Tuesday, May 12, 2020

Pitfall: The Mayan Adventure (Super NES/Sega CD, 1994) - UPDATED

 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.

NOTE: While this is a re-post, I've added new images from the Sega CD version from areas that were cut from the cartridge-based versions of the game. Any new text, mainly pertaining to the Sega CD, will be in yellow.

 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: 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.

This...is the coolest life meter I've ever seen.

Sega CD version update: The music in this first level is incredible in the CD version of the game. Massively improved over the SNES version. The entire soundtrack is amazing on CD. It was already a great soundtrack on the SNES that was reminiscent of Donkey Kong Country, and now it's even better. This almost sounds like something out of a Retro Studios Metroid game.

For comparison, here's the same stage theme in the SNES version. ...there's no comparison.

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.

The Sega CD version looks even better, especially the backgrounds, and Harry has more frames of animation. Actually, pretty much everything has more frames of animation. 

 Look at the shimmering water background! There's no doubt that this is the definitive version of the game. It's wild to play such a "complete" version of a game you grew up with as a kid (that doesn't have modern enhancements...it's the same game it always was, except finished).

If I have one complaint about the Sega CD version, it's that the gamma is kind of low and it's often hard to see. 

 An excerpt from the Sega CD instruction manual, with a list of stages. On the right side you can see several stages that weren't in the SNES version at all.

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 to all of the above, here's a Sega 32X shot. It's significantly lacking compared to the Sega CD version and I'd go so far as to say the SNES version beats it as well, oddly enough. Similar thing happened with Doom on the 32X...it had significantly less content than the SNES version.

And here's an Atari Jaguar shot. Considering the power of the Jaguar it's actually pretty solid visually, but STILL doesn't have the fidelity of the Sega CD version. Especially when it comes to the music. This game should have been a portent in 1994 of which way the wind was blowing as far as CDs versus cartridges.

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 rough 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. However, you max out at 9 lives and it isn't too hard to get there once you have some experience with the game, which renders 1-ups kinda moot before too long. This second stage is very cool, and as a kid I legitimately felt like I was there in the rainforest.

Comparison time! Here's the Sega CD version, versus...

...the SNES version. They did a pretty good job with the background here, though you can really see the difference in the foreground objects. Weird thing is...the Sega CD version's foregrounds are how I remember the SNES version looking. Nostalgia goggles are a hell of a thing.

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.

...er, 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:

Yeah, this is a sick track. Full of foreboding and adventure.

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. In the Sega CD version they do some pretty wonky things, too. Like one block will disappear entirely from the screen until you leave it and return, etc.

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. See the end of the post for footage of my epic battle with these guys.

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 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. It's a pretty cheap way to win though.

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 the Sega CD version of the game they had life meters (in the form of a percentage at the bottom of the screen) which makes the fight less daunting. 

 After that 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. NOTE: In the Sega CD version you're more like 35-40% of the way at this point. 

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.

Here's the Sega CD version of the level. It's dark, but it has incredible music:

Oh Yeahhh. This makes one want to run through the jungle and swing off of ropes. This might be the best track in the game.

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!

Here's a stage that got cut from the SNES version. Let's find out why.

It looks a lot like the other ruins stages, except...redder. It also has an odd design, and more or less loops around in a circle. The end of the level is near the beginning, and as a result most of the level is somewhat optional.

The level has an interesting background and a good amount of sliding down vines.

The exit is on the right here. It's really easy to miss. At this point you can jump into the pit instead and keep exploring the level, and there's quite a bit more loot to find. Not sure why this got omitted, except that it's a fairly small level. I was hoping for a new boss fight here (the other two ruins levels both have one) but no luck.

Next level also didn't get into the SNES version. This is the Palenque interior ruin, and it's a long, grueling level. They absolutely went overboard with these spiked ball traps in this level. It most likely got omitted because it's a difficult level to say the least, and a big difficulty spike from everything before this. 

Here's the exit. Beyond the wall here you can see several rooms that I didn't explore. That's one of the things I like about this game: The levels are sprawling, and there are an insane amount of hidden areas to find in all of them.

Get past that, and back to normal SNES levels. Next is this mine cart stage that requires really good reflexes and not much else (aka it punishes the old, like me). 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.

Next is the last area that got omitted from the SNES version. That's a great name. I remember reading about this level in guides and not knowing wtf the guides were talking about. Well, time to finally see it. 

Another extremely difficult level here, which is no doubt why it got chosen to be dropped. It follows the lagoon theme of stage 2 and 7. 

This means lots of jumping off of crocodile heads, and some very difficult jumps that rely a bit too much on luck. 

They used all parts of the lagoon level assets here, though. Things like rope bridges are used to full effect. 

At the end of the level is this one nearly-impossible jump right before the exit. Maybe I'm missing something, but it took a couple dozen tries to make this jump. You have to leap from the lower right platform to the one I'm on in this shot, then leap to the upper right. Problem is, the platform I'm on has slippery moss on both sides, which means you have to land dead-center on it without even grazing the sides on the way. I mean dead-center, down to a pixel. Anything else and you slide off and have to climb back up. It's...a terrible jump, actually. Might be the one time in this entire game where the level design felt amateurish.

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 it's weird that none of the lagoons are nighttime stages.

At the top of the temple? Vicious attack birds that 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. Well, maybe. Unless you spam smart bombs. 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. Not sure who he's supposed to be, because he doesn't get any mention in the instruction booklet (which mentions every other enemy and boss).

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. It's also easier than the Palenque Ruins Interior. Honestly, the three levels that got omitted from the SNES version should have been the final three levels of the game because they're the toughest, with Jaina Island Falls last. This being the last level instead is anticlimactic. 

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

All of that said, the music in Tikal Ruins is another great track. It's got a lot of menace, fitting for the last level.

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 and that I'd already more or less won.

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.

In the Sega CD version, he has WAY more animation frames. It's impressive how good he looks. See for yourself in the boss video.

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.

BONUS: Boss videos for all four of the boss fights in this game. All of the boss tracks are outstanding in the Sega CD version. Check out the animation on the final boss, who has a ton of extra frames in this version.


  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! https://twitter.com/ow/status/698034035180888064

    Great M. Night Shyalaman reference.

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

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