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Pitfall II: Lost Caverns (Atari 2600) artwork

Pitfall II: Lost Caverns (Atari 2600) review

"Pitfall II isn't a great game. It's tedious at some points, overly frustrating at others. However, it isn't a terrible one either. It has the classic Atari charm and an adventurous atmosphere."

I remember well stepping into the green hell of Pitfall II: Lost Caverns. I was nine then, inexperienced, still hadn't beaten or mastered a game, and was unwittingly about to dive into a masochistic paradise. I didn't know that it would be such a cruel game. It kicked off with charming music and a gorgeous violet-and-blue horizon crowning a sea of lush jungle trees. Of course, these days it looks like a mess of colorful squares, but then it was breathtaking. I couldn't fathom a game looking better on this system.

Breath stolen, I traipsed down the long jungle path in search of an entrance to the caverns beneath the trees. Denizens of the ecosystem greeted me with open talons, hungry teeth and venom-oozing stingers. I was without a weapon or means of offense, even unable to jump onto enemies to eliminate them. I guessed it was because these creatures were innocent, and that I was the interloper. Either that or the 2600's lack of a second button. With some tricky maneuvering, even a bit of frustration thanks to the stiff play control, I ducked under, jumped over, and swam past the worst that the preliminary segments had to offer. Escaping death is a matter of timing. I had to wait for just the right moment and strike then. One nanosecond off, though, and it was head-first into a condor's wing and back to the most recent checkpoint.

Pitfall II: Lost Caverns assetPitfall II: Lost Caverns asset

There was a lot to get psyched about. I discovered that there were infinite lives, and I thought that I could potentially beat this game if I persevered. It worked well with the fully explorable domain that Activision presented me with. I was free to explore all the nooks and crannies of this game without the stress of hitting a "game over" screen. What thrilled me most, though, was the objective. This wasn't just a quest for a higher score, but a rescue mission. Harry had to find the missing members of his crew, as well as snag a lost diamond from deep within the caverns. It gave the game a sense of importance. The premise was tangible, as I could see the members of his crew as I saved them. It wasn't a like many other Atari games, where the narrative was loosely attached to action that could have just about any premise. It was enough that I felt resolute about finishing this game as I descended into the caves.

...and into madness.

The colorful graphics were like a soothing lie. The game had charmed me, and now that my defenses were down and I trusted it, it was going to break me. Where I expected the caves to be a veritable maze, I found only a tight rail with a few branching areas. The path I followed was straightforward, usually uncomplicated and occasionally broken by an extra room or corridor to explore. Sometimes you poked your head into a room and found nothing. Wasted space. Other times you only found gold, which was useless unless you cared about racking up a higher score.

Much of the rail was dull and uninteresting. At one point I climbed down a ladder that had to be fifty stories tall. Every few feet a platform would appear, sometimes with a side route leading to nothing special or the occasional enemy. For the most part, it was just a long, pointless ladder leading down, as if Activision couldn't think of anything else to do with this portion of the caverns. What really stings is that they had another segment similar to this. Two tedious ladder climbs!

Worse yet was dying while descending the ladder. God forbid you make a mistake, because the game will not let you forget it. I remember thinking I was clever, that I would bypass the ladder by dropping down to the bottom platform. I leaped down the hole containing the ladder and laughed as I breezed past bat after bat. Laughed hard until I fell on a frog. Harry froze on the screen, the music stopped, and my avatar began to blink as if admonishing me for sucking at video games. The adventurous music replayed in a more torpid and disheartened tone. Apparently the game was disappointed with my misstep. Harry began his slooooowwww ascent back to the top of the mess and the checkpoint. The music continued to drone on, yet it seemed to not have the same adventurous spring-in-your-step feel. Maybe that was just me.

Pitfall II: Lost Caverns assetPitfall II: Lost Caverns asset

The seemingly endless ladder was small potatoes. I would learn true pain as I reached the closing acts. Near the end, I had to ascend and weave my way through a gauntlet of corridors and ladders, each room guarded by either a bat or a condor. Activision must have been in love with these animals, because they featured them ad nauseam at this point. Dodging these suckers was the pits, especially with the stiff controls. The bats bobbed as they flew along the screen, where the condors rose and fell in a long zigzag. My only chance of dodging them was to slip under them at the crests of their flight patterns. More often than not, I was a split second too late. The timing on these creatures was super demanding, giving me no room for mistake.

This is where the game totally crushed my skull, but I was determined to win. I biffed it more times than I cared to count. Where this segment might take more experienced gamers a few minutes, it took me hours. This is where my stubborn gaming habits were born. No matter how frustrating the game was, how hairy the challenge felt, or how many times I died, I never gave in. I got a sick satisfaction from dusting myself off and starting over. I hated to admit it, but I liked having my ass handed to me. I didn't know it then, but I was building a habit that would stick with me as a gamer. It was this same masochism that would guide me through games like Demon's Souls and Super Meat Boy. I also enjoyed my adventure enough despite the tedium, and I needed to finish it.

After hours of passing underneath condors and growling at bats, I saw a scorpion. A break in the gauntlet! I ascended the ladder carefully so as not to fail and restart. There lie my goal, what the looked like a strange monkey-like creature. I snagged it and kicked back to enjoy the ending: Pitfall Harry jumping up and down until the music stopped. That was it. I was satisfied. Having not been a psychology minor yet, I didn't know about reinforcement. Nor did I realize I had just rewarded my masochistic behavior and sight-blurring anger.

I look back on Pitfall II now with a mix of emotions. I respect the hell out of it because it was revolutionary for its time. The visuals were stunning, and it was one of the first home games to include an actual soundtrack. It canned the idea of levels and "game over" years before most console games, giving us a small world with plenty to explore. Yet, much of this "world" was padding. There were too many dead ends and useless passageways, not to mention a ton of recycled scenarios. Almost any time I encountered an enemy, it was in the same situation as the previous nine times I encountered it. I saw a scorpion, I jumped over it. Problem solved! I saw a bat, I ran underneath it. Case closed! Unlike its arcade counterpart, Pitfall II lacks variety. It wouldn't have been that hard to include other perils, or at least rework the ones it did have into newer situations once in a while.

Pitfall II isn't a great game. It's tedious at some points, overly frustrating at others. However, it isn't a terrible one either. It has the classic Atari charm and an adventurous atmosphere. It's been said about various other pieces of entertainment across many different mediums: it started off solidly, but fell apart in the closing acts. That describes Pitfall II perfectly.

JoeTheDestroyer's avatar
Community review by JoeTheDestroyer (April 28, 2012)

Rumor has it that Joe is not actually a man, but a machine that likes video games, horror movies, and long walks on the beach. His/Its first contribution to HonestGamers was a review of Breath of Fire III.

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bloomer posted April 29, 2012:

Being interested in Pitfall 2, I enjoyed this review. I have the same perspective of the game ('It's tough and the hazards are samey over time') but a much more positive reaction to that perspective. Mind you I played the Apple II port, which is the same world and gameplay etc., but maybe the controls there worked better or something.

One thing you didn't mention that I especially liked is that when you turn into a ghost and your ghost floats back to the checkpoint, that often gives you quite a tantalising view of areas you haven't reached yet.

Something else I only just learned myself (wikipedia) was that the Atari Cart contained custom hardware.
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aschultz posted April 29, 2012:

I liked this review too. It almost made me want to go back and play the I looked at a map...

...and discovered this. Apparently the Atari 8-bit has a 2nd level, which both fascinates me and scares me.

I forgot how repetitive the game could be, and I forgot how easy it was to get killed and be annoyed by going back through the water. I think Pitfall may've done a better job of mixing up backgrounds (e.g. whether there were logs, a wall in the basement, or holes/water/alligators.) But P2 always amazed me and I was glad to work through it.

Also, I agree about getting killed and seeing new parts.
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JoeTheDestroyer posted April 29, 2012:

Thank you both for reading and commenting! I actually forgot you could view unexplored areas in ghost mode. I think it's because I was so annoyed by slowly transporting back to the checkpoint that I didn't notice.

I loved this game as a kid, even though it irritated the hell out of me. I think this review covers the points better than my original one at GameFAQs from years ago.

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