Deadly hand-to-hand combat, digitized graphics, special moves, splattering blood… Mortal Kombat, 1992? Nope. Pit-Fighter, 1990. This lesser-known Atari fighting game may not have grabbed the gaming world by its head and pounded it into submission like Mortal Kombat would two years later, but Pit-Fighter was a dark, violent preview of things to come.
Set in a crumbling, crowded warehouse, Pit-Fighter matched tough guys and gals against each other for glory and money. Players took control of one of three fighters—kickboxer Ty, shades-wearing wrestler Buzz or black belt Kato—then tried to knock the living daylights out of an opponent to two. The characters were all created from digitized pictures of real-life actors, a la Mortal Kombat (but with less detail and animation). The same technique was used to capture the game’s array of powerful enemies—The Executioner, Southside Jim, Angel, Chainman Eddie, Mad Miles, C.C. Rider, Heavy Metal and the champ himself, The Masked Warrior.
Unlike the next generation of fighting games, Pit-Fighter actually allowed players to team up on their foes, with up to three players joining in the same battle. This was no easy way out, however. The more good guys there were on the floor, the more bad guys would show up to the brawl. Not only that, but the game frequently pitted its human players against one another, forcing them to fight “Grudge Match” bonus rounds, with the last fighter standing earning a hefty load of extra cash (the losers did get to keep playing, but there was always the shame factor). And if the good guys managed to fight their way to the final round, they’d have to face each other in an “Elimination Match” to see which one earned the right to take on The Masked Warrior.
Battles went on until a fighter’s life bar was drained, after which the victor was given his winnings, including bonuses for knockouts and/or excess brutality. The brutality wasn’t strictly in the arena, either. The Pit-Fighter crowd was a hostile one, and if players accidentally slipped out of (or got thrown out of) the ring, the fans would rough them up a bit before tossing them back in.
The arena itself was rather unfriendly as well, with several blunt and sharp objects lying around, waiting to be used as weapons. The occasional knife, barrel, stick, bar stool, crate or even motorcycle made a handy weapon in a pinch, but the bad guys could use them as well.
Pit-Fighter was actually quite a success in its day, helping players quench their blood lust with a little one-on-one (or three-on-three) melee. Unfortunately for Atari, however, the game had a severe case of bad timing. Street Fighter II hit arcades the following year, and every fighter before it was suddenly obsolete.