RetroVision Feature Part 1: Happy 37th Birthday, Pitfall Harry!

Activision’s 1982 platformer Pitfall! turned 37 years old on April 20. We raided the Activision Vault to uncover rare game prototypes, art, and amassed a retrospective charting the seminal game’s creation.

by David Hodgson on April 23, 2019

Inception: Little Running Man

Back in the early 1980s, some video games tended not to star fully-articulated, recognizable and animated characters. Instead developers were predisposed to create inanimate entities in their game offerings. But what about an avatar that could be seen climbing, running, and jumping, with a greater interaction than ever before? Enter Pitfall Harry…

Around 1980, there was already an early prototype, called the ‘little running man,’ which hadn’t been incorporated into a game yet. As a jungle theme was new to video games. The jungle path and trees were sketched, enemies and treasures were placed (to avoid and collect respectively), and with that Pitfall Harry now had a job to do as well as simply running.

A recreation of every element in the game, from an image originally appearing in the Pitfall! instruction booklet.

Creation: Three Lives. 20 Minutes. 32 Treasures. 256 Screens.

Pitfall Harry had but three lives, and 20 real-time minutes to find up to 32 treasures, and explore up to 256 different screens. With programmers at this time usually being responsible for art, code, and even the audio, Pitfall! fit its entire adventure within a 4 kilobyte limit. Innovative techniques achieved this feat.

It might be hard to believe today, but the fact that you changed locations when you moved off-screen was an astounding achievement back in 1982. It paved the way for future platformers.    

The final Pitfall! box art front and back, along with an unlicensed “homage” called Tom Boy.

Playable on the Atari 2600, Pitfall! was an engineering feat for its time.  The game featured animated sprites that didn’t flicker, some comprised of more than one color, and there was even an interactive, swinging vine! You can listen to David Crane explain all of his impressive technical achievements by watching Pitfall: A Classic Game Postmortem, a talk he gave to the GDC back in 2011. Essentially, the entire game world was made in fewer bytes than a single JPEG image!

Pitfall paraphernalia! Clockwise from bottom-left: Magazine adverts for the game, the complete instruction manual (including some tips from David Crane himself), and Crane’s hand-written notes for game completion!

Completion: It’s a Jungle in There!

Pitfall! wasn’t the original name. Throughout development, the working title was Jungle Runner, which almost made it to final production. Though descriptive, it was perhaps a little too on-the-nose. Zulu Gold was also briefly considered, before Pitfall! (with the exclamation mark) was decided upon.

With the name chosen, the crafting of all the other assets began: Sections of typewritten text were cut out by hand, then carefully placed with glued-on logos along with photographs and images from the game, as the laborious process of creating the instruction manual and box were undertaken (prior to the existence of most home computers).    

For those exhibiting Pitfall! prowess, Activision produced a special letter and badge (left). For those experiencing Pitfall! problems, there was a map and tips too (right).

Ovation: Release Success, and Tangible Achievements

Pitfall! was released on April 20, to considerable fanfare and went on to become one of the best-selling home video game of 1982. Activision created the Explorer’s Club, a tangible equivalent of today’s digital Achievements. For most games, the company provided physical patch badges to players reaching a preset milestone. In the case of Pitfall!, players scoring 20,000 points or more could send a photograph of their triumph and receive a congratulatory letter (from Pitfall Harry himself) and a triangular badge to be sewn or heat-sealed to your favorite stone-washed denim jacket.

The last badge request was in 2015. Unfortunately, the supplies of badges ran out in the late 1980s.

Join us in Part 2, as we detail 11 different versions of Pitfall!, uncovered from the Activision vault!


Pitfall!™ © Activision 1982-2019.

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