Long-time gamers are certain to remember the days of Pitfall, a game that dominated the Atari 2600 scene with then cutting edge graphics – by god how far games have progressed since then! Set in a jungle laden with 32 treasures, crocodiles, scorpions, and pits, players had to guide Pitfall Harry through numerous screens of jumping challenges above and below ground. Though it helped define the platform genre, the Pitfall license was never translated well enough in later consoles to equal the popularity of Sonic and Mario.
Pitfall: The Lost Expedition does come pretty close to putting the redesigned 3D Pitfall Harry among the most recognizable video game character faces. This is thanks to excellent production and fine graphics from developer Edge of Reality that get across the theme of a cartoon Indiana Jones-style adventure. But Pitfall shares the same flaw that other platform games had back in 2001; it’s not really anything new, and it’s over too quickly for serious gamers. Thus it’s a little behind the times when compared to the big name PS2 platform games and that Mario guy.
Pitfall takes the character of Harry and turns him into a likeable, rather smug, but good-natured adventurer who gets dropped into a mission involving a lost expedition in the Peruvian jungles. The story has the cartoonish tone of most other platform games, with the expected off-the-wall (but not edgy) sense of humor that results in some big laughs in a couple of scenes (the entrance to the native village being one LMAO instance). For some reason, the story gets a little more serious later as Harry starts getting sentimental then gritty, but it remains in the realm of a well-written Saturday morning cartoon.
Pitfall has most of the platform conventions present, including the obligatory vine-swinging that once made it a household name for Atari 2600 owners. It does feature a rather odd control scheme where pressing the right stick causes Harry to reach out and grab something. An interesting idea, but it doesn’t work well since the only times Harry needs to use it is to grab a treasure, pull a lever, or wave a torch at bats. Still, ain’t nothing else like it that I’ve encountered in a game. Pitfall also has several game play conventions that require rapid button mashing or dual-analog stick operation, both of which provide a more effective twist to the typical double jumping action.
A platform game is a platform game is a platform game, and Pitfall is a platform game, an entertaining and well-designed one at that. It translates practically everything that made the original Pitfall a classic into a lush 3D world – vine swinging, croc jumping, swimming, and scorpion avoiding.
In addition to the requisite double jump, Harry can find or buy additional moves as the game progresses. The control scheme in Pitfall takes some getting used to due to the fact that the right stick is now used to direct Harry’s arm to grab things. It actually seems like Harry is “groping” when there’s nothing to grab, but that may be remnants of the California Recall Election swirling in my head. With the right stick used primarily for that, the camera controls are set to the shoulder buttons. Anyone who has played one of the other recent platform games on the PS2 where the right stick always controls the camera will likely find this setup disorienting at first, particularly since the camera isn’t perfect. It is simple to snap the camera back behind Harry though, and once a player gets used to the controls, it avoids being a nuisance.
There are a couple of other interesting control schemes for Harry. When swimming, a player must rapidly hit the X button in order to avoid being snapped up by crocodiles. Harry finds tools throughout his adventure that he can use – some as weapons, others to access out-of-the-way areas. Some of these, such as the sling or ice picks, require operating both analog sticks. This takes some getting used to for players used to pressing buttons to accomplish everything, but it’s a more involving exercise in coordination.
The adventure takes Harry through over 40 areas of action across jungle, mountains, and ruins. These areas are all shown on a map that the player will likely refer to often in order to figure out where to go, since most areas only connect to the one or two other areas. As the story progresses, this leads to backtracking across the same levels. There are shortcuts to be found, but there were times when having to tramp across eight or nine levels to get to a destination – or replay a level now that I had a tool required for it – became annoying.
And if a player gets lost or can’t find the entrance to a new area, they can spend hours wandering around the jungle. There are rewards to this, as most levels contain hidden treasure idols to find, which in turn can be used to purchase special moves or bonuses from native shamans.
Once players find the Native Village and various tools, mini-games known as the Native Games open up. These are all simple one-player party-type games that are pretty easy. Winning these games nets Harry more treasure idols. The original Pitfall and Pitfall 2 Atari 2600 games are also included as unlockables for players interested in seeing cutting edge games of the 1980’s (they’re still pretty fun too). One oversight in the game is accessing these extras. A player who just feels like playing the native games has to be at or journey to the native village. The original Pitfall can be played by entering a certain chamber in a temple, but to directly access it from the title screen, the player needs to enter a controller code. Why not a menu on the title screen?!
The quibbles with the map and extras are just that, quibbles. Pitfall’s game play is high quality and the additional controls schemes give a lot of variety to the action. It’s all over too soon, though, just like the original Jak & Daxter and Sly Cooper. There’s no exceptionally difficult area or boss battle in Pitfall – even the final boss didn’t take more than a few tries. As such, it’s a great weekend rental that platform vets will be over and done with quickly.
It brought a smile to my mug to see Pitfall staples like the three crocs in a row, rolling logs, and opening/closing pits (now with fangs) rendered in gorgeous 3D. The game does a fine job of capturing the jungle adventure feel with its enormous temples, thick jungles, and wacky natives. Most areas are impressively large in scale; it’s quite a sight to see a canopy of trees in an expansive jungle valley far below Harry. Animations sport a great deal of polish.
Harry’s executes his moves fluidly and often with style or a sense of humor. Details like the flapping tongue and horrified expression of a screaming Howler monkey or crocodiles scuttling rapidly from the mud are all entertaining (yes, nothing quite as entertaining as a horrified monkey). The effects, most notably the water, are not as impressive as the more powerfully marketed platform games though.
Sound effects and voice acting are particularly impressive in Pitfall. The crackle of burning coals or the creak of a vine all sound convincing and enhance the already excellent jungle atmosphere created by the graphics. A number of details in the sound design make the game even more fun; for instance, when Harry approaches near an area that will launch a cut scene, the player will hear the characters bickering. The music emphasizes upbeat adventurous anthems along with native-style chanting music that’s composed so well it avoids sounding stereotypical.
Pitfall is very short. I got lost and then felt compelled to find more idols (that’s how I rationalized getting lost, anyway), but even so I finished the game in about 12 hours. For hardcore gamers, there’s always the option to find more idols and unlock everything, but even that is limited. Because of this, Pitfall makes a better rental for any platform fan. As a purchase, it’s mainly suited for kids or sincere fans of the original.
FINAL SCORE: 84%