In December 1982 my parents decided to take a road trip from Iowa to Colorado to visit my oldest sister, a recent college grad, for Christmas Break. We made the trip a few times before so I knew the routine, hours of driving with little to do.
I always packed books, some action figures, and a few hot wheels to keep entertained during the drive and while visiting. On this trip, I was able to bring one other item. It was the first year we owned an Atari 2600 and my dad suggested we pack it up and bring it along. What! We could do that?!? Are you kidding me, what a great idea! No more listening to the adults catch up, I can play Atari wherever we go! I packed the Atari with care, treating it like a fragile egg, making sure it was secure and wouldn’t break during the trip.
We loaded the station wagon, I got comfy in the back and we headed West on a 12-hour road trip across the Midwest to the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. The drive was completely boring for a 10-year-old. Staring at empty, snow-covered cornfields; occasionally catching a glimpse of deer.
It was made slightly tolerably by picking on my other sister and trying to convince semi drivers to honk as they drove by. Finally, after multiple truck stops and McDonald’s happy meals (One of the few times we ate out was during a road trip) we arrived at my older sister house.
Once we got everything in the house and settled in, I hooked up the Atari. Unlike today, where every house has multiple TVs, my sister only had one. Playing the Atari turned out to be the lowest priority, lower than St Elsewhere, Dynasty, football games, and even soap operas. I didn’t bring the Atari halfway across the country to take a back seat to soap operas!
Thankfully they all went to bed at a decent time and I was able to play the Atari until the wee hours of the morning.
Finally, Christmas Eve arrived and we could open presents. In my family we opened presents on Christmas Eve, then Santa would visit and we’d open his gifts on Christmas Day.
I ripped through presents and don’t remember any of them; books, toys, and clothes would be my guess. After the presents and socializing it was time for bed before Santa arrived.
The next morning I woke to find Santa left a new brown sleeping bag with flying ducks on the inner liner and one other present. It wasn’t big, about the size of a book. When I opened it I yelled like I scored the winning touchdown. It was a green box with gold bars hiding behind trees, crocodiles swimming in a lake, underground tunnels and the best adventurer ever. That’s right Christmas 1982 I got the one present I wanted…PITFALL!
How my dad knew to bring the Atari was beyond me…he must have worked it out with Santa!
I played PITFALL! all day long! I did get kicked off at some point for a football game, but thankfully on Christmas Day, there wasn’t much for the others to watch. And I was back with Pitfall Harry in no time.
There was so much to discover in the game. Learning to jump on the croc’s heads and not die when their mouth opened. Or timing the jumps over the 3 rolling logs. I can still hear the annoying buzz when the logs hit me and the 8-bit Tarzan yell after grabbing onto the vine to swing across the tar pit.
We left the next day and the drive back home was excruciating. PITFALL! was sitting in my bag and no way to play it for the next 12 hours. I read the instructions over and over just waiting to get home and play again. That’s when I discovered my true quest.
In today’s gaming world you can earn digital badges in your Game Center or Steam account to show off your skills and accomplishments. Back in 1982 that didn’t exist. But Activision came up with an even better concept…actual, physical badges! It was all laid out in the instructions. Score 20,000 points, take a picture of the TV, send the picture to Activision and they would send a Pitfall Explorers’ Club badge. Challenge accepted!
When we arrived home I unpacked as fast as I could and hooked up the Atari to start my quest for 20,000 points. I played the game non-stop (mostly non-stop, again, the one TV problem) for the rest of Christmas break and throughout the next year. It was the only game I needed.
My imagination soared every time I played the game. I was Pitfall Harry swinging through the jungle trying to find the lost treasure and escape certain death.
Unfortunately, as much as I played, I never fulfilled my quest to get the Explorers’ Club badge. I don’t recall if I never reached 20,000 points or if I didn’t have a camera when I did. I like to think I scored the points but no camera was available…
While I never received the badge, PITFALL! remains one of my all-time favorite games. It’s one of the only games I play on the Atari Flashback. And one of the games my kids like to play.
There are all kinds of talk about how it revolutionized the gaming world and introduced this or that into gaming. But 10-year-old me didn’t care about any of that. To me, it opened a world of adventure and wonder and hours of pure enjoyment.
And so it was during Christmas 1982 when I traveled over 1,800 miles across the snow-packed Midwest and discovered my inner adventurer and love for searching out hidden treasure.
– by Gary Ekborg