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Pitfall! is often credited as being the first platformer available on a home console, and while this distinction is up for debate, it is certainly one the earliest and most influential platformers to grace the home video game market. David Crane’s masterful creation pushed the limits of the Atari VCS, helped establish Activision as a major developer, and emphasized the significance of third party games to the market.
Pitfall! is an early example of a screen-by-screen, side scrolling platformer where the player must collect items and jump to avoid obstacles. According to the instruction manual “The object of Pitfall! is to guide Harry through a maze of jungle scenes, jumping over or avoiding many deadly dangers, and helping Harry grab the most treasures in the shortest possible time.” Specifically, the player is tasked with grabbing as much treasure as possible within twenty minutes or before losing all their lives. The best players will also be able to navigate above and underground passages to advance through all 255 screens (looping back to the beginning) along the way to achieving impressive scores. As the manual states, “a perfect score is 114,000 points (reached by collecting all treasures. without losing any points by falling down holes or tripping on logs).” Hitting that mark can be quite the challenge!
Though the original Pitfall! is best experienced on Atari hardware using the controllers for which it was designed, the game has also been widely ported. Stand alone ports exist on systems such as the Colecovision, the Commodore 64, the Intellivision, the Apple II, and the MSX. Pitfall! has also shown up on a number of other more modern platforms in compilations and via download. The game can be found on various Activision Anthology releases for the PS2, Xbox, GBA, PC, Mac, PSP, Android and iOS. Some of these ports feature additions or alterations to the original game. In addition, the original game was included on some later releases in the Pitfall! series, including on releases of Pitfall: The Mayan Adventure (GEN/SNES/SCD/32X/PC/GBA/JAG), where it can be accessed via a secret door, and in Pitfall: The Lost Expedition (PS2/Xbox/ GCN/GBA/Wii), where it can be accessed via cheat codes. The game was also a title that could be downloaded in the “Game Room” on the Xbox 360.
Pitfall! is still very playable today, and is the kind of game that is very easy to pick up and understand. It is an important early technical achievement in the medium, and one that helped cultivate a culture in which individual game designers might be recognized for their accomplishments. It is arguable that Pitfall! paved the way for the dominance of the side scrolling platformer for much of the 8-bit and 16-bit generations, and is worth spending time with to appreciate its strengths.
Though later entries in the Pitfall! series have never really impressed audiences or critics in the same way that the original did, Pitfall! has nonetheless spawned a number of interesting sequels, some of which have been well regarded. Highlights include Pitfall II: Lost Caverns (1984), Pitfall: The Mayan Adventure (1994), and Pitfall: The Lost Expedition (2004). Less acclaimed titles in the series, worth a look for those who are curious, include Pitfall 3D and its ports (1998) and Super Pitfall (1986).
Be sure to stop into the forums and share your reminiscences about your adventures with Harry, share tips for approaching the game for the first time, and tell us how you are celebrating this month’s Together Retro selection.