In One Giant Leap, Dramus18 charts the evolution of the platformer genre, one year at a time. This month: the platformer comes home, with Pitfall!
In the early days of the game industry, the arcade was the primary focus. That’s where all the best, most advanced, and most popular games were happening. Home consoles were largely an afterthought; one need only look at the Atari 2600’s1 infamously poor port of arcade classic Pac-Man to see the difference.
So I figured Pitfall! would be more of the same, right? A cute diversion by 1982 standards, but really not much to talk about.
Instead, Pitfall! is a major leap forward, in a way that I truly wasn’t expecting. The 2600 was basically purpose-built to play Pong clones, and the fact that it can do literally anything else is nothing short of a miracle. Pitfall! uses every trick in the book to squeeze more out of the 2600 than should technically be possible, and the result is a game bursting at the seams (relative to the era). You have basic obstacles to jump over (scorpions, logs, etc.) but also some that are a little more complex, such as the disappearing moats2 and the vine, which is a really neat bit of contextual gameplay.
But there’s one obstacle I really want to dig into. It’s a pond with three crocodiles that you must cross by jumping on the crocs’ heads. What makes this extra tricky is that their mouths periodically open and close. When open, only a small sliver of real estate near their eyes is safe to stand on. This creates a timing challenge; you don’t have enough closed time to cross the entire pond, so you need to plan to take refuge on the eyes for at least part of your trip. This is a very forward-looking obstacle. It’s a challenge that you overcome entirely by jumping, but the exact sequence and timing of your jumps creates a lot of depth. The presentation here is still a bit limited; Pitfall! doesn’t yet allow for midair adjustments, but more than anything in Donkey Kong this challenge is illustrative of what platformers would become.
Pitfall! is also structurally interesting. The game is basically a side-scroller, divided into individual screens due to technical limitations. This format was still pretty rare in 1982, but not unheard of. But where it gets really interesting is the fact that you aren’t restricted to moving left-to-right. From the very first screen you can move left, and run through the world “backwards”. Pitfall! is a game about exploration. Its world consists of 255(!) unique screens, linked together in an infinite loop3. Unlike most of its contemporaries, Pitfall! wasn’t an inferior version of an arcade game, both literally but also in terms of what it attempts to do. Unlike most games of the era, Pitfall! can be beaten. Well, sort of.
Pitfall! has 32 collectible treasures hidden within its world. If you collect them all within the 20 minute time limit, you win, and if you can do that without losing any points to logs and such you can get a perfect score of 114,000 points. However, the game’s manual encourages anyone who can score at least 20,000, less than 1/5 of the maximum, to take a photo of it and mail it in4 for some swag. It’s possible to beat this game, but doing so is not yet the point. The game’s developers think you’re pretty good if you get even 20% of the way there, and expect most players to be unable to even accomplish this much.
And at least in my case they were right. I got nowhere close to beating Pitfall!, or even getting to the 20k threshold. This game is very difficult, like most games of the era. You get only 3 lives, jumps leave little room for error (especially the crocodiles), and I’m far too used to modern platformers to really grok a game without midair jump adjustments. And as forward-thinking as Pitfall! is, it’s still biting off a bit more than it can chew. Those 255 screens are algorithmically generated, rather than hand-crafted, and very quickly begin to feel indistinct. And moving left is a neat way to make the world feel more expansive, but the screens were clearly set up with the assumption of rightward movement; rolling logs move right-to-left in a way that will never threaten a player moving left alongside them, and dying on a screen always spawns you on the left side, potentially past an obstacle you failed to clear if you’re moving left to begin with.
But it would ultimately be unfair to judge Pitfall! for failing to live up to standards that did not yet exist. It accomplishes a lot, both for a game in 1982 and specifically for a game on the 2600. Pitfall! stands tall as an example of what this nascent genre is really capable of.
Other 1982 platformers of note: Miner 2049er is an early PC5 game, originally released for the Atari 400/800 and ported to basically every contemporary, as was the style at the time. It plays like a cross between Donkey Kong and Pac-Man, but with a longer jump than most climbing games. It also features an early example of semi-solid platforms, ie platforms that you pass through on your way up but land on coming down. Not a huge evolution, but it feels slightly more modern than Donkey Kong.
(Epilepsy warning for this video, btw.)
Meanwhile, Nintendo followed up on their genre-defining hit with Donkey Kong Jr. Mechanically it’s pretty similar to the first game, with an ever greater focus on climbing versus jumping. It’s notable mainly for the fact that you play as the eponymous ape, with Mario playing against type as the game’s villain. Eventually Mario would become ossified as a goody two-shoes corporate mascot, so we should celebrate this weirdness while we can. The game itself is hella hard though, much tougher than the original. The second screen is basically a bullet hell game.
Next Time: Mario becomes a plumber, and gains a brother, in Mario Bros.