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Pitfall II: Lost Caverns (Atari 2600) artwork

Pitfall II: Lost Caverns (Atari 2600) review

"Spend enough time reading the legends and myths of ancient Greece and you might come upon the jolly tale of a man named Sisyphus. This poor chap did something or other to royally tick off the gods and was sentenced to an eternity of suffering in Hades. To be more specific, Sisyphus was forced to roll a large rock up a steep hill. However, when he got said rock to the top, it would simply roll back down the other side, forcing him to start over. "

Spend enough time reading the legends and myths of ancient Greece and you might come upon the jolly tale of a man named Sisyphus. This poor chap did something or other to royally tick off the gods and was sentenced to an eternity of suffering in Hades. To be more specific, Sisyphus was forced to roll a large rock up a steep hill. However, when he got said rock to the top, it would simply roll back down the other side, forcing him to start over.

And that’s Pitfall II: Lost Caverns in a nutshell. You’ll strain and struggle in an attempt to make progress, only to find that one unlucky misstep will send you back to the proverbial bottom of the hill.

You see, Pitfall Harry has learned a new trick in his second adventure for the Atari 2600. This time, he can’t be killed. Apparently, being able to traverse the original Pitfall’s jungle in under 20 minutes gave the Atari 2600’s answer to Indiana Jones (not counting the real Indiana Jones, who had his own game) the ability to live through anything.

Sadly, being immortal doesn’t mean that Harry is untouchable. Sorry, kids, but you’ll find that Harry is quite vulnerable to attacks from birds, bats, frogs, eels and whatever the hell else that Activision decided should fit into these so-called “lost caverns”. As you progress throughout the game, you’ll notice occasional checkpoints on the ground. Whenever Harry gets hit, he gets sent back to the last one of those checkpoints he touched — losing points all the way.

So, even though you can’t be killed, it becomes pretty obvious from the minute you start playing that colliding with the local wildlife still is quite detrimental to Harry’s chances of success. And as a veteran seeker of treasure, your hero isn’t going to want to surrender the precious points obtained by picking up the treasure that’s generously scattered throughout the world.

Sadly for Harry, odds are that he will not only surrender some of his points, but he will do so quite often. Sure, some of the enemies can be easy to dodge or evade, but others can be quite tricky. Take the bat for example. These flying critters move across the screen just a tiny bit above Harry’s head. If you look closely at them, you’ll notice the pixels composing their wings moving up and down. Apparently, if the wings are “up”, all is well, but if they are “down”, you’ll get hit and sent backwards.

So, what’s so hard about that? Well, maybe I just wasn’t skilled enough to navigate past these creatures as a young child back in the heyday of the Atari 2600, but I found getting past the average bat to be somewhat of a “trial-and-error” proposition....with the emphasis strongly placed on ERROR. In fact, I recall thinking that I’d have the same amount of luck skulking past the bats if I put one hand over my eyes and used my other hand to blindly manipulate the joystick. You see, the wings seem to move pretty fast and the Atari 2600 graphics processor probably wasn’t the best instrument for charting movement as subtle as that from the wings of a flying rodent, which leads to a lot of guesswork on the player’s part as to when it’s safe to run under the bat.

Trying to get past the bats and a couple of other enemies made me wish that Harry had learned a couple of other new tricks besides simply losing the ability to die. You know, like maybe learning how to duck. Seems like if I had a really large bat divebombing me, I’d be able to whip out some better evasive maneuvers than “run left”, “run right” or my personal favorite, “run off ledge and uncontrollably plummet six screens into water” — which fortunately WON’T send you back to your last checkpoint.

Or maybe Harry could have brought some sort of weapon with him. Let’s face it, if I’d been forced to traverse a jungle teeming with alligators, scorpions and the like in under 20 minutes, I would never leave home again without Mr. Smith and Wesson as my constant companion. I definitely wouldn’t embark on a quest to pick up a ton of treasure and find a couple of friends (that girl and talking cat from the old Pitfall Saturday morning cartoon) without some sort of firepower.

But Harry the Pacifist (or David Crane the Activision mastermind) didn’t see things my way, unfortunately. You’ll have a brief jaunt through a jungle, a couple of laps around a lake and do a lot of combing through caverns armed with nothing more than an ability to run (or swim) left and right, as well as climb down ladders and fall through holes.

At times, the challenge this creates is quite stimulating and enjoyable. Can you climb up the ladder, run to the right, grab the gold bar and get back down the ladder WITHOUT getting hit by the bird? Or, can you get down the ladder without getting hopped on by the frog that’s bouncing back-and-forth in the vicinity of said ladder? There are a number of areas in Pitfall II where you’ll find your instincts and reflexes pushed to the maximum as Harry fights against all odds to make it through the Lost Caverns.

However, there also are several areas in which that stimulation turns into frustration. Even after all these years, I can still remember the rage I felt when attempting to complete the final gauntlet the game had to offer. I remember climbing up level after level, facing birds or bats on the majority of said levels. I remember hoping against hope that this would be the time I made it past each obstacle and rescued the cartoon's talking cat to win the game for the first time. And I remember getting hit and sent back to the checkpoint located toward the beginning of this gauntlet....over and over again until my eyes had glazed over and my brain felt as though an extra-large dose of Novocaine had been injected into it. I then remember letting a friend borrow that game and never complaining when he didn’t return it.

I know I’m sounding negative here, but I don’t want you to think that Pitfall II is a horrible game. Considering the system it originated on, the graphics are excellent and the world is huge. Sound-wise, you have the usual assortment of “beeps” and “boops” that the Atari 2600 is known for, so that really can’t count for or against the overall product. And, as I've said before, the cavern region that Harry is exploring is a vast and diverse world — something that was a rarity on a system where most games were stripped-down ports (or cheap rip-offs) of arcade classics.

My problem with the game is that I just expected something a bit more exceptional for the sequel to Pitfall. The first game had an aura of magic about it and I remember sweating and straining to dodge every obstacle to clear the jungle in 20 minutes. On many occasions, I’d survive for that long, but not make it back to the starting screen. Then, I figured that the underground paths were a necessary evil, forcing me to attempt surviving the deadly and intimidating scorpions. Tension hung on my every move, as even the slightest error on my part would doom Harry’s chances of succeeding in his quest.

In Pitfall II, that tension soon dissipates into tedium. Since you can’t die, it seems like the obstacles (such as the aforementioned bats) are tougher to get past. Since there is no time limit, there is less pressure on the player for much of the game — after all, if you fail, that only real penalty you'll face is the loss of some of your treasure-collecting points and you’ll only move back a handful of screens before trying again. And again....until you succeed by virtue of either memorizing enemy patterns or blind luck.

Sadly, all of these complaints mean this game just doesn't stand the test of time all that well. While many games on the Atari 2600 and other primitive systems can still provide fun with their simple, yet engaging, arcade action — Pitfall II is a different beast. It tries to maintain a level of arcade intensity while giving the player more room to explore and an infinite number of chances to complete that exploration. When Pitfall II first came out, it looked like a wonderful idea, but in retrospect, it seems as though what Activision did was create an adventure with a number of frustrating segments that the average player likely will get stuck doing repeatedly until the game becomes an exercise in tedium. Just like rolling that rock was for Sisyphus.

overdrive's avatar
Featured community review by overdrive (May 20, 2004)

Rob Hamilton is the official drunken master of review writing for Honestgamers.

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