I hadn't been playing video games for too long, but I knew from gauging even its first screen that Pitfall was unlike any other I'd seen. It'd be quite a while before I could understand what a "genre" was or how to identify one from its category, but playing Pitfall for that first time gave me a sense that I was making a big leap into unexplored territory.
I got the general gist of how to control the action, but I wasn't fully sure what, exactly, I was meant to accomplish. I wasn't aware of Pitfall's governing rules, and I was too oblivious to notice or pay attention to the time-limit clearly displayed near the screen's top-left corner (even then, 20 minutes to a child is a time-period so immeasurably long that it's not even worth considering), so I just explored as my whims carried me, content to recklessly jump about and hoping to discover this intriguing world's secrets.
Even when the action was at a standstill, there was always an atmosphere of quietly lurking danger, and I had no idea what was waiting for me on the next screen. It was the first time I felt like I was visiting a real, functional video-game world, and the specter of inevitable death made it quite a bit intimidating. It didn't help that any fatal mishap was met with a blunt, ominous ditty that hammered home the stock-draining consequences of failure.
I found it interesting that you could choose to venture in either direction from the start. "You can go left?" I questioned, surprised by this perceived oddity. I came to the conclusion that the left path had to hold a greater level of difficulty--a theory given weight by my surveying the contents of the adjacent screens: Two largely harmless rolling logs on the right side, and a hungry-looking trio of alligators on the left. I decided to take the right path, as I would continue to do in all proceeding Pitfall play-throughs, because I concluded that it was the safer choice, and, moreover, it just felt like the natural thing to do--a sentiment that all non-Metroid developers would play upon in the future.
I couldn't yet fathom the full scope of such a concept, but Pitfall seemed endless; it was screen after screen of obstacles forged in every permutation of stationary or rolling logs, engulfing ponds, contracting-expanding swamps, alligators, snakes, and campfires. Many of them could be negotiated using my favorite aspect of the game: The vine-grabbing mechanic that allowed you to heroically swing your way over the large bodies of water and their gluttonous occupants. I liked in particular the synthesized Tarzan yell that would play the instant Pitfall grabbed onto a vine; it was a sound that conveyed to me a sense of desired safety, a swinging Pitfall protected from the perilous ground conditions for as long as I needed him to be.
I'd find different types of loot lying around if I could endure long enough--treasures including gold, silver, money bags, and rings--and it always felt exciting to collect these valuables, since they seemed so scarce and were viewed as a sign of meaningful progress (going 20-plus screens without collecting one only led to ever-building tension, as if I'd hopelessly strayed from the correct path); it also helped that my procuring efforts were rewarded with the uplifting "Charge!" theme, which always provided me a motivational boost, if only in the short term.
Some screens had gaps through which I could drop to enter the caverns (or "dark tunnels," as I called them) below, but I never did so purposefully. Even though the game could be adequately navigated using this lower path, I never wanted to go anywhere near it; mainly, I hated the always-in-motion scorpions (which I originally thought were angry octopus-like creatures, the edges of their curved tails instead eyes), since they had a knack for redirecting suddenly, and I had a lot of trouble trying to successfully leap over them. Otherwise, these bottom paths had none in the way of interesting obstacles; there were only prolonged instances of screen after screen of rushing scorpions, with no variance and too likely a chance of earning a Game Over to seriously consider taking this path.
What confused me was that the caverns had their own divergent routes; I'd venture to the right side of a cavern, for instance, and look up to the surface to see a gold bar resting across a pond; when I'd double-back to the upper path and head right from there, I'd find ... a standard log room? "How can that be?" I wondered, my young mind unable to make the computations required to solve such a riddle. The only thing I liked about the cave segments were those out-of-place brick walls that restricted further underground access; I got a kick out of the sound and animation that would result from my repeatedly running into and rebounding off of them. Also, something about seeing that empty space on a brick wall's opposite side convinced me that I could somehow force my way through the obstruction--if I just kept at it long enough--and discover an ultimate secret enshrined beyond that point.
Man--I'm glad I dropped that habit.
Pitfall was a game of attrition, a challenge to collect 32 treasure, or as many as you could within the time allotted, and earn the highest score possible, but darned if gleaned anything of the sort. Still, even though ranking systems weren't yet relevant to me, I treated my "score" as something precious--as more a further measure of my progress--and hated any instance of making contact with those annoying logs, whose abrasive touch triggered an awful buzzing sound that would continue to blare and run concurrent to the draining of my points. As the years went on, I started to figure out how the points system actually worked, but even then I was more concerned with my ultimate destination rather than the accruing of a high point-total. To me, Pitfall was all about survival.
I got better at Pitfall over time by adopting discipline in place of recklessness. I learned to be patient and not drop off vines too early, and I became less timid in my approach to jumping over stationary objects, which required getting closer to them than I felt comfortable (before, I'd tend to jump early and land on their back ends). In my earliest sessions, I had the most trouble with those jaw-snapping alligator trios, across which I just couldn't jump fast enough, and took it as a sign of Pitfall's impenetrable difficulty. Though, I soon realized it wasn't so much a lack of dexterity as much an observational error when my brother showed me how to position myself on the gators' eyes to stay out of their swallowing range; it was my first lesson of many in the art of precision-platforming.
Once I knew all of the tricks, it became a matter of application. Though, the longer I'd last, the more nervous I'd become, as if getting too deep into the game was something I wasn't meant to do; out of some general sense of stress, I'd become more prone to making mistakes. Perhaps those oppressive feelings were caused by the accompanying mental images, the scene imagined one where I'd find my way so deep into a jungle that I'd turn to find that there were no longer any hints of an obvious exit.
That was how I imagined Pitfall--a game whose world meant as much to me as the new type of gaming experience it trademarked. I don't think it's a coincidence that so many of the games that hold a similar level of emotional resonance with me were directly inspired by it; these were the types of games that made indelible impressions more by virtue of how they made you feel. The forebearer of their kind, Pitfall isn't a game I'm likely to ever forget, even if I go decades without playing it.
It may be primitive-looking by today's standards and more limited in scope than I originally figured, but to the younger me Pitfall was a game filled with amazing atmosphere and endless wonder. The reverberations of its impact ran deep throughout my formative years and forever shaped my enthusiast tendencies. And not even the rolling log of time can take that away.