If I ask you about old action games, what immediately comes to mind? Super Mario Brothers? Ghosts and Goblins? Bionic Commando, perhaps? Potentially Mega Man…Good guesses, but all of these owe their fundamental game mechanics to an oft-overlooked seminal title that spawned a genre. I’m talking about 1982’s immensely popular Pitfall title on the legendary Atari 2600. Almost an homage to Indiana Jones, Pitfall Harry was an adventurer who traversed dangerous jungle terrain and avoided animals while gathering gold and cash. Staying away from consoles for quite a while, Harry’s coming out of the underbrush for a new adventure from Activision called Pitfall: The Lost Expedition.
Immediately after starting the game, Harry is plunged into battle against a large fire jaguar demon. Letting his guard down during a moment of overconfidence, Harry is pounced upon and is quickly about to make peace with his maker. But before he’s slaughtered by the beast, he sees his life flash before his eyes…rather, he sees the past day or so flash before his eyes and exactly what got him in this spot to begin with. Completely narrated by Harry, the game is whisked away to a bumpy flight in the middle of a stormy night. Joined by a jovial man named Dr. Bittenbinder and a shy, scholarly woman named Nicole, Harry and his fellow explorers are suddenly jolted out of their seats when a bolt of lightning hits the plane, scattering equipment and archeologists to the jungle floor below.
Thanks to Mother Nature’s premature landing, Harry has lost all of his gear and been separated from everyone else on the expedition. Fortunately, he’s far from helpless at the start: Harry retains a double jump that allows him to access higher platforms and areas, as well as his Tarzan-like swing off suspended vines. He also has both a regional and area specific map that can help point him in the right direction as he travels throughout the various environments. Additionally, he has a journal that records his anecdotes, enemies and provides hints. As he moves across the land, he’ll stumble across mystic idols stashed away in shrines. These idols can be redeemed with shamans for new abilities, stat boosts or notes to help him with his journey. Similarly, rescuing stranded archeologists earns idols or gear, such as a shield, a raft or sticks of TNT.
Starting off within the lush jungle, Harry will soon traverse a number of environments, including frozen landscapes, lava flows and mountainous plains with waterfalls. For those of you who still remember the original title, some of the initial threats to Harry’s health are still hanging around with a little more attitude. Scorpions vigorously pursue Harry if he goes underground, while many pits now sport teeth that will actively chew him up and spit him out. And yes, the crocodiles are back and can be used as platforms, but they’ll actively seek to swallow Harry whole if he falls in water or stands on their back too long. These aren’t counting the numerous environmental dangers or the new problems with porcupines, angry natives or howler monkeys, amongst other threats.
Harry’s come a long way since his 2600 days, most apparent in the graphical details of his character model. Expressively animated, Harry’s cartoonish animations and expressions seem to be a mix of Shaggy from Scooby-Doo, Jim Carrey, Jason Biggs and Jerry Lewis rolled into one. What’s better is that the designers have imbued his hilarious facial animations with quite a bit of humanity. You might be hard pressed not to chuckle to yourself when you see Harry start to straighten himself out and dust himself off as he primps and preens for the ladies. Particle effects are rather solid, and the lighting effects, primarily when you’ve pulled out your torch, are extremely well done. Some of this detail extends to other characters, such as the monkeys, natives and alligators, making the people and animals of the game world particularly vibrant. Unfortunately, this doesn’t fully extend to some of the environmental textures, some of which are flat, dull or unimpressive. Lava, for example, is an amorphous mix of red and black areas, while other environmental areas are just plain colored swatches on the world. Worse, water textures are non-expressive and disappointingly unrealistic, appearing more gelatinous than aqueous. Finally, the camera could’ve been better. Granted, you have the option to rotate it around you whenever you wish as well as anchor it solidly behind Harry’s back, but there are moments where you will miss jumps across pits or other dangers because the camera won’t pan out or gives you poor perspective on in-game action.
Thankfully, the sound in The Lost Expedition is better than some of the graphics. While the soundtrack is orchestral and fitting considering the in-game action, the true star of the game is within the voice acting, which is top notch. Everyone from Harry to the minor explorers have solid performances. We’re talking about wisecracks, one-liners and over the top performances that seem strangely appropriate to the tone of the game. Definitely pay attention to the moments when Harry feels like he’s being suave around the ladies. It’s a great character choice to have him think that he’s a true player. It’s so “slick” that you can’t help but laugh when he gets shot down.
Unfortunately, even with the great characterizations, decent graphics and interesting plotpoints, the largest problem that you’ll find with the gameplay is the shortness of gameplay. It’s entirely possible to fly through the game in one sitting, which doesn’t really bode well for replay. Even the hidden versions of Pitfall and Pitfall II, along with the few minigames scattered throughout the game doesn’t extend the value of the title significantly, which is disappointing since the spin on the game was solid enough to warrant a larger experience. This also points out one of the other problems you’ll find, which is that the number of maps you’ll constantly travel through sometimes require a significant amount of backtracking, which can be somewhat annoying. Considering the fact that the maps aren’t particularly detailed enough to give you a full sense of what’s around you, the few shortcuts that you’ll find will have to be memorized to shorten your journey.
Overall though, Pitfall: The Lost Expedition is a good platforming experience that is only somewhat overshadowed by its limited gamespan. However, it’s a solid return to next gen consoles for Pitfall Harry, and the inclusion of the original Pitfall and Pitfall II games makes this a must have for action fans. Let’s hope that the next adventure of Harry’s is just a bit longer next time…