Back in 1982, I was as excited as everyone else about Pitfall!. The game looked amazing - a swashbuckling adventure in the jungle, finding hidden treasures while swinging on vines over quicksand pits and crocodiles. The hero, Pitfall Harry, is drawn and animated like an actual running person, the backgrounds have lush colors, and the jungle inhabitants look like the animals they represent, unlike in a certain earlier Atari 2600 "adventure" game where your character was a square, the world was a monochrome maze, and the dragons looked like ducks.
Though not a true sidescroller, Harry runs through the jungle, screen-by-screen, and each screen presents an obstacle (or two or three) for him to overcome. Such objects include pits, logs, and snakes that he must jump over, or large chasms that Harry either circumvents with a vine while yelling like Tarzan, or waiting until they close up to hurry on through. Some ponds have crocodile heads that, in cases where a vine is absent, must be leaped across while being careful not to land in their open mouths. This is, perhaps, Pitfall!'s most iconic scenario.
Despite how awesome all of this is, my fascination with Pitfall! would prove to be short-lived. The game has 255 screens, but it also has a 20 minute time limit. No matter how skilled you are, it's impossible to explore every screen in 20 minutes. This meant that every time I played the game, it would pretty much go the same way. You can go left or right at the beginning, but no matter which way I chose, I'd play for the 20 minutes, and the game would always end at about the same spot.
I supposed the point was to try to get the highest score possible (only treasures add to Harry's total, but some things, like hitting logs and falling into pits, can deduct from it), but I wasn't compelled to. The manual made it sound like getting 20,000 points was the main goal, as you could send in a photograph of that score or higher to receive a special "Explorer's Club" badge. I quickly learned that it's easy to get 4x that amount by taking the left path, but I never sent away for my badge.
Had I, within an hour, really seen and done everything there was to do with Pitfall!? For years, I felt the game was overrated. Fast-forward to the Age of the Internet, when if there is more to a game than what it seems, someone out there is bound make it known. It turns out, Pitfall! is actually beatable. See, I never understood the significance of the underground tunnels because all I ever saw down there were brick walls and scorpions. That was a critical error.
The tunnels are not 1:1 with the screens above them. By taking the tunnels, you will skip over multiple screens. This is the only way to find all 32 of the jungle's hidden treasures. If someone were inclined to map the game, they could discover a route that would allow them to get them all in the time limit.
I don't think that the moment you're stuck on a game, you should look up the answer right away, but rather give yourself reasonable time to figure it out on your own. But as of writing this review, Pitfall! is over 40 years old. At this point, I wasn't interested in mapping it - I just wanted to close the curtain on this oddity from decades past. So, I consulted several different FAQs, maps, and videos that are already available. While there are multiple possible routes, I was having trouble with running out of time, so I went with the one that's been proven to be the quickest.
Even when armed with all of this information Pitfall! is one tough cookie to complete. Several nights of playing and countless failed attempts later, I finally pulled it off with 7 seconds left. My score wasn't perfect, but I don't care.
Did this give me a new perspective? I actually felt tension and nervousness whenever I got close to the final treasure, up to and including my successful run. That never happened before - not in the 80's nor any time I played it throughout the years to see if I still felt the same way about it. Yet, even though I had outside help, the game did ultimately give me that experience, which is really rare on the Atari 2600. That definitely counts for something, and perhaps I misjudged it.
So, this game I would've given no more than 2 stars in the past, I'll now bump to a humble 3.5. I'm hestitant to give any higher because I'm not interested in continuing to play for the perfect score. For those who have done that, or are working on it, my hat's off to you. I'm satisfied in having the sun set on this 40-year treasure hunt, and much like Pitfall Harry himself, I can now swing away into other, more uncharted territories.