David Crane’s Pitfall! ended up being one of the most popular games on the Atari 2600, selling over four-million copies when it debuted in 1982. Players assumed the role of an adventurer named Pitfall Harry, who sought to collect all of the treasures in a jungle. It broke the mold for gaming as a whole, codifying many conventions of the side-scrolling platformer genre. Pitfall! was also notable for having been one of the most successful products conceived by a third-party company: Activision. During the first and second console generations, companies didn’t think to credit developers for their work. Some crafty developers would circumvent this by placing Easter eggs in their games, but the behavior was discouraged. This is what caused a collection of developers, including Mr. Crane, to form Activision in the first place. Such was the game’s popularity that despite its sequel, Pitfall II: Lost Caverns, having been released in the wake of the North American industry’s crash, it still managed to become one of the Atari 2600’s most lauded titles.
One year later, the North American gaming industry would regain its footing with a little help from a Japanese company named Nintendo. Following a long, arduous campaign to convince retailers to stock their own gaming console, the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES), it proceeded to sell millions of units. Included with the purchase of these systems was a copy of Super Mario Bros. This game could be said to have perfected the side-scrolling platformer formula using the blueprints Pitfall! drafted. While Pitfall! itself was a beloved classic, Super Mario Bros. ascended to a level of fame that left a definable impact on pop culture after it became the greatest-selling game in history at the time.
With many famous games predating the crash such as Pac-Man and Galaga having well-received ports on the NES, it seemed only natural that the Pitfall! series would be represented on the console as well. For this installment, dubbed Super Pitfall, Activision outsourced the job to a Japanese developer named Mirconics. This company was primarily in charge of porting arcade games to the NES, including Elevator Action, Ikari Warriors, and 1942, so Super Pitfall would be their chance to make a good impression with an original work. Were they able to do so?
Analyzing the Experience
Upon starting the game, the player will espy a ladder directly in front of Pitfall Harry. Were they to guide Harry to the ladder and have him climb down, this hypothetical person would gain all the proof they need to answer the question I just proposed with an unwavering no.
That’s right, the first ladder players see is a quintessential beginner’s trap. Attempting to climb down this ladder will deposit Harry into a pit of spikes, which is immediately rendered redundant by a rogue bat flying into his path. If the player hadn’t reeled back from the implementation of such a blatantly hostile design choice and attempted to see what the rest of the game had to offer, they would learn the experience does not improve in the slightest.
Super Pitfall clearly takes many cues from the platforming game spawned from the wake of its success: Super Mario Bros. It’s to the point where Pitfall Harry even inexplicably resembles Mario, sporting a distinctive moustache. Just like in most NES platforming games, you hold the directional pad left or right in order to move Harry while the “A” button causes him to jump. Harry is not capable of running, so the “B” button serves a different purpose. Anticipating the many dangers that await him, Harry saw fit to bring a revolver, which is fired by pressing the “B” button.
The goodwill that could have been afforded by this flash of foresight is lost when you realize just how utterly worthless the firearm is. On paper, it sounds powerful – a single bullet is capable of instantly dispatching most foes with which it makes contact. Therein lies the catch. While it goes without saying that a bullet needs to hit its mark to damage it, this task is made unreasonably difficult courtesy of a multitude of factors working against you. The biggest problem is that Harry only fires the gun in a straight line directly in front of his face – attempting to shoot while ducking is a lost cause. The reason this is so detrimental is because a majority of the foes in the game are shorter than Harry himself. The most prominent ground-based foes in the game are spiders, snakes, frogs. Snakes can be shot when they rise for a brief second while frogs jump around enough for you to get a clear shot. Spiders, on the other hand, can only be shot when Harry is jumping from a lower platform, so if the area is completely flat, your only choice is to avoid them.
If the enemies were merely difficult to hit because of their small size, it would make for a highly irritating experience. Unfortunately, Super Pitfall goes the extra mile in that the hit detection for the bullets is extremely biased against you. If the bullet does not hit its mark dead-center, it doesn’t count. Many times throughout the game, you will see your bullet harmlessly pass right through an enemy. An especially annoying example lies in the various bats that can swoop down upon Harry. They hang from the ceiling until Harry draws near, and if you thought to dispatch them before they start flying towards him, you’ll discover bullets are ineffective against them in that state.
This flaw is particularly egregious because Harry has a finite supply of bullets. There is a reason why run-and-gun protagonists usually have infinite ammunition. Having to scrounge around for bullets in a platforming game is equal parts tedious and dangerous given the nigh-omnipresent dangers. Refills give Harry an additional twenty bullets, but considering the poor accuracy of the revolver, you will go through them very quickly. Then again, even if Harry had an infinite supply of bullets, he would be stifled by the limitation of only being able to fire a single one at a time. This makes every single misfire all the more painful.
It is a long-standing tradition that one can gain health and ammunition refills from defeating enemies – regardless of how much sense such a development makes. To their credit, the developer did realize that Harry can potentially run out of bullets fending off the various dangers of the jungle, leaving him completely defenseless and unable to procure any more resources. The downside is that while they realized this Catch-22 situation, they went about addressing it in the most roundabout way possible. Rather than receiving ammunition from defeating enemies, refills instead spontaneously appear out of nowhere whenever Harry jumps in the right spot. Not only is this wildly unintuitive, the game’s questionable hit detection even comes into play as you’re acquiring them – impossible though that may be to believe.
Items appear in set locations, and you can be jumping in the right spot for several seconds and, inexplicably, they will still remain hidden. Your problems don’t end there, however. When you try to collect the item, you may be dumbfounded as Harry passes right through it. You usually have to jump into the sprite’s left side for it to count. Although this development is par for the course given the rest of the experience, it falls apart when you realize even some of the most ineptly programmed games in existence aren’t as picky.
The reason these issues stand out so much is because, as you may have noticed from an ill-fated attempt to climb down the first ladder, Harry is an extremely fragile protagonist. Whereas contemporary protagonists may have had energy meters, one hit is enough to put Harry out of commission. To be fair, there are several quality video games wherein protagonists can be felled in a single blow, but they have several commonalities the average enthusiast would normally take for granted. For want of consistent hit detection and responsive controls, Harry can and will die very easily if you’re jumping around looking for items you need to collect.
Exacerbating matters is that the game’s physics engine doesn’t carry with it any sense of momentum. Harry comes to a dead stop whenever you let go of the direction pad. Moreover, if you fall straight down, you don’t get to steer yourself at all. Not only that, but making long jumps is nearly impossible. You have to be on the exact edge of the platform in order to stand a chance of clearing a gap. This would be easy enough to do if Harry had the ability to run, but because he doesn’t, you simply have to risk losing a life every single time you encounter such a situation.
Sane players would abandon the game within seconds of realizing just how irreparably broken it is. For those who enjoyed the original two Atari 2600 games and wanted to get every scrap of enjoyment possible out of their purchase, they may have experimented with Super Pitfall for a few hours only for one question to loom over their heads the entire time, “What is the goal of this game?” It’s obvious within seconds of delving into the game that going right won’t solve your problems. Indeed, Super Pitfall is a rather uncharacteristic game for its time owing to its non-linear design. As the instruction manual reveals, Pitfall Harry is on a quest to collect the Raj diamond and rescue Quickclaw and Rhonda – his pet lion and niece respectively.
It is through attempting to perform this rescue operation that what little remained of the game’s integrity is reduced to ashes. Doing so isn’t simply a matter of finding them and escorting them out of the ruins. Quickclaw is locked in a cage, which naturally requires a key to unlock. The key is about as difficult to find as every other item in the game, though because there is only one copy, you would have better luck finding a needle in a haystack. Meanwhile, Rhonda has been turned to stone, and only a flask containing a potent medicine can cure her. In other words, jumping around the game blindly for a specific item once wasn’t good enough; you must do it twice – all while avoiding enemies, conserving bullets, and attempting to make any sense out of the convoluted level design.
If that wasn’t bad enough, if you happen to explore the game incorrectly, you have a good chance of rendering it unwinnable. During his travels, Harry may happen upon a smaller area containing items he needs to succeed. However, they can’t be reentered once he leaves them. If the area in question has the key or the flask, the player is left with no recourse but to restart the game from the beginning. Super Pitfall is not a terribly long game, but one’s triumphs are more likely to result from finding required items through sheer dumb luck than purposeful actions, making them difficult to replicate – if not impossible.
There are countless reasons to consider Super Pitfall one of the worst experiences to grace the NES’s library, but I would say its biggest problem by far is that it doesn’t even have the courtesy to play by its own rules. The rest of the game, while terribly designed, at least had some kind of internal consistency. Jumping in random spots spawns helpful tools, additional items are required to rescue Quickclaw and Rhonda, and any hostile creature kills Harry with a single touch. Bearing the last of these constants in mind, under no circumstances would it even come close to crossing one’s mind that, in order to access a room containing the flask, they need to jump into a vulture.
Nonetheless, a course of action that would be considered needlessly obtuse by contemporary adventure game designers is exactly what you need to do in order to access the room containing the medicine flask. It really says something when the vultures’ identical appearance to the ones that kill Harry outright upon touching him is actually the least untoward facet of this solution. The idea of disguising a teleporter as a living creature is one of the most single absurd ideas to ever grace this, or any, medium. The game doesn’t even bother contextualizing this. The only hint that something is different about this vulture is its immunity to gunfire. This isn’t the least bit helpful when you remember how poor the hit detection is. One could reasonably conclude that they simply missed every single shot. Even if they somehow figured out that these vultures are impervious to damage, players would never make the leap of logic required to deduce the proper course of action is jumping into them.
If the player somehow managed to rescue Quickclaw and Rhonda with their sanity intact, they would be displeased to know the game doesn’t end right away. You can’t simply guide Harry back exactly the way he entered the ruins. Instead, he must take an alternate exit and fall off an otherwise unremarkable ledge. You’ll know he fell off the correct ledge when the game flashes quickly as though you failed to insert the cartridge in the machine properly. As is standard for its time, you are then rewarded with a plain, black screen of congratulatory text. This one has an added twist of encouraging players to “try another world”. Similar to Super Mario Bros. and The Legend of Zelda, there is a second quest that rearranges the locations of key items. However, this proposition only works if the game you made is worth playing one time. As it stands, players are rewarded upon suffering through an obtuse guessing game lacking in internal consistency with another obtuse guessing game lacking in internal consistency. This would be like breaking your arm only for the ambulance to get in an accident on the way to the hospital, causing further fractures.
Drawing a Conclusion
The 1980s is considered something of a halcyon period for gaming. I won’t contest that it was an important, formative decade for the medium. The amount of growth that took place within those ten years is quite astounding. A common reason the decade is so revered is because gaming was supposedly pure in those days. It was untainted by the greed that ran rampant throughout the 2010s. Although I won’t deny that the 2010s gave rise to many questionable practices, I feel the existence of Super Pitfall on its own proves that the greed enthusiasts complained about was always there. The only significant variable that changed was how developers expressed it. Whereas gamers in the 2010s had to contend with microtransactions and developers pushing half-finished products out the door, their predecessors could be hoodwinked into purchasing objectively horrible experiences for full price. Many times, developers would rely entirely on a famous film license. It wouldn’t matter if the game was good or bad, for the brand attracted a preexisting fanbase. Worst of all, because there was no centralized information network, this strategy proved highly effective.
Super Pitfall differs from these licensed efforts slightly in that the goodwill this particular franchise had built up was within the same medium. As a result, it demonstrated one couldn’t blindly trust any reputable franchises in those days. With Pitfall! and its sequel being some of the most beloved games to grace the Atari 2600, those fans would have no reason to believe Super Pitfall, released on the technically superior NES, wasn’t a match made in heaven. I can only imagine how disappointed they were when they bought the game home only to realize they wasted $60 on a barely functional mess of coding. How the developers looked over what they made and determined it should grace store shelves is truly beyond me. They were a little ambitious in how they experimented with non-linear level design long before it became commonplace; indeed, Super Pitfall was notably among the first titles to feature omnidirectional scrolling. Sadly, this bravery amounts to nothing in the face of its appalling execution, and Super Pitfall is rightly considered one of the worst games ever made.
Final Score: 1/10