Reviewed: April 5, 2004
Released: February 17, 2004
If you have never heard of the VH-1 Syndrome, it’s a new disease that has been sweeping the nation since VH1 started broadcasting their Behind the Music series. Behind the Music is VH-1’s informational series which documents the careers of washed-up, outdated artists by quixotically conveying the stories of love, pain, and betrayal that led to the artists’ roller coaster ride with stardom. Due to the excellent writing and storytelling on VH-1’s part, one generally leaves an episode of Behind the Music not only respecting the featured artist, but also enjoying the artist’s work – no matter how much they disliked said artist previously. Sadly, I myself have gained appreciation for the likes of Gwen Stefani, Shania Twain and Alanis Morissette all because of VH-1. It’s called the VH-1 Syndrome, it’s real. and now it’s coming to video games.
You see, a few weeks back I was recently watching my favorite national cable television “video game network” which aired a special regarding the remaking of the popular 80’s Activision game series, Pitfall. As a child in the 80’s, my parents were terribly mean and refused to buy me an Atari 2600 like all the other kids’ parents would, so I had to resort to sleepovers at friends’ houses to get a gaming fix. Generally, if we were looking to get our “Indiana Jones” on, Pitfall took a back seat to the much more engaging Jungle Hunt. However, there were a few nights where we did blister thumbs to Pitfall Harry’s antics – especially when Pitfall II hit the racks, so I felt compelled to tune in and see what my old friend Harry was up to. By the end of the episode – I was counting the days for Pitfall: The Lost Expedition. Darn VH-1 syndrome.
In that half-hour program, I learned that the development team, Edge of Reality, was made up of a group of hardcore gamers who really had all the best intentions to making a great game for all to enjoy. I learned that they had serious hardware limitations to deal with and needed to cut a more than a few corners in order to fit the PS2 memory architecture. I also learned that Edge of Reality was under the gun to get Pitfall: The Lost Expedition released for the holidays, but the developers were unhappy with the technical quality of their final builds at deadline and made the bold choice to ask Activision to allow them to further tweak the game engine, effectively missing the holiday sales. Activision agreed to their request and announced such to the world. This show of artistic integrity sold me on Edge of Reality and Activision and garners them an extra point in my final ratings.
Pitfall comes across as a bit of a mixed bag in the gameplay department. While it features a lot of the old tried-and-true, hop’n’bop switch flipping platformer elements, there is also a smattering of slapdash genre-bending segments which successfully add elements of stealth, pure action and adventure to the mix. And for the most part, Activision and Edge of Reality have pulled it off…for the most part.
The story opens with our hero, Pitfall Harry, riding aboard a plane where he meets the famous Dr. Bittenbinder and the his bodacious archeological assistant, Nicole. A freak storm forces the plane down in the middle of the jungle in South America. The scene cuts to Harry, emerging from the wreckage realizing that his plans have suddenly changed, setting him on an expedition to find the missing companions.
The first thing you’ll notice about the “new” Pitfall is that Edge of Reality has done a wonderful job incorporating every aspect of what made the “old” Pitfall such a classic. Everything from the old 80’s series is included; vines, holes, gators, scorpions, ladders, fire, bats – the whole package is present and accounted for, and all within the first few minutes of play. Not to be content with a simple rehash however, the developers threw in a bunch of new enemies – porcupines, piranhas, jaguars, bush ninjas, howler monkeys and natives – and mixed it all up in beautiful 3D.
Harry’s journey takes him through a series of fifty-some levels set on intertwining circular paths. Each level is akin to a room, or screen, from the old games – with a definite entrance and exit (sometimes two or three of each for rooms that serve as junctions between circuits) and each reentry respawns the enemies within.
The way it works is this: Harry wanders around a circuit discovering areas or rooms that he is blocked, or locked, from entering and is informed of a needed item to unblock, or unlock, said area. These needed items are then marked on Harry’s map. As Harry continues to wander he will soon come across the necessary item (fire for instance) that has been marked on his map. Obtaining the item usually requires some form boss encounter, puzzle element, or purchase, and once attained, Harry sets off on a backtracking adventure to use the item to open the new area. Once a new path is opened, Harry enters, finds new blocked, or locked, areas and the process repeats itself.
This brings up my first issue with Pitfall: The Lost Expedition. While Edge of Reality has done a wonderful job of carrying the essential 80’s Pitfall elements into the 21st century, they really could have done without the tedious repetition of find-the-key backtracking puzzles. Twenty years ago, all we were concerned about was staying alive for as long as possible and possibly “rolling the score” (look that one up, kiddies) – so seeing the same damn room fifteen hundred times with the same damn scorpion coming across at exactly the same pace was nice and familiar. But this is 2004 – the 21st century – and seeing the same room even just five times reeks of lameness. And five times is a very conservative figure for The Lost Expedition.
And then there’s the remembering. Seriously, this game nearly gave me a nervous breakdown what with all of the remembering I had to do – I mean there were times where I was searching for half a dozen or more items I needed to open twice as many areas – areas which were as far away from my present location as they could be, meaning yet another complete backtracking of the levels I had already seen a half-dozen times before.
Aside from the backtracking hell, the actual play of Pitfall is quite enjoyable. Controlling Harry feels natural and the camera control is quite nice as well. As you progress through the game you are afforded a surprising number of new combat and jumping moves either through on-screen hints (early on) and/or shaman purchase (later on). Each new move serves a definite purpose and many can be used as “keys” to unlock new areas – for instance, some ledges require a high jump to reach.
One interesting move Harry learns easy on is a Marble Madness-like rolling maneuver intended for sneaking up on camouflaged natives and/or accessing low entryways. Funny though, Harry actually moves faster in this position than on foot, and since he’s relatively hidden beneath the foliage and protected from attack, you’ll find yourself rolling Harry through all of the backtrack levels just so you can get through them as fast as possible.
Vine swinging in any game is always a blast (well, except for that level of Tomb Raider Chronicles I couldn’t get past, but I won’t go there) and the mechanics here are dead-on – as good or better than that of the chain swinging mechanics used in ICO. Then again, Pitfall Harry was the original “swinger” so would you expect any less?
The swimming mechanics are great as well, with an almost Track and Field quality of button mashing, Point A-to-Point B, goodness that doesn’t get all wrapped up and confusing like, say Ape Escape where you find yourself inadvertently diving when you want to turn. This leads to an interesting addition; the developers don’t let you forget that there are alligators sharing the waters, and if one sees you he will go under for attack. Your only defense it to get the hell out of Dodge (remember to zigzag, people) lest you end up in the jaws of the hungry reptile. Thankfully, using the right analog stick, you can get Harry to pry open the croc’s jaws from the inside. The subsequent animation of Harry emerging from the gator’s mouth, being bent like a card between two fingers and suddenly flung from the gator’s mouth, is hilarious and only consumes one of your many health blocks.
As fun as the swimming is, this does bring up a second nagging issue with The Lost Expedition – getting out of the water. Unlike similar platformers that let you jump out of the water pretty much anywhere, Pitfall only allows you to leave the water by walking out at predetermined locations. And these locations aren’t always easy to find. Oh sure, you may know a general area, let’s say a ramp is protruding from the water obviously leading the next area, but swim to it and it may take several tries of butting Harry up against the ramp before he finally emerges.
Harry soon picks up a sling, which can be upgraded over time, for performing ranged projectile attacks. However, using the sling could have used a tad more vibration feedback in my opinion because maybe it would have made it a bit more exciting. As it was, I hardly used it even with the upgrades because it never felt like I was really in control of the weapon.
Pitfall: The Lost Expedition features the standard platformer terrain – ice, lava, jungle, water – it’s all here and most requires special equipment to navigate. Ice levels require pick axes, lava requires special shoes, water levels require a raft. As I mentioned earlier, Harry carries a map which shows his current location along with visual markings showing where special equipment or moves are required to progress. Problem is, the map is considerably confusing and cumbersome to use, and the icons are so small and similarly colored that it soon becomes difficult to distinguish one from another.
Pitfall: The Lost Expedition is no slouch in the graphics department, resembling Capcom’s Maximo titles in landscape, foliage and effects. Like Maximo, Pitfall may have a relatively small list of enemy types, but the character models used sport fluid animations and movement. Pitfall’s camera control is solid and the background draw distance is quite impressive considering the scope of some areas. But that segues into nicely into my next problematic issue with Pitfall.
Really my only complaint with the graphical quality would have to be the “Dr. Muto Effect” which rears its ugly head once again. First noticed in Midway’s platformer Dr. Muto, the “Dr. Muto Effect” is what I like to call the visual anomaly where interactive objects (enemies, switches, rewards) appear from thin air as soon they fall within a set imaginary sphere which surrounds the main character. Generally, the static backgrounds and non-interactive elements are always present on-screen, it’s only the interactive elements that require real processing power that remain hidden until you approach. It is obvious that this is done to conserve memory, but it does lend to confusion and forces you to examine every nook and cranny of every level lest you miss a hidden object which might suddenly appear.
The sound quality of Pitfall is the really nothing to write home about. The sound effects are standard fare, and the voicework is average to above-average. Too bad the writing is cliché video game fodder – cocky hero-type, smug villain-type, feisty princess-type – I really could have done without the characters. Then again, the Charles Nelson Reilly-like feline added a slightly humorous dash of “Queer Eye” to the mix – if you know what I mean.
Pitfall: The Lost Expedition is a solid platformer in its own right, and delivers an enjoyable experience. It also comes packaged with playable versions of the original Pitfall and Pitfall II titles from the Atari 2600 days. So, is it a good value? At $40, not really.
With titles like Ratchet and Clank and Jak and Daxter selling for the same price or less, I really couldn’t recommend The Lost Expedition over those masterworks. The reason is quite simple; every aspect of either of those titles outshines Pitfall. And I’m not saying that to knock the developers, it’s just that Sony has the deep pockets and the experience to make some pretty amazing stuff. But then again, if you’ve tired of the Sony first party platformers, or if you really want to get your old 2600 fix on again – you will enjoy Pitfall at least for a limited time.
Pitfall Harry’s foray into the 21st century is not without faults – but still manages to be a lot of fun. For $40 Pitfall just can’t compete with the first-party platformers. On the bargain rack however, Harry definitely has the brass to stand out amongst on the tier-two competition – Ty, Haven, Vexx and I-Ninja. Wait around for Pitfall Harry to shed a few dollars and you’ll definitely be happy. But for now, you may want to rent.
And again – kudos go to Edge of Reality and Activision for putting quality over cash flow and making sure a quality title made it to the shelves.