Pitfall! on the Atari 2600 is typically viewed as one of the better games on the system. After playing the game I found it a decent play, definitely better than many, but was left with some troubling concerns. Pitfall!, released in 1982 appears to have launched the “looter steals treasure in a foreign land” genre; which we see crop up again later in the game’s own sequel, as well as in the Tomb Raider and Uncharted franchises, among others.
I feel, as a Christian, the idea of stealing ancient treasures and artifacts from a lost culture to be problematic. I know it is glamorous to imagine the hero of the game, Pitfall Harry, avoiding all of these obstacles and profiting from the gold bars and trinkets he “finds” along the way. However, as history has shown, it is more likely that this type of looting will lead to the remainder of Harry’s days being cursed.
Pitfall! begins with Pitfall Harry running to avoid various creatures and obstacles. Considering the size of the snakes and scorpions Harry encounters, I’m guessing this story takes place in Australia; a land known for its terrible and oversized horrific death-dealing creatures. Harry’s goal is to collect as much treasure as possible while avoiding the creatures and other obstacles that are thrown in front of him. The player can obtain a “perfect game” by collecting all of the pieces of the treasure and avoiding all of the obstacles and creatures.
Despite the objectionable message the game sends by using a burglar as their hero, the game is quite good. The graphics are surprisingly good, coming from the upstart Activision third-party company that consisted of disgruntled Atari developers. David Crane, the developer of Pitfall!, clearly put a great deal of time and effort into making a quality game. The game’s sound is also pretty decent for an Atari 2600 game. Crane even managed to make a rough “Tarzan” type theme play when Pitfall Harry swings from a vine over crocodile infested waters. Little things like that don’t go unnoticed and I know, I for one, appreciated the attention to detail put into this game.
Pitfall! is a timed game, giving the player twenty minutes to obtain all of the ill-gotten treasure. I appreciated the challenge of having to work against the clock and having only three lives, with no 1-ups to be found, with which to complete your shameful quest. If one ignores the disturbing message behind the game, it is easy to have an enjoyable time playing Pitfall!. I made it through the game by imagining that a liberal government had stolen my money and luxury items due to unfair overtaxing and I was given the opportunity to travel the Australian jungle and recover them.
As expected, the liberal gaming public ate up the concept of stealing riches that you have not earned through hard work and superior education and Pitfall! was a rousing success. Some attribute the success of Pitfall! to its release not long after the film Raiders of the Lost Ark. Raiders of the Lost Ark had a very roughly similar story, but Indiana Jones is a real American who rescues the Ark of the Covenant from the clutches of German Nazis so it can be safely held by the United States government. Pitfall Harry appears to be stealing coins and jewelry for his own nefarious purposes. Quite a difference, though one that was likely lost on the average liberal gamer that just wanted to run around and collect loot that doesn’t belong to them.