Brüggen, a small town in Germany, sometime in the mid 1980s. Two teenagers are huddled around a tiny TV taking turns playing Pitfall II: Lost Caverns on the most popular home computer of the era, the Commodore 64. I never owned one myself, but instead had a competing model made by Atari, the Atari 600XL – but with a RAM expansion module that endowed it with – don’t laugh – a colossal 64k of RAM, the same as the C64.
Years before SEGA and Nintendo met at the frontlines of the console wars, and decades before Xbox and PlayStation fans measured their fun in install bases or who had the most system exclusives running at 60fps, my friend and I willingly accepted the roles of system advocates for our respective favorite machine. Whenever he pulled the SID card, extolling the virtues of the “best sound chip ever made”, I reminded him of that extra audio channel and the Atari’s ability to display 256 simultaneous colors to his 16. Deep-down, I knew that wasn’t the whole story because the C64 could push more colors at higher resolutions and my Atari, well, let’s say it was really good at making rainbows. In the end, we both celebrated the two competing computers’ differences and enjoyed their unique game libraries together.
Lost in the Lost Caverns
But back to Pitfall II. We were playing the C64 port of David Crane’s Atari 2600 game because I had recently unlocked the second world in the Atari computer version and couldn’t stop talking about it. While it looked and felt a lot like the first game, Pitfall II introduced some pretty exciting innovations. If you’ve never played Pitfall, it’s an Indiana-Jones-inspired platformer that pits the adventurer Pitfall Harry against deadly scorpions, snakes, crocodiles, and treacherous quicksand on a quest to collect treasures. It’s the OG platformer. Harry can jump, climb ladders, and swing from vines – no power-ups, no weapons, no tools. The sequel kept the platforming pure, but added swimming, vertical scrolling, the ability to hold on and fly with balloons, contextual music, and – in an industry first – checkpoints that let you resume your quest should you fail to avoid Pitfall II’s even deadlier critters; poisonous frogs, vampire bats, Andean condors, albino scorpions, and supremely annoying electric eels.
Those checkpoints were a godsend, too – Pitfall II is not an easy game. And that second world! Piranhas. Giant ants. Even nastier bats and frogs! “You’ll see, all we have to do is get Quickclaw, the cowardly lion that looks like a kangaroo trying to shush you, and… There he is. Yeah, don’t worry, he’s not an enemy. Just collect him. Get ready.”
The game ends.
There is no second world in the C64 version? The disappointment and confusion I felt when we got to that pivotal point in Pitfall II is etched in my mind – I still remember this moment some four decades later. At the same time, I had just found new ammo to celebrate the superiority of the Atari home computer platform over the worthless beige neck roll… sorry, old habits… over the Commodore 64. As a kid of the pre-internet ’80s, I filled in the knowledge gaps with all sorts of theories. Maybe my friend had bad code and Zak McKracken or whoever was responsible for my friend’s “free copy” had overwritten part of the game with their elaborate intro animations and techno chiptunes. But the real story is much more interesting.
The Atari computer edition is actually kinda sorta subtitled the “Adventurer’s Edition” and it’s not only unique among the dozen or so versions that exist, it’s also a wonderful forgotten gem in more ways than one. I figured the best way to tell that story is to hand over the mic to Harry’s dad first.
David Crane, I Presume?
“Back then games on each console were complete rewrites in assembly language with custom assets for each. Typically not even graphics and sound effects could be reused. So a ‘port’ took nearly as long as the original creation,” Pitfall creator and programmer David Crane told me when I asked him about the differences between the versions.
“When we were ready to ‘port’ one of our games to other systems, I was already off creating new, original content. It was not a good use of my time to do a port since the game was already designed, including graphics, layouts, puzzles, etc. Another game programmer was assigned to convert assets and rewrite the code. He could play the original and make the same game.”
Since both the Commodore 64 and Atari computers have similar system architecture to the Atari 2600 but with more sophisticated display capacity, Crane says the ports were pegged to be straightforward and were handed over to other programmers – Tim Shotter and Mike Lorenzen, sitting just 15 feet away in the same office. The one exception being the Intellivision version, which he says he did himself while reverse-engineering the system.
“For the C64, Tim Shotter, took the traditional approach, duplicating gameplay but writing the game from scratch. For the [Atari] 800, Mike Lorenzen wrote new display code to replace the 2600 display routines, and used my original source code,” said Crane.
That’s where the magic happened. According to Crane, both projects reached beta at the same time, but the C64 version needed a month of debugging since it was all-new code. The Atari computer version used already debugged code.
“Mike’s game went from Beta to Final. So for simultaneous release Mike spent the month that would have otherwise been taken up debugging to add an entirely original level that opens only if you complete the first one. That was the origin of the Atari 800 Pitfall! ‘Easter egg’.”
The Big Egg
That’s probably the first time you’ve heard someone call half a game an “Easter egg”, right? All other versions of Pitfall II end with Harry jumping in place excitedly upon completing the final objective. In the Atari computer/5200 version, a doorway opens and you uncover a vast second world as big as the first one – surely way too much content to earn the modest designation of an “Easter egg”, even with the quotes.
The story surrounding Pitall II’s second world has taken on mythical proportions – no doubt in part because recollections have faded over the years and much of the documentation is lost. Some claim you have to collect treasures in a certain order to unlock the second half, which is why it’s an Easter egg. You don’t. Some claim that the extra level is hidden in the other versions. It isn’t. The only way to play it is to finish the first half of Pitfall II on an Atari 8-bit computer or the 5200. If you’re curious, you can watch the second world unlock in this WorldofLongPlays video (played via an emulator).
But how did it come about in the first place? What made Mike Lorenzen, designer and programmer of early Atari 2600 classics like Golf, Circus Atari, and Oink!, go so far off the beaten path when tasked with an “easy port”? I just had to know, so I tracked down Mike, who, at age 66, has long left the games industry behind and is working in the telecom business here in California.
“Well, I, uhhh, made Pitfall III…” – Mike Lorenzen
“As an original author, I wanted to make ‘a game’. I didn’t want to give Dave all the credit – I wanted to do something and make it better. The first half of the game plays identically. I didn’t do a damn thing, except, technically, pull this off. So, what I did… I added a second game. And it’s just as big as the original.”
Mike told me how he was battling a reputation of being a slacker for part of his game making career – mostly, he believes, because he became so involved with hardware and IT work that his coding output was lower than other dedicated programmers’. A self-starter and hardware tinkerer who took monitors and computers apart and reverse engineered them, Mike had landed a job at Atari in 1979 because he had reached out to the console maker and asked for hardware documentation so he could write his own games.
The team of Atari pioneers that hired him eventually left and founded a new company: Activision. Mike stayed behind, loyal to the company that had given him his first development gig. But, as he told me, he knew “enough about hardware to be dangerous” and after becoming disillusioned with the lack of rewards and credit at Atari, eventually followed his former employers to the greener pastures of the developer-founded outfit. At Activision, gaming history’s first independent third-party developer, he continued to apply his knack for hardware and even built an Atari computer development kit. That familiarity no doubt led to him being the prime choice to port the sequel to Activision’s biggest hit, Atari 2600’s Pitfall II, to the Atari 8-bit line.
“One of my gripes as an original author is that a translation would be lazy. Tim looked at the C64 and wrote it from scratch, I took Dave’s code and transcribed the code byte by byte.”
Don’t Call Me A Slacker
So Mike started to think bigger, convincing himself that if the original game had 256 screens with seven things – “the alligators and whatnot” – he needed to have 256 screens with seven brand-new things. “One was the rabid bat,” he said, and offered in one of many asides during our conversation: “The rabid bat actually has a repeating pattern, all you had to do is study it.”
Mike dedicated his entire working and private life to making his version of Pitfall II something special. He says, without any discernible sense of regret, that he worked in stretches of 11 hours day and night, catching just a single hour of sleep in between shifts. He didn’t go home, and instead slept on his lab bench for that hour, twice a day. When it was done, he burnt the ROMs himself and sent the games out, “bug-free”, on the last plane going to the Consumer Electronics Expo (the birthplace of E3) in Las Vegas.
“When I submitted the manual, I said, ‘well the manual has to be a little different because there’s this other thing…’ And they said ‘what’s this other thing?’ I said ‘well, I, uhhh, made Pitfall III and put it in there.’ And marketing went nutso.”
Nutso, in a bad way. Mike believes that the pushback was based on fear that the old hardware, 1979’s Atari 800, would show up newer computers like the Commodore 64 and that Activision didn’t want to embarrass them by having such different versions of the game hit at the same time.
In a 2018 Facebook comment, Pitfall II’s producer, Brad Fregger, recalls that the call came from the VP of Marketing at Activision:
“’We can’t have [that], Brad. We are marketing the two products together and they need to have the exact same gameplay. You are going to have to strip that second game out of the product.’ I couldn’t change his mind, none of my arguments worked. I drove back to the office trying to figure out how I was going to give Mike this terrible news.”
Fregger recalls that he told Mike that “we are going to have the best, damn, Easter egg ever.”
“They didn’t want to market it as Pitfall III, because that would be a ‘Dave thing’, said Mike. “Well, I can’t take it out! And so we negotiated a truce where, if you completed the entire first game, then that was the only time you were allowed to know about the second part of the game.”
So the “sequel” stayed in the game, but all versions of Pitfall II were marketed exactly the same way. Though Lorenzen himself included a cheeky hint in the game code that the Atari version was unique – a scrolling text message at the bottom of the screen not only identifies Mike Lorenzen as the programmer (a move that Activision encouraged), but also labels the game the “Adventurer’s Edition” – something that’s absent from the game’s box art and any of the magazine advertisements. The marketing didn’t mention any differences at all – visual or content – between the versions. If anything, it used the C64 as its poster child, no doubt more due to that platform’s popularity than its admittedly much fancier tree designs.
I can’t prove it – since pre-internet gaming history can be more than just a bit fuzzy – but I think it’s likely that many Atari Pitfall II players knew of the extra level, but perhaps not that it didn’t make it into the other versions. You see, this is page 1 in the Atari version’s manual, which Mike thinks may have been wordsmithed by his wife or possibly touched up by a tech writer:
It’s right there: find Rhonda, Quickclaw, and Raj. “Then, venture through the forbidding second cavern and solve its surprising mystery of freedom”.
That last line refers to the game’s final puzzle, which has Harry meet a snake charmer who tells him that charming the Golden Rope is the only path to freedom. Touch the charmer’s flute, and a rope rises from the basket at the center of this screen lifting Harry and his entourage and treasures to safety. The game ends with everyone back on the surface – a final story cutscene in an age where action games rarely ended and even more rarely made the effort to reward the player with more than a white-on-black “Game Over” screen.
The ending seemed so elaborate compared to other games, I just had to ask Mike about it – who didn’t disappoint and offered another anecdote:
“I wanted the classic snake-charming music [hums the tune]. And so they brought in a musician and composer, named Ed Bogas, who wrote commercial jingles. Dave Crane is a fucking genius, right? His IQ is off the charts! Ed Bogas is another one. The day he came in to do the music for me, he composed four different sets of music while having a conversation with me. He said ‘give me the translation paper’ and then he memorized it and gave me the notes in hex. While creating four other pieces of music. That’s probably the person with the most bandwidth, the most simultaneous processing I ever saw.”
Pitfall is not forgotten today. While Activison tried to resurrect the series multiple times – with mixed results – David Crane’s and Pitfall’s influence on modern platformers is often-cited and rightfully celebrated. But Pitfall II: The Lost Caverns – Adventurer’s Edition is a true forgotten gem. Lorenzen took a quality Pitfall sequel and let his ambition run wild. The end result is an example of crafting a compelling story and providing the player with a sense of progression — and closure — through the simplest means possible. This version goes way beyond a port or a remaster – it eclipses the original in every way and it deserves its story to be known and remembered.
“Every once in a while I’d get a call from customer service telling me that a C64 customer was complaining about not having the extra game that [his] friend with the 800 version had”, said Fregger. “‘He’s just confused because of the different graphics.’ I’d reply. Trouble is, we did such a good job of hiding it that there are very few people in the world who know that the world’s biggest Easter egg is in the Atari 800 version of Pitfall II.”
And now you know, too.
Where Can You Play It Now?
Pitfall II: Lost Caverns – Adventurer’s Edition is not offered in any compilation or micro console today. While all but the digiBlast incarnation of Activision Anthology included the Atari 2600 original, Mike’s second adventure is not legally purchasable and playable anywhere but on an Atari 5200, or an Atari 8-Bit computer. The Pitfall series itself has been dormant since 2012, when Activision released an endless runner for mobile phones.
Pitfall: The Complete Playlist
Here are all games in Activision’s platform adventure series, starting with David Crane’s original Pitfall! on the Atari 2600.
Peer Schneider (@PeerIGN on Twitter) is one of IGN Entertainment’s founders and is chasing down all his childhood mysteries one by one. Next up: why all of MB’s Starbirds are missing their gun turret.