Drawings from the Outer Realm
& Peculiar Video Game Music Reviews
This incredible platform game, inspired by the Mesoamerican civilization, the Mayan Empire incorporates its architecture, art, ancient astronomical systems and mythology wonderfully. Developed and released by American video game publisher Activision, Pitfall: The Mayan Adventure is an extremely bold outing making somewhat fervent waves among SEGA Mega Drive fans in the early ’90s. Containing some of the best graphics of the time, its site-specific scenery and interactive articles pushed the 16 bit Mega Drive infrastructure to the limit. Its colourings are distinctively shaded, moody and dark focusing on lower tones, contrasting the games bright skies, lively rivers and waterfalls. The format is of high intensity, a non-stop marathon of game-play leaving not a single breath to take or a second for players to react or contemplate the correct course of action. This is the unforgiving Mayan Rainforest after all and is shrouded in mystery. Allowing us no truth and no time, we will inevitably perish at the mercy of nature.
We play as Harry Jnr, risking his life in search of his father, a famous treasure hunter who we see captured in an opening sequence. Now all alone, Harry on his trail encounters all sorts of diabolical images and fearsome escapades. Imagine if you will, shifting stone platforms, salacious tree vines swinging violently, spooky underground mine shafts, spectres swirling abound. All manner of jungle wildlife surveys and pursues our adventurer. The soundtrack embedded within this foundation is matched perfectly. It is soaked to the very core with intense tribal rhythms, locale pan-pipe fluctuations and vibraphone tinkering. Composed by award winning film, theme park ride and video game sound designer David Kneupper, we greet an experimental merging of ancient sounds with the more up-to-date electronic bleeping of early ’90s acid rave. These components are dotted around with much unease and danger and suggest a much needed progression. Pitfall: The Mayan Adventure is actually a sequel to an original 1982 release which featured simple pixelated non-textured blocks as graphics and very abrasive electronic noises to signify jumps, pain and a comical death, all debuting on the cartridge based 1977 console, the Atari 2600.
This 1994 release however updated the format impeccably and the music certainly lends a huge amount of credit to its success. ‘Jungle of Ceiba’ pummels our lethargic tread with jutting chords and rounded bass sliding like slop carved from a rubber tree while a constant pounding of hollow blocks stamp on the membrane, never faltering. The faux strings and clarinet that feature throughout the soundtrack are always full of anxiety and desperate longing. Subdued creature like choirs hum occasionally adding yet more suspense and an unholy touch to our surroundings. Kneupper has obviously researched traditional rhythms and melodies as a way to capture the pre-Columbian civilization, for some of the tunes and instruments can be likened to a more sped-up version of the South American musical group Incantation. Check out the ‘On The Wing of a Condor’ LP on Beggars Banquet as a reference.
Possibly one of the geekiest tunes to emerge in the history of video gaming is the hyperactive ‘Xibalba Falls’ with its acid TBX-303 style bleep so severe and hurried we fear malfunction ourselves. More pan-pipes soar amid off-kilter and melancholic basses filtering abruptly, crashing onto the rocks below. The track continues to build, introducing more instruments and melodies that eventually lead back to the opulent chord change of melancholia. This track is devoid of humour and takes itself very seriously summing up the outlook of the game. It furthermore is a perfect track to encounter as we hesitantly climb the waterfall. A change of pace occurs in ‘Tazamul Mines’ with its scurrying hi-hat introduction before lunging into a power rock formation of heavy guitar, percussion and full throttled bass. The guitar sounds are shamelessly overt yet incorporate another melancholic undertone. There is a degree of isolation and sadness to these tracks due to Harry Jnr being alone in the wilderness.
The levels in Pitfall are all very striking and individual in style and presentation but the game-play is very similar on each - i.e. defeat wildlife and avoid fire traps and crevices etc. - which is of course a main component to every adventure game but the constant running around leaves little in the way of solving puzzles or using logic. In this respect, once we are adjusted to this format the game can be completed quite easily. Obviously it has its difficult moments but somehow something does feel omitted. For me the music far outweighs what is available game-play wise.
At its time of release the game met favourable reviews with the gaming press, praising its graphics, game-play and overall sound. Many were excited by the advancement on the original version yet some were stifled by the new look and level layout. Monthly magazine Game Players commented that ‘The storyline is nothing new and neither is the side-to-side jumping and swinging action. However, Pitfall does have large characters, rich backgrounds, intense music and several new twists that put Pitfall a level up on many games of this kind.’ The Time Warner published magazine Entertainment Weekly also gushed about its merits commenting that ‘In fact, this version plays like Indiana Jones in fast-forward, as Pitfall Harry Jr. executes his derring-do amid lush jungle backgrounds, stirring music, and pumped-up sound effects.’ This side-scrolling game was without a doubt a gripping and fast-paced play, interweaving a thoroughly intelligent appearance and a salute to survival in its rawest form. The fact that game reviewers were noticing the brilliant music as a key accompaniment is significant too.
‘Palenque Ruins’ includes an extremely clichéd yet likeable pan-pipe chorus of optimistic and mysterious virtue. Counteracting this optimism is a darker tribal beat and a unique descending whine of manipulated gongs. Likewise the sweeping ‘Lakamul Rain Forest’ lifts the spirits with subtle intrigue not losing the heathen beat. Nearly all of the tunes contained within this 30 minute soundtrack feature animal sound-effects such as screaming crows, monkeys and other forest wildlife - some terrifying! I also like the surface noise that appears intermittently like a field recording. It gives a greater sense of actually being stuck in the Mayan rainforest. ‘Inner Copan’ features a probing piano melody which builds nicely alongside repetitive drum-loops and yet more, you guessed it, sincere pan-pipes. The faltering drones are delightful if irregular, representing Harry Jnr’s isolation perfectly. A lot of the tracks also feature variations on a theme so we do end up hearing similar sounding motifs again. For example the ecstatic bleeping of ‘Xibalba Falls’ is utilised in later levels as well as many of the tribal rhythms. The end credit tune ‘Nature Will Win’ changes pace completely, lightly incorporating a happy-hardcore feel. Whimsical piano chords skit around trebly hi-hats and electronic strings much to the same effect as what London-based duo Plaid create on Warp. Upon release, Pitfall: The Mayan Adventure quickly became a legendary game to many SEGA fans and was cemented in the memory. The game hasn’t dated either, still looking and feeling very fresh indeed. In fact, the latest generation of gamers will again discover Pitfall as Activision’s newly founded Leeds Studio recently announced they are in the process of creating a remake for mobile devices. Activision Director of Partnerships & Communication Martyn Brown stated that “The first game we are making is in fact Pitfall, which is 30 years old this year… We’ve been working on Pitfall since earlier in the year when we set up and it has been really good to revisit that and bring it to a modern audience.”
Not being much of a gamer these days, I’ll leave it up to the new generation to discover the wonder of Pitfall: The Mayan Adventure and hope they’ll seek out the 1994 release for its deliciously dark and mysteriously murky soundtrack.
Pitfall: The Mayan Adventure (1994)
01: Yaxchilan Lagoon
02: Jungle of Ceiba
03: Xibalba Falls
04: Tazamul Mines
05: Palenque Ruins
06: Copan Temple
07: Inner Copan
08: Historic Ritual
09: Lakamul Rain Forest
10: Nature Will Win