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STORY & OBJECT
You play as "Pitfall Harry," a jungle treasure hunter most likely inspired by Indiana Jones or other characters of the genre. You have 20 minutes to find 32 treasures scattered throughout 255 different screens, all of which are connected linearly. Each treasure is worth a different amount of points for a total of 114,000. If you fall down a hole or get hit by a log you'll lose points, but then again you don't earn a 1-Up after a certain amount of points anyway. I wonder if the game might have worked a little better with a "treasure counter" instead of a point system.
You're able to move from screen to screen in either direction or utilize tunnels as alternative routes. There is no actual end to the game, but if you're able to grab all the treasures without dying three times or letting the clock run out, you've completed the game.
The treasures are all in plain sight, but trying to get them all in the allotted time is no easy task. Since the setting is a jungle your obstacles are natural elements such as snakes, scorpions, alligators and quicksand (as well some unnatural elements like tar pits, campfires and randomly rolling logs). Harry has no weapons to fight the enemies, only his own two legs to run and jump over obstacles as well as occasional assistance from swinging vines.
Pitfall! is a "side-scroller," if not the first of this type of video game, certainly the first to utilize the format so well. Before this, the majority of video games employed the Sisyphus standard of simply repeating the same challenge over and over while increasing the difficulty. Creator/programmer David Crane took a different approach and made the entire game one long quest.
GAMEPLAY, CHALLENGE & STRATEGY
This is one of the first games to rely more on the player's dexterity than any kind of pattern-solving or simple button-mashing. The enemies cannot be defeated by gobbling a power pill and there are no emergency exits, either.
The player himself is truly the biggest challenge to the game as it relies heavily on perfectly-timed jumps to safely navigate the screens. This is one of the most appealing aspects to Pitfall!, because it can be played multiple times and the player's dexterity will always be challenged. The best example of this is any screen with three alligators in a row that open and close their mouths in unison. Not only do you have to have a keen sense of timing to know when to jump, you also need good judgment of Harry's jumping ability - as it's quite easy to over or under-estimate his leaping distance.
In addition to the fast-paced action, another challenging aspect of Pitfall! lies in the complexity of its layout. It's not that there are 255 screens to explore in 20 minutes, it's that it's quite daunting trying to deduce which direction to head and which shortcuts are truly helpful. In the instruction booklet, Crane suggests players make their own maps of the game, which is quite shocking but totally innovative for the time. Having a map is essential if you want to finish the game (although playing it just to run an obstacle course is fun too).
Since you're able to move in either direction I highly suggest traveling to the left. The reason is simple - if you die, Harry will re-appear on the left side of the screen which is always on the safe side of the obstacles. This guarantees your safety for at least that screen in which you died (the screens with the alligators are proof positive of this strategy). Not to mention the fact all the logs roll from left to right at the same speed Harry runs.
Usually, the more complex the game the more complex the controls are, but not so with this game as it's very simple to learn how it works and how to excel at it. There are no delays in response to your controls. Harry moves, stops and jumps exactly when you want him to, giving the game excellent play control.
In fact, the play control is one of the most appealing aspects to the game. Some games made generations after this don't have the fluidity of control felt here.
My only complaint would be trying to jump Harry over those damn scorpions in the tunnels. Your timing has to be absolutely perfect. If you jump too early or too late you'll die because the scorpions are the only enemies in the game that change direction as you jump over them. If you want to grab all 32 treasures in time you'll have to take some of the tunnel shortcuts so being able to jump these buggers is crucial. This is definitely a game where practice makes perfect, so don't be surprised at how long it takes to get this technique down pat.
GRAPHICS & ANIMATION
Considering the limitations under which Pitfall! was made, the graphics and animation are quite impressive. Crane's color scheme makes good use of shades of green and brown without looking dull. In fact, the overall chromatic look to the game is quite vivid, making excellent use of contrasting colors (i.e. the red brick walls in the dark tunnels; the shiny treasures and the bright fires in the Earthy-colored jungle).
The movements of the objects are very smooth as well, with no screen flicker or stuttering of the animation. The rolling logs really do look like they're rolling and have weight to them. The campfire is especially impressive. Even Harry's little legs make it look like he's running as fast as he can.
Once again, one of the very few flaws to the game lies with the scorpions who look like skulls sliding across the ground. And I have to mention the fact the logs look exactly like the snack food Combos (and make me crave them whenever I play this game).
MUSIC & SOUNDS
There is no music to the game and its sound palette is fairly limited. In fact, the game is very quiet for the most part since the only sounds occur when Harry jumps, falls, hits a log, swings on the vine or dies. I always found the log-touching sound to be kind of funny because it's an odd low tone and usually is very brief. The pseudo Tarzan yell the game plays when you swing on a vine is kind of cute as is the little "Dragnet" tune played whenever you die.
Pitfall! is too lengthy to be easily memorized so it's a challenge every time you play it, which is what makes it so appealing. You never feel like you're going through the motions when you start over or when you give it another shot after a long break in play. However, it might become exhausting if you attempt to play it in continuous 20-minute sessions.
If nothing else, Pitfall! demonstrates the full potential of the Atari 2600 - that games for it could be complex, challenging and exciting despite the limitations of the technology. It laid the groundwork for the side-scrolling format of video games and its re-playability factor makes it a true classic.