In 1982, Pitfall! was practically a declaration of independence.
The story, by now, is fairly well-known. Atari, then the most successful videogames company in the world—a fact that sometimes, in retrospect, makes them look like they were the only videogames company in the world—had a problem. They weren’t letting their individual workers, their programmers, designers, or engineers, take any sort of artistic credit for their Atari 2600 videogames. Game designers were anonymous—videogames, for all the general public knew, were being churned out at a production-line factory called Atari Incorporated.
By 1979, the workers at Atari had had enough. A number of them—Alan Miller, Larry Kaplan, David Crane—quit and started their own company, which they called Activision. Their early games for the 2600 started to have their names attached to them. Carol Shaw’s River Raid. Bob Whitehead’s Chopper Command. David Crane’s Pitfall!
For Crane, the shift from anonymous development to individual creation was palpable. “Publicizing our names provided all of the positives of celebrity and none of the negatives,” Crane told Tristan Donovan for his book, Replay: The History of Video Games. “Because there was a name and a face behind the game, players were able to let me know directly how much they enjoyed playing my games.”
Pitfall! was easily the most successful of Activision’s Atari 2600 videogames. It sold four million copies, second only to Pac-Man on the 2600 overall. Pitfall! presented a tangible, exciting world filled with Indiana Jones-style rattlesnakes, quicksand, crocodiles and swinging vines. Technically, it was like few other videogames of the period. Artistically, it presented a coherent and consistent environment for players to explore. It was, in many ways, a statement of the artistic viability for videogames at that moment.
Which is why it is so mystifying that the Pitfall! brand has resurfaced on iOS devices recently as an endless runner in the style of Temple Run, complete with a mercenary microtransaction system.
In many ways, in fact, the resuscitation of Pitfall! (which is not unique—Activision pushed a number of variations throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s) illustrates the comprehensive shift from the artistically bold Activision of the early 1980s to the highly corporate, risk-averse Vivendi subsidiary of the present day.
While the new, 99 cent iPhone Pitfall! is a fair evolution of the Temple Run-style endless runner, at its heart it is a deeply cynical, me-too design. It is a lazy attempt to update a classic and to import ‘relevance’ for today’s mobile platforms with nothing more than a smash-and-grab raid on the contemporary iOS developer’s bag of tricks. Where the original was innovative and imaginative, the latest edition is stale and characterless.
Playing the new iOS version feels very much like playing videogame history. Pitfall! for iOS is not so much a question of fun or pleasure as it is an illustration of how well the financial imperatives of the videogame industry arrogates creativity, over and over again.