Tuesday 12 July 2011

The Pit

The best place to punch Liu Kang in the face.

Or not. It's The (other) Pit, an unrelated 1982 arcade game released by Taito. Sporting a hideous title screen and a forgettable history, it's one of many early 1980s games that will never be unearthed if it weren't for blogs like these. And what better way to follow up two high definition Xbox 360 reviews?

Fans of my quirky reviews might actually recognise this one for a change. Though it doesn't seem to have been loved by the folks of thirty years ago, a clone of this game, retitled "Hell Hole" wound up on the Acorn Electron. I did a Blog Squirrel Special about that computer last year, in which I claimed it was a game that confused me, thanks to the lack of on-screen instructions or written documentation.

Turns out these thoughts were justified. The Pit is a mildly confusing game on first glance, but thankfully the arcade version bothers to put up a screen outlining the basic goals, which is more than can be said for Alligata's attempt. Of course, had I played the game for more than a few minutes back then I'd have likely figured out what was going on, but hey, nobody said these reviews would be well done.

The Pit is effectively a Boulder Dash clone, except it isn't because it pre-dates Boulder Dash by two years. If you've not played Boulder Dash we're going to have a hard time understanding each other, since I'll be referencing that game quite a bit, but Dig Dug, Repton, Digger - it's all the same sub-genre.

Like Boulder Dash the aim of the game is to collect gems, all of which lie underground. You can move in four directions and are the only person on the planet capable of digging through the dirt, so as long as there's not a solid object in your way, you're free to move about the screen. There are, of course, downsides to doing so - bad-guys could follow you down tunnels and you may have to use the button to shoot them. Likewise, activity can trigger boulders above, which will flatten you if you don't get out of their way. But if you've played any of the above games you'll know the drill by now.

The confusion in The Pit lies in the fact that it's not quite as simple those games - you only need one "big" gem but you also have to take it back up to the surface. The others serve no purpose other than to add points to your total score, however you also gain points by shooting people, so there's plenty of strategies to take.

The game has a time limit, though rather than opting for a simple counter, Taito felt the need to make the situation more visual. Breaking out of their video game roots, the company have commandeered a tank, with the intention of destroying your spaceship for some reason. However, a mountain lies between the two vehicles, and to succeed, Taito felt it was best to spend the game shooting at mother nature first, carving a hole in the process in the hopes of eventually reaching your exit plan. Taito have also recruited people to wander down already existing holes in an attempt to flush you out. You need to deal with all of this.

And there's more. As you can see from the maps, some areas have extra hazards. The cave towards to the bottom of the screen has stalactites that will fall on you (best not to question the physics behind all of this). The upper left room has a decaying bridge which you must quickly cross otherwise you'll drown in the... green liquid below. Personally, I think there's a bit too much going on for a 1982 arcade game of this nature - I suspect the reason both Dig Dug and Boulder Dash were more successful is because they kept things simple - The Pit tries to throw in as much as possible.

It's not a big crime, but the graphics aren't really up to the job. Everything has to be rendered at a very small size in order to create a large play area, but I think life would have been easier for Taito if they'd opted for a game that involved scrolling. Sure, you won't see the entire playfield that way, but you don't need to. The only useful information other than what's directly in front of you is how close that tank is to ruining your game, and again, you could have just used a simple timer. Tanks are nice but it's not like you get to control one.

By the looks of these screenshots you would be forgiven for thinking that the world is played out on a grid made up of 8x8 tiles. Moving left moves you eight pixels to the left, moving right moves you eight pixels to the right. This would indeed be a very normal and logical option, however The Pit has other ideas. The game instead gives you complete freedom - if you only want to move along one pixel, it will let you do so. You can take big 8x8 chunks out of the wall, but you don't need to align yourself to the grid in order to do so.

In Dig Dug, the game will automatically align the characters up to the grid in order to turn left or right. Here it doesn't. Now this may sound as if The Pit is a slightly less rigid game as a result, but believe me, not being grid-based is a horrible idea. Being given the freedom to move anywhere means you find yourself fidgeting around trying to get through a pre-defined gap, and this can be deadly in the situations where speed is of the essence.

This is the main issue with the Pit. Unless you've lined yourself up perfectly with the pre-defined layout, you will have problems getting through the tunnels quickly. It doesn't matter if you're hollowing out a 8x8 chunk or a 1x1 chunk - it all takes the same amount of time, so it's easy to be screwed over by the mechanics. To truly grasp what I'm talking about it's something that needs to be experienced first hand, but this is likely the reason Boulder Dash became a household name while this was left to degrade.

The graphics, as I've said, aren't great. The sound is generic and overall it's a very dated package. Should we expect this from a 1982 arcade game? Possibly, but it was hardly top of its game then either. Nevertheless, the Pit is an interesting release - without it there wouldn't be Boulder Dash and if it obeyed the grid-style rules every other game of this nature does, it would probably be quite cool.

The Pit wasn't ported to many systems - there's a Commodore 64 version which runs a little better but it still felt the need to keep the awkward digging mechanics. It's a nice little novelty and if nothing else, at least I know how to play it now, but I can't stand here and say it's worth your time in 2011. Go play Dig Dug instead.

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