Growing up, I wanted to be an archeologist. Not a real archeologist mind you. I wanted to be Indiana Jones. I wanted to carry a whip, wear a leather jacket, and travel the world searching for rare (and possibly cursed) historical items. I even built a museum of “artifacts” in my backyard tree house. All of this is just to say that Pitfall! felt like it was made just for me.
Originally released in 1982 for the Atari 2600, I played a version ported for the Commodore 64. I was terrible at it, but that never stopped me from playing. As Pitfall Harry, I could explore the jungle in search of lost treasure. There were thirty two treasures to be specific. As I hunted them down I had to avoid the jungle’s myriad hazards, dangers like quicksand, rattlesnakes, scorpions, and crocodiles (is there any real world habitat where those things are found together?). To make matters worse, the game had a strict time limit. You had collect all the treasures within 20 minutes. I never came close. As a kid, I always lost my three lives within the first few minutes of play, typically sinking in quicksand or falling into the gaping mouth of a croc.
The game was designed by David Crane, who would later go on to program another personal favorite: Bart Vs. The Space Mutants. In an interview conducted in 2003, Crane recalled that the entire game started with a stick figure drawing of a man running, noting that the entire concept for the game took approximately 10 minutes to create. Crane drew his inspiration from the Indiana Jones film Raiders of the Lost Ark (released in 1981) and the Terrytoons cartoon Heckle and Jeckle (specifically a scene in the shows opening that featured the titular characters running through crocodile mouths before they snapped shut). It was such a simplistic concept, but Crane and Activision managed to execute it to perfection.
The game was an immediate success and spawned several sequels. It become the 2600’s second best selling game of all time (behind Pac-Man). Activision also ran a promotion which provided a Pitfall Harry Explorer Club patch to players who could prove they’d scored over 20,000 points in the game. As a pop culture side note, the television commercial for Pitfall also introduced the world to a young Jack Black.
As a fully grown adult (physically at least) I still catch myself dreaming of Indiana Jones style adventures. When that happens, I just pull up Pitfall! and start playing.