At some point, gaming franchises make the leap from two-dimensions to three. Most evolve from one generation of systems to another, but revolution is never an easy process. For the franchises with a good pedigree, the transition is all the more critical.
One bad game, and the critics and fanboys will cling to it like Jay Leno and a Bill Clinton joke. Make a Super Mario 64, and ride the gravy train to ?gBling-Blingville?h! For every Mario 64 and Metroid Prime, the road to change is littered with Bubsy 3D?fs and Castlevania 64?fs. What?fs a developer to do?
For years, the Pitfall series was in the latter company. Ever since Pitfall Harry?fs first adventure on the Atari 2600, he?fs starred in less-than-stellar sequels. He even tried the 3D route before with, ironically enough, Pitfall 3D, with little success. Most companies would have thrown in the towel, but Activision still had hope. The majority didn?ft- including myself. With a chance at redemption (or desperation to make up sales after X2: Wolverine?fs Revenge), they tapped the power of the new systems and created Pitfall: The Lost Expedition. While not a top-tier production, it is a solid action game. The game has a rough exterior to it, as the graphics and sound barely cut it for 2004. Dust it off a bit, and you?fll find an enjoyable experience that may surprise you.
The story of Pitfall is somewhat interesting, if not a little familiar. Traveling by plane, Harry is on an expedition led by archaeologist Dr. Bernard Bittenbinder and his scholarly ice-queen daughter, Nicole. Of course, the plane is struck by lightning and crashes in the Peruvian jungle. Landing safely, Harry faces the perils of the wild and fighting for his life- not to mention finding his crew and hitting on Nicole. Ah, the life of an adventurer.
Visually, Pitfall is competent but not stunning. The cartoon look of the game is interesting in theory. Character appearance is exaggerated, with larger-than-life heads, hands and feet. Each one is put together well, although extra detail and shading would have helped. Nit-picky details like clothing movement and reduced polygon seams would be better. The animation of the characters is solid but appears a little choppy. The environments are trickier to judge. While they burst forth with dazzling colors and huge structures, they are often lacking great detail and activity. Many appear to be larger than they are, and look more like sets than functional surroundings. Lighting effects aren?ft the best, as the use of fire and other lighting is more overstated than useful. Water looks and moves like uncooked Jello, and would be helpful if you could see under the surface.
A problem involves the visibility of certain environments. Most 3D games have background environments that appear semi-transparent at certain camera angles. This helps to see your character in tight situations. While Pitfall does this, it is not the best system. Often, you can barely make out your character through the translucent object. The bigger dilemma is that after you are in at a favorable angle, the see-through objects take a few seconds to regain their structure. When you?fre leaping from platform to platform, this delay can be the difference between success and failure.
The main problem hampering the graphics is the frame-rate. While the animation is good, the slightly stuttering appearance is frequent. At almost any moment, having more than one character onscreen bogs the game down slightly. During close-ups of the characters, you can expect the same. The game isn?ft exactly strenuous on the hardware for the most part, so the slowdown is odd. With a game focused on large environments and graphics, a solid running frame rate is necessary to keep focus on the game play. Pitfall would have benefited from a few additional tweaks in this department.
The audio is par for the course. The music consists of simplistic jungle-adventurer tunes that could?fve been used in any other Indiana Jones knockoff. Most were yawn inducing, but didn?ft detract from the action. The voice acting was spotty as well. The voice actor of Harry perfectly captured the feel of the character, despite some cheesy Attack of the Clones ?gAnakin Skywalker?h lines. His sigh of relief healing water sounds like he enjoys it a little too much. Others were average or below adequate. Sound effects were equally passable, with the corresponding actions complementing the audio.
The control scheme of Pitfall is sufficient but has a few quirks. The left analog stick moves your character on the ground and swinging from vines. The stick provides excellent control of movement. The right analog stick has the odd assignment of grabbing items. This setup is not very instinctive at first and takes time to adjust. Its use does come in handy for the various items you collect along the way, such as the canteen and torch (and provides laughs if you view the movement at certain angles). The execution of these items is slightly clumsy, especially in the heat of battle. Try toggling between two items at a time, and prepare to take a few hits. The ?gX?h button controls jumps, and two taps performs a weak double jump. It also helps Harry thrash through bodies of water. The left and right shoulder buttons spin the camera around Harry, crouch and run. The camera buttons can be used in unison to create almost any useable angle. The problem is that most angles do little to help our hero in tight situations.
Game play is where Pitfall slightly rises above its aesthetics. Using the tried-and-true methods of platform gaming, the game has the feel of an old soul. While its execution is questionable, the effort and heart of the developers shows through. Pitfall adopts a free-roaming game play system similar to the Metroid and recent Castlevania games. While there is a linear storyline, you can revisit levels at any point of the game to open up secret areas and collect items. While this adds incentive to clean out every level, retracing your steps becomes dull towards the end of the game.
To aid in your quest, you earn abilities to boost your repertoire. A speed dash and several powerful strike moves give Harry the edge over his adversaries. Helpful items include: the health-replenishing canteen, the versatile torch and the stun-inducing slingshot. Knowing your skill set is essential for certain situations. You purchase hints and items throughout your adventure, although accessing them in the clunky menu system is a challenge in itself.
Problem-solving plays a role in Pitfall, but the assorted puzzles barely tax your noggin. Although there are several ways to navigate from point ?gA?h to ?gB?h, the ideal path is often clear. There are convenient hints and visual clues that come along at just the right time. The linearity of the game prevents you from wandering off the beaten path, but does keep you focused on the task at hand. The frequent leaps and sprints do keep you glued to your controller, though. And the controls- at least the sensible ones- add glee to your vine swinging.
Charting your progress is a tiresome affair. There is a map that shows your progress at any time, knowing where to go is sometimes confusing. The clunky interface does little to point you in the right direction. As mentioned before, the menu system has you guessing to find items in your inventory and accessing hints. Although you are told where to go, finding the right direction often comes down to guessing. While the inclusion of such luxuries is nice, being forced to make everything work is tiring.
Pitfall?fs challenge level is all over the map, although not in an excruciating direction. Perhaps trying to appeal to everyone, the difficulty is uneven in spots. The ability to land on your feet from any height makes Harry invincible to the heights. Some puzzles do come off as easy or nonsensical. Enemies offer little to no opposition, and their weak attack patterns make them appear almost comatose. The plot is almost telegraphed through the game, leaving few surprises. On the flip side, Pitfall can be as infuriating as a bastard. The control setup sometimes seems to find delight in working against you. The frustrating camera angles create tough situations to traverse. Battles against particular foes are often cumbersome, particularly wrestling free of an alligator. While the game leans towards the easy side, the odd foibles add some unforeseen tests along the way.
For your hard-earned efforts and patience, Pitfall rewards players with additional playable characters, costumes, and bonus games. Both the original Pitfall and its sequel are unlockable, and are interesting studies in Pitfall Harry?fs evolution.
In spite of its faults, Pitfall: The Lost Expedition is a very playable game. It won?ft impress visually or sonically, but the well-worn game play and useable control offset the balance. While appearing to be for the younger set, the game offers a few tricks that many gamers do appreciate. Several questionable shortcomings keep Pitfall from joining the ranks of the old-school revivals. With a little extra polish, the next Pitfall adventure could finally be mentioned with the new classics. The Lost Expedition provides a good base for a true Pitfall revival.