Best Games - Pitfall II : Lost Caverns
1984 was a weird year for video games in North America. Atari was the dominant player in the industry by an extremely wide margin, and they were absolutely failing. Arcades were still popular, but some of the shine was coming off. Games were changing, becoming more complex. The hobby wasn’t for everyone anymore. It was less accessible. Less inviting. Pong was a distant memory, and even Pac-Man had fallen out of fashion. Nintendo had already sold millions of Famicom consoles, and they hadn’t even released outside of Japan. Home computers had never been more popular. The industry was simultaneously dead, dying, or poised to become the most lucrative entertainment industry in the world, depending on who you asked.
As it turns out, it was the last one.
Game developers never stopped. For all the talk of a market crash around this time, the innovation and creation of new video game experiences just kept rolling.
Pitfall! Had been a real technical and artistic achievement. The Atari VCS wasn’t exactly known for beautiful games. If a few blocks could move their way around a TV screen, that was achievement enough. If you went looking for legitimately pretty Atari VCS games, it might just be Pitfall! and River Raid.
Pitfall! was a fairly simple game. Almost a proof of concept. A little stick man could be made to run across the screen in either direction dodging traps and jumping over obstacles. It was an adventure, in as far as it contained all the trappings of adventures. Dangerous pits, deadly creatures, swinging on a vine. Ultimately, though, there is no real adventure in the game. Just a series of procedurally generated screens for you to move through.
Pitfall II is astounding for the time and a technical marvel for the platform. A year before Super Mario Bros. Pitfall II presented a true adventure. A game that reveals itself over many attempts and failures. The opening few screens of Pitfall II are unlike anything else on the Atari VCS. It teaches you how to play. How to explore. How the game will unfold. You will have to take risks. You will have setbacks, but those will teach you what to do on the next run.
There are checkpoints that you will return to over and over. Reaching a new checkpoint is extremely satisfying. It’s similar to finding a bonfire in a souls game. You now have an anchor, but you know that the next leg of the adventure will only grow more difficult.
Pitfall II is an adventure game. Maybe one of the first. As you play through the game, attempting to retrieve some lost treasure while rescuing your niece and pet mountain lion, you will engage in an amazing variety of adventurey type activities. Every time you come across a new mechanic or a clever new environmental puzzle, it will be surprising and ingenious. All of this on a tiny Atari VCS cartridge.
Because of when it was released, during the decline of Atari and right before the rise of Nintendo, Pitfall II is a game that was destined to be lost. It was ported to other machines, but never with the same magic. Something about the stark block color images and clean, precise gameplay make Pitfall II rise above almost all other games of it’s era.
If you haven’t played it, and you probably haven’t, you should give Pitfall II a try. It’s one of the best games.
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