Harry returns in Pitfall! for iOS

Pitfall! is a new iOS game from Activision’s UK-based studio The Blast Furnace, based loosely on the company’s 1982 Atari 2600 game of the same name. The game is a total reimagining of the franchise for the mobile gaming market rather than a remake or update of the original, and is available now for $0.99 from the App Store. The game requires at least a fourth-generation iPhone/iPod touch or second-generation iPad to play due to its demanding use of graphics.

Before discussing the game on its own merits, there are two important points to address. Firstly, Pitfall! is clearly heavily inspired by Imangi’s Temple Run, though whether or not it is a “clone” is a matter of debate. While the game does make use of the exact same core gameplay and gestural control as Temple Run, it also incorporates a few new features, including more varied scenery, dynamically-changing camera angles and the ability to attack enemy characters. Besides, it could also be argued that Temple Run is little more than Semi Secret Software’s Canabalt in 3D.

Secondly, Pitfall! for iOS has very little to do with the original Pitfall! aside from a visual reference while the game is starting up — main character Pitfall Harry is seen playing the original Pitfall! on an iPad-like device as the volcano which provides his impetus to run erupts.

Pitfall! is an “endless running” game in which the player is tasked with keeping Pitfall Harry alive for as long as possible. This is achieved by jumping over low obstacles, sliding under high ones, leaping chasms and turning 90-degree corners without crashing into a wall. Dangerous creatures such as rattlesnakes and scorpions also block Harry’s path, though he may take a single hit from these enemies without dying, and may also use his Indiana Jones-style whip to defeat them by tapping on the screen.

The game is very well-presented, running at a mostly-consistent 60 frames per second on an iPhone 4S, and featuring attractive, distinctive cel-shaded visuals. Sound is similarly good, featuring a cinematic orchestral soundtrack and wisecracking one-liners from Harry himself, though these are rather repetitive and certainly aren’t on a par with Naughty Dog’s Nathan Drake from the Uncharted series on PS3 — clearly the character whom Activision is trying to ape.

The core gameplay, too, is solid, though there are a few flaws — the initial load time is one of the longest of any iOS game out there, even on up-to-date hardware; the collision detection between Harry and obstacles is rather inconsistent; occasional hiccups in the game’s usually-smooth framerate (particularly if a notification pops up during play, or when taking a screenshot) cause controls to become momentarily non-responsive; the changing camera angles make the “tilt” controls to move from side to side and collect items almost unworkable at times; and sometimes the gestural controls simply don’t behave as expected, with Harry occasionally inexplicably jumping to the side when tapping on the screen rather than using his whip to attack as intended.

A greater concern is the game’s heavy-handed monetization strategy. The game is already a paid app, but there is a strong reliance on in-app purchases of the game’s hard currency to make consistent progress. This is most apparent in the game’s “checkpoint” system, which allows players to restart from later in the game upon reaching milestones that are two in-game kilometers apart. Players must initially “unlock” a checkpoint by reaching it. They must then “activate” it by spending the game’s hard currency diamonds — acquired either through leveling up or in-app purchase — and must then spend “Macaw Tokens” in order to be able to actually use it. Macaw Tokens are consumable items and may be purchased in packs of 10 using either 6,000 “treasure” items collectible during play (an amount which takes a hefty number of playthroughs to collect; slightly fewer with the $1.99 “treasure multiplier” in-app purchase), or 10 diamonds (an equivalent of about $0.99). Moreover, if the player quits and restarts the game, they must start from the beginning again and are only able to use previously-activated checkpoints once they reach and unlock them again.

Alongside the checkpoint unlocks and Macaw Tokens, a number of powerups and character upgrades are available for varying amounts of either soft or hard currency — player’s choice. On top of that, a selection of purchasable costumes for Harry also allow the player a degree of visual customization, but these are all relatively difficult to come by without resorting to in-app purchases or a lot of grinding.

Since the game is already a paid app (albeit not a particularly expensive one), the amount of additional content which the game is pushing players towards paying for leaves something of a sour taste in the mouth, and a number of App Store reviewers have been commenting to this effect. Regular nag screens to check out the store and purchase upgrades don’t help the feeling of being repeatedly badgered to spend more money, either, the net effect being that the player eventually becomes more aware of the game’s business model than the game itself. This is a shame, since Pitfall! is actually a very high-quality, well-produced game, above-mentioned flaws aside. Backing off on the in-app purchases — perhaps by increasing the rate at which players acquire soft currency through play, or by unlocking powerups or Macaw Tokens automatically on level up rather than demanding currency for them — would make it a much more player-friendly experience while still allowing for a robust monetization strategy.

Pitfall! is currently ranked at No. 3 in Top Paid Apps, No. 2 in Top Paid iPad Apps, No. 2 in Top Paid Games and No. 2 in Top Paid iPad Games. It is also ranked at No. 44 in the Top Grossing Apps chart, No. 53 in Top Grossing iPad Apps, No. 38 in Top Grossing Games and No. 35 in Top Grossing iPad Games. Follow its progress with AppData, our tracking service for iOS and social games and developers, now featuring charts from 15 different countries’ App Stores.