3. Pitfall II: Lost Caverns
Possibly the first big-world game.
Published by Activision
Designed and developed by David Crane
Platform: Atari 2600
Length: Short (Medium if played until
The Atari 800 version has a second
This is the most advanced game on the
old 2600. It's certainly so technically: it's got a large mapable,
sometimes scrolling world with independently-functioning enemies,
special regions, multiple modes of movement (running, jumping,
swimming, ballooning). It's even got pretty good background music
that changes based on the situation.
But its design is even more advanced
than its programming tricks. While the original Pitfall's
exploration-based gameplay was tightly limited by its three lives
(for novice players) and 20-minute time limit (for advanced players),
Pitfall II discards entirely lives, health, and even death.
When the player touches a fatal enemy, the music changes for a bit
and he's transported back to the last "cross" he touched,
and he loses points depending on the distance. Crosses aren't too
common, but they aren't too rare either.
The main thing this did for the game
was remove the requirement of having to be really good to see it all.
The original Pitfall had 255 screens and 32 treasures, of which
probably less than 1% of owners had ever seen all of. Pitfall II,
while still challenging, could be played continually until finished,
with the player's remaining score still providing a substantial
measure of skill that could be improved through further play.
The result is, interestingly, not
dissimilar to Metroid without weapons or power-ups, but with a score.
Pitfall II even has that game's search aspects: instead of looking
for missiles and new abilities, players search for treasure. Not bad
at all for a 2600 game!
Realizing that game-ending conditions
other than winning could be discarded entirely was an amazing
insight, and possibly marks the origins of the structure seen in 95%
of games to this day: play until death, then send the player back to
a checkpoint or previous save. While most of these games will boldly
declare "Game Over" when the player runs out of health,
considering you can always resume from the last checkpoint it's
really not over at all. It's arguably an overused design now, but it
wasn't back when Pitfall II did it.
Notice that Pitfall II leans even
harder on score than Pitfall! did. While the origin of the concept
of score goes back to pinball and earlier, is an oft-neglected aspect
of gaming these days. Sure, there are "experience points"
and "hit points" and "magic points" and a dozen
other points, with more introduced every time a Japanese RPG tries
out a goofy new system, but most games have shied away lately from
providing measures of skill. Exploration games, in particular, tend
to focus more on finishing the quest than building up a score, but
Pitfall II shows that they are by no means incompatible.
Not the first open
world game, by a long shot, but refined the concept and introduced
the Metroid structure that rules action-adventure game design.
Published by Nintendo
Developed by Nintendo R&D 1
Designed by Gunpei Yokoi and Yoshio
Platform: Famicom Disk System, NES,
Gamecube (Metroid Prime), GBA (Metroid Zero Mission), Wii (Virtual
Take a look, the game is composed
entirely of horizontal and vertical-scrolling areas. They almost
always alternate, that is, horizontal areas always have vertical
areas connected to them, and vice versa. There are only two types of
places where this trend is bucked: powerup rooms always connect
horizontal-to-horizontal, and the final boss room is also connected
Also consider for a moment the Maru
Mari, a.k.a. Morph Ball, one of the strangest powerups in gaming
history. Mario growing large from eating a mushroom is an obvious
nod to Alice in Wonderland, but where the hell did this come
from? It has become one of the most identifiable aspects of the
Metroid series, enough so that the Prime games had to include it.
When game designers sit down with a notebook and start jotting down
abilities for their kick-ass warriors to have, turning into a
small ball on command is not what one expects to see written
down. Even less does one expect to see it survive the editing that
brainstorm sessions demand. That it did, and that it became one of
the signature elements of the games, says much for the elemental
power of creativity in game design.
Metroid was not the first open world
game, and neither was it the first side-view platformer exploration
game, nor was it the first game where players found things in the
maze to allow them to reach new sections. But it was likely the
first game to take these different elements and rigorously mold them
into a game-ruling structure.
Tellingly, the game starts out by
immediately forcing players into a wall imposed by its structure.
The first room (I'll call a single horizontal-scroll or vertical
scroll area a "room") contains a powerup item, the Morph
Ball. The third room contains a low ceiling that cannot be passed
without it. If the player tries to tackle Metroid like Mario, always
going to the right, he'll hit the barrier immediately; the Morph Ball
can only be obtained by going left from the start.
In effect, by putting such a barrier in
the first two rooms of the game, the designers are telling the
1. You can explore in more than one
2. There are cool things in this game
that give you permanent new abilities.
3. You'll need them to progress.
4. If you find a place you can't get
by, go back and look for new powerups.
Modern games tend to be chatty enough
that, were the game made today, all this would probably have been
printed on the screen at some point, if not voice-acted. But Metroid
is silent. Outside the opening and ending, there are only six words
visible in the entire game. (They come near the end....) At the
beginning of the game the player's explored area is limited, so
there's not a lot the player can do other than go back and find the
Maru Mari. Later on the player is more likely to be without a needed
power-up, but by putting such a block almost at the start the player
comes to learn the rule of powerup progression for himself.
The atmosphere is the thing about
Metroid that holds up the best today. I'm not the first to remark
that Metroid's awesomeness comes, by large part, from the fact that
the game doesn't seem designed. It's easy to look at the
chaotic arrangement of tunnels, large unimportant sections, frequent
dead-ends and random strangenesses (like the "fake" version
of boss Kraid that lurks in one tunnel) as signs that the game was
created by computer. It's actually intricately planned out, but
exploring the planet makes it seem like the level designer was
determined to erase any signs of human handiwork. This makes Metroid
what one might call a Lovecraftian game. It is easy to
believe it the work of inhuman logic, built by beings unknown to us.
It's dangerous to say definite things
about whichever game did something first, but the following seems
safe enough. Metroid gave us the first large-scale use of
granting permanent player abilities as a means of game progression.
It gave us major powerups (Long Beam, Hi-Jump Boots, Screw Attack,
etc) as both rewards and an advancement system, while also including
many minor powerups (Missiles and Energy Tanks) that serve as simple
rewards. Yet they too are essential objects; Energy Tanks of course
extend the player's maximum health, but large numbers of Missiles are
eventually needed to destroy the Zebetite barriers in one of the last
rooms of the game. If the player hasn't found enough missiles he's
stuck, lending importance to what might otherwise be a trivial
Metroid Cubed, a fan recreation using a