The original Pitfall was among my first experiences on a console, joined by Jungle Hunt as the two games that saw the most playtime outside of Missile Command and Joust. Dodging fallen logs, avoiding snappy crocodiles, timing jumps perfectly from vine to vine … the gameplay was relatively basic, but the game’s tropical setting and creative premise were more than enough to warrant many a late night.
The series has seen its share of sequels, all of which hoped to capture the original’s charm but, for one reason or another, didn’t quite do it. With Pitfall: The Lost Expedition, Activision has finally gotten it right, capturing enough old-school platforming fun to entice fans of the original game while including enough next-gen goodies to entice a new breed of explorers.
Since his original console days, Pitfall Harry has undergone some changes. Sure, he looks expectedly different, but he’s also gone from a quiet, purely adventuring sprite to a cross between Indiana Jones and Leisure Suit Larry. He’s in the adventure for the fortune and glory, to be sure, but there’s also a platinum blonde in the picture, which adds some comic mischief that’s wry enough to be overlooked by the younger platforming crowd while inspiring a snicker from older gamers.
Having crash-landed in a jungle, Harry is on a mission to find the lost members of his expedition and, if all goes well, nab a little bit of treasure and lovin’ in the process. While pursuing these all-too-familiar goals, Harry will use virtually every platforming skill he (and gamers) have learned since Harry’s first appearance in the 1980s: jumping between platforms, swinging from vines, solving simple puzzles, pulling levers, completing mini-games, even learning special moves (super jumps and ground-stomps) that open up new areas. With such a shared platforming “history,” Pitfall: The Lost Expedition seems immediately familiar and comfortable, and with its tight controls, it’s among the best AA platformers since Voodoo Vince.
Amid all the platforming, Pitfall also includes a good amount of fighting, giving the game an adventure component as well. Harry’s arsenal includes punches, kicks, super-spins and a Zelda-like slingshot with unlimited ammunition. This combat is relatively simple, and seldom will boss battles cause much of a hassle, so Pitfall isn’t going to win any awards for its fighting. Still, the combat spices things up a bit, and when gamers revisit a certain area of the jungle, there’s enough fighting to ensure that the game doesn’t get old too quickly.
Yet with more than 40 distinct “levels,” it’s surprising that Pitfall makes gamers revisit an area at all. Pausing the game brings up a jungle map outlining all the game’s regions, each of which is organized like a hub and spokes. Regions are comprised of multiple areas that gamers can visit in essentially any order. That is, until they discover a hidden area that requires a certain upgrade, like TNT or the shaman’s shield. Once the area is discovered, the required “power up” is written on the map, so players can revisit the level once they’ve acquired said goodie. Pitfall generally feels wide open, so the backtracking at times feels forced, like the developers were trying to add some length to the game. For a title that takes little more than 10 hours to complete, such artificial lengthening is understandable, but it detracts from an otherwise enjoyable romp from region to region.
To the game’s credit, the romp between those regions moves along incredibly smoothly, which is impressive considering that the areas range from steamy jungles to mountaintop glaciers to ruined cities. With these settings come distinct obstacles, be it chasms that require swinging on vines, dark tunnels that compel Harry to ball up a la Metroid Prime, or rapids that have Harry paddling on an inner tube. As varied as the levels are in design, their gameplay is equally as varied, yet the game still “fits” in the single Pitfall universe. Hats off to the development team for achieving this unity in a game that borrows so much from so many games before it.
Pitfall’s inventory system, however, is an entirely fresh way to deal with Harry’s need to carry and use multiple items. Each time Harry receives a new item, be it a water (health)-carrying canteen, a light-giving torch or a defense-augmenting shield, it’s assigned to a specific direction on the D-pad. Harry can equip any of these items by pressing the corresponding direction, then use it via the right thumbstick.
For example, to fill the canteen, gamers must first equip it, then press the right thumbstick down to dip the jug into the water. Likewise, when players want to boost their health, they must press the thumbstick up to tilt the canteen toward Harry’s mouth. When no item is equipped, the right thumbstick moves Harry’s hands, a nice addition that immerses -idol-grabbing players a bit more than just pressing “A” for “action.”
From a graphical perspective, as well, Pitfall: The Lost Expedition offers a refreshing change from most platformers of late, with only one element borrowed from a previous game: the camera. Like Grabbed by the Ghoulies, the camera in Pitfall is manipulated via the shoulder buttons, so fans of that game from Rare will feel immediately at home in Harry’s jungle. The rest of the graphical elements in Pitfall, though, have their own distinct flair.
Harry himself is very angular, while his foes (gorillas, natives, alligators and, yes, penguins) all having an equally caricature-like representation. Rather than their sharp angles being flaws, however, the characters in Pitfall have obviously been designed with that angular style in mind. Throughout the entire game, Pitfall never pretends to be a realistic experience, and that concept is carried through to its caricature-styled graphics. And I, for one, found it a refreshing break from platformers that aim for realistic graphics and end up failing miserably. While the levels try for this same personality, though, they don’t quite pull it off. There’s certainly enough cartoon-inspired color, and there’s more than enough variety (jungles, ruins, lava and ice), but they’re often missing the same polished presentation.
The audio carries the same self-effacing quality as the graphics, with a musical score that’s kitschy and capable yet doesn’t take itself too seriously. Likewise, the voice acting is well executed, although the writing at times relies too much on puns for its humor. Still, when you’re swinging on a vine and listening to the unintelligible yell of a native come from the rear speakers, you know that the audio was implemented well enough to take advantage of Dolby Digital, but, like the graphics, not so stoically that you’ll ever feel like the game’s aiming for realism.
And Pitfall is arguably a successful platformer because of that. Thousands of people take their gaming seriously, but it’s important to remember that at the end of the day these are just video games. No matter how immersive the gameplay or realistic the graphics and sound, these products are still designed for sheer entertainment. Sometimes people just need a lighthearted break from the real world, and games like Pitfall fit that bill perfectly.
The game’s not flawless, but there’s no doubting its ability to remind old-school gamers of their classic platforming days, nor its ability to remind next-generation gamers that regardless of gaming’s mainstream status, it’s still just a hobby at heart. Pitfall captures both the good and the bad of platforming, and it does so in a surprisingly fun way. If you’re looking for a break from the shooters and action games, Pitfall is worth a quick expedition to the store.
- Gameplay: 8.2
- Graphics: 7.9
- Sound: 7.8
- Replay: 7.8
- Overall: 7.9
- A fun, lighthearted romp for platforming fans.
— Jonas Allen