Saturday, November 1, 2014

Pitfall II: Lost Caverns - Death From Above
How the jungle's population of bats and birds broke my will to continue.

Growing up, my perception of the different gaming platforms--consoles, arcades and home computers--was that they were wholly disparate entities and existed within the bonds of separately functioning universes, with little in the way of commonality outside of a few shared ports. To switch between playing on the NES and the Commodore 64 was to essentially cross over to another dimension whose strict reality precluded comparison to the other. Mainly, everything about these platforms felt incompatible, and I couldn't imagine one format's most identifiable games translating well to another.

That's why it came as quite a shock to me when a routine browsing through my brother's Commodore 64 disk case turned up a little game called Pitfall II: Lost Caverns, which like many others seemed to just appear without explanation. "What?!" I questioned while staring at the label in a moment of disbelief. "I didn't know that there was a sequel to Pitfall! When did this happen?" I couldn't have known the answer to that question, really, since there were very few outlets for video game coverage back in 1985 (unless you lived in the UK), and I certainly wasn't someone who would actively seek out such information, nor would I even know where to look for it.

The true source of my astonishment wasn't that Pitfall suddenly had a sequel; it was that a follow-up to an iconic Atari 2600 game was for some reason appearing on the Commodore 64. "That can't happen," I thought to myself. "You can't make a sequel to a 2600 game and put it on a computer. They're completely different things! This has to be a violation of some kind of natural law!"

But Pitfall II making the jump didn't necessarily upset me. No--I was instead greatly fascinated by the whole idea of what I considered to be a radical defection. I was eager to see what a computer-focused Pitfall could be.

What immediately worked to shape my opinion of Pitfall II was the subdued vibe as communicated to me by the mere image of game's very first screen. I mean, it looked to be visually similar to its predecessor--almost bordering on straight retread with those narrow, orange-brown surfaces; a background consisting of a spaced-out assemblage of trees; rectangular gaps; spaced-bar ladders; and a green-clad, ostrich-necked hero standing at the ready--but something about this opening aesthetic advertised to me that Pitfall II was something more; its strong sense atmosphere combined with my continued ruminating over the nature of its existence had me convinced that further inspection would lead me on a journey through a strange and unusual world whose wide scope and depth of emotional conveyance were probably beyond anything I'd seen.

I assumed that Pitfall II, like the 2600 original, would be a muted affair, so I was very much surprised when music kicked in the moment I intently hit F1 to begin the adventure. I'd come to expect a synthesized composition and energetic tone from my C64 music, but Pitfall II's main theme, weirdly, had neither quality; matching the game's visuals, it instead had a much softer, quieter ambiance and evoked feelings of reverie and longing (for what, I wasn't sure). It was a spirited and adventurous-sounding theme, yes, but its mode for connecting me to the action was to create a reflective atmosphere and use it to give substance to an environment filled with indigenous creatures who were simply behaving instinctually. It was there to both guide me along and supply me insight into the state of Pitfall II's world--similar to how the future Metroid would so engross me.

I didn't realize until a while later (after returning to the original for comparative purposes) that Pitfall II's graphics were a bit more upgraded than I originally gave them credit (since the mental images I had of the 2600 game were shaped so much by my imagination, I didn't realize until then how simple and flat they were in contrast). Pitfall Harry's running animation had the benefit of more frames; oppressive cavern walls replaced those made of common bricks; and the lush trees, with their winding barks, worked with the pitch-black backdrop to supply an air of wonder and mystery ("What could be lurking behind them?" I'd contemplate). I liked the addition of swimming, which was used sparingly but added a new dimension to the largely grounded action; it was a nice infusion of the underwater elements from the similarly themed Jungle Hunt, which was one of my favorite C64 games.

Scorpions still looked more like angry octopi kicking up debris as they trailed along the surface, but hey--you can't win 'em all.

While Pitfall II might have been the very first attempt to create an exploration-based action-platformer, predating Metroid's effort to patent the genre by approximately two years, the change in style didn't entail the complete abandonment of original's conventions. From what I could gather, the task seemingly remained the same: Dodge critters, negotiate your way around gaps, and procure gold bars and other familiar treasures en route to accruing the highest point-total possible (though, I wasn't sure whether or not this was the only goal); I noticed that there was no time-limit, which spoke to me that I could get away with advancing more meticulously as opposed to utilizing the reckless style I employed in the timed original. If only I'd gotten the message.

Maybe it's because my mind was currently too occupied by a flood of lingering thoughts, but I never really noticed that Pitfall II totally ditched the series' trademarked vine-swinging mechanic, which furthermore eliminated the potential for hazards like obstructive water bodies, gator-hopping, and those expanding-contracting swamps (though, Harry's jumps were still accompanied by that springing 2600 sound sample, perhaps as a nostalgic reminder of past aerial feats). Pitfall II managed to blind me to this fact by instead successfully establishing its own identity, delivering a unique enemy cast (save for the familiar scorpions) whose persistent threat left me no time to question such details; more so than its aesthetics, I came to associate the game with this silently terrifying ensemble of bats, birds, frogs, and electric eels. 

It soon became apparent that this was a much different game despite any graphical or mechanical similarities. Its traditionally designed opening segments created the illusion of linearity, but Pitfall II quickly grew labyrinthine, with many of its branching paths often leading to either dead ends or similar-looking caverns that beget more of the same in following (like those rooms in Metroid that seemed to repeat). It also became clear that the tall brown-colored creature seen hanging out below the starting point, which I identified as a kangaroo with restless-leg syndrome, was more a final marker than a sneak peek at an eventually encountered enemy type (it'd take me years to realize that this "kangaroo" was actually feline sidekick "Quick Claw," who I'd seen in the Pitfall cartoon that was frequently part of Saturday Supercade). At the least, I now knew that there was indeed an ending point to this adventure.

Naturally, me being me, I was keen to try to find ways to reach the game's ending point without actually playing all the way through. My initial interactions with Pitfall II entailed exhaustive efforts to leap over the speedy mouse as seen on the bottom portion of the game's second screen; the speedy mouse, which I thought was an "advanced scorpion," was programmed specifically to block entry to the tantalizingly close final destination, but I was convinced that there had to some angle--some pixel-perfect trajectory--that I could exploit to carry me over its head and onto the sacred ground beyond, where my kangaroo pal was happily loitering. It would never work, but I desperately clung to the notion that it was possible; in fact, no attempted play-through of Pitfall II was complete without my first wasting two-three minutes trying to successfully sail over the mouse's head. Considering how things usually turned out, it might have been my only real chance at making contact with ol' shaky legs.

What made Pitfall II more palatable than its predecessor was the presence of checkpoints in lieu of a limited life-stock; I felt less in the way of anxiety when my punishment for failing to complete an evasive maneuver was only the slow transport back to the last checkpoint (though with the accompaniment of a points-draining penalty and a more-depressed version of the main theme, which had a way of making me pout even though I thought it was funny). My favorite tactic for avoiding enemy entanglement was to drop down gaps in those southward vertical passages and bypass several floors at a time, which was a much quicker alternative to climbing; Pitfall II had a neat screen-shaking effect used accentuate the thud as created by Harry slamming to the ground after a long fall. 

As even more evidence of my oblivious nature, I never noticed that crashing down as such subtracted 100 points from my total each time. Not that I would have cared, anyway, since I never gave much thought to point-totals, or, well, anything else that might have been helpful. I was essentially NintendoCapriSun, and I'm not quite sure how I survived past the age of 5. 

So pay attention, kids, or you'll wind up on Youtube singing songs about bathrooms.

Even with all of those checkpoints and my array of cheap tactics, Pitfall II eventually grew too difficult for any of it to matter. The game's most recurring obstacles were birds and bats, which you had to sneak under only after gauging their undulating flight paths and timing it so that you could run beneath them during their ascent. The margin of error was essentially nonexistent, as even slight contact was discouraged. I mean, I had a pretty good grasp on the timing and could competently evade these flying menaces, but Pitfall II could turn downright nasty when it was required that the player clear a large number of successive rooms as populated by airborne foes.

Pitfall II's most curious mechanic came into play at about the game's mid-point, where I had to stand on a ledge and wait for a balloon to scroll by; if I correctly timed my jump, I could grab onto its string, at which point the balloon would begin carrying me upward. This seemed oddly out of place in a Pitfall game, but it was still interesting; mostly, I'd just fly up as high as I could reach and then have fun carelessly diving off ledges and watching as Harry gracefully sailed down across the chasm's long expanse (though, I wasn't sure what was so different from these jumps that they didn't result in points-draining fall-damage).

But I had no idea where I was supposed to go or what I supposed to do. For whatever reason, I could never make it to the top, as a bat would always pop my balloon or I'd fail to properly slow down my ascent in time to squeeze into the top-left passage. There were so many ledges and so many branching routes--most of them leading nowhere--that I'd always wind up saying "Screw it" and bypassing this entire area (not to mention how often I'd fail to grab onto a string and be forced to wait for another balloon to scroll by, which took about ten seconds in real time but felt like a small eternity to a hyperactive kid), instead taking the lower-left passage, which was the only one that looked to offer the prospect of real progress.

It was always this final vertical area that ultimately halted my progress and put an end to my adventure just short of the final destination; it featured a ridiculous amount of bat- and bird-dodging spread over a lengthy climb that entailed a seemingly endless gauntlet of zigzagging screens with nary a checkpoint in sight (there was only one to found in this entire area, and it was way at the bottom). Successfully evading the relentless stream of flying nuisances demanded patience and pixel-perfect precision--an extended state of concentration maintained for the entirety of a drawn-out sequence that was evidently too damn long for a kid like me. The level of repetition (constantly failing and having to restart from the lowest level, mainly) was beyond anything I'd seen in a game, and I'd become so flustered that I'd soon begin screwing up even on the early screens.

True--facing these same tribulations many times over taught me a lot about reading enemy movements and reacting accordingly (though, strangely, such wisdom wasn't immediately applicable during my early encounters with Castlevania's Medusa Heads, who are far less menacing in comparison to Pitfall II's flying terrors), but all of the acquired skill in the world wasn't going to help me to suppress the nervousness and anxiety that would eventually boil over and result in mistimed input and a long trip back to that hated checkpoint.

The breaking point for me--the last time I played Pitfall II before a 20-year hiatus--was when I finally managed to negotiate my way up and around an incalculable number of bird-/bat-infested screens and reached the final ladder, which was patrolled by a single frog. I never had much trouble climbing past these comparatively predictable frogs, but I was so overcome by the excitement of the moment that I prematurely pushed "Up" and wound up colliding with this particular specimen just as it was landing from a jump. I remember staring at the screen for about 30 seconds before angrily exiting the game and storming out of my brother's room. "There's no way in hell I'm ever going to do that again," I promised myself as I headed downstairs, and I held to that conviction all the way up until about a week ago, when I finished Pitfall II legitimately and only for the sake of writing this piece.

Pitfall II, I found, is a pretty short game (it can be completed in about 13 minutes if you know what you're doing), but it didn't feel that way to a younger me; rather, I perceived its world as a vast jungle whose seemingly endless series of caverns were capable of confining me for hours at a time.

I knew that Pitfall II was also released for other computer systems like the Atari 800 and the Apple II, but I was frankly shocked to learn that the game actually did come to the 2600! During my first sampling of it back in the early part of the century, all I could wonder was "How did they pull this off?" This version more closely resembles its predecessor in terms of basic texturing and color tone, but it's otherwise not compromised all that much. Activision managed to stuff the entire game into a 12-kilobyte cartridge, including even that defining music track (though sounding a bit more bleepy), which actually flows better and feels livelier in this format.

I can't even guess as to what type of voodoo was used to pull it off.

I was again surprised to find that Pitfall II also made its way to arcades, apparently "reprogrammed" by Sega at Activision's behest. It's naturally a much more advanced game, but it's still structurally similar to the home versions. However, it's greatly increased in scope and features classic obstacles from the 2600 original (water and lava pits whose clearing requires vine-swinging, hopping onto alligator snouts, and those contracting-expanding swamps) plus many of its own unique hazards (bouncing logs, deadly pollen, dual-vine pits, a volcano that spews magma, a fireball-spitting statue, falling icicles, minecart sequences, and more). You're afforded only a three-minute time-limit, but you add precious seconds to the counter by continuing to procure treasure; this prevents the player from trying to speed-run his or her way and depriving the machine of precious quarters.

I might further inspect this version in the future. Well, at least until I get to that area with the birds. Then I'm out. You'll have to get some other sap to find out what lurks beyond.

In the end, Pitfall II: Lost Caverns will go down as another game whose original impact will be hard to forget even if I decide to never play it again. It not only redefined for me the definition of a "platformer"--it laid down the groundwork for a whole new genre of game that would one day produce some of my most cherished favorites.

Pitfall II: Lost Caverns turned out to be more ubiquitous than I originally knew, but I'll always remember it as the Commodore 64's dimension-shattering standout.

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