[10 March 2004]
The Pitfall franchise holds a special place in my heart, that’s why I chose to review this game over Metal Arms: Glitch in the System. The original Pitfall for the Atari 2600 is the first game I ever remember playing on the home system, and Pitfall II: Lost Caverns is the very first video game I ever beat. Yup, Pitfall and I go way back.
So when I heard there was going to be another update of the classic, I was a little leery. After all, the last attempt to revive the franchise—in Pitfall: The Mayan Adventure—was lukewarm at best. Frankly, everyone I know, including myself, rented it for one reason: to play the unlockable version of the classic vine-swinging adventure. But I was willing to let the past be just that, put my fanboy tendencies aside, and try this new one. Oy, vey!
Despite my reluctance to believe that a proper update/sequel can be made, I was quite excited when the package arrived. My girlfriend and I were in a hurry—I wanted to get to the mall before Ninja Gaiden was sold-out—but that could wait as far as I was concerned. In the days leading up to its arrival, I read that Pitfall: The Lost Expedition not only had a full version of the original 2600 game but also Pitfall II, and my hopes were high that both games (or at least one of them) were playable from the start.
Plastic wrap fluttered to the floor as I ripped the seal open, and the big green X exploded with life as I powered it up. Like me, it too seemed ready for the game. I frantic mashed the buttons to skip all of the intro videos, and when the title screen flickered before me my knees weakened. Here it was, one button press away from glory.
Neither of the 2600 games were present in the menu screen, however. No big deal, I thought. Just means I have to unlock them. Pushing that tiny bit of disappointment aside, I finally started my adventure and was instantly confused. Right off the bat a goofy looking Harry with glowing hands was duking it out with a flaming puma—no joke. A flaming puma!
Whatever, he was a cakewalk anyway. One cutscene later and we learn that Harry’s adventure started 24 hours onboard an airplane. Here we’re treated to a very animated, very immature Harry bothering everyone on the plane—old men and attractive women alike. Suddenly the plane reels out of control and everyone, save Harry, the old man, and the pilot, don parachutes and jump for their lives. The plane crashes in the middle of a jungle, but sadly no one dies. Had they, this mockery would have ended there, and this review would be over.
With that over, I was overjoyed to have control of Harry again, especially when I saw a vine dangling in the distance.
Pitfall will always be remembered for two things—the vine swinging action, and the Tarzan-like yell Harry bellowed as he swung. Being familiar with the basic concept of the game, I jumped over a few pits that opened and closed much like a Venus Fly trap (or Audrey II) as I rushed for the vine in the distance. Reaching my goal was no problem, after all, this was the first stage—how hard could it be?
As I jumped for the vine, ready to hear Harry yell, something odd happened—I missed and fell into the pit. Hmmm…? No bother. Harry was promptly spit out, and given another chance. And so I tried again… and missed again. What the Hell?! Finally, after one more try, I made contact with the vine and swung with glee. Wait, that’s not true. There was no glee, only disappointment. It would seem the developers forgot one crucial element of this game: Harry’s Tarzan-like yell!
For a moment I had to wonder if anyone who developed this game was over 25, if they’ve played the original at all, because anyone who has surely knows the joy and fond memories that cry brings. Even if they weren’t old enough to remember the original, they had to play it (or at least see someone play it), right? I mean, how does one develop an update/sequel without knowing the source inside and out?
Head hung, I turned off the Xbox and left for the mall.
A few hours later I returned to the game, willing to put aside any preconceived notions of what Pitfall should be and judge it on its own merit. However, my initial disappointment wasn’t wrong. Remember how I was having trouble grabbing hold of the vines? That wasn’t me getting used to the controls, ‘cause after several hours of play it was still a problem. (If you don’t have the camera set just so, you can’t grab on.) So there are some control problems, but nothing to gripe over. With a little patience one can learn to work around them.
What struck me most about this game was how it doesn’t take itself too seriously—in fact, I’m inclined to say it’s too silly. Pitfall takes a cue from the Indiana Jones series by incorporating tongue in cheek humor. Unfortunately (for the game and its players), it’s too much. It seems as though Harry winks and nods at the camera during every cutscene, as if he knows he’s in a game and not on some dangerous expedition. (So then what’s the point of playing if you’re not guiding him through great peril?) Moments like that really pull you out of what should be an immersive experience.
The original Pitfall was all about collecting treasures while barely escaping with your life. That idea seems to have been put on the back burner for a more “save the villagers and princess” type of game. Yes, you do collect treasures along the way—in fact, collecting all of them unlocks Pitfall II—but they don’t matter in the scheme of things. Harry’s on this quest to save the girl, and what’s so new about that? Mario was doing that back in 1981.
In the nearly 25 years since have developers not learned anything new (or least how to update a concept)? For instance, take a look at Need for Speed Underground. It’s another take on the arcade classic Pole Position, but developers EA Black Box brought something new to the table. Racing games are a dime a dozen, but NfSU stands out from the pack because they put time and effort into it. While Pitfall: The Lost Expedition comes off as a poorly conceived attempt to milk the current retro-gaming trend.