Cliff Hanger was one of many such games that encapsulated the weird, experimental nature of the Commodore 64. Consider only its premise: It isn't as much an action game as the creation of one. That is, you're not actually a crafty fedora-wearing protagonist trying to stop a rampaging bandit--you're literally playing the actor in a Road Runner-style production, complete with scene titles and clapperboard stage intros. Once Cliff Hanger (and his brother Coat, if you're playing the alternating multiplayer mode) takes to the set, he has to successfully complete a scene where he thwarts the bandit's free-firing charge by means of dropping rocks on him, blowing him up, flattening him with anvils, or taking him out with any other comically devised traps.
Cliff Hanger was unforgiving and old-school tough, but what kept me playing was its unique means of stage progression: You could continually fail in any of its initial set of scenes, cleverly named "Act 1," as many times as possible without consequence, as sort of a warmup. The considerably arcane Acts 2 and 3 removed most of the fail-safes and penalized you with one life reduction for any failure that entailed dropping off a cliff, getting crushed, or being otherwise trampled by any of the scene's blunt objects (which were sometimes mischievously programmed to backfire on the player). It had a mechanic that allowed you to salvage a life by parachuting to safety or by floating upward as carried away by the improvised blowing up of a balloon, but it was too inconsistent for me to figure out how it was activated (I assumed it was just random).
That was part of its allure: I could squeeze out a satisfying experience just by playing through its well-designed 10-stage Act 1 and then nervously partake in a scant few scenes from what became a mystical Act 2, which I would strive to reach with the goal of figuring out as many of its scenes as possible before ultimate death. Even if I deduced the correct methodology for the likes of, say, "The Seesaw's Revenge" (jump down to the seesaw's left side then quickly hop to the right in time for relaunch), I could never get the correct timing down or survive for more than a few scenes. Hell--I never even saw what Act 3 held until the days of emulators and save-states, which even then, frighteningly, couldn't guarantee success.
Cliff Hanger was mainly about figuring out how a scene's particular mechanics worked and then timing your assault so that you could get the drop on the bandit as he passed by the sweet spot; my strategies for timing included counting off seconds immediately after the scene began or initiating my attack according to the bandit's current onscreen location. It's just that there were too many factors and too many scenes in general for me to remember the exact timing for each, which is why I stood no chance once losing stock became an issue. Still, for some reason I never found failure discouraging; no matter how much Cliff Hanger frustrated me or made me feel that its completion was a hopeless cause, I was always keen to try (and fail) again at a future date.
Like Impossible Mission and so many others, Cliff Hanger was another game that taught me that I didn't need to be able to beat a game or even fully understand it to like it a lot. It was proof that you could craft a supremely difficult game and get away with it if the power of your content and presentation stirred the players imaginations enough to where failure wasn't even an obstacle to their enjoyment of its world. Indeed, the indelible images of boulders flying, anvils dropping, and ground-shattering cliff-dives will always be foremost in my mind whenever I think about Cliff Hanger and why I adore the Commodore 64.