This is going to be a difficult game to look at since it feels almost blasphemous to do so; the first of something is always sacred. Pitfall (I’m omitting the ‘!’ because Word freaks out and capitalizes everything), is generally referred to as the first side-scrolling platforming game, or at least the first one to do it right. It is one of the best selling games on the 2600 and is considered one of the best games on the console, if not ever for its contributions to gaming as a whole. But, and there’s always a but, how does it hold up? A true sign of a timeless game is that it’s still fun to play all these years later, the Atari and many consoles from that time period have tons of games that could be considered timeless. On the 2600 alone you have games like Missile Command, Centipede/Millipede, Jawbreaker, Worm War I, Frankenstein’s Monster, Combat, Midnight Magic, Ms. Pac-Man, Wizard of Wor, the list will go on for pages and pages if I continue. But does Pitfall make that list of timeless games. Please be aware that I’m looking at Pitfall with my own modern perspective, I wasn’t there in the 80’s so I cannot speak about it in that context, but if it really did spend 64 weeks in the number one spot then I get the feeling that… Well, I might be getting a new asshole after this one.
The graphics are simple and clean, the graphics are so ubiquitous that non-gamers even know what game they’re from. The sprite work on Harry and the obstacles he faces are expertly made and definitely hold up, I’d say that the graphics are several years ahead of their time; a game like this probably wasn’t seen again until Jungle Hunt in 1983 or even Montezuma’s Revenge in 1984. I’m still amazed by how smooth everything moves and feels, there is no sprite flickering to be seen, and Harry’s run cycle is extremely well animated and looks uncannily fluid, as do the vine movements. The graphics are perfect, they’re iconic, and that’s the end of that.
The sounds I’m a bit more on the fence about, a good portion of the game is played in silence since Harry makes no sound when he runs, he makes plenty of noise whenever he’s jumping or screaming his head off whilst swinging on a vine, but not when he’s running. There is a small selection of sounds that will play whenever you do something or if something happens to Harry. There is a very squeaky jumping noise, an odd groaning noise whenever you fall down a hole, another strange groaning noise when you make contact with a barrel, the classic Tarzan yell when swinging on a vine, and the classic ‘you are dead’ jingle. There is also a triumphant jingle for when you collect a treasure. Apart from those sounds everything else goes by in silence, the snapping of alligators, the hissing of deadly cobras, the whoosh of a suddenly appearing sinkhole, not even the barrels make a sound as they trundle past you at high speed. I know that David Crane was working with a severely constricted amount of memory, fitting the whole game on a 4K cartridge, and looking at the file size on my hard drive it looks like every byte was used, it would have been impossible for him to have fit more sounds in the game if he’d tried. Now this is where we get to the most important part of any game, the gameplay.
The premise of Pitfall is simple, get from the left of the screen to the right of the screen while avoiding obstacles and collecting treasures, there are 32 treasures in all and you have three lives and twenty minutes to grab them all or you lose the game. The obstacles you’ll face on your quest for wealth include alligators, tar pits, sink holes, cobras, giant scorpions, an ungodly amount of barrels, and gravity itself. There are 255 screens that contain a combination of these obstacles, but the combinations aren’t random, they’re the same every time, and certain combinations won’t happen, like barrels and alligators on the same screen since that would be almost impossible (unless I haven’t gotten to that screen yet). Some screens are ridiculously easy like the sinkhole with a vine over it, or present a good amount of challenge like the three-pack barrels over a sinkhole. Most of your lives will be claimed by the alligators though, you can only stand on the two pixels that are their heads whenever they open their mouths otherwise you’re dead, the collision detection for this part is rather strict. Pitfall is not a game you can rush through, the obstacles simply won’t allow it, if you get the precise timing of each individual obstacle down to a T then you’ll be able to get through the game with some speed, but even that won’t be enough to get all 32 treasures, that is why you must use the underground caves. The caves can be accessed with the ladders that you see dotted across the different screens or if you’re feeling a bit impatient you can just jump down one of the holes. The caves are not without danger, the giant scorpions are particularly difficult to jump over and dead ends are common forcing you to backtrack past the scorpions again but the trade-off is rather worth it since each screen traversed in the caves equates to three screen above ground, you need to use the caves to beat the game. Unfortunately this is where I come in, and frankly I don’t particularly enjoy Pitfall, I’ve probably been spoiled by other newer platformers, but I just find Pitfall, and even its sequel to be rather boring, I find that the flat design present in every screen makes them blend into one another and I just don’t feel any reward or satisfaction when playing. The controls also aren’t quite my cup of tea, I’d really like to be able to control my jumps in midair much like Bobby is Going home, and I find that pressing down to let go of vines to be rather odd but that doesn’t really detract from the game in any way.
All in all Pitfall is legendary, it’s iconic, and I just don’t like it. As you all know I have very unconventional tastes when it comes to games, so this honestly doesn’t come as a surprise. Personally I’m not a particularly big fan of most platform games in general, I couldn’t give two shits about Mario or Donkey Kong and I only like Sonic 2 because of the music and Sonic Spinball because it’s pinball, actually the two platform games I DO like are both on the 2600, Keystone Kapers and Frankenstein’s Monster are both excellent platforming games and I’d readily play them over Pitfall any day. Unfortunately Pitfall’s prices don’t reflect its commonality; you’ll probably find loads of overpriced copies in the wild and online. The cheapest loose copy on Ebay sitting at $7.90 free shipping which is ridiculous for a game that’s as common as 3D Tic-Tac-Toe or Amidar, the latter of which you can usually find in-box for 10 dollars or less, and speaking of in-box… The cheapest boxed copy of Pitfall currently on Ebay is sitting at 52.99$ I think I paid that much or a little bit more for Jawbreaker CIB, or Frankenstein’s Monster CIB, or any of the Mystique titles I own CIB. It’s worth 15 maybe 20 dollars in the box and maybe 3 dollars loose so don’t buy anything that’s on Ebay unless it’s in those price ranges, but you’ll probably find one in the wild that’s cheaper than that, I hope. I won’t send Pitfall to the Collector’s Zone, I can’t, I may not like it but I cannot deny it’s heritage and impact on gaming as a whole, it’s possible that without Pitfall we wouldn’t have Mario or Sonic (or Bubsy) or any modern or classic platforming games. It may not be the best but it was the first, so well… I gotta love it for that.