For consumers who grew up on fire flowers and severe cases of "NES thumb," platform games began with Super Mario and his colorful cohort of deranged turtles, pink princesses, and cowardly brothers. But the roots of running and jumping over obstacles, arguably the most prolific mechanics in video games, extend far back from Nintendo's 8-bit Control Deck.
Bottomless Pit: Running and Jumping Through Platform Games explores the evolution of "run-and-jump" games in rough chronological order of release—from their humble beginnings in arcades through their starring role in the modern industry's explosion of unique and captivating indie titles such as Shovel Knight.
Run, jump, climb, dig, and swing with Stay Awhile and Listen author David L. Craddock as he charts a course through Volume 1's many pitfalls, mischievous apes, and webs of ledges and ladders.
When I need a break from writing, I write something new. Bottomless Pit isn't one of my usual making-of, narrative-style biographies. I love 2D platforming games, so I set out to play all of them, in chronological order, and write down my thoughts about each one. It's a daunting task, and as you'll see, an immensely enjoyable and educational one. – David L. Craddock
Chapter 5: Pitfall!
•Developer: David Crane / Activision
•Debut: April 20, 1982
•Platform: Atari 2600/VCS
•Ports: Atari 5200, Atari 8-bit, ColecoVision, MSX, C64, Intellivision, Apple II
Harry of the Jungle
Let's start with some numbers. One thousand. Thirty-eight. Sixty-four. Ten. Got that? Now let's unpack them. In no particular order: Activision developer David Crane claimed Pitfall! required 1,000 hours of programming to complete, but he came up with the game after doodling on a notebook for 10 minutes. Pitfall! swung into the top spot on Billboard's sales charts, a position it held for 64 weeks.
And it only took me 38 years (okay, almost 38 and a half) to play it.
Actually, I'm almost positive I played Pitfall! before I lost hours to it preparing to write this chapter. Almost positive. I had an Atari 2600 Jr. as a kid, but only a handful of games, most of which I can't remember. Let's see: Donkey Kong Jr., Adventure, Olympic Games… and that's it. No Pitfall!. I played it at a friend's house? Maybe?
In any case, this was my first exposure to David Crane's masterpiece of any substance. And my goodness, reader—Pitfall! is pretty good, huh?
We'll delve deeper into the circumstances that led Crane to create Pitfall!, but first, I want to explore what grabbed me about this game, and how it moved platformers light years ahead of where they'd been. You play as Pitfall! Harry, an explorer who must comb through a jungle spanning 255 screens to recover 32 treasures, and you've only got 20 minutes to nab them all.
Timers have played a role in platforming games to date, though this is the first time we've seen an explicit representation of time ticking away. Prior to Pitfall!, timers existed largely because platformers originated in arcades, and operators didn't want you standing around when you could be feeding them quarters. Super Mario Bros. was, I think, the first platformer I played with a time limit. But the timer in that game resets at the beginning of every stage or new life. The first game I played with a timer that counted down and could not be reset was Prince of Persia on a display Mac at a CompUSA store in Columbus, Ohio. The game gives you one hour to escape a 12-floor dungeon and rescue your beloved.
I remember thinking 60 minutes to fight every guard, hop over every pit, and solve every puzzle was ridiculous. Pitfall!'s 20-minute time limit makes it look generous because of how many jungle screens you'll potentially go through: 255. Think about that for a second. Pitfall! came out when blockbusters like Donkey Kong comprised four screens. Pitfall! had almost 64 times that amount!
There's no asterisk next to that number, but there should be, though a tiny one. Each of Pitfall!'s screens features a green background with a few trees, a sand-colored foreground you must run, jump, and swing across, and a dark tunnel at the bottom where scorpions wait for hapless adventurers. Some screens have tar pits, some have lakes, some have crocodiles, some have rolling logs. All recycle the same elements. You can turn a Monopoly board in several directions, but it's still the same board, just presented differently.
But that doesn't take away from Pitfall!'s scale. The treasures you must acquire are scattered across those screens. Their positions never change, but until you know where they are and the optimal routes to reach them, the similarity from screen to screen doesn't matter. Imagine playing Pitfall! upon release in April 1982. I couldn't have done; I was born a few weeks earlier. But anyone picking up an Atari joystick and taking control of Harry had to have been agog at the immensity and boldness of the world they inhabited.
Some historians like to credit Pitfall! as the dawn of the horizontal side-scroller. This is one of many cases where gaming jargon falls just shy of the truth. Pitfall! doesn't scroll. You do most left to right or right to left, but the screen instantly redraws when you hit an edge. Still, that's impressive when you consider that prior to this title, every stage of the platformers we've played took place on a single screen, and, as mentioned, rarely went beyond four single-screen stages.
The tools at Harry's disposal should be familiar to you if you've played any platformer up to this point. (Plus, we're working with Atari's one-button joystick, here.) Steer left or right to move, climb ladders by tilting up or pulling back on the stick, and jump by pressing the single button. Familiar tools, yes, but arguably the most elegant execution to date. Harry's movement is smooth, responsive, and instant. Unlike Jumpman/Mario in Donkey Kong, his jumps feel springy instead of heavy—closer to the style and feel of Mario's jump in 1985's Super Mario Bros.
Movement is as simple as moving in either direction, and as complex. Reaching the edge of a screen on the surface advances you one screen in the direction you chose. The tunnel, however, functions like a wormhole: You jump ahead three screens for every tunnel edge you pass through. The manual explains this, but this is 2020 so I didn't have an instruction manual handy, and my memory is terrible. Not until I googled and found a PDF of the manual did I realize how the tunnels worked.
Advancing on the surface and below ground makes for a fascinating gameplay experience. There's no map, so much like early computer-game players did with the likes of Adventure and Zork, you'll want to grab pen and paper and chart Pitfall!'s screens yourself. You'll also have to realize that there's little chance of finishing this game your first time through, or even your tenth. And you shouldn't feel pressure to do so. Pitfall! wants you to explore, admire its scope, and note the locations of treasures for when you're ready to round them all up as efficiently as possible. I was more than happy to play along.
In fact, the combination of a tight time limit, treasures to grab, navigating tunnels and surface areas, and the obstacles on each screen open Pitfall! up to several ways to play. Falling into the open jaws of a crocodile, or a lake, or a tar pit will kill you instantly. Touching rolling logs or falling into a pit rather than climbing down via a ladder docks you points. In this way, your score functions as health points. The only way to finish the game with a perfect score is to acquire all treasures without taking "damage." This isn't something you'll be able to do right away, if ever, but it imbues the game with a startling amount of replayability. Play for a while to learn the lay of the land; then work your way up to collecting all the treasures; then attempt to complete the game with all treasures and no points lost.
As you play, you'll discover strategies that move you ever closer to that lofty goal of beating Pitfall! without taking a scratch. For instance, I didn't know you could stand on the skulls of crocodiles without taking damage until I saw someone do it on YouTube. This trick came in handy, since you'll often have to jump across three crocodiles to cross a lake, and it seems impossible unless you know exactly when they'll open and close their jaws, or unless you know precisely where to stand. I also never thought to run to the left instead of the right, an example of my experience with Super Mario Bros. and its ilk coming back to bite me, and that doing so makes escaping rolling logs, which only roll right to left, easier since your momentum never increases or decreases and neither does theirs.
And I can't believe I've gushed about everything else without gushing about the vine. It's the most simplistic of Harry's tools, but still visceral and fun to use. There are some lakes and pits and so forth you can only cross by swinging. To do this, you must wait for a vine overhead to swing your way, then jump at it. Harry will grab it, let out Tarzan yell popularized by actor Johnny Weissmuller in the classic films—but sounding like a series of beeps, since this is an Atari, after all—and swing across. You must manually release the vine, and there's some skill involved in touching down without running into hazards below such as snakes or logs. A simple mechanic, but fun, and an extension of the personality that positively shines out of every other pixel and byte of code.
Pitfall! is incredible. It's a fun game, but it's also the first platformer I've played in this chronological journey that felt more like a world than a series of obstacle courses. It's also one of the few Atari games that, in my experience, hold up to scrutiny today.