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The Pitfalls Of Atari Development: The Industry’s First Platformer

During the stone age of console development, humans were rarely featured as video game protagonists. Gaming’s all-stars were tanks, spaceships, and yellow ghost-eating circles. Early video game consoles didn’t have the horsepower to draw human-shaped avatars, but Pitfall! creator David Crane dreamed of making a game that accurately represented an articulated person. This dream would not only drive Crane to create one of the most beloved Atari 2600 titles of all time, but light the creative spark that fueled an entirely new genre of gaming.

Solving an Elusive Problem
David Crane was no stranger to solving programming problems. He came out of high school programing computers in three languages and then designed a computer that could play tic-tac-toe in college. After graduating with an engineering degree, Crane decided that he needed a more rounded education, so he applied for a job at National Semiconductor just so he could get hands-on ­experience designing integrated circuits.

Crane eventually landed a job at Atari and helped co-found the first third-party video game developer, Activision (detailed in issue #239). However, throughout his gaming career one particular programming problem nagged him: How could a programmer fit a fully articulated human in a game using ­existing ­hardware?

“I spent a couple years trying to make that happen,” Crane says. “I’d walk around the lab and I would freeze in a position and sketch the position of my leg, and try to figure out how to do that at eight pixels. Pitfall Harry was the culmination of all ­that ­work.”

That work ultimately spanned a number of years as Crane worked on a series of games for both Atari and Activision. Crane would work on this dream project for a bit, grow frustrated, and eventually move on to his next project. But the idea of putting an articulated human into a game kept ­drawing him back. Finally, after finishing Grand Prix for Activision in early 1982, Crane decided that he needed to make his dream project ­a ­reality.

“I said, ‘Alright, I’ve got a little running man, but where’s he running?’ I took a little piece of paper and drew a stick figure and then a path for him to run on. I said, ‘Where’s the path?’ So I drew some trees and then the path was in the jungle. Then I sketched some things to be running after, chasing, collecting, and in about 10 minutes I had a sketch that would represent ­the ­game.”

Crane drew inspiration for his game from everywhere. Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark had just released in theaters, and that film had an undeniable influence on the development of the game, but it wasn’t the only source of pop culture Crane tapped. The programmer thought it would be funny if the game would produce a noise similar to Johnny Weissmuller’s Tarzan yell of the 1930s whenever Pitfall Harry grabbed a vine. Crane tried to emulate this iconic yell in electronic tones, but many of the people he showed the game to didn’t get the connection. Even so, the sound became iconic to ­the ­series.

Other references were even more obscure. “I remembered a cartoon called Heckle and Jeckle from the ‘50s that featured two talking magpies,” Crane says. “In their lead-in for the show, they showed a series of alligators with their mouths open, and one of the birds ran through the mouths as they snapped shut, and he would just barely escape before they closed. I saw that and I thought, ‘Running across the heads of alligators, this would be kind ­of ­cool.’”

Crane had a solid vision for a game, but he still had a lot of work ahead of him. “It only took me 10 minutes to sketch out the game, but I had to program a thousand hours to make ­it ­happen.”

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