The Many Faces of  . . .  Pitfall!
by Alan Hewston

We continue our 20th anniversary salute to games from 1982.  I needed an easy, familiar game this month due to a family vacation and by coincidence October was also the month I made my Pitfall Harry costume (see Retrogaming Times #27).  Not to mention I am running out of time to review this, the number one home videogame from '82.  In fact, "Pitfall!" was probably the leading selling and most played home video game & computer cartridge based game of the era.  The 2600 version topped the sales charts for more weeks than any game ever did or maybe since then.  It's no wonder that we consider Pitfall!'s programmer, David Crane as if he were the Elvis or a Beatle of the videogame industry.  But I wonder how much it would have hurt its popularity or sales if David had not followed the advice of his fellow Activision programmers  just before its release to change it from 1 life to 3 lives per game.  Good move!  Otherwise the game may have been considered too frustrating with one life  as can be seen in too many Odyssey 2 titles back then.  1982 was a great year and shame on you if you have not played this fantastic game on any system.  Pitfall! surely paved the way for the future of adventure games, side-scrollers in particular and also for packing as much game/code as possible into those classic system's carts.  See also Retrogaming Times #10 Where Doug reviewed Pitfall!



Home Versions [All versions buy Activision, first on the Atari 2600 by David Crane '82]
C64 (Peter Filiberti '84), Colecovision ('83), Atari 8 bit ('84), Atari 5200 ('84), Intellivision ('82)
Rumor Mill: Apple II version may have been started but only Pitfall II came out.
Categories (10 points each for): Gameplay, Addictiveness, Graphics, Sound & Controls
Sequels:  Pitfall II, also by Activision  planning for around RT issue #78.

Home Version Similarities:  Except those in ( ) all home versions have: the same 255 rooms (call them jungle scenes); same layout of treasures and obstacles (C64, CV); 20 minute (A8 bit, 5200) clock and 3 lives; pretty much the same time is required to cross a scene, or swing on a vine (C64);
same points scored for treasures found or lost for falling down; Activision patch if you score 20 K; no gameplay options no musical score and most have no pause.

Timing of events:  [Warning, this section is boring & technical but not likely to be told in any other "Pitfall!" review]  I've not learned this from any reports or interviews, just by my own inspection, and loads of PT and videotape playback on the 2600 version, so I may be in error here.  The 2600 has what appears to be at least 3 sets of timers for events, set 1) a global timer in sync with the game clock, set 2) a local timer based upon the time that you enter the scene, and set 3) a global timer offset from the game clock based upon some trigger event, such as when you enter a specific jungle scene, or collected a specific treasure, or some other global event (not just from the current scene, but anywhere in the jungle).  The timer for set 3 could easily be changed during the game using
multiple trigger events, or even have subsets.  In fact, the set 1 timer may actually be the same as what I call set 3, but we'd need David to confirm that.  Thus all events (vines swinging, pits & crocodiles opening & closing) are all set to one of these timers (or subsets of set 3) and stored in memory ahead of time.  If you play flawlessly every time, and take the same path with no delays, you'd have the same sequence of events in every scene every time.  Note that the scorpions and logs (and a large number of pitfalls) always use timing set 2 on every version on every scene
AFAIK. I've never seen any random events on the 2600, but have seen them on the 5200/8bit where (in specific jungle scenes only) if you exit & enter a scene quickly over and over you'll see almost every time the vine has shifted to somewhere it would not have been.  This may be a glitch in the
code and not randomness  so I looked but did not find this on any other version.  Still, there's at least one scene on the Atari 8 bit not too far from the start where the vine appears to be random.  Playing flawlessly (without stopping) up until that point, and every time you do this, the vine starts at a different location. Interviews with Activision programmers hint that their (2600) code typically has no randomness or a lot less than you might think.  This may be critical to the game design & play testing as Crane made sure that it was quite the challenge, but indeed possible to complete a game (with time to spare), every time you hit restart.  I expect that he was a pretty good game player, but if not, we know that he was smart enough to turn off the collision detection of hazards and verify play through completion.  The best completed game ever verified had 59 seconds remaining, but reports of up to 2 minutes have been heard.  The shortest distance path is documented, but not too difficult to map out on your own via a videorecorder  give it a try.  If you don't have time for that, or are ready to verify your map, check out Ben Valdes' great Pitfall! dedication page:  http://pitfallharry.tripod.com. Unfortunately, on all versions but the Intellivision, there's a gameplay difference (from the 2600), either randomness has been added or the location, spacing or timing of objects has changed. This makes me wonder (given everything else is the same) if winning the game is possible for every attempt, or even at all.  Fortunately, the great game player Todd Rogers (and to date only he) has achieved perfect games on all classic versions of Pitfall!  Actually
there is no Twin Galaxies data for the C64 version, but I think he told me once that he was perfect there as well.  Maybe some day I'll set off on that lonely road of replaying these games until I get 20 minutes of perfection.  Todd has paved the way, so we know it is possible - maybe he should write this review.  Regardless of matching the gameplay of the 2600, the strategy and execution is still pretty much the same on all versions - just learn what things are different & adapt.  It may be harder, but still possible and thus they are all unique additions to our classic libraries.  OK, now back to the typical review  but for each significant deviation from the 2600, I deducted a point in gameplay.

Have Nots: Intellivision (40)
This version was the first third party cart for the Inty and is graphically the closest to the original 2600.  Kudos for making it look so close, but then Inty fans expected it to be even better on their graphically superior system.  Graphics are still sharp (8) and nothing to be ashamed of  save
for some vines hiding behind the tress.  The Gameplay is fantastic (9) and ever so close a match to the 2600.  It took me quite a while to prove this to myself, but everything is really there in place and in synch - at least within a pixel or two.  Alas, even the slightest pixel differences can make
a particular scene ever so slightly harder (or maybe easier), but it is obvious that the programmers made every effort possible here to duplicate the original.  No deduction here.  The Addictiveness is enjoyable (8), but I felt that I had to knock off a point due to the slightly increased difficulty and clumsy controller, and use of 2 fire buttons.  I expected to add back in a point for the usual INTY pause feature, but shamefully, Activision stripped that feature out of the code.  The Sound is pleasant (8) with no problems, and closest to sounding like the 2600.  But it's probably the worst of those scoring an 8.  The Controls are very good (7).  I started off scoring them a 5, but a couple hours of PT helped.  Unfortunately, Pitfall! (or possibly Pitfall II) is the most precise, controls demanding game of the era and the Inty controllers just don't cut it.  It's frustrating if the weak fire button just doesn't let you jump at the right time out of 300+ jumps.  Game over.  Then, the addition of a second fire button to jump OFF the vines.  Why?  How would it help? Moving downward to get off a vine, versus pushing a different button and still moving some direction.  Consider that there are a few scenes where you must get off a vine, then jump over something immediately, this essentially doubles the complexity.  I still keep scratching my head wondering why Mattel never made/added a better controller, if not for the Inty I, then surely by the time of the non-hard-wired controls on the Inty II.  But overall it scores as one of the top 5 INTY games in this column, and was a big seller for Activision on the Inty.

Have Nots:  Colecovision (41)
As with every remaining version in this review, the graphics and sound were enhanced.  Or more accurately, they were intended to be enhanced, but were they, or was it at the expense of the gameplay?  The Gameplay is very good (7) and is pretty much all there, just a bit off.  There was at least 1 scene where a log or other stationary item is too close to the edge of the pit and a normal dismount at the extreme edge of the vine would plop you on top of this hazard.  Thus this makes the game harder, as you need to jump off earlier than usual.  The larger character sizes may be the reason the scorpions are significantly harder to jump  quite possibly there's no pixels of actual margin of error.  We're talking about jumping 8+ scorpions in a row and around 20 total  a most tedious task  for the CV it's just plain cruel.  Some of the rolling logs are either spaced differently or
their timing is off.  Also, see the latest release of the Digital Press Guide for the glitch where you can walking through walls going Left.  There is also a neat introduction screen where Harry swings across a vine.   The Addictiveness is enjoyable (8) but they ignored the pause capabilities and
I already mentioned the increased difficulty.  It also takes too long to reset the game, waiting for the intro screen in order to play again.  This is also the worst version for jumping past / through the vines and dieing.  The Sound is crisp (8) and refreshing, but also annoying.  The stereophonic sounding vine swinging and collecting treasure is nice, but the footfalls with every step and the echoes of every jump are undesirable.  I think it would have been more interesting to add sounds to
the rolling log or crocodile's mouths closing shut!  (ie to add effects to the hazards not the norms).  The Graphics are sharp (8), with improved color and details but also things are a bit too big looking and the most different from the others.  The Controls are perfect (10) using an Atari controller.  Since there is no pause, and no options, you can easily use an Atari  just need to move to start the game.

Have Nots:  Commodore 64 (41)
The Gameplay is good enough (6) to work, but the worst of the lot.  Items are offset or pairs of rolling logs are spaced differently  but not making it more difficult. The worst problem is really obvious as it takes too long for the crocs, vines and pits etc. to complete a cycle.  You need to pause and wait for it to go.  They appear to be the same, but way off from the 2600.  The scorpion is a little harder to jump, and there is a sprite glitch where you appear to have cleared the critter but then die.  There is
nom randomness, but appear to be scenes with timing that is purposefully off from the 2600.  The addictiveness is outstanding (9) with a pause using [run/stop].  Despite gameplay differences, the game is still fun to play, not much harder, just different.  The Sound is effective (7), but the worst
of the lot.  Every effect is off and nearly all are annoying, especially the footfalls and jumps.  Fortunately the Graphics are great (9), possibly the best of the lot.  The Controls are perfect (10) as usual.  Available on disk & cart  easy to find.  A second, simpler version of Pitfall! was included in Activision's Gamemaker, but we'll not go there.

Gold Medal: Atari 2600, 5200 and 8 bit (44)
I could try harder to break this tie, but I know that they all deserve a medal.  Even if you feel that the timing of events as done on the 2600 is critical, or sacred you should still enjoy these other 2 versions.  And if you are willing to accept a difference in gameplay, albeit slight or to include randomness, then you'll like the minor improvements in the later Atari versions.

Atari 2600
The original will always be the most loved and played of any version.  The Gameplay is first class (9) as good a classic era game one can play (in terms of variety, strategy, and creativity) without having any gameplay options.  The Addictiveness is fantastic (9) - again - about as good as one can get without adding a pause, difficulty levels or other enhancement.  Certainly knowing that this game is extremely hard, but conquerable presents quite a challenge to players from any era.  Pitfall!
will most certainly bring you back again for more.  Also factor in the mapping aspect, and that back in that era, common folk did not have a VCR, or newsgroups to learn and share information leading them to many, many hours of players lovingly trying to map this game out by hand.  Other than
RPG's or text maze games, this was unprecedented, but  certainly yielded results and players could gradually learn and progress with each new adventure.  The Sound is pleasant (8), with a nice variety but simplicity.  Nothing sounds bad, but more effects and a musical score would surely help.  The Graphics too are simple yet sharp (8).  A few more characters and a little more animation or action would have helped.   The controls are awesome (10) and were perfect for the challenge
awaiting.  This is the most common and cheapest version to find.

Atari 8 bit
The Gameplay is very nice (8) and as mentioned earlier includes randomness which appears to be a change from the original.  There are possibly some trivial locations and timing changes and the clock starts ticking immediately, giving you one less second on this and the 5200 version.  The
Addictiveness is fantastic (9) but somehow there is no added pause.  The randomness may make the game a little harder, but not significantly that I can tell.  The Sound is impressive (8). Similar to the CV, the added footfalls and other effects are more stereophonic but can also be annoying.  The Graphics are superb (9) and add in just a touch more realism without being overdone.  The Controls are perfect (10) as you would expect.  This version is the least common of all on cart, but still not
hard to find, and is available on disk.  So if you are willing to accept some changes, and a new challenge, then you'll like this version even more than the 2600.

Atari 5200
The same game as the 8 bit, but there are the usual differences in controls.  The Addictiveness is awesome (10) as you have all of the best above, plus a pause button [pause].  The Controls can go three ways.   With the pack in controllers you better just get your 20K score and then forget
about playing any more.  Wait until you get a Wico or other good controllers and then they are great (9).  If you have a Masterplay interface you may be able to conclude that they are perfect and then this version would be the best.  In fact, I know that I consider the Wico sticks a (10) for Pitfall II, and so maybe they could be a 10 here, but I had too much trouble with the crocs and scenes where you jump off the vine then immediately jump again.  Vines and crocs are not part of Pitfall II.  But
come back in Jan '04 when the 5200 may earn a 49 or the only perfect 50 in the Many Faces of Pitfall II.

 

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