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, 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 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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Ghostbusters (Master System)

Bustin’ makes me feel…okay, I guess.

Today, I’m tackling Activision’s venerable first adaptation of the Ghostbusters series. Originally designed by Pitfall creator David Crane and published for Commodore 64 and Atari 800 computers in 1984, the game was eventually ported to every other major home computer system and game console of the era. The version I have is the Sega Master System port from 1987. Believe it or not, this is my first reader request title! My awesome compadre Cenate Pruitt actually mailed me his childhood copy of Ghostbusters all the way from Decatur, Georgia. He describes it as “literally the first video game I ever owned.” Rest assured, I’ll take great care of it.

According to David Crane, he was able to finish programming Ghostbusters in a mere six weeks by cannibalizing gameplay elements from another project he was already working on. This scrapped project was a vehicular combat simulator called Car Wars that was inspired by the 1981 board game of the same name by Steve Jackson. Why do I bring this up? Because it puts Ghostbusters in the same category as another famous title that was based on a Steve Jackson tabletop game at one point in its development. I’m referring to none other than 1997’s Fallout, which was originally intended to utilize the GURPS pen-and-paper RPG system. I’ll bet you never suspected that Ghostbusters and Fallout had a shared origin, eh? Video games are weird.

Anyway, while Ghostbusters sold like crazy and is considered a classic in early computer gaming circles, the console versions have not fared so well. This is owing to the dreaded NES port by Bits Laboratory, which suffers from putrid visuals, incoherent text, and the presence of the infamous “stairs level” that requires you to ascend over twenty floors of a high-rise by rapidly mashing a button to walk, all the while being unable to shoot at the ghosts swarming you from every side. The stairs are rightly remembered as one of the most incompetent and infuriating segments in any game and they cast a long shadow over Ghostbusters’ reputation to this day. Suffice to say, I was feeling a tad apprehensive as I waited for the cartridge to complete its long journey across the country. I’m pleased to report, however, that Ghostbusters for the Master System isn’t really terrible at all! Yay!

Start up the game and you’re immediately informed that you’re “the proud owner of a new franchise.” Right away, this tells you that the Ghostbusters you’ll be controlling here aren’t supposed to be Peter, Ray, Egon, and Winston, but rather just some nameless jobbers instead. That’s kind of a bummer. I suppose it may have something to go with the actors’ likenesses not being part of the license issued to Activision, but that’s just speculation on my part.

You’re next told that “the bank will advance you $10,000 for equipment” and ushered into a shop menu. This is where the game first shows its Car Wars heritage, as your first major decision will be which of four different vehicles you want to start out with, ranging from the $2000 economy model through the $12,000 sports car. The trademark Cadillac ambulance/hearse from the movie is also an option, of course. More expensive cars are faster and can hold more ghostbusting gear, which you also need to purchase separately after you’ve chosen your ride. You’re able to select from several different grades of proton beams, ghost traps, ghost detectors, and more, with the more expensive models having enhanced features. The high capacity traps, for example, need to be taken back to headquarters for emptying much less frequently than the standard model, but cost much more. You’re essentially dumping more cash up front with the hope of making up the difference later in the extra time your improved gear can potentially save you.

After you leave the store, it’s time to start the game proper. Ghostbusters is fundamentally an odd sort of business simulation/driving/shooter hybrid. A single screen overhead map (presumably representing New York City) is used represent the different areas that players can visit. There’s the shop, Ghostbusters HQ (where ghost traps can be emptied and proton packs recharged), and the “Zuul building” where the game’s final confrontation takes place. Over the course of the game, ghosts will continually stream into the Zuul building, which slowly fills up a “PK energy” bar at the top of the screen. The player’s initial goal is to have at least $10,000 on hand when the PK meter is finally full. Provided this monetary threshold is met, the Ghostbusters can then enter the Zuul building itself and battle the final boss, Gorza. If the $10,000 minimum isn’t met in time, it’s game over.

How do you actually go about earning the necessary funds? That’s where the numerous other unnamed buildings on the map come in. From time to time, one or more of them will flash red, indicating a ghost infestation. At that point, you’ll need to drive to that building and bust every ghost there you can. Then you’ll repeat this process as many times as possible before time runs out, interspersed with the occasional return to headquarters for equipment servicing or to the shop for buy more gear.

The driving is presented from an overhead view. There’s not much to do in these sections other than avoid crashing into other cars or roadblocks. Both types of collision will cost you in terms of money and time. You do have the opportunity to make a little extra cash on the way if you’ve purchased a “ghost vacuum” accessory for your vehicle, since these can be used to suck in and capture the occasional wandering specter with no better place to spend its afterlife than a Manhattan roadway.

Once you arrive at a haunted building, you’ll need to capture the ghosts there via a single screen mini-game that involves placing a trap on the ground and then alternating control between two Ghostbusters in order to herd the airborne spirits together over the trap with proton beams before triggering it and hopefully snaring them all in one go. Failure will result not just in lost income, but lost time, as the ghosts will “slime” one member of your three man man crew, and he’ll remain out of commission until you return to HQ.

That’s about it for the majority of the game. It’s just “drive to building, bust ghosts, repeat.” The only wild card is the dreaded Stay Puft Marshmallow Man, who can actually destroy whole buildings when he appears. Each time this occurs, you’re forced to pay a hefty $4000 fine. Though this is annoying, it at least serves its purpose of insuring that the player can’t just stop playing and wait out the timer as soon as they hit the $10,000 mark.

Assuming you have the requisite cash to enter the Zuul building when the time comes, the gameplay shifts to a more action focused style for its three part climax.

First, you’ll need to safely guide at least two of your Ghostbusters into the building’s front door, which is guarded by the bouncing Marshmallow Man. This isn’t generally too difficult as long as you take note of his movement pattern and dash past once he leaves you a gap.

Once you’re inside, it’s time for the dreaded stairs. Thankfully, this bit isn’t bad at all here. For starters, there are only around seven floors to climb, as opposed to over twenty on the NES. There’s also room to dodge and maneuver, and the movement itself is handled in a sane manner with the directional pad instead of via kooky Track and Field style button mashing. Best of all, you can shoot proton beams in order to take out any hostile ghosts in your way. I actually found the stairs level to be a real high point of the Master System version. It’s a well-presented, fair challenge.

Get at least one Ghostbuster to the top of the stairwell, and it’s time for the showdown with Gorza. No, not Gozer. That’s a totally different ancient god of destruction, apparently. Gorza himself walks back and forth horizontally along the top of the screen shooting lightning while two stationary hellhounds on either side shoot fireballs. The goal is to dodge attacks while shooting Gorza with proton beams until his health bar is depleted. There’s no health bar for you, of course. Instead, each hit you take costs you one of your three Ghostbusters and restarts the battle. Kill Gorza and you’ve beaten the game. Fail three times and you start over. Personally, I found a head-on attack far too risky, as the lightning blasts are fast and cover a wide area. Instead, staying to the side and dodging the slower fireballs while shooting diagonally at Gorza is the way to go.

Once you beat the game once, you’ll be given a password that allows you to re-start with the same cash total later. This feature does make the game a bit easier on subsequent playthroughs, I guess, but there’s not really much need for passwords in a game that runs for twenty minutes at most from start to finish.

Which brings me to Ghostbusters’ primary flaw: Its length. Since the bulk of the game (everything outside the Zuul building) runs on a short timer, you couldn’t really spend more than about twenty minutes on a successful playthrough even if you wanted to. You can certainly fail along the way and have to start over from scratch, but once you know what you’re doing and how to beat Gorza, there’s nothing else for you to do other than pile up more and more money by looping the game with passwords. It’s in this sense that Ghostbusters most feels like what it really is: A 1984 computer game. Game design standards shifted at an incredible rate in the 1980s, after all. Whereas the primary difference between a typical PS3 and PS4 release involves the former being just a teensy bit less pretty, “previous gen” back in the day could easily encompass every advance that took place between a pair of titles as different as Donkey Kong and Super Mario Bros. In other words, Ghostbusters’ three year journey to the Master System was longer than it seems.

Other than its absurd brevity and a lack of musical diversity (I hope you like the theme from the movie, because it’s all you get), Ghostbusters is a fun little game on the Master System. The graphics are colorful, the simulation mode presents some interesting strategic choices for how to approach your moneymaking, and the shooty bits are actually competent, unlike on the NES. It may not hold your interest for long, but it’s an impressive package considering that it was originally churned out in six weeks by one guy. If you only play one version of David Crane’s Ghostbusters, make it this one.

Oh, and if anyone else wants to send me any free games, I suppose that would acceptable. Yeesh. The sacrifices I make for you people.