Orphaned Computers & Game Systems

Vol. II, Issue 2    February 1998

The Legend of Pitfall Harry

From the VCS to the PC

By Chris Federico and Adam Trionfo

This is the first of three articles that covers the "Pitfall" series of games. The details cover from the game's first release on the Atari 2600 console up through about 1998, when the three articles appeared in print.
  1. The Legend of Pitfall Harry From the VCS to the PC
  2. Pitfall Update: Pitfall III
  3. Pitfall Update: The End of the Secret Level!

There are a number of classic games that have been remade in some form or another over the years, but none really originated on the 2600. That system, unlike the Nintendo (Mario) and the Sega (Sonic), never really had a mascot. The closest one on the 2600 wasn't even made by Atari, but by Activision. That technically makes it Activision's mascot. It was certainly a worthy one. Pitfall Harry is one of the most widely remembered video game characters of all time. He hasn't appeared in many games, but all of those that he has paraded around have been quite good.

The games that we are going to discuss in this article are Pitfall!, Pitfall II: Lost Caverns and Pitfall: The Mayan Adventure. These games were released for many systems, but we're mainly referring to the versions on the Atari 2600 and the Atari Jaguar. You will notice that we mention other systems -- the C64, for instance -- but those were not the platforms that gained all the support for our hero Harry. (Keep in mind that the PC Mayan Adventure is pretty much the same game as the Jag version.)

Pitfall! became extremely popular in 1982 and '83, selling more than every 2600 cartridge except Space Invaders, Asteroids and Pac-Man, and one of the reasons was its liveliness. Never before had 2600 graphics been so good, first of all; secondly, Pitfall Harry swung across vines to spiffy fanfares, comically fell into quicksand with spooky musical accompaniment, and grabbed treasures with victorious trumpeting. He could do more than any other VCS character: climb ladders, dodge barrels, jump snakes, hurdle fire, evade scorpions, sprint across open ground before a fatal little pond suddenly formed, leap from alligator head to head while trying not to fall into their hungry jaws, and (of course) swing across vines. The sheer number of elements made the game revolutionary.

Basically, Harry runs across a jungle, seeking treasures by overcoming obstacles that, although repeated, appear in every conceivable combination to keep new screens as fresh as possible. It really is a game of distance-covering more than anything else.

Pitfall II can be won, and it isn't timed like the first game. In fact, Harry can't even die. It's a neat idea: Harry touches the occasionally encountered red cross, which is the spot he returns to if he succumbs to one of the many obstacles in the multi-scaped Lost Caverns. The game does everything a sequel should do: It updates the goal (you have to hunt far and wide for certain items to win, and they're scattered from end to far end of the huge world in the game) and adds a whole new dimension -- not only do screens change when exited through their left or right sides, like in the original, but the game scrolls vertically, making it much, much larger and more free-feeling than the original. Bats, condors, poisonous frogs and electric eels are added, and Harry's new talents include swimming in rivers, jumping off waterfalls and floating on a startlingly weight-ignorant helium balloon. The addition of a multi-part theme song couldn't have hurt the game's appeal of unprecedented innovation. The 8-bit versions, especially the Commodore 64 one, make the game look absolutely extravagant.

The first game and Pitfall II feel very free, enabling the player to roam wherever he pleases and basically choose his route. Even in the strictly horizontal world of the original, Harry can run above or below ground, not really having to watch his step until actually engaging one of the obstacles. So here we come to the downside of the highly detailed, more realistic graphics of the latest episode: In order to keep the intricate images from being mere background filler, the game designers incorporated the rocks, ledges and whatnot into the player's necessary route, making them the brunt of the game play instead of merely encountered obstacles. It detracts from the thrill of the search; brainwork, like the route-planning in Pitfall II, isn't quite obsolete in Mayan Adventure, but it's much less of a necessity than in the first two games. The path is very linear, getting more and more dictated as the levels go by, and the pixel-by-pixel detection of Harry's every step often makes it frustrating. So Mayan Adventure isn't quite an improvement on the old group of elements; it's basically just another platform game, albeit one of the finest.

One of the reasons it's one of the best is that, again, it looks great graphically. The aspects of the Pitfall world have not changed much, either, and the way in which they're redrawn in high detail makes the graphics seem that much more innovative. Released in 1994 for the Super Nintendo and Genesis, it did okay. If this game had been released when the Pitfall name was much more familiar, Mayan Adventure would have done better commercially. Nonetheless, this latest installment has translated well into modernity. Another of its strengths is that many secret areas and bonuses can be discovered with a little exploratory work, as in Super Mario Bros. 3 and Doom.

The game can't really be considered another Harry adventure, as Harry is kidnapped in the introduction to the game. Instead we play the part of, surprisingly enough, Harry, Jr. He could have been named Joe Bob and it probably would not have made any difference in the game. It easily could have been construed as a whole new concept, so they had to tie Pitfall! in somehow (just in case the alligators, scorpions, pits, vines and built-in 2600 version, in its entirety, didn't make it obvious!).

Your courageous authors have beat Pitfall II and Pitfall: The Mayan Adventure, but never the original. As far as we can discern, there is no true ending to that first game. It is not a game to "complete," unless you consider scoring all possible points in the allotted twenty minutes to be a conquest of sorts (or visiting all 255 screens within that time; is that even possible? We've heard that it is).

Another thing that Mayan Adventure contains is that age-old platform-game element, the big bad guy at the end of each level. As the first two games weren't separated into levels, such challenges weren't necessary. But it would have been nice if Mayan's end-of-level obstacles necessitated more brainwork and less ho-hum jumping and striking. One of Pitfall II's strengths is that it requires strategic planning. Perhaps there could have been object manipulation puzzles at the end of each Mayan level, or better-hidden exits that one had to locate.

It makes sense from a standpoint of marketability (boo hiss) that Activision would choose to make the Pitfall world's long-awaited revisitation a platform contest. With that defense out of the way, we can conclude that the designers of Mayan Adventure did a nearly optimal job. The game looks beautiful, and old elements were incorporated in unique ways. Pitfall Harry's search for treasure and his penchant for hopping across alligator heads or dodging swooping bats persists in Harry, Jr., and the ending couldn't be funnier or more perfect (we won't spoil it!).

Just out of curiosity, why didn't Harry, Sr. at least teach his son how to swim? Seems it would have made the family business much easier. -- OC&GS

OC&GS Volume II, Issue #2 (February 1998)
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