Unranked: Super Pitfall

Super Pitfall
Nintendo Entertainment System

The timeline is slightly murky in my mind, but I am fairly certain that the first Nintendo game I every played was Super Pitfall or Legend of Zelda. As I have discussed in a few episodes, the first kid in our neighborhood to get an NES did not normally let me play. We discussed in our episode about Legend of Zelda what did happen when I did. I was allowed to play Super Pitfall once. I died about five seconds in, and the controller was taken away from me.

I still liked watching my so-called friend play the game. It was fascinating and while tiny by modern standards, I felt like a gamer could get lost in it. In a cool way. Not in the way you actually do in Super Pitfall. The more interesting part of the game was that it frustrated him. He was someone who could solve almost any game, but this one had him as puzzled as I was. This made me extremely curious about it.

I had heard of Pitfall on the computer and, in fact, that friend had it for the Commodore 64. For better or worse, by the time the NES came around, the game looked really primitive and uninteresting. It’s understandably considered a massively influential and game-changing game these days.

Super Pitfall ended up being one of the first games I got for the NES at Christmas 1988. We had my entire extended family at the house that year, which often happened because we were kind of in the middle for travel purposes, so I got a bunch of games from different aunt/uncle, etc, combos. Super Pitfall was among them. Over the years, it became a game I played a lot, but never finished until many, many, years ago. Every so often I would put it in my NES, mess around for a little while, get frustrated, and then put it away again. I actually thought it was unbeatable until a few years ago. More on that in a bit.

So, the plot of Super Pitfall goes something like this: Heroic adventurer Pitfall Harry must rescue his niece Rhonda and their sidekick, the lion Quickclaw after they get lost in a cave. Oh, and something about a gem.

As it came out fairly early in the NES years, Super Pitfall did not get much coverage in Nintendo Power. It did get mentioned a few times. In the July/August 1989 issue, which has Mega Man II as its featured game, Super Pitfall was mentioned in a feature documenting where 1UPs were in games like Super Mario Brothers, Mega Man, Zelda II, and some others.

I could not find a commercial for the NES version of Super Pitfall, but that was a commercial for the Intellevision and Atari 2600 version of Pitfall. That kid in the beginning is a very young Jack Black. It’s interesting how David Crane’s name gets mentioned as part of the advertisement. We had Pitfall on the Intellevision, but I don’t remember it much. I do remember playing it on the Atari at a friend’s house who still had their system set up years later.

The cover for Super Pitfall is pretty interesting, but also fairly misleading. Harry is trying to escape a bunch of enemies, which looks cool, but he is also trying to climb away from them. Outside a few ladders, you do not do a lot of that in the game. Ladders also are not safe stops either, as a flying enemy coming in fast can instakill you while on it. This is not a game where you can drop off to avoid them, like in Mega Man games for example. It is not unusual for covers to not fit the game, see the first few Mega Man games for example, but I also think it is worth pointing out.

I figured growing up that I just sucked at this game, or it was unsolvable. Turned out it was solvable, as proven on a website I found around 1998. I could not believe it. Super Pitfall had been totally indecipherable to me and someone else had figured out how to beat it. I was able to replicate their findings, but still felt totally empty while doing it.

The oddities of some games can be redeemable. Simon’s Quest is a game I have a fondness for despite its major, major, flaws. I have come around that Zelda II is a decent game. Super Pitfall is not redeemable. It is a mess and a total disaster in general. Pitfall was a revolutionary game that helped shift the direction of gaming. Super Pitfall is a bad knock from Super Mario Brothers with flaws that make it virtually unplayable. This game is such a back step from the other revolutionary games happening around it.

The first problem with this game is that the gun Harry uses absolutely sucks. It only shoots straight. You cannot shoot it while jumping. You cannot shoot most enemies until you are very close to them, and they often shoot back quicker than you can. It is your only weapon, so it is not like deciding between the straight shots of a powered up Master Sword or an angled attack with a boomerang in, for example, Legend of Zelda or the jumping fireball that you can angle in Super Mario Brothers. I recently did a replay of Metroid, and it is stunning how much more you can do in that game as well.

Why does it even need to be a gun given these limitations? For a game that clearly is a knock off Mario, you would think they might have chosen something else. It just seems really lazy and poorly thought out given the other innovative games happening at the time.

One of the interesting quirks of the level design of many early NES games is oddly placed blocks and ladders. The previously mentioned Castlevania II is a great example of this. Super Pitfall attempts to do this, but utterly fails at it in every way possible. There are a number of small ladders that go nowhere. Okay, fine, they could have been part of something larger and broken off. Maybe. Probably. The issue is that it does not end there. Some of these ladders not only go nowhere, but lead to you falling into a deep pit or onto spikes. A few of these would have gone a long way to show a player that you need to be careful about your movements, but there are excess amounts of it throughout the game. It is very frustrating and, given that you only get a few lives before having to start over, makes experimentation and taking chances to be a bit of a burden.

Some ladders are also very glitchy and can be climbed on close by. You can also get stuck next to them, as I witnessed on my most recent stream of the game.

Another frustration is the invisible items. Outside of randomly encountering them, there are no clues to how to access any of them. Jumping forward can end up sending you into a warp as well. In some ways, this pushes you forward in the game, but this game has minimal replay value, so working through it to find them is not going to happen. I barely made it through a 90 minute stream of the game.

Finally, what about those terrifying heads that come out of nowhere? They are so creepy looking!!! If even a slight effort was put into this game, there could have been some interesting things done with it. What are those heads? What are all the weird enemies at the bottom? Who lived here before? Why can frogs kill you? None of the questions is answered, and that is why Super Pitfall is a terrible game.


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