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

by Ben Reeves on Aug 02, 2013 at 11:00 AM

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.”

Outsmarting the System
To understand Pitfall’s technical achievements, you first have to understand how the Atari 2600 worked. Console gaming wasn’t a big market at the time, but Atari thought it could make money by porting its most popular arcade games over to a system that people could play on their TV. According to Crane, Atari designed the Atari 2600 to play Pong and Tank (renamed Combat for the 2600) – its two most popular arcade games of the era. Initially, Atari was concerned only with getting those two games into people’s homes. If its programmers designed some additional games for the system, that would just be the icing on the cake. This resulted in a system that was far from ­programmer ­friendly.

“The Atari 2600 was the most challenging machine ever to write games on,” ­Crane ­says.

One of the many reasons Atari games were so challenging to program centered on how the console interacted with television sets. Modern video game consoles construct a full image from a game, and then the TV draws that image. In turn, television sets start at the top of the screen and draw each line of that image pixel-by-pixel. These images only appear to move because our TVs, and game systems, are producing between 30 and 60 images ­per ­second.

The Atari 2600, on the other hand, couldn’t construct a full screen for any of its games. At any given moment, the system could only output a single row of pixels. This meant that during the milliseconds it took for a television’s beam to finish drawing the first line of pixels on its screen and move back into position to start the second line, the Atari 2600 had to figure out what was happening in the game on that second row of pixels. The console’ s processor was so busy drawing the screen that it limited the number of computations a programmer could use for important gaming actions such as enemy and player movements, charting projectiles, and even processing ­controller ­inputs.

Programming a game for the Atari 2600 was further complicated by the fact that the console only had enough data storage to display up to five objects. This forced Crane to invent some clever programming tricks that would allow him to produce a game screen full of sand pits, swinging vines, hungry alligators, venomous scorpions, and ­priceless ­treasure.

For example, Crane used the data storage center that had drawn the ball in Pong and “stretched” it to create Pitfall’s jungle vines – basically redrawing a green pong ball on each line of the screen so that it looked like a swinging vine. The missiles from Combat were used in a similar manner to display the number of lives a player had at the top of the screen. Dozens of tricks like these were used, and they all added up to make Pitfall! one of the best-looking games Atari 2600 players had ­ever ­seen.

Crane’s final feat of innovation came when he had to lay out the game’s levels. To make the game fun, Crane knew that he had to create several screens for players to run through, and that each screen had to offer a new set of ­challenges. Unfortunately, this entire multiscreen world had to be constructed using less than four kilobytes of information. Today, four kilobytes of data would display less than a 1/100th of an image taken with an iPhone camera; Crane had to create an entire game world within those data constraints.

To solve this problem, Crane wrote a program that automatically generated a list of numbers. Each screen of the game had its own set of numbers, and these numbers dictated what would appear on each screen. For example, the first few numbers in the set would determine which graphical tree line appeared in the background while another few digits determined if a player ran into a pit of quicksand in the center of the screen or a pool ­of ­alligators.

Using this technique, Crane auto-generated 250 playable Pitfall! screens. After that, the designer merely had to sort through the images and determine which screen would be the ideal starting point for players. Pitfall! had suddenly become a game. Better still, it was a lot of fun. Now Crane just had to figure out how to cram his masterpiece into one of Atari’s ­tiny ­cartridges.

The World Falls for Pitfall!
At the time of the release of Pitfall! Atari’s game cartridges could only hold four kilobytes of information. The games were so small that the entire Atari 2600 catalog can fit onto a 1MB flash drive. That also meant that Atari 2600 titles were notoriously difficult ­to ­finalize.

“Every 2600 game made was a master work of computation,” Crane says. “You could write a code that used a lot of RAM and saved ROM, but you have more ROM than RAM so you’re always writing things that waste ROM to save RAM and you only got so much of everything. We would get to the end of a program and get every feature into a game and then realize that we had a three-kilobyte program [we were trying to fit] in a two-kilobyte ROM, so then we would have to go back through the code rewriting it just to save a byte. We had to do that a thousand times for ­each ­game.”

By September of 1982, Pitfall! had slimmed down enough to fit into its cartridge. The game released and was an instant success. It spent 64 weeks at the top of the best-sellers list, and went on to sell over four million copies on the way to becoming Activision’s best-selling Atari 2600 title. In the end it was the second most successful Atari 2600 title of all time, right ­behind ­Pac-Man.

During the height of its popularity, Pitfall! spawned a series of board games, coloring books, and a short run of Saturday morning cartoons. Crane even recalls having to hire a staff of seven full-time workers to open and respond to the 14,000 Pitfall! fan letters Activision was receiving ­each ­week.

Over the decades, Pitfall’s fame has dwindled from a blazing inferno to a couple of glowing embers. Pitfall! isn’t regarded as one of the world’s most popular platforming franchises anymore, but it was the first game that allowed players to run through a series of environments and jump over obstacles as they collected treasure. For that reason, popular modern franchises like Mario, Sly Cooper, and Super Meat Boy owe a debt to a pioneering game that was born out of one programmer’s desire to solve a complex ­problem.

Looking or more classic gaming goodness? Check out our other classic features on Q*bert and Activision.