Back in the early eighties, Activision was at the top of its multi-title game on the Atari 2600. Its programmers knew how to knock pixels around the screen glossing Activision’s titles with a unique, arcade edge feel as they continued to push what Atari’s console could do. Like clockwork, it pumped out exciting games such as H.E.R.O., Boxing, Keystone Kapers, and of course, the iconic Pitfall!.
Pitfall! for the Atari 2600 arrived in 1982 putting armchair adventurers into the trail beaten shoes of Pitfall Harry. They would brave dangers such as crocodiles, pits, and swinging vines while racing through a jungle and underground tunnels in a quest for treasures such as diamond rings and gold bars.
It was also one of the earliest “platformers” where jumping carefully on crocodile heads across a watery pond of death would become as second nature as jumping over scorpions and swinging over pits on vines. And sometimes those pits would open and close like giant, gaping mouths ready to eat another foolish adventurer. There would also be obstacles like rolling logs, tar pits, and snakes.
Like most games, difficulty was pre-set and would escalate depending on how far the player would get. In Pitfall!, though, you could fall into a pit and lose points. But run into one of the more permanent dangers like mistiming your jump onto a crocodile head or landing on a scorpion, and you’d lose one of Harry’s precious lives instead. And you only had so many of those.
The side-scrolling actioner was set up as a “circular” level consisting of 255 different screens eventually looping back to the start. There were 32 treasures total in the game and you only had 20 minutes to get them all, so this was also a game that also came with a specific goal to achieve. Getting the last treasure, though, would just end the game and freeze Harry onscreen, but it was great challenge. Activision would even mail you Pitfall Harry’s Explorer’s Badge if you sent them a photo of having broken 20,000 points. Designer and lone programmer for the game, David Crane, had even written in a few hints in the manual to help out.
Pitfall! had pretty impressive animation at the time for Pitfall Harry, clever sound effects such as a rendition of Tarzan’s famous yell as you swung on a vine, and a tough-but-fair approach to gameplay. It would go on to be ported to a large number of other platforms ranging from the Intellivision to the Commodore 64 and would get its own sequel. Today, anyone can play it online via emulation or on a smart phone.
In 1983, marketing also had fun with this one as you can tell from the ad below which tries to show nearly every way that poor Harry can die in the game. A giant slab of text describes that it’s about in between the wild life and someone going down in a tar bath with a box shot and a screen to square things off. Activision’s slogan for the time, “We Put You In The Game” is also shown.
And in little print, just below the box shot, are the words “Designed by David Crane” which was unusual at the time. Yet this was something that Activision had also pioneered as well as being one of the reasons for its founding – to give recognition to those that actually make the games. With its limited focus on sequels or because of the mess over Infinity Ward, it’s a very different house from that which had given the world Pitfall Harry. And membership patches.