Thursday, February 26, 2009


Pitfall! is considered the first major platformer, and an important piece of video game history. The game was released in 1982 for the Atari 2600 and soon found its way to the ColecoVision, Commodore 64, Intellivision, and Sega SG-100. I think the game is also playable via GameTap, but who cares? It was the second biggest seller on the 2600, surpassed only by Pac-Man. Unfortunately, Pac-Man on the 2600 is one of the worst games ever made. Pitfall!, however, is amazing.

You control Pitfall Harry through a jungle, jumping over pits of tar and water. You can swing from vines, jump on alligators, and collect treasure. Pitfall! has a unique game mechanic: you only have 20 minutes to beat the entire game. The perfect game results in only 1:42 seconds left on the clock... so you've almost no time to enjoy the detailed landscapes. You can complete the game by collecting all 32 treasures scattered about the jungle. Don't expect an ending, however. When you beat the game, everything just stops moving.

The world of Pitfall! is composed of 256 screens, each with some combination of pits, animals, logs, treasure, fire, and vines. The player can choose to progress through the game in either direction, but it is generally easier to move from right to left. Occasionally, you will have access to underground passages infested with giant scorpions. These passages allow for extremely quick travel: each underground screen corresponds to three above ground screens. To complete the game, you must use these passages.

Collecting treasure adds to your score, while tripping on a log or falling down a hole reduces your score. All the other obstacles (including the water and tar pits) simply kill you, and you have three lives (and are unable to collect more). A perfect score is 114,000 points.

Pitfall! was created by David Crane (who also made A Boy and His Blob, a similar game... sort of), and the famous anecdote is that he designed the game in 10 minutes and programmed it in 1000 hours. He probably could have spent a little more time in planning, but, I must admit, Pitfall! withstands the 27 year test of time.

My friend had this game, and I remember swinging across vines and jumping on alligators. However, at the time I didn't have the benefit of the internet and we had no idea what the goal of the game was, other than exploring. It was fun, but completely eclipsed by the fluid gameplay and fantastical world of Super Mario Brothers.

Pitfall! was a technological accomplishment upon release, proving that the Atari 2600 could make games that didn't look like garbage. Activision has tried to update Pitfall several times, resulting in several abominations (Pitfall 2 is pretty good, but I haven't played it much). Ironically, the installments with the least technological advantages proved to be the best games. As with many classics, Pitfall! possess an almost supernatural magnetism. Play one single game of Pitfall! and tell me you don't hunger for more.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Arcadia Part One: Chasing Ghosts: Beyond the Arcade

This is the first entry in a three part piece entitled Arcadia. The second and third installments will cover philosophic readings of Berserk and some personal experiences in arcade hunting, respectively. Part one reviews the movie that inspired these articles.

Chasing Ghosts: Beyond the Arcade is a brilliant documentary detailing the glorious rise and ultimate fall of the Golden Age of video games. Comparisons between GC:BtA and King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters will inevitably arise: both documentaries star some of the same people and examine similar themes and ideas. King of Kong, unfortunately, proved highly inaccurate for a documentary (despite telling a great story). Chasing Ghosts does not suffer from the same problem.

The film draws an implicit parallel between the lives of some of the greatest arcade players and the end of the Arcade Era. Some stories are truly sad, even depressing, but the film doesn't just poke fun at them. There is a respect for the subject matter, an understanding that life doesn't work out for everyone, and, hey, these people are still living even after their dreams were crushed.

These players were on top of the world from 1980-1983, when the market started to crash. The most powerful image in the film is a series of arcades flashing, with the date they closed at the bottom. Dozens of arcades closed their doors between 1983 and 1985, and almost overnight the arcade scene was decimated. Some made their living from video games, and were left unemployed. Others were disillusioned and left the gaming world forever. Others dedicated their lives to preserving arcade gaming in history.

Ultimately, Chasing Ghosts is about lost dreams. Arcades were magical places, highly social, unique creations. The world turned its back on them, and some of the players subsequently turned their back on the world. Video games survived, but the arcade is dead; it was intense and brief like the life of a Romantic poet. Surely all things are transient, but arcades were something special, and their death was premature.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Dr. Zilog, Malevolent Necropolis

I've been listening to the latest cd by Dr. Zilog, Malevolent Necropolis. It's free to download on his myspace blog. It's a death medal odyssey using 8-bit sounds and common 8-Bit video game themes with at least one Sealab 2021 reference and plenty of 8-bit thrashing. 12 tracks, 32:42 hours and minutes long. I'm not a music critic but I know rhetorical devices, humor, sarcasm, and good video game music, though, in this case, curiously without the video game. Likely too intense for any games we play unlike the demonically-programmed arcade deathfest this album would demand.