Franchise Festival #24: Pitfall

Welcome back to Franchise Festival, where we explore and discuss noteworthy franchises from the last several decades of gaming history. Older entries can be found here.

This week we’ll explore the rise and fall of Pitfall. Year of release indicates the North American version. This article would have been impossible without Daniel Ibbertson’s excellent series overview on YouTube.

Background

Video games were in their infancy during the early 1980s. Arcade machines had popularized the medium in the late 1970s, capitalizing on the enthusiasm for pinball machines, but these early titles remained rudimentary. Space Invaders had made its mark on the emerging industry in 1978, while 1980’s Pac-Man had introduced players to the format’s first mascot character.

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A little yellow semi-circle isn’t much of a mascot, but he was quite recognizable.

The basic mechanism for rendering images had not even been standardized yet. While many of the most popular games utilized pixels as abstract representations of characters, vector rendering still had the potential to overtake pixel art; 1979’s Asteroids was vastly more fluid in its visual design and gameplay than the contemporary Space Invaders, though the latter method of representation would eventually become standard due to its color palette and programming flexibility.

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1981’s Donkey Kong, which narrowly predates Pitfall! as (arguably) the first game in the platformer genre.

By 1981, pixel art had begun to grow in complexity and it became possible to draw humans for the first time. Up to that point, most player characters had been vague abstractions, aliens or vehicles. Shigeru Miyamoto’s Jump Man, who made his debut in the iconic Donkey Kong (1981), would go on to be renamed Mario and become the industry’s most recognizable mascot over the next thirty years. In his first appearance, though, Jump Man remained roughly animated and confined to single-screen vertically-oriented levels.

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The Atari 2600.

Into this primarily public game-playing space stepped Atari, releasing the Atari 2600 home gaming console in 1977. The charmingly wood-paneled system made it possible for owners to play games on their home televisions for the first time using cartridges containing a single title each. Given the constraints of these cartridges and a hardware processor that was much smaller than contemporary arcade boards, software of the Atari 2600 tended to be even less advanced than the games available at arcades. Much of the home console market was made up of cheap cash-ins and arcade ports, so little of the 2600’s library rose to the artistic ambitions of early game developers. Prior to 1985’s Nintendo Entertainment System, many of the medium’s most talented voices naturally gravitated to arcade game development rather than home console game development.

This culture began to change, however, with the 1982 publication of David Crane’s Pitfall! on the Atari 2600.

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Pitfall! (1982)

David Crane got his start programming games for Atari in the late 1970s, but left that company to co-found game development studio Activision in 1979 over frustrations that Atari offered little recognition to its developers. Concerned that cheap, badly optimized ports would eventually devalue the home console market, Crane opted instead to focus on developing a game specifically tailored for the Atari 2600 hardware. With that in mind, he took a risk and set about programming a game with no prior name recognition at all.

That game, of course, is Pitfall! Released on the Atari 2600 in 1982, it is a pinnacle of early console game design. Along with Donkey Kong, it effectively invented the side-scrolling platformer genre and set game design on the path it would take from the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s.

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Hopping on crocodile heads never gets old. Credit: World of Longplays

The player takes on the role of Pitfall Harry, a young treasure hunter exploring a jungle region and dodging dangerous obstacles. With only twenty minutes and a predefined number of character lives allotted for a given run at the game from start to finish, Harry must hop on crocodiles, swing on vines, and avoid pits in the pursuit of legendary treasure and the accompanying high score. The crocodiles, interestingly, were inspired by the opening sequence in the Heckle and Jeckle cartoon series (1956-1971) while the setting more generally was pulled from 1981’s popular Indiana Jones film.

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For reference, a still from Atari 2600’s Adventure (1979), the first console role-playing game. That little yellow block is the human player character.

The game’s greatest achievement, aside from simply being fun to play, is technical. Earlier Atari avatars had tended to be very basic, non-animated sprites abstractly representing the player character. Crane, through extensive effort, was able to animate Harry as a recognizable human being, connecting the player more intimately with this virtual space. At the same time, while the screen remained unable to scroll due to hardware limitations, Crane managed to use a mathematical programming algorithm to generate 254 unique screens through which Harry could navigate; this opened up the game world significantly, offering a more sprawling landscape than what contemporary developers had offered.

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Harry lets out a humorously compressed Tarzan-esque shout when he swings on vines. Credit: World of Longplays

All of this time and effort paid off. Activision’s Pitfall! spent over a year as the bestselling home console game. The IP even succeeded at overcoming the video game crash of 1983, leading to an ambitious sequel in 1984.

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Pitfall 2: Lost Caverns (1984)

With his success well-established, David Crane and his team had relatively free reign to iterate on Pitfall!‘s template. Fans might have wondered which features would be scrapped and which would return. Without the baseline of the platformer genre having been established, it was anyone’s guess what defined Pitfall as a series. In fact, much of the game’s basic mechanics and setting were retained while its scope was appreciably expanded.

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A map depicting the vast cave system of Pitfall II.

The primary object of the game is again obtaining treasure, but the secondary object is freeform exploration. Setting a precedent that would be perfected several years later by The Legend of Zelda (1986), Pitfall II removed the first game’s time limit and opened up 27 screens of depth beneath the starting area. Harry can move up to eight screens to the right through the jungle surface, but progress is limited by obstacles; to get around those obstacles, the player must navigate through a labyrinthine set of subterranean caverns from a side-scrolling perspective.

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Using the new swimming mechanic to explore an underwater lake. Credit: World of Longplays

The player lives system has also been removed, reflecting a new approach to game design that does not hinge upon feats of reflex and skill. Rather than being returned to the game’s starting location for a new run, Harry reappears at the most recent continue point he has reached. With this, Crane brought the concept of checkpoints into mainstream game development.

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Ascending through a vertically scrolling tunnel using a balloon. Credit: World of Longplays

In the second game’s most notable achievement, those cavern environments are actually able to scroll vertically. This is a significant enhancement, and one that would have a profound impact on future platformers. In fact, neither the game’s vast landscape nor its scrolling would have been possible without a proprietary chip developed by Crane and installed on each Pitfall II cartridge. Like Argonaut’s Super FX chip in the 1990s, this augmented the processing power of the hardware and permitted enhancements to what was possible on native Atari 2600 software.

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The entrancingly lush SEGA version. Credit: Old Classic Retro Gaming

The game’s visual palette remains muted by modern standards, largely depicting its world using muddy earth tones, but it was one of the most visually engaging titles of its generation. Soon after publication, however, more advanced versions would be developed for arcade cabinets and other consoles. The earliest of these updates, a port for the Atari 5200 and Atari 8-bit hardware, included an entire second campaign after players completed the main objective. The most successful follow-up  was a 1985 arcade version published by SEGA; without the visual drawbacks that were unavoidable on the Atari 2600, the game’s compelling level design was able to shine even brighter. A 1986 port to the Nintendo Entertainment System under the name Super Pitfall, on the other hand, enhanced the graphics from their original release but fell dramatically short of the platforming mechanics established in 1985 by the genre’s new standard-bearer, Super Mario Brothers.

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The distinctly less appealing Super Pitfall on NES. Credit: nenriki86

Pitfall’s distinction as the frontrunner for its genre had been eroded overnight by the arrival of two Italian plumbers in the Mushroom Kingdom. David Crane departed Activision in 1986 to found a new development studio, cutting the franchise adrift. There were still games to be made, though, and copyright holder Activision would continue to sketch out a future for the series without its creator’s guiding hand.

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Pitfall: The Mayan Adventure (1994)

Platformers quickly came to dominate the gaming landscape with the rise of the NES in the late 1980s. While genres like the role-playing game and racing started to gain traction on the SEGA Genesis and Super Nintendo Entertainment System, side-scrolling action inspired by Pitfall! remained the most reliable gameplay mechanic well into the 1990s. After 1985, though, most of these platformers were more directly related to Super Mario Bros.’ horizontal screen-scrolling style than the static landscapes on Atari’s hardware.

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Crocodiles and vines! Activision knew what kept Pitfall fans coming back. Credit: Longplays Land

Pitfall: The Mayan Adventure made its debut into this scene on several consoles during 1994. The versions are all roughly identical, though some minor bonus content is accessible on the 32-bit SEGA CD and SEGA 32X editions. The player inhabits Pitfall Harry Jr., son of the first two games’ star, as he seeks to save his father after a kidnapping at the game’s start. The jungle adventure is played from a side-scrolling 2D perspective.

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Comparison of the 32X version (L) with the SNES version (R) by YouTuber silenig. Note the differences in resolution and lighting. Credit: silenig

Mechanics are reminiscent of the original Atari Pitfall titles, as Harry Jr. can swing on vines, leap on alligators, and swim through lakes. Unfortunately, the controls are not up to the standards that had become common in the intervening years. Input lag is frequent, resulting in deaths from clumsy under- or over-compensation when calculating the character’s leap trajectory. Hitboxes are less precise than the original games, in fact, due to more expressive animation.

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Dueling a cheetah with a slingshot… The apple does not fall far from the tree for Pitfall Harry Jr. Credit: Longplays Land

In spite of its role in muddying the mechanical precision necessary in this genre, that animation would be a source of praise for the game. Animations are extensive for both the character and the environments, offering a layer of immersion not matched by many of its 16-bit contemporaries. The color palette is similarly impressive, shading the dense jungle, temples, and assorted wildlife with deep colorful patterns when necessary.

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A slick battle with an oversized boss. Credit: Longplays Land

On the whole, Pitfall: The Mayan Adventure is a mixed exercise in updating a beloved franchise. Gameplay is reminiscent of the source material, but had become passe in the decade between releases and offers little of the thrill found in earlier series entries. At the same time, the visual design fulfills the promise that Atari’s crude hardware could only imply through abstraction. This does mark a turning point for the series, as it ceased to be a trend-setter and began to follow patterns established by other modern games.

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Pitfall 3D (1998)

After the mixed success of Pitfall: The Mayan Adventure, Activision needed to publish a successor to its popular 1980s series that would resonate with modern fans. The 2D platformer was rapidly becoming antiquated by the mid-’90s, and two new games suggested a way forward. Super Mario 64 (1996) and Crash Bandicoot (1996) may have arrived only two years after the release of Pitfall: The Mayan Adventure, but they demonstrated a clear approach to evolving game design into 3D space.

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Note the gridded architecture. Though the level design is built on the ability to move in only eight rigid directions, the camera rotates automatically at times to convey a sense of depth. Credit: teh2Dgamer

With those two games as a guide, Activision’s staff developed Pitfall 3D: Beyond the Jungle for the Sony PlayStation. They attempted to marry two approaches to 3D world design – open-ended exploration and linear reflex-based platforming – while also iterating on earlier Pitfall titles. Happily, the game is highly successful at this hybrid level structure. Unlike many early attempts at 3D game design, Pitfall 3D manages to consistently convey a sense of space and signal where the player character is in relation to nearby hazards. Tight controls keep errors in platforming to a minimum.

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Harry Jr. versus an ape, that most dastardly of recurring foes. Credit: teh2Dgamer

The presentation is surprisingly effective as well. Muddy textures were the norm in late ’90s PlayStation games and Pitfall 3D is no exception. Still, it is cleaner than many of its contemporaries thanks to the involvement of two developers who had formerly worked on Virtua Fighter (1993), the arcade title which pioneered the use of 3D in fighting games. A comic book artist, Christian Gossett, was also hired to ensure strong character design prior to the 3D modeling stage.

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You can tell it’s Pitfall on account of the pits. Credit: teh2Dgamer

At the same time, the narrative and audio design were lauded for their willingness to deviate from the franchise’s past triumphs. Fantasy elements were foregrounded for the first time, as the plot sees Pitfall Harry Jr. traveling to a parallel world through a portal and helping a woman named Mira free her people from a sinister force called The Scourge. This is a fairly banal treatment, but is improved through a voiceover performance by Bruce Campbell. Campbell steps into the shoes of Pitfall Harry Jr. and flavors the text with his characteristic one-liners and narration.

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I appreciate that these platforms seem to be Pitfall 3D reference in Pitfall: Beyond the Jungle on GBC. Credit: World of Longplays

Somewhat less effective was the port of Pitfall 3D to the Game Boy Color. It was, of course, not in 3D and was consequently renamed Pitfall: Beyond the Jungle. It is a by-the-books platformer, but has had very little effort put into smoothing out the gameplay experience. Consequently, loose controls and inconsistent hitboxes squander the franchise’s reputation for tight platforming. It’s an odd misstep that is best forgotten.

Though the series had once again stepped into the shadows of its contemporaries rather than forging a new path ahead as it had in the 1980s, Pitfall 3D represents a more effective grasp on modern game design. It did not merely emulate its betters, but rather took some of the best decisions made by them and forged its own identity in the rapidly expanding 3D landscape. Unfortunately, Pitfall 3D would be something of a last hurrah for the series before it descended into irrelevance during the 2000s.

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Pitfall: The Lost Expedition (2004)

With the release of Pitfall: The Lost Expedition on every console of the 128-bit generation, Activision further enhanced its venerable property’s presentation while doing little to bring in new fans who weren’t already dedicated to the series. The game is set in a Central American jungle during the 1930s, and features Pitfall Harry attempting to gather the members of his expedition after their plane goes down. All characters are fully voiced in numerous cutscenes, offering a distinctly narrative approach that earlier Pitfall titles had eschewed in favor of pure action.

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I hope you came to Pitfall: The Lost Expedition for the romance, because you are going to get the romance. Credit: Ninoslav Stankovic

This is sadly the only positive way that Pitfall: The Lost Expedition iterates on its predecessors. Gameplay is relatively similar to Pitfall 3D in its basic mechanics, but mechanical inaccuracy leads to frustration with the game’s inconsistent physics engine. Metroidvania elements have been added, as tools and abilities must be acquired around the non-linear game world to unlock formerly inaccessible paths, but this largely translates to a runtime padded with tedious backtracking. It seems that the development team had not looked to Pitfall 3D for inspiration, as that game’s staff had knowingly designed spaces with the intent to guide players and avoid the frustration of uncertain objectives.

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This is, indeed, a tutorial instructing the player to “sweep kick the native.” I wish I could say that the depiction of indigenous peoples was otherwise less insensitive, but I cannot. Credit: Ninoslav Stankovic

One intriguing addition is the use of the controller’s right analog stick to manually move Harry’s right arm (and whatever tool he is holding). This offers a tactile element to puzzle solving that is wholly absent from contemporary 3D platformers. Its implementation leaves a bit to be desired, though, and it would be some time before another mainstream game would do the same thing.

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This is actually a pretty cool translation of Pitfall!‘s 2D vine-swinging and pit mechanics to a 3D space. Credit: Ninoslav Stankovic

As with the previous entry in the Pitfall series, a portable tie-in was published to coincide with the home console version. Unlike the Game Boy Color’s Pitfall: Beyond The Jungle, the Game Boy Advance’s version of Pitfall: The Lost Expedition was not a shameless cash grab. Instead, it reflects an ambitious attempt to translate a 3D game into a 2D environment without compromising its (admittedly flimsy) world design.

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A top-down exploration portion of the game. Credit: Vizzed Gameplay Videos

Portions of it consist of the bog-standard 2D platforming popular on this portable console. Unfortunately, the side-scrolling portions make the mistake of so many other poorly playtested GBA titles: the character sprites are far too large for their cramped environment, forcing the player into leaps of faith or ambush by offscreen foes. Still, the player gets to engage in overhead isometric exploration sequences and even vehicle sections, like an auto-scrolling overhead hang-glider level. None of this is superlative, but it makes for an adaptation with its own unique identity.

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The character animations and little heaven-bound ghosts that arise from defeated enemies are highlights. Credit: Vizzed Gameplay Videos

More surprisingly, a Wii port of Pitfall: The Lost Expedition was released in 2008. Renamed Pitfall: The Big Adventure, it is in almost every way identical to the version published four years earlier on PlayStation 2, Xbox and GameCube. Its chief distinction is the clumsy addition of motion controls. Rather than tapping buttons, the player must shake his or her Wiimote to navigate and interact with the game world. This makes already-inconsistent platformer mechanics even less reliable.

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Harry Jr. chatting with his cheetah pal. Credit: World of Playthroughs

Pitfall: The Big Adventure would be the last Pitfall game to appear on consoles as of 2018. The limited success of Activision’s Pitfall games since the late 1990s seems to have made the publisher unsure of its classic IP’s place in the modern gaming landscape. Happily for fans, a new market would open up in the 2010s, allowing development of games at low cost and risk to studios.

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Pitfall! (2012)

The rise in mobile storefronts made it easy for most developers to release simple games at a low level of risk, similar to the early 1980s. This has flooded consumers with buggy, messy software, but has also proven a boon for old franchises that might otherwise have been forgotten and new ideas that may never have gotten off the ground. In many ways, this market seems to have been perfect for Pitfall to make a comeback.

Unfortunately, the opportunity was badly squandered. Rather than using the low-risk of the mobile environment to carve out a new niche as it had done thirty years earlier, Activision opted instead to piggyback on the success of another title.

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Imangi Studios’ Temple Run, a simple but engaging mobile game. Credit: AppleAppVideo

Imangi Studios’ Temple Run had more or less created the endless runner genre when it debuted on iOS and Android platforms in 2011. Seeing an opportunity and the ability to cash in on Pitfall’s thirtieth anniversary, Activision produced its own endless runner the following year. Featuring a low-poly style intended to harken back to Atari 2600 visual design, Pitfall! instead resembles a poor imitation of 2011’s pioneering mobile game. Its chief evolution is the integration of cinematic camera angles, but nothing about its generic jungle environments speaks more to its series identity than the aesthetic of the preceding year’s Temple Run.

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Pitfall! (2012) certainly wears its influences on its sleeve. Credit: TouchGameplay

Sensing that Activision had little interest in shepherding Pitfall back to a leading role during the 21st Century, original series creator David Crane launched a Kickstarter to produce a spiritual successor called Jungleventure in 2012. His timing could not have been better, as he bet on enthusiasm surrounding the series’ anniversary to carry him to his goal of $900,000. Sadly, the final amount reached was just over $30,000. The market had spoken, and Pitfall was no longer something that fans were willing to support.

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Pitfall! (2012) seems to have been designed for the rare fan of the 1982 original who thought “it’s good, but it’d be even better with microtransactions.” Credit: TouchGameplay

This marks a sorry end to a tale with such promising origins. David Crane and Activision had been key players in the evolution of home consoles away from cheap arcade imitation, and in the process had created one of the most beloved genres in the medium. Pitfall! and Pitfall II would become standard-bearers for the side-scrolling platformer, pioneering a format that remains popular among players three decades hence. The intellectual property itself seems to have been more difficult to adapt, fading from popularity with each succeeding generation of hardware. We may never see another Pitfall game, but it’s hard to be anything but grateful for what Crane and Activision gave the world in 1982.


What do you think about Pitfall? Have you played any of these games? If so, which is your favorite? What would you like to see in a future Pitfall title, and what do you think would improve the series? Let’s discuss in the comments below.

Next week we’ll be raiding the vaults of Tomb Raider history – join us at 9:00 AM EST on August 17 to discuss!