Too Much Free Time

Discussion and reviews of games for NES, Intellivision, DOS, and others.

Archive for the ‘Action’ Category


Posted by Tracy Poff on February 9, 2016

Since we’re done with Space Panic and Donkey Kong (for now, though it has many, many ports, clones, and variants), we’ve come to the earliest platformer that I really enjoy: Pitfall! for Atari 2600, released by Activision in 19821.

Pitfall! cover

Of course, one cannot talk of an Activision game without mentioning the game’s designer. Pitfall! was created by David Crane, co-founder of Activision and creator of numerous other worthy games, including Little Computer People and A Boy and His Blob.

The creation of Pitfall! is what you might term a deliberate accident. Crane did not set out to create a platform game about a man in a jungle. He had been planning a sports game (later released as The Activision Decathlon) which he shelved because he felt he couldn’t do it justice. He had, however created a subroutine to animate a running man, which he wanted to use somehow. So he started to build a game around it2:

OK, there he is, running across the screen. What now? So I might as well put him on a path. Jungles have paths — better throw in a few trees — always bearing in mind that I’d want to be able to do this for other machines. Basically, if you can do it on the VCS, you can do at least a shadow of it on other systems.

So anyway, what use is a jungle path unless it leads somewhere? So I pencilled in a few objects. How about some places to fall? A few holes. He’s got to land somewhere — I had to put in an underground level. Then I spent the next two months defining the game, saying where do I put the treasure, what kind of monsters lurk? Scorpions look pretty good. I thought I might have ghosts and skeletons in the tunnel — none of them looked good, so they didn’t get in. We drew a lot of these beforehand on squared paper, colouring them in and so on. But it never looks the same on the screen as it does on paper — never.

That game, called Jungle Runner during development, became Pitfall!, went on to sell over 4 million copies on the 26003 (spending 64 weeks as the #1 best selling game), and was the progenitor of the smooth running and jumping that would be seen in the Super Mario Bros. series and many other, later platformers.

Pitfall! 01

When the game begins, you have 2000 points and two extra lives (which the manual calls ‘replacement Harrys’). The first screen is a gentle introduction: a single pit with a ladder and a stationary log are the only obstacles present. Falling into one of these pits (rather than climbing down a ladder) will cost you 100 points, while hitting a log will cost you some points over time as you remain in contact with it.

From the beginning, and at any point during the game, you can go either to the right or the left (unless there’s a wall in the way).

Pitfall! 02

The screen immediately to the right is more challenging: it contains three pits, only one ladder, and two logs rolling toward you. We can see immediately why (as the manual suggests) it is easier to go to the left–the logs always roll from right to left, so by moving in the same direction as the logs, you never have to worry about jumping over them. But where’s the fun in that? Onward to the right!

Pitfall! 03

More obstacles. This time, the rolling logs are joined by a wide pit–falling in this kind of pit means losing a life. Fortunately, there’s a vine above the pit you can use to swing across, so it’s merely a matter of timing the jump correctly to grab onto the vine, and then dropping off on the other side. In later screens, these pits will sometimes open and close, so you’ve got to be careful–a screen that seems safe may turn out to have a pit that opens under your feet, if you just run across incautiously.

Pitfall! 04

In this image we can see the remaining (major) obstacles in the game: crocodiles4 and scorpions. The crocodiles periodically open and close their mouths. When the mouths are closed, you can jump on them to get across the pool of water. When the mouths are open, you can only stand on th far right side of the crocodiles’ heads, behind the jaw, or you’ll be eaten. The scorpions merely move from left to right in the underground section, but they’re very wide, so precise jumps are necessary to make it over them.

So, if those are the main obstacles… what’s the point of this game?

Pitfall! 05

Collecting treasure for points, of course! The gold bar you see above is worth 4000 points. Silver bars are worth 3000, money bags are worth 2000, and diamond rings are worth a whopping 5000 points each. There are eight of each type of treasure, for a total of 32 treasures worth 112,000 points. A perfect game would end with 114,000 points (all the points for the treasures, plus the 2000 you started with, and no points lost to mistakes).

The game would be difficult, but manageable if you could just take your time with each screen. You might lose a few points to logs and other hazards, but with enough care around the deadly obstacles, collecting all 32 treasures would just be a matter of time. But time isn’t something you have to spare: there are 20 minutes on the clock when you start, and that’s all you get. It might sound like a pretty long time, but there are 255 screens in Pitfall!, leaving you with less than five seconds per screen, if you must visit them all.

How ever could you succeed with such a tight time limit? That’s where a clever mechanic comes into play. You’ve seen that each screen has an aboveground and underground part, the latter reach by either falling down a pit or climbing down a ladder. Every screen that you cross in the underground section is equivalent to three screens crossed in the aboveground section. Of course, you could skip right over a screen with a treasure on it, if you take the underground shortcuts through the whole game. So what are you to do? The manual suggests making a map5.

Pitfall! 06

You don’t have to get every treasure, of course. I was pretty happy getting just under 32,000 points, after a few tries. Back when the game was released, Activision offered to send an Explorers’ Club patch to anyone who got at least 20,000 points and sent in a picture of the TV screen to prove it.

Pitfall! is a great early platform game, and its sequel Pitfall II: Lost Caverns was if anything even more impressive and ahead of its time. Anyone curious about where platformers came from should absolutely give it a try. And even if you’re not a game historian, it’s a fun game well worth playing.

Edited 2016-02-23 to replace links referring to my internal database. Whoops.

Further reading

  1. The date of April 20 is given by allgame, though I know not on strength of what evidence. In an interview I see the release dated to September. The year, at least, is correct. 
  2. This excerpt is from an interview in Big K #1 (April 1984). 
  3. This sales figure is given by IGN
  4. The crocodiles were inspired by the introduction to The Heckle and Jeckle Cartoon Show
  5. Of course, if you don’t want to make your own, you can use someone else’s. This map by Ben Valdes not only shows the contents of the rooms, but also suggests the best route to take. 

Posted in 1982, Action, Atari 2600, Full Review, Good, Platformer | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

Hanami no Yopparai wo Osaeru

Posted by Tracy Poff on October 6, 2015

It’s October, and that means IFComp! Naturally, therefore, I’m reviewing… not interactive fiction. I’ll get to that Real Soon Now. Instead, I’m continuing my (announced and immediately ignored) series on independent (doujin) games.

The game we’re looking at today is Hanami no Yopparai wo Osaeru (花見の酔っ払いを抑える), meaning (very roughly) Stop the flower-viewing1 drunkard.

Hanami no Yopparai wo Osaeru title

The developer was attempting to make a game in the style of old handheld games, and in my judgment had absolute success.

Hanami no Yopparai wo Osaeru 01

The player character, on the left, must reach the drunk, on the right, while avoiding the thrown bottles.

Hanami no Yopparai wo Osaeru 02

Reaching the drunk successfully adds points to the player’s score.

Hanami no Yopparai wo Osaeru 03

Failing to avoid the bottles costs the player time.

It’s hard to tell from the screenshots, but the bottles are moving from position to position like they would on a Game & Watch or other LCD game. A video will show it better:

I only played the trial version of the game (available on DLsite). I’m not sure what might be different in the full version. This isn’t a great game, even for 108 yen. For a similar, and rather better, game, you can play Dave Baskin’s Bouncing Babies for DOS, itself a clone of the Game & Watch title Fire.

  1. For the cultural significance of hanami, see Wikipedia

Posted in 2015, Action, Arcade, Bad, Full Review, Windows | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »


Posted by Tracy Poff on April 19, 2014

Today, a look at a game I’ve just added to MobyGames: Archery by Brian Blankenship.


Archery is a very simple shooting game. A target descends along the right side of the screen, and you have to push the spacebar at the right moment to let fly your arrow, with the aim of hitting the target as near the center as possible.


You get three shots (in a row) from each of five different starting locations, and shots that hit closer to the center score more points. You can play alone (for high scores, one assumes), against another player, or against the computer.


Interestingly, if you play against the computer, the computer can get a high score, too. Embarrassingly, the computer seems to be rather better at this game than I am.

The author, Brian Blankenship, wrote this game in 1985. On December 31, 2013, he posted the BASIC source code to the game on SourceForge. He posted a few comments on abandonware sites around the net. Here’s what he had to say:

I am honored to find sites like this still showing this game from so long ago. I wrote this while bored, waiting to be laid off from a law firm that was splitting up. I was playing “Track and Field” occasionally at arcades, and could barely make it to the archery part, which inspired me to make this game.

Yes, it is very lame by today’s standards, and in hindsight I could have made a lot of improvements. I tinkered with it while it held my interest, and released it to a few BBS’s in the Indianapolis, IN area. Had no idea it would see somewhat large distribution.

Even if Archery is “lame by today’s standards”, I found it to be quite a fun (though simple) game. I imagine it’d be worth playing with a friend, at least for a few matches.

Posted in 1985, Action, Archery, Decent, DOS, Freeware, Full Review, Shooter | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »


Posted by Tracy Poff on November 29, 2008

Jaws is an action game, published in 1987 by LJN Toys, Ltd. and developed by Westone Co., Ltd.

The object of the game, as anyone who’s seen the movies could guess, is to hunt down and kill Jaws, the shark. When the game opens, we are presented a top down view of our boat.

If the boat hits something, the view changes from top-down to side-on, and we are given the opportunity to shoot jellyfish, stingrays, and small sharks in order to obtain points, crabs (which speed up the diver) or shells.

These encounters can occur in either shallow water (shown above), which appears when you hit something near the coastline, or deeper water. The shallow water is much more difficult, since you have less time and room to dodge the enemies, so I’d recommend avoiding coastlines when possible.

After finishing the underwater screen, you may get the opportunity to play a bonus game, which is rather like the bonus game in Galaga–jellyfish swim around in patterns and you try to drop bombs on them from the plane flying overhead. Unlike Galaga, however, you don’t have full control of the plane. It flies back and forth automatically, and you can only choose whether it moves quickly or slowly. As a result, it’s difficult to hit the jellyfish if they appear at the wrong time. Every third jellyfish you hit gives you a shell at the end of the bonus game.

Shells aren’t just another version of points, though–they serve as money (why shells would be worth anything at a port, I don’t know; just go with it). There are two ports in Jaws. You begin at one of them. Once you’ve collected a few shells, you can travel to the other, and upon arriving there you’ll trade some shells for a receiver, which lets you know when Jaws is close. After this, you alternate between the two ports, trading increasing numbers of shells for increased attack power.

This attack power is only useful against Jaws, though; the ordinary enemies take the same number of hits no matter what your attack power is. There is a powerup you can get to help you with them, though: the submarine. After thirty thousand points, the submarine appears somewhere on the map, and you can collect it. Once you’ve done so, instead of simply having a diver on the underwater screen, you’ll be in a submarine, which has bombs and torpedoes instead of mere harpoons.

Whether you get the submarine or not, though, you’ll eventually fight Jaws. If you run into him with your boat, you’ll first get to lob some bombs at him from your boat, before being dropped into the water. Either way, you’ll have to shoot him until his power is depleted. The more you’ve raised your power, the faster this will be. I’ve read that at power level one it will take over a thousand shots to empty Jaws’ power gauge, so I wouldn’t recommend attempting this before your power is level three or four. I’d also recommend using a turbo button for firing–the first time I actually beat Jaws, I was using an NES Advantage, but emulators have this function as well.

One tip for this fight: if you’re at the very top of the water, Jaws can’t hit you (though the small sharks can), so you can use this to dodge him. However, if you move down just slightly from the top (very slightly–probably only a pixel), Jaws won’t be able to hit you, but your harpoons will still hit him. If you get in this spot, you can just float on top of Jaws and auto-fire your harpoons at him, which is much faster than keeping your distance (since the number of shots on the screen at a time is limited), and much safer than trying to chase him closely.

However you wear him down, once you’ve done it, you’ll be shown a first person view for the final confrontation. You have to use a strobe when Jaws is directly in front of your boat, and then ram him.

It is very difficult to get the timing for this just right–if jaws is too close or too far away, it won’t work. Plus, when you use the strobe, Jaws rotates, so you also have to ram him at the right time–too soon or too late and it won’t work either. If you fail, you’ll be sent back to the overworld map and have to hit Jaws and wear him down all over again. You begin with three strobes, but once you’ve maxed your power you can trade shells for more at the ports, if you’re so inclined.

Once you successfully ram him, you’re treated to the sight of Jaws’ corpse sinking to the ocean floor, followed by an ending screen in which a plane flies off into the sunset.

That’s it! I beat the game in a little under half an hour, but it shouldn’t be too hard to beat in under fifteen minutes if you put your mind to it.

AI: 3/10
The enemies just swim straight at you. It works, but it doesn’t require any skill to plan a strategy.
Gameplay: 5/10
The controls work well enough, and there’s nothing wrong with the basic idea, though it does get repetitive. The random encounters happen annoyingly often, too, when you’re just trying to upgrade your power.
Graphics: 7/10
The graphics look pretty good, actually. They’re not perfect, but you can easily tell what’s what and they don’t get annoying to look at while playing.
Sound: 5/10
The sound isn’t annoying, but it’s not interesting or particularly memorable either.
Story: 0/5
There’s no story at all presented in the game, and even the premise is pretty weak. I’m only giving this half weight, though, since the story isn’t very important in an action game like this, and its contemporaries weren’t much better.
Personal Slant: 6/10
I played this game a fair bit when I was younger, so I’m a little nostalgic about it, but that doesn’t make the game good.
Total: 4.7/10
Jaws isn’t really worth playing. It’s not precisely a bad game, but there are much better action games, and this one doesn’t really stand out in any way.

Posted in Action, Bad, Full Review, NES | Tagged: , , , | Leave a Comment »