Sunday, January 17, 2016

Pitfall: The Mayan Adventure (Super NES, 1994)

 This is a game that I was a huge fan of as a kid. It's fantastic and very unique, with a certain Indiana Jones kind of mood that very few games successfully convey. While I played the SNES version then and am playing it now, it's worth noting that in 1995 it also got released on the Genesis, Sega CD, 32X, Atari Jaguar, and Windows 95. In fact, it was the first commercial game release for Win 95. The later versions of the game considerably improved upon the SNES version, with better graphics, better sound, and more levels. I didn't know about this until very recently, because back then I didn't have a Nintendo Power to tell me about games on other systems.

 This is a "sequel" to Pitfall for the Atari 2600. In that game you played as Pitfall Harry, while in this game you play as his son. Both of them are explorers who spend their days looking for treasure in ancient ruins. The objective of this game is to rescue dad, who got kidnapped by a Mayan death god made of stone.

The game begins with our hero in the jungle. Right off the bat, you deal with unforgiving pits that open and close, a trap that was also prevalent in the Atari 2600 game. One of the many inventive and stylish things about this game is the life meter. You might not see a readily-apparent life meter here; that's because it's the crocodile head in the upper right. The more damage Harry takes, the more the croc's mouth opens. When it's open all the way, one more hit means it clamps down on the Harry effigy next to it, and it's back to a checkpoint with you. the coolest life meter I've ever seen.

Harry has a lot of animation and personality. They went all-out with putting as much detail into this game as they could.

At first glance this may look like a standard side-scroller, but it isn't. The areas in this game are large and almost maze-like in a way. The jungle here introduces you to the game fairly well, as you follow a straightforward path through most of this level.

Harry has two primary attacks: He can whip enemies with a bag of rocks, or fire the rocks as projectiles. There are a limited number of shots (lower left), wheras he can melee-whip infinitely. Here, he demonstrates the melee-whip on a fearsome monkey doing Kung-Fu.

 For comparison, here's a Sega 32X shot.

And here's an Atari Jaguar shot.

The SNES version holds its own on graphics, though the backgrounds are often a big step down from the later version. Here, I find a checkpoint statue. These dot the various levels.

Side note: I like forest settings like this in Super NES games; Donkey Kong Country, Final Fantasy VI, and Super Return of the Jedi all also came out around this time and had sweet forest backgrounds.

Get hit enough times and Harry gets chomped by the croc. Hilarious.

The first boss is a jaguar; the first of several in the game that serve as bosses. This fight isn't easy at all, and I feel like it could have been reserved for the third stage or so. It's a brutal thing to throw at the player this early. In any case, going into the fight with full health and blasting away with rocks will usually allow you to outlast the jaguar. Jumping over it will let Harry live longer, but that's difficult when it speeds on and off of the screen. This is a fight that 16:9 widescreen would make considerably easier.

Between stages, you follow Harry's steps as he continues on to the next area. All of the area names are distinctly Mayan, and some of them are even named after real locations. This is bringing back some good memories for me.

As I arrive at the second stage, the croc is just about ready to chomp on our hero. That's right, you don't get healed between stages. The only way to restore his "health" is to find human hearts floating around in the levels.

Here's a 1-up idol, another thing worth going out of your way for. This second stage is very cool, and as a kid I legitimately felt like I was there in the rainforest.

Another game that does waterfall stages well? The Lion King. I played a lot of SNES games around this time.

Grabbing ahold of a slanted vine will cause Harry to careen downwards at high speed. Sweet.

 Here's another 32X screenshot, for reference.

 The third level is probably the only one in the game that I don't like at all. Tazamul Mine is very dark and very confusing, wheras the first two levels were fairly straightforward (despite being mazes themselves).

I find a letter here. There are seven letters hidden in the game, and finding all of them rewards you with Beat., a hidden ending. I've never seen the hidden ending, because most of the letters are extremely well-hidden. This first one is easy to find. It's the gateway letter, there to sucker you in and get you to go after the hard stuff.

 Soon into the level, you have to make a leap of faith into what appears to be a pit in order to continue. This wasn't so bad in 1994 with Nintendo Power maps telling me what to do, but now it's a little weird.

The best part of the level is a short ride on a mine cart platform. There's another mine level later on that is composed entirely of a platform-ride, thankfully.

Windows 95 version screenshot, for comparison. The gamma is certainly better.

 Here's a very DKC-style minigame that happens to be much more difficult than anything in DKC. The combination gets longer every time you repeat it, and I think it gets up to eight letters by the end.

The fourth stage might be my favorite: The temple. It's an interesting area with strong ambiance and one of the better BGM tracks in the game. Note: That's from the Windows 95 version, which had notably improved music over the Super NES version.

This white scorpion looks very out of place, and that's because it is. It's a refugee from the Atari 2600 Pitfall, and a clue.

Look around near the scorpion and you might find this portal, which leads to...

...THE PAST. Doodledoo doodledoo!

That's right, this game has the entire original game included as a minigame. Wow. This trip to the past might have been the thing that this game was best known for back in 1994. Unfortunately, the original game...isn't very good.

The controls are super-stiff and you only have three lives, with more obstacles than you can reasonably avoid onscreen a lot of the time.

As a kid I never got past this pool of crocodiles, and I still can't now. Yeah, I'm good on this game, back to the future...which is now the past

Harry can crawl through narrow spaces, which is both useful for reaching side-rooms AND a good way to freak out claustrophobic players.

Leave him idle for too long and he meditates, complete with levitation. Idle animations are usually how game characters question their cruel god, yet in this game the hero accepts his lack of direction with grace.
Later in the temple, Harry encounters giant tongues that serve as trampolines. It's a fun game mechanic. Not so fun are the rock platforms that disappear and reappear, classic Mega Man 2 style. I told myself I'd never go back to Heat Man's stage...

At the top of the temple are Lud and Zallen TWO jaguars. This is, almost without a doubt, the hardest fight in the game. It's the point where many players gave up entirely, and it's also the point where Nintendo Power's coverage ended. It's as if...even they met their demise here.

The good news is that there are a couple tricks one can do to make the fight easier. There's a hot pepper hidden before the boss room that speeds Harry up and lets him jump higher. It's a temporary effect but it gives you enough time to leap clear past the bosses and onto the far platform. Unfortunately you can't just walk out the exit without defeating them, but the good news is that they can't really reach you up here. One will repeatedly jump up and stand there, giving you free hits; ultimately you only need to worry about jumping down and defeating the other jaguar one-on-one.

That said, doing the fight straight-up is a lot more fun. Using the magical rocks that function as smart bombs is integral to victory here, as is lots of well-timed jumping as the jaguars zip back and forth. In later versions of the game they had life meters (in the form of a percentage at the bottom of the screen) which certainly makes them seem more beatable.

 After that harrowing ordeal, it's onto stage 5. This is the temple interior, and it's full of warrior ghosts.

Some of them throw fire, which is interesting. Luckily, none of them pose much of a threat, and all of them can be defeated in 3 shots or less. The challenge in this game comes mainly from the bosses, and also from figuring out the way through the levels.

Swinging fire-comets are among the cooler visual effects in the game.

That's the end of the first half, more or less. The second half of the game is basically a palette-swap of the first half, repeating the same five level types with different colors. In later versions of the game (Sega CD onward) they added three bonus levels during the second phase: Palenque Ruins, Palenque Temple, and Jaina Island Falls. They're repeats as well, though, reusing the temple exterior, temple interior, and waterfall. Would still like to check them out, but alas, I don't have access to the Sega CD or Jaguar versions.

Stage 6 is a nighttime version of Stage 1, essentially. It's more dangerous, but the short length offsets that.

The most memorable thing about this level is that you fight a bunch of vicious boars.

Moving on from there, stage 7 is a crocodile-filled lagoon. As far as memorable visuals go, this stage probably wins the game.

For a seasoned adventurer, for some reason Harry can't swim or even hold his breath. Falling into the water means INSTANT DEATH.

Doesn't help that the crocodiles try to drag you in. Good God!

Get past that, and it's onward to the bonus stages...or, if you're playing on the SNES, Genesis, or 32X, this mine cart stage. It involves dodging parked carts while being stalked by a bunch of angry ghosts.

The lights on the left warn you when a cart is coming up on a particular track, and failure to get out of the way means that poor Harry is never going to be able to have kids.

Tikal Ruins are essentially the endgame. They're similar to the earlier ruins, only it's nighttime now. I like that trend for the second half, though I wonder why the lagoon wasn't a night stage.

There are more disappearing blocks to deal with here, and missing a jump means Harry plummets into a vat of oil.

At the top of the temple? Vicious attack birds that sorta remind me of Ninja Gaiden. At least these things only appear at the tops of levels, which makes some sense.

Whoa! I found another letter! Now if only I hadn't missed like four others.

Atop the ruins: Another jaguar boss. It's solo, which may lull one into a false sense of security. However, this one...

 ...morphs into some kind of cat god!

"What a tweest!"

This is THE hardest fight in the game...yeah, even harder than the pair of cats. This guy is fast and furious, and totally steals all the final boss' heat. I thought this guy WAS the final boss back in 1994, and it took me many attempts to get him down. Bombarding him with exploding smart bomb rocks is the best way to win, so hopefully most players hoard them up to this point.

 This time I discover that standing on this exact spot causes him to stand right in front of you and not do anything for a good ten seconds, which allows me to do a ton of damage to him and limp away with a tainted win. That fight is ROUGH.

Onward to the final temple, where you deal with...a river of mud. Honestly, this last level is really anticlimactic after the battle with the cat god. It's like one of the Return of the King endings.

There IS a cool moment where you have to outrun a rolling boulder, but not much else unfortunately.

Finally...this is it, the end-boss. He's no cat god.

Zakelua is made of stone and trundles around slowly. When I first played the game, I had no idea who this guy was supposed to be since I thought the cat god was the villain.

He has some cool moves, like when he disassembles and re-forms nearby.


 Victory is a matter of hitting him in the head about 80 times. Smart bombs do a lot of damage, if the player has any left at this point. Holding up while firing away causes your shots to slant upwards, which helps a lot in landing hits to the boss' head. All in all, not a difficult final boss at all compared to some of the stuff the player has already faced, adding to the general anticlimactic feeling of the endgame.

Harry Jr. rescues his dad, seen here in all his Atari 2600 glory. Wow.

They march off into the sunset, and that's it for this game. Really fun, underrated classic here that I grew up with.


  1. Wait, human hearts restore health? Do you... eat them?

    "Idle animations are usually how game characters question their cruel god, yet in this game the hero accepts his lack of direction with grace." Are you listening Sonic? There's more to life than going fast!

    LOL at his dad in the second to last shot.

    So really, why do the cats all hate Harry so much?

  2. Pitfall
    This was a real pleasure to read, and I'm very glad this game exists. It seems like an outlier for being a classic that's not part of a long series, and that makes it all the more impressive. I love all the innovations about it you described, like the many animations, the cool life bar, the integration of Atari graphics at key points, and making the original game a minigame within the game (probably didn't take much memory at all). I enjoyed the in-depth descriptions of the levels and gameplay that you gave, too.

    The forest background is really easy on the eyes. The floating meditation when you don't move is brilliant. Ahh, the water level. So good-looking. So soothing.

    This is the first commercial game release for Windows 95? Ohh, the memories!

    Great M. Night Shyalaman reference.

    Pitfall Harry on the wall there is so great. Ahh, what a game.