Before There Was Nathan Drake, There Was Pitfall Harry

Before There Was Nathan Drake, There Was Pitfall Harry

The third game in the Uncharted series is out this week, and will once again bring to the fore the adventures of a man in sloppy clothing climbing all over stuff while stealing priceless artefacts.

Which takes me back. Not the the first two Uncharted games. Way back. To the series that tipped its hat to Indiana Jones long before Nathan Drake did: Pitfall.

The story of Pitfall begins in 1979, when legendary developer David Crane worked out a way to animate a running man on the Atari 2600. In that same year Crane, who had been working for Atari, left the company and became one of the co-founders of a little publisher you may know as Activision.

By 1982 he’d built a game around this animation, and in September of that year Activision released Pitfall for the Atari 2600. It was, and remains, a pretty unique title: playing as the tomb raider Pitfall Harry, you had 20 minutes to get hold of the game’s 32 “treasures”, each buried somewhere in a jungle full of scorpions and crocodiles.

Some of the game’s key features were the fact you couldn’t kill the bad guys, you just had to avoid them, as well as the two-tiered nature of the world, a series of underground tunnels helping you avoid the bad guys or get past impassable obstacles on the surface. Pitfall also had some of the best sprites ever seen on a 2600 game, being detailed, animated and not flickering or stuttering around.

Pitfall was a smash hit, leading not just to a range of ports for the original (it would appear on the ColecoVision, Intellivision and the Commodore 64, where I first played it), but also giving birth to a franchise. In 1983 the cartoon variety program Saturday Supercade introduced a Pitfall Harry show, and an Activision promotion for the game (send in a picture of a high score and Activision would send you a badge) is now almost as well-known as Pitfall itself for featuring the first on-screen performance by comedian Jack Black.

Crane released a direct sequel a year later, in 1983, but after that, it took on a life of its own. Sega released Pitfall 2 as an arcade game, the original was poorly ported to the Nintendo Entertainment System, Pitfall: The Mayan Adventure turned up on the SNES, Genesis, 32X, PC and Jaguar, and even the Game Boy Advance.

My favourite Pitfall game after original, though, would have to be 1998’s Pitfall 3D: Beyond the Jungle, which was released for the PlayStation and Game Boy colour. It wasn’t that great a game, but it did star Bruce Campbell as Pitfall Harry, which for a teenage boy was more than enough to make it awesome.


The last game in the series, Pitfall: The Lost Expedition, was released in 2004 on the PS2, GameCube and Xbox. That was seven years ago, and aside from a Wii port of that same game, we haven’t seen the franchise since.

Which is a little strange, don’t you think? Activision isn’t the type of publisher to shy away from milking a franchise and/or stepping in on someone else’s market; it’s a wonder that Sony’s Uncharted series wasn’t challenged by a darker, reimagined Pitfall Harry, one where he not only could now slaughter scorpions by the thousands, but had his whole shirt untucked.

Total Recall is a look back at the history of video games through their characters, franchises, developers and trends.


  • There was a playable (barely) Pitfall Mini Game in Marvel: Ultimate Alliance. At least on PSP, can’t speak of other consoles.

  • I was always fascinated by the incredible ingenuity of people like Crane. Extracting what no one thought possible out the the humble 2600, which basically was designed to play PONG. It was like someone fashioning a holodeck out of one of the current gen consoles.

    I saw a conference where he explained some of the techiques he used. Remember the machine had 128 bytes (thats not a typo BYTES) of RAM memory. The levels for pitfall come out a polynomial function, each screen is a number with certain bits indicating if it had logs, crocs, stairs, etc. The function was 50 bytes.

    He then examined the entire number sequence for a place to start such that it would provide a reasonable tutorial for the player on the first few screens. Simply amazing.

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