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SummaryThe closest the 2600 ever came to an epic
The GoodWith platform gaming still in its primordial, pre-"SUPER MARIO BROS." developmental stage, PITFALL II offered up a surprisingly sophisticated set of challenges: timing your long ladder descent to avoid the poisonous toads leaping back and forth, swimming around electric eels, running beneath buzzards that swooped up and down, calculating long jumps and falls to land on the right ledge (that Pitfall Harry must have titanium knees), rising through a cavern shift clinging to a balloon and avoiding bats, and of course our old arch-nemesis: the Giant Scorpion.
By expanding on the Indiana Jones-esque setting and adventure/treasure hunting trappings of its predecessor, and by giving us a concrete end goal (nice touch, having the underground portion of the opening screen be the end of the journey) there was, rare for games at the time, the sense of an actual beginning-middle-end story. And once you learned the patterns and locations of all the key treasures the game didn't take more than a few minutes to solve, but the challenge lay in the score - how many treasures did you ignore when you branched off the path that way, and how many times did you watch your points agonizingly drain as you got hit and sent back to a checkpoint?
Yes - checkpoints. Another thing you didn't see a whole lot of in 1984, but it was the right development for this game's demands.
With the colorful contrast between the above-ground jungle, the underground river and the rocky caverns, this is as much graphical oomph as you ever saw from old Stella. And a soundtrack, even! On a gaming platform that rarely had more to say than "Bloop", the wizards at Activision managed to pack in a stirring little heroic melody that chimed whenever you picked up some loot. And that same song got transposed into a mournful minor key whenever you "died" - so you longed to scoop another gold bar and get back to the happy version again. Child's play now, sure, but damned clever motivation for the time.
The BadWith something this good, you could only wish for more, and the game, once you learn it, is far too short. The influence of the first two PITFALL games is undervalued, I think, and the tragedy is that while the franchise went through all sorts of clumsy permutations on its way to the modern era, the video game medium has passed its now seemingly-simple achievements by. Even a super-fantastic modern day game that out TOMB RAIDER'd TOMB RAIDER would just be carrying the name. It wouldn't be PITFALL.
The Bottom LineNowadays you can play games that have 10-, 20- or 30- hour storylines, and almost never will you see them not come to some concrete conclusion. But narratively speaking, it took gaming awhile to reach this development, games either spun out to a computational infinity or smacked against some memory limit wall that only the best players could reach anyway.
Activision was one of the first companies tinkering with this, and in PITFALL II: THE LOST CAVERNS you had a legitimate storyline to hang your hat on. Unlike the otherworldly abstractions of a PAC-MAN, it wasn't difficult to fire your imaginations off of Pitfall Harry. Even if he was just a stick figure in a dorky green shirt, he got himself into some awesome adventures.
The triumph of this game is really two-fold. Not only did it give you an "end": a real achievement to celebrate. But in presenting you options in how you reached your goal, and by scattering treasures throughout to tempt you towards a higher score, it provided something that any game with an "end" needs: