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The Problem with Pit-Fighter


In the early nineties, gaming was changing. Gone were the pixelated animals, aliens and ball games. Violence and gritty realism had seeped into the arcade from cinema. It was from this that Pit-Fighter was born.

Three years before Mortal Kombat would arrive, Atari set out experimenting with live, cinematic action in video games. This had only been attempted once before in a game known as ‘Reikai Doushi – The Last Apostle Puppet Show’ by the Magical Company. However, in this game the protagonists were clay based, stop motion animated characters.

Using a blue screen process, Atari hired a team of actors to perform in front of a camera. The recordings would then be digitised and played back on the game. This was a revolutionary process at the time and one not seen before in arcades.

The Arcade Release

The arcade release featured three joysticks for an immersive co op experience and was available as a cabinet and a home conversion kit. With it’s digitised sprites and slick on-screen panning, the game really stood out amongst it’s competitors.

Sega MegaDrive packaging

The game allowed you to choose from three playable characters: a wrestler, a kickboxer and a black belt. Each character had their own moveset and a super move. The aim of the game was to fight your way through a host of opponents in combat until you reach the final boss and become champion. Violence! Revolutionary graphics! Sounds great right?

Possibly not. Pit Fighter was not the raging success everyone at Atari had hoped for. Despite the amazing graphics and lashings of violence, elements of the gameplay were extremely frustrating.

As an example many opponents would have to be faced twice. Yet some would only need to be defeated once. You could spend all your dollars on beating an opponent, finally doing it, then have to do it all over again.

Making a game does not come cheap, especially when you are hiring a cast of live actors. So how could Atari make their money back?

Pit-Fighter in the Home

Port, port, port and more ports. While many of the arcade cabinet monitors were re-purposed as Street Fighter II cabinets, Atari began a mass roll out of Pit-fighter to home consoles and computers. Pit-Fighter was available on literally everything, including an LCD handheld:

  • Amiga
  • Amstrad CPC
  • Atari ST
  • Commodore 64
  • MS-DOS
  • Lynx
  • Master System
  • Genesis/Mega Drive
  • Super Nintendo
  • ZX Spectrum
  • Tiger Electronics LCD handheld

The reviews were as fragmented as the onscreen blood splatters. Computer gaming world described the game as “the arcade game teleported to the home computer” and said it delivered a “strong punch to the world of computerised fisticuffs”.

However, most people were in agreement that home versions simply amplified flaws in the original game. For example, the DOS port used a sprite resizing algorithm that resulted in stretched and skinny anorexic pit fighters on your screen. Hardly the image you get when you imagine an illegal bareknuckle fighting league.

Atari 7800 version that was never released.

The Legacy of the Pit-Fighter

So what was the legacy of Pitfighter?

Firstly, it pioneered the use of digitised character sprites. This would be huge in years to come. In fact, three years after the release of Pit Fighter a game almost identical in concept would be released named Mortal Kombat. It would feature digital character sprites, uber levels of violence and would be everything Pit Fighter should have been.

Secondly, it was one of many expensive failures Atari would embark on that would ultimately lead to it’s demise. However, the failures of Atari were so vast and many that it would be unfair to lay this solely at the feet of Pit-Fighter. This was just a few steps on a very troublesome journey.

What were your Pit-Fighter memories? Let us know in the comments below






Thanks to the following for pictures…



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