plok’s unusual movement and attack capabilities. He has two different jumps, for example, a short hop that allows for shooting in mid-aid if needed and a spinning leap similar to Sonic the Hedgehog’s that offers greater height and distance at the cost of offensive flexibility. The limb shooting mechanic also has its quirks. Successfully striking an enemy will return the limb to Plok’s body instantly, but miss and you’ll have to wait for it to boomerang back on its own. It’s possible to have all four limbs detached at once if you’re too quick on the trigger, leaving poor Plok a sitting duck. Some of the later stages are filled with shifting walls and other obstacles that require you to temporarily relinquish one or more limbs to bypass them. One stage even forces you to play through the majority of it sans legs, which severely compromises Plok’s platforming ability, as you might expect. This adds a bit of a light puzzle element to some portions of the game, as you need to make sure you don’t run out of “keys” (limbs) before you reach the goal.

Beyond these basics, you also have an abundance of power-up items to find. There are seashells that provide extra lives when collected in bunches (think the coins from Mario), gems that grant temporary invincibility, hornet nests that give Plok a supply of enemy-seeking “buddy hornets” that he can release on command, and a magic amulet that turns his spinning jump into a buzz saw move that can damage enemies. The really exciting power-ups, however, are the various special costumes. Each one temporarily transforms Plok into an alternate form with its own unique attack. Some of my favorites include Squire Plok’s Contra-like spread shot blunderbuss, Vigilante Plok’s flamethrower, and Plocky’s superpowered boxing gloves.

After the first boss battle, the victorious Plok returns to Akrillic with flag in tow, only to discover that the entire island has been overrun by a pack of giant fleas. Plok hates fleas. At this point, the gameplay shifts gears dramatically. These much larger, more open levels see Plok going into “search and destroy” mode to eliminate every flea in each area before he can move on to the next. This switch-up made me a little apprehensive at first, as it had the potential to slow the game down to a crawl with needless backtracking to find fleas secreted away in cryptic locations. Thankfully, the designers went out of their way to make Plok’s pest control rampage as hassle-free as possible. All of the fleas are in plain sight along the main stage paths, there’s a counter at the bottom of the screen displaying the number remaining, and you even get helpful on-screen arrows pointing you toward your next target. Nice!

Once you beat back the insect invasion, the game takes another sharp turn as Plok descends into the Fleapit to take the fight to the Flea Queen herself. Each of the final eight stages within the Fleapit has Plok piloting a different vehicle. There’s a unicycle, a monster truck, a helicopter, a tank, a flying saucer, and more. Every vehicle has its own control scheme to master and most are too something. Too fast, too slow, too slippery, you name it. It’s going to take you a lot of practice to make it through this final stretch.

In case you hadn’t picked up on it by now, I took a liking to this game straightaway. It’s packed to the gills with clever ideas and throws you a steady stream of curveballs throughout. The novelty of managing Plok’s wayward limbs to strike a balance between mobility and offense would have been more than sufficient on its own to support a typical title, but the Pickfords really went above and beyond the call of duty here. Their commitment to keeping their audience guessing even extends to the aesthetic. At one point, Plok flashes back to the olden days in the form of a playable dream sequence where the player controls the mustachioed Grandpappy Plok. The game adopts a silent movie style for this portion, complete with sepia tone visuals, “old-timey” music, and flickering title cards at the opening of each stage. Flourishes like this really drive home that you’re being treated to an extraordinary effort and not just another cookie cutter platformer.

In fact, Plok’s art and music are fantastic generally. The setting of Poly-Esta is defined by its bright colors, thick black outlines, and psychedelic landscapes, which all give the impression that they may have served (at least in part) as inspiration for Nintendo’s own Yoshi’s Island a few years later. I also appreciate the care put into the animation, particularly for Plok himself over all of his many permutations.

Then there’s the music. Oh, the music. I scarcely know where to begin. From the instant Plok greets you on the title screen, whips out a harmonica, and launches into a bluesy opening theme, you know you’re in for something phenomenal. Given that the score was created by two of those fabled Follin brothers I mentioned above (Tim and Geoff), I probably shouldn’t have been so surprised. Many of the instruments used here sound so realistic that Nintendo’s own Shigeru Miyamoto reportedly had trouble believing that the songs were being generated by an unmodified Super Nintendo console. Plok certainly doesn’t sound at all like I expected it to. Instead of the thin, bouncy tunes of a typical lighthearted platformer, we get a lot of rich, heavy prog rock-inspired numbers that sound like they could be from the Genesis or Rush catalogs. If 7/8 time signatures, spacey arpeggios, and Neil Peart drum fills are your jam, then Plok is the game for you, friend. This is all on top of the other eclectic influences I already mentioned (blues, silent film orchestration). Hell, the boss theme even breaks out the theremin to evoke a 1950s monster movie and every one of Plok’s special costumes has its own musical theme. There were times playing through Plok where the music would segue into some new riff or movement and I just had to set the controller down and go “What!?” It’s that good. It may sound crazy, but Plok’s soundtrack is one of the very finest for the system and belongs on any top ten list right alongside heavyweights like Final Fantasy VI and Chrono Trigger. Such a surprise from a relatively unknown title.

Ah. Now, it’s time for me to come back down to earth long enough to actually criticize for a bit. As much as I loved my time with Plok, it can be tricky to actually make progress in. This isn’t due to the individual stages being overly difficult in the traditional sense, though most are certainly challenging. Plok can usually withstand a good five hits or so before losing a life and there are no instant death hazards that bypass his health bar, so the levels themselves are generally of the tough, but fair variety. No, the true difficulty comes courtesy of the continue system. The game has what it calls “permanent continue points” after the first, second, and fifth boss battles. In other words, at roughly the 20%, 50%, and 80% marks. Plok’s quest is a fairly long one, so the amount of play time between these checkpoints can be considerable. The stretch between the second and fifth bosses, for example, can take up the better part of an hour. Dying right on the cusp of a new permanent continue point and having to repeat a half dozen or more very tricky and involved stages can be disheartening. You do have a limited ability to earn special continues (or “Plokontinues,” as the game calls them) by collecting four special red tokens to spell out “P-L-O-K.” Doing this will allow you to continue one additional time between the normal checkpoints, but only from the stage where you actually earned the Plokontinue. For example, if you collect your fourth red token in stage seven and then run out of lives in stage ten, you’ll be allowed to continue once…back at stage seven. Even the game’s hidden warp zones come with strings attached. Just finding them isn’t enough and you’re forced to complete some sort of difficult challenge like a timed vehicle race before you’ll actually be allowed to skip ahead. I tried a few of these without success and eventually gave up on the idea and just played through all the stages in order. Most daunting of all, there are no saves or passwords, meaning that Plok must be completed in a single play session. Trust me, once you finally do reach a new permanent continue point after hours of playing and re-playing the same long run of stages, the last thing you’ll want to do is switch off your console and retire for the evening. My secret to beating Plok? I left my system switched on for a week between play sessions! The designers had supposedly intended to include a save battery in the cartridge, but publisher Tradewest balked at the extra manufacturing cost. Alas.

Although these progression woes do mar the experience somewhat, by no means should they deter you from giving Plok a try. It’s an inspired, criminally under-recognized platformer. Leading up to its release, Miyamoto is said to have told the Pickfords that only Mario and Sonic were in its same league. In spite of this high praise from Nintendo’s shining star, Plok sold poorly and would never receive a sequel. Some blame this on the glut of Sonic cash-in mascot platformers that were flooding the marketplace around the time of its debut, something the Pickfords could never have anticipated back when they initially conceived of the project as Fleapit. I suspect the fact that the first generation of kids to grow up with video game consoles were teenagers by 1993 and gravitating toward more “mature” titles like Doom and Mortal Kombat was also a contributing factor. Fortunately, Ste and John have managed to retain the IP rights for Plok and friends. They revived their Exploding Man in 2013 for a series of Web and print comics that’s still running today. I visited their site intending to check it out briefly before starting on this review and wound up binging all 127 pages they’ve put out to date. The Plok comics are thoroughly entertaining and serve as both a satisfying continuation of the game’s loopy story and a running satiric commentary on the state of modern gaming. It sure is nice being able to end one of these “forgotten game character” retrospectives on a high note for once. Good on ya, lads.

If you have any interest in 16-bit platformers, you need Plok in your life. It plays like a dream, surprises and delights from start to finish, and its presentation is singularly unforgettable. Perhaps best of all, it somehow remains affordable. In an era of hyperinflated SNES prices, this is one cartridge that won’t cost you an arm and a leg. Plok himself should be so lucky.