The original Colossal Cave Adventure, a game that essentially birthed an entire genre, has been enjoyed by hundreds of thousands of people since it initially launched back in 1976. I can’t personally claim to be among that number. I came to the interactive fiction genre much later, enjoying the legacy that “Advent” had created without ever playing the game that started it all. My sum total of time with any version of the text adventure was a “rank amateur” attempt that lasted little more than 10 minutes.
I think this is important context because this review of ‘Colossal Cave’ (2023), the 3D reimagining of the original game, is written from the perspective of someone who has very little nostalgic connection to the source material. I of course feel the cultural impact that the game had, but at arms length.
It’s a testament to the work of Ken and Roberta Williams then, legends in their own right, that even without the nostalgia for Colossal Cave Adventure, I had a fun time with Colossal Cave in 2023, despite its oddities.
Izzy, Whizzy, Let’s Get Xyzzy
So, how do you possibly go about transitioning a text adventure into a 3D adventure game? Well, the system that the Williams’ have come up with is pretty inventive. This interpretation takes the same structure of the source material, the description of events and objects you find then structures them in a flowing 3D world. Rather than typing “Go North” (or N) to go North, you simply walk in that direction via a standard twin stick controller first person view. Certain mazes and sections of the Colossal Cave require a loading screen to transition into, but for the most part, you can move from room to room like you would in say Skyrim.
As you navigate from room to room, you can use a command to look at your surroundings. This triggers a voice over which reads the location description from the original Colossal Cave Adventure game. For example, when entering the building at the start of the game, you can trigger the voice over to say “You are inside a building, a well house for a large spring”.
While this sometimes feels redundant to a newcomer like me, who has no real reference point and is exploring based on the visuals rather than the description, I imagine this is a neat addition for the long time fans of the source material.
Drop The Bird
The biggest changes to the Colossal Cave formula, aside from no longer having to use your imagination to envision your surroundings, is in how you interact with the game world. Rather than having the ability to search a room to find items, you’ll have to actually search. There’s no “There Is Food Here”. You’ve got to find it, then walk over and pick the food up.
Interacting with the world items, as well as using anything you pick up, is via a contextual icon too. Go over to something you can interact with and the usual Eye reticule you can use to trigger the voice over descriptions changes to a Hand icon. This allows you to manipulate items you come across. You can also choose to draw things from your inventory, bringing them to your first person view in order to use them. This is a huge change from the text prompts like “drop bird” or “pick up nugget”.
If you’re a fan of the inventiveness of the text prompts from the original Colossal Cave Adventure, this might take some adjusting to. Even as a new player, there were times when I walked past items without seeing them at first (seriously – screw the bars of silver). The first person perspective undoubtedly makes this version of the game more immersive than a text adventure. That said, there’s potentially an argument to be made about the 70’s source material and modern day first person adventures requiring different design philosophies. By combining the two, it does kick up a handful of quirks, like items being tricky to pick out of the environment.
You Are In The Hall Of The Mountain King
Those quirks are worth it for a 3D version of Colossal Cave that enables fun little elements that aren’t possible in a text adventure. For example, when you reach the Hall of the Mountain King, the iconic “In the Hall of the Mountain King” song from Peer Gynt plays. This is one of the most visually appealing areas in the game which, when combined with the music, brings a majesty to the experience. Then there’s the 3D models of the dangerous creatures you’ll be coming face to face with, which really help to elevate the tension.
Not all of the visuals are easy on the eye however. There’s some chambers that look very rough around the edges, with dull and drab textures and poor looking fog effects.
Some tweaks to the original formula are a little more intricate; There’s an auto-mapping function in Colossal Cave 2023 that certainly assists in some of the trickier aspects of the game. You can bring up the map at any point and it’ll tell you where in the cavern system you are in most sections. This won’t help you stroll through the “maze of twisty passages, all the same” section but it does help you see how each room links to one another. If you’re a purest and don’t want this function, you can also turn it off.
As a relative newcomer to Colossal Cave’s content, I couldn’t help but feel regularly impressed with the humour, puzzle design and whimsical core at the centre of this game. Solutions to some of the puzzles come from left field but are still discoverable with a bit of experimentation. Sure, some of it feels dated but there’s a real sense of adventure here. There’s a mystique to delving into a twisting, confusing cavern that reveals its secrets via incremental progress, trial and error and subsequent play throughs.
Even that latter aspect has been tweaked here. When you fall prey (sometimes literally) to the dangers in the cave system, this reimagining allows you to be reincarnated. This drops you back at the start of the game, retaining your progress but dropping your score. While it’s not technically a game ending failure, it’s still a failure that will prevent you from achieving that elusive perfect 350 score.
Sometimes those failures will feel cheap. There’s an element of randomness here, like dwarven warriors that pop up from the ground to attack you that may or may not result in a death. They throw a weapon at you and sometimes they’ll land a hit. Sometimes they’ll miss. There’s no rhyme or rhythm to these attacks beyond an initial scripted version. It seems these attacks happen more often after being resurrected for the first time, and this this can start to grate when you’re just trying to get your bearings in a new area you’ve discovered.
With all of its quirks, I’m confident that Colossal Cave will not be for everyone. This spelunking expedition is showing its age in terms of the source material, while the reimagined aspects don’t go far enough to bring it up to par with modern first-person point-and-click adventures. Give it time and get a feel for its foibles though, and even newcomers like me may find a fun adventure packed with character that’s a real rarity these days.
The core structure feels a tad dated while the reimagined game play elements don’t quite go far enough to match modern day standards. Below the eccentricities of Colossal Cave is an adventure packed with character and charm that’s still worth taking however. Even for newcomers.
Colossal Cave is available now on PS5 (review platform), PC, Switch, Xbox Series X and iOS devices.
Developers: Cygnus Entertainment
Publishers: Cygnus Entertainment
Disclaimer: In order to complete this review, we were provided with a promotional code from the publisher. For our full review policy, please go here.
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