Review – Colossal Cave

Anyone who was ever raised on text-based adventures, or even the early days of point-and-click adventures, should have fond memories of Sierra Entertainment. Founded by legendary gaming icons, Roberta and Ken Williams, they created some of the most memorable titles in the early adventure genres, such as King’s Quest, Space Quest, and Phantasmagoria. However, even the industry-changing duo had sources of inspiration, which was the case with Will Crowther’s Colossal Cave Adventures, back in 1976.

This game was so influential to Roberta Williams, that it motivated her to create her own games, and found Sierra Entertainment as a result. With it always near and dear to her heart, she decided to come out of retirement and give it a loving reimagining during the COVID-19 pandemic. Now we have been graced with the 3D version, Colossal Cave, a wonderful love letter to the beloved text-based adventure.

Colossal Cave XYZZY

Fans of the original will recognize this immediately.

There’s very little in terms of a plot in Colossal Cave, as was typical for games in that era. You play as an unnamed, silent protagonist, who is only told through a screen of text at the start that you are to try to navigate through the depths of the colossal caves and obtain the treasures within. That’s it. That’s all you have to go on before you’re off on your adventure. But you know what? There’s a beauty in its simplicity. Much like with the original The Legend of Zelda, all you really need is a sword and an urge to go forth and explore. Or in this case, some keys and a lantern. Different tools for different adventures.

There’s very little hand-holding in Colossal Cave, to the point that you don’t even start in the titular cave in the beginning. Instead, you’re greeted with the sight of a small, brick wellhouse. Inside are several items that you can choose to take, or leave behind for later, but it’s up to you to figure out which items are important and when you’ll need them. From there, you’ll have to do some exploring to even find the entrance to the cave. Although, that’s by far the easiest part of the whole journey.

Wellhouse

The wellhouse is where you’ll safely stow all the treasures you find, as well as where you’ll be reincarnated if you perish.

Things get far more difficult once you’re actually inside the cave. The first task is making sure you have enough light for your excursion. No problem, that’s what our trusty lantern is for. Then you’ll encounter obstacles that gradually increase in difficulty, such as catching a shy bird, figuring out how to get across a massive chasm, avoiding a bunch of dwarfs who will throw sharp tools at you, or how to get the treasures that a hungry snake is guarding. That’s just in the earliest parts of Colossal Cave, too.

Eventually, you’ll encounter even more outlandish and dangerous characters. There’s a pirate captain who will rob you blind, which results in you having to track down his private den to steal back your stash. Naturally, there’s a troll guarding a bridge (because of course there is), which you’ll have to figure out how to get past. There are quite a few other surprises along the way, but I don’t want to spoil the fun. Just be aware that just about everything in the Colossal Cave wants to kill you.

Colossal Cave Thieving Pirate

Beware! This rapscallion will rob you of all of your treasures and hide them.

Venturing even further into the cave, you’ll more than likely find yourself lost within any one of its several mazes. Admittedly, these were my least favorite sections of the game for quite a while, at least until I figured out the trick to navigating them. One of the few ways that Colossal Cave does provide some guidance is by offering an option to automatically map out the caves as you explore. Hardcore fans of the original might scoff at this option, but for the vast majority of people playing this, I highly recommend it.

Colossal Cave can be extra tricky at times, because occasionally, the direction you enter the cave is not the direction you’ll be facing once you’re in the next area. Thankfully, the map makes note of where each direction is actually located within each section. It’s an absolute godsend while you’re trying to get a feel for the confusing layout.

Colossal Cave Maps

I cannot stress enough how important it is to automap your playthroughs.

While the maps might be a huge help along the journey, it’s unfortunately, the only reliable source of aid. This version of Colossal Cave does technically offer a hint system, but it’s extremely hit or miss. For example, when approaching the snake guarding the treasure troves in the Hall of the Mountain King, a glowing orb appeared in front of it, with the narrator explaining that he could provide a hint on how to get past the snake, if I wanted to take advantage of that option. I chose not to right then, and the orb disappeared, never to return. I didn’t mind that so much, since I did decline the offer, after all, but I was surprised that the option never presented itself again.

Magic Bridge

The Golden Gate Bridge has nothing on this craftsmanship!

What’s worse, is that for the very few hints Colossal Cave did provide, it was usually for something I didn’t really need help with. What I did desperately need help with was trying to navigate a particular maze that I was stuck in for an hour. Shockingly, no helpful orb ever appeared to offer me assistance in finding the way through. I ended up having to reload a previous save just to get out of it. Then when I was competently exploring a different maze, without any issues, it almost immediately asked if I wanted a hint. Not only is the hint system unreliable, but agreeing to take the hint will cost you points from your total score. Completionists looking to obtain a perfect score should steer clear of the hints altogether.

Despite those few issues, I can’t stress enough how fun Colossal Cave is to explore. The art design is a touch on the simplistic side, especially when it comes to the character models and animations, but the graphics are clean and easily readable. Most of the game looks like realistic cave systems, but there are some surprisingly beautiful areas found within them. Colossal Cave holds numerous wonders to behold within its subterranean passages, if you’re clever enough to find them.

Colossal Cave Dwarfs

The dwarfs like to spring up on you unexpectedly.

Your character’s movement is also shockingly smooth. I only experienced a few minor issues with the framerate when outside of the cave, near the wellhouse. Thankfully, the framerate inside the caves is fairly solid, slowing down only when approaching the edge of a section, while it prepares to load the next area. The majority of Colossal Cave has extremely fluid player movement. VR versions are currently in the works, which I cannot wait to try out. Colossal Cave seems like it would be an incredible VR experience (much like Myst in VR), based on how well it looks and handles.

The sound design is also fantastic. The narrator provides humorously dry commentary on your surroundings and enemy encounters. The musical score is mostly subtle and understated, which is by design. Although, where it truly shines are with the ambient sounds of the cave, ranging from falling rocks, to windy caverns, and trickling water. It really makes you feel like you’re in the depths of the earth.

Colossal Cave Soft Room

Whoa… psychedelic.

There’s no denying the love and passion that went into recreating Colossal Cave into a 3D experience. The fact that the Williams’ came out of retirement to undertake this project, just proves how special the game is. However, I can see it being divisive among gamers. Older players (like myself) and veterans of the early adventure game genre, will more than likely revel in its faithfulness to its source material. I was completely hooked by its mysteries, and have gone back several times to try to discover everything Colossal Cave has to offer. Younger players, on the other hand, might be put off by its lack of narrative, complex puzzles, and very minimal hand-holding. I hope I’m wrong, and that Roberta Williams gets the appreciation she deserves from a whole new generation. 

Graphics: 7.0

The graphics might be on the simplistic side, but they’re clean, easily readable, and have some truly beautiful environments in certain sections.

Gameplay: 8.0

A point-and-click adventure with fluid player movement and a very easy to use inventory system. The hint system can be very hit or miss though.

Sound: 9.0

The narrator provides humorously dry commentary on your surroundings and encounters with enemies and NPCs. The sound design is excellent, with the ambient sounds of the caves creating a feeling of unease.

Fun Factor: 8.0

Colossal Cave is a full reimagining of the text based adventure from 1976, but in a far more immersive 3D environment. The puzzles and challenges are still very much the same from the original version, which will no doubt be a point of contention among players. Personally, I was hooked.

Final Verdict: 8.0

Colossal Cave is available now on PC, Nintendo Switch, Meta Quest 2, PS5, and Xbox Series S/X.

Reviewed on PC.

A copy of Colossal Cave was provided by the publisher.