Pitfall II: Arcade Version

Have no fear, we’ve not forgotten about Arcade Mermaid, our regular classic arcade feature. I don’t think this post is quite the right material for it, but it’s still very interesting.

People who played the Atari VCS, later renamed the Atari 2600, will no doubt remember David Crane’s seminal Pitfall!, one of the greatest, and certainly one of the best-selling, games for the system.

Pitfall’s huge success spurred the creation of a sequel, Pitfall II: Lost Caverns, which is certainly among the most technically brilliant games for the VCS. We recently covered how one of its best tricks was how it managed to get music out of the Atari’s TIA chip that few other games were capable of. That’s not all it did. Pitfall! was one of the very first exploratory platformers, and Pitfall II expanded its focus greatly. Some might call it the first Metroidvania, although it doesn’t have the item-based progression gating usually associated with that genre.

It does have great design ingenuity though. It gets its challenge not through limited lives but its huge and complex system of caverns. In fact, it abandons lives entirely, replacing them with a checkpoint system, another possible first. Getting “killed” never ends the game, instead, it just costs points and returns the player’s surrogate Pitfall Harry to the last cross he touched. So anyone, given enough time and effort, can finish the game; they might not have a good score when they do it though, which still leaves room for players to improve.

Pitfall II, with its huge world and great music on a system not known to be able to support either, powered by a custom microchip that Crane himself designed, called the DPC, would undoubtedly have been a giant hit if it had been released a year before. Sadly, it came out right at the end of the VCS/2600’s life. Crane had hopes that the DPC would help revive the system but, sadly, it became the only game to utilize it.

But that wasn’t the end of Pitfall II. While it was designed around the limitations of the VCS, it received ports for several other systems, including the Apple II, the Atari 5200 and Atari’s 8-bit computers (which both had a secret second world to explore after finishing the first!), the Commodore 64 of course, Colecovision, MSX, SG-1000 and ZX Spectrum. It even got a kind of NES port, called Super Pitfall, which was programmed by anonymous NES contractor Micronics and is widely regarded as terrible. And then, there was the arcade version.

Sega’s arcade version of Pitfall II is more of a recreation than a port! It’s divided into levels and goes back to the standard arcade paradigm of limited lives. Its first level resembles a condensed version of the first game, with some extra hazards built it. The game world is both smaller and harder than the original, to make it harder to master and thus entice players to put in more money. You can see for yourself in the below playthrough, a deathless run up on the Replay Burners channel. Videos on Replay Burners are done cheatless and without tool-assist, so you can be assured that an actual player performed this run and not a control script. The video is about 27 minutes long.

How David Crane Got Good Music Out Of The Atari VCS For Pitfall II

Back in 2013, David Crane chimed in on a thread about Pitfall II. The Atari VCS (a.k.a. 2600) was not known for the quality of its music. For sound effects, especially noise effects like blasts and booms, it was fine, but its TIA chip didn’t have the frequency resolution to produce every musical note precisely, meaning some of it notes would sound a bit off.

Pitfall II’s music, some of the best on the system in the classic era

There was technically a way to produce almost arbitrary waveforms, though like many techniques on the system it was processor-intensive. It involved changing the volume on one of its sound channels in real time to simulate the waveform of the sound you wanted to make. That was fine so long as you didn’t need the processor to do anything else, and sadly, on the VCS, just displaying graphics relied heavily on the processor.

Pitfall II, VCS/2600 version. Image from Mobygames.

David Crane managed to get decent polyphonic music out of the VCS by using Pitfall II’s DPC chip, which Crane created himself, as a co-processor that figured out the right values to set the volume to produce the mixed waveform for the music at a specific time, which the machine’s overworked 6507 CPU could then read and send to the right volume register in the TIA every scanline. The process is explained (to the understanding of a sufficiently technical frame of mind) here. I think I understand it myself!

The fact that David Crane is still around, and so willing to discuss the many tricks he came up with to make his games, is a great blessing, as is the existence of the AtariAge forums themselves, which are a trove of classic gaming information.

Nowadays this technique has been refined and utilized in homebrew cartridge productions. A particular standout is the music from Champ Games’ version of Mappy, which is frankly amazing. Check it out:

Sundry Sunday: Commercial For Pitfall!

Welcome to a new week! You swam through tyrannical employers, terrible social media, and a generally-appalling political situation. To help make up for it, let’s watch an old commercial for the Atari VCS game Pitfall!, and if that kid at the front looks slightly familiar, that’s only because it’s Jack Black.

The other actors in this video are also pretty interesting. Video games were considered interesting to general audiences in the U.S. before the crash. We’re still not entirely sure what changed. A lot of people point to a glut of awful games for the Atari VCS/2600, but it affected arcades too, as well as the Intellivision and ColecoVision. Video games suddenly just seemed uncool to most demographics, for some reason. In Japan, Nintendo was known to be concerned that a similar kind of thing might have happened when the Super Nintendo Entertainment System hit the U.S. market. Thankfully it didn’t.

News 7/24/22: Knockoff Internet Lego

“We scour the Earth web for indie, retro, and niche gaming news so you don’t have to, drebnar!” – your faithful reporter

At TechRadar, Jeremy Peel is set on telling us about Rogue Mage, an expansion to the Gwent card roguelite game set in the Witcher universe. Hey! Did you know there are roguelike games that don’t involve building a deck? It’s true!

At NintendoLife, Jim Norman (hey! a new guy!) informs of a blatant knockoff of beloved indie perennial Mini Metro on the Switch eShop. Boo! Hiss! Burble! Splorch! It’s like some folk on your planet were born without shame glands.

Jorge Jiminez at PC Gamer tells us the FCC is trying to get everyone in the US good internet. As a one-celled life form from a distant planet I don’t have much stake in the matter, but I can be happy for people by proxy, and do you know why? It’s because I’m not a jerk, drebnar! Glad to see the agency is trying to recover from that horrid stance against Net Neutrality back during what I understand Earth people call “the years of the carrot monster.”

Meow

At Kotaku, John Walker (another new name!) sounds a harsh note about Stray, a game that most of the internet has enthused over, by mentioning how, while it starts with you playing as a very cat-like cat, by the end you’re also playing as their robot companion a lot, and shooting things all zappy zappy, and doing a lot of video game stuff. It still doesn’t sound at all like a bad game, but just, something a bit different by the end than people may expect?

Bunches of people have been talking about the new Lego set that lets you build a plastic Atari 2600, our link to the subject is CapnRex101 at Brickset, a Lego fansite. It looks like a great model that is full of detail, although notably it retails for $240. For that price you could probably get your hands on a real VCS, although at the cost of it being actually playable, at least if you have a CRT lying around. But if you were going to go that far, you’d probably just look into getting a Flashback.

Fixing E.T.

It’s nine years old, but I’m amazed by how few seem to know of these old projects that litter the internet, and this is one that’s definitely worth revisiting.

When people talk about reasons for the Great Game Crash of 1983 (which, it should be remembered, was mostly a crash in the U.S., other countries didn’t suffer much loss in popularity), one reason sometimes given was the lack of quality of one specific game: Howard Scott Warshaw’s E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, for the Atari VCS/2600. (That’s not really the point of this post. For more of this, seen the Addendum, below.)

I should emphasize that it was easy to get frustrated by E.T. Its development was rushed so that it could be in stores in time for the 1982 Christmas season. Warshaw’s previous work Yars’ Revenge was a huge hit for Atari, but its successor, Raiders of the Lost Ark, is possibly a bit too experimental. I think E.T. is a better game than Raiders, it’s easier to learn certainly, but it has some definite issues that make it very frustrating to play.

There were a number of issues, but the biggest by far was that it was extremely easy to fall into the many pits that dotted the landscape of the game’s version of Earth, and after floating up out of one, it was just as easy to immediately fall back into one again. You could fall into a pit merely from changing screens in the wrong location.

Back in 2013, a user in the AtariAge forums using the handle recompile produced a hack to fix the game’s problems, including this one. They made a page that the hack from which could be downloaded, and explained, in great technical detail, how it had been made. The result has slightly worse graphics than the original, but is much more playable, and reveals that there is a very interesting game hidden beneath the rushed product mandated by Atari’s managers. Not only is the page and his work still up now, nine years later, but so is the AtariAge thread he made.

Remember: a delayed game is eventually good, but a bad game is bad until someone with enough time, energy and technical know-how takes it upon themselves to fix it, which in E.T.‘s case was about 31 years from its release.

Addendum

Was E.T. the real reason for the U.S. crash? Honestly, I’m dubious. It’s likely a contributing factor, but a slight one. But the fact that it can’t be ruled out, and probably helped a little, makes it something that many writers can point to without much fear of contradiction. It’s the way many narratives are built.

But there were plenty of good games, by the standards of the time, to offset the fortunes of any single title. A more likely explanation was a deluge of bad games, and a market oversaturated by them produced by companies looking for a quick buck, so that unless a consumer had done their research, it was difficult to separate the worthwhile purchases from the cash grabs.

Video games had, almost overnight, turned into a billion-dollar business. For a few years, specifically 1978 to 1982, the success of arcades, and of the Atari VCS and a number of excellent games for it, tantalized a nation. For a brief period, almost everyone sold game cartridges. I remember seeing them on the racks of drug stores during that time.

Then, almost as suddenly as it had risen, it collapsed. No one knew which games were good and which were bad. Even the good ones were pretty expensive: a $30 game in 1982 was nearly $90 in today’s (2022) money. All of those stores that had jumped on the bandwagon were left with piles of unsold inventory. Console gaming died out almost completely for a few years, until the arrival of the NES, and some canny moves by Nintendo of America, resurrected the industry in the land of its birth.

Homebrew Atari VCS/2600 Arcade Ports

The long-running Atari fansite AtariAge sells a number of carts that run on classic Atari VCS systems that make it do things you might not expect that system could do. Some of the most impressive of these are remakes of classic arcade games that go far beyond what was possible at the time. A number of these were developed by Champ Games. Here are links to a number of videos showing them off, although sone of the may not currently be in their store:

Galagon” – Wizard of WorZoo KeeperAvalancheScrambleSuper CobraMappy (especially this one!)

A few others, not from Champ Games: Aardvark (Anteater) – Venture ReloadedSpace Rocks (Asteroids) – Star CastlePac-ManDraconian (Bosconian)

Video: Atari Archive

Atari Archive is one of those projects that seeks to document every game released for some platform. In this case, it’s for the Atari VCS. That’s the original one, the real one, CX2600, not the one made by the company that currently wears the skin of the old Atari like a gruesome shroud.

The Atari VCS/2600 wasn’t the first programmable video game console, but it was certainly the most popular early console. (I had my own look at a few interesting examples of its software in a book of my own.)

Atari Archive is currently up to Episode 57, on Kaboom! Episodes tend to be in the 10-15 minute range, making it easy to find out about specific games in a timely fashion. Here are a few popular games to get you started:

#56: Warlords#54: Missile Command#33: Adventure#32: Space Invaders – and, of course, #1: Combat