Review – Colossal Cave – The Once and Future Classic

Gather around, children, for Old Man Gamer has a story to tell you. See, before all your fancy GPUs, voxels, and ray-tracing nonsense you young whippersnappers get all excited about nowadays, adventure games were all presented through text. Long blocks of text to describe rooms, medium sized blocks of text to describe monsters, and short blocks of text for dialog or reminders of what room you were in. One of the first and oldest of these adventures was Colossal Cave, where you had to roam around, find treasures, and try to earn a high score with the fewest number of moves. And now, that adventure has been brought to visual life by none other than Ken and Roberta Williams, founders of Sierra On-Line and creators of classic game series such as King’s Quest.

This iteration of Colossal Cave (and there have been a few over the years) is definitely more interpretive than previous versions, mainly because of the visual elements. At the same time, there’s a definite sense of retro styling to those visuals, something which is reminiscent of Myst and its contemporaries. While it’s all rendered in realtime, it has that slightly blocky aesthetic of the mid-90s in terms of environments, though the character models look somewhat more polished. Not a high level of detail, somewhat cartoonish, but they definitely fit the aesthetic.

Hmmm, Greek on one side, Chinese on the other. Yeah, this is a coherent cultural referent.”

Sound in Colossal Cave proves to be vital for the player in a number of instances. Certain clues are auditory in nature, and they’re important to pick up on in order to help maximize your efforts to move around quickly. Every chamber has a well voiced description which not only helps the player get a feeling for their surroundings but also provides moments of levity when meeting up with a creature as an obstacle, or when you overcome an obstacle in some truly ridiculous instances of “gamer logic.” Musical refrains appear here and there, particularly when reaching a major section of the cave, and it’s a bit of a bummer that they don’t play when you return to them in your travels. Sound effects are everywhere, from the chirp of the small bird you need to capture to the roar of underground rivers, and they’re well executed in every instance.

The basic gameplay of Colossal Cave is about as simple as it gets: move around, pick up stuff, use what you need to use, and try to build up your score by recovering treasures. First time players, particularly those who never played the original text-based adventure, are undoubtedly going to be irritated by certain elements. There are two maze areas which involve “state machine” puzzles which are not easily solved and basically rely upon you either stumbling through to the solution or reloading and skipping that section, which potentially diminishes your final score. Additionally, your explorations will occasionally be interrupted by random dwarf attacks, and these are sometimes fatal. Thankfully, there’s a save function, so if you catch a knife in the throat, fall off a ledge to your doom, or otherwise die in some inexplicable and excruciating fashion, you can reload and proceed. Thing is, you need to be mindful of when you save. There’s no autosave function.

“You can fit so much loot into this pump house!”

There are elements which are somewhat opaque, like what exactly constitutes a “move,” or what items can be safely discarded and when. But in some respects, this is consistent with the classic experience of the original Colossal Cave. Getting a high score is going to take some work, even scum saving your way through the game. It doesn’t hold your hand. There may be moments where you’ll be asked if you need a hint (which deducts points from your score if you accept it). There will be moments where you realize you’ve screwed yourself because you didn’t move fast enough, or you didn’t do the right thing. You’ll probably take a lot of fire from dwarves before you realize you can fight back. And that’s OK. Eventually, you’ll learn how to zip through the adventure, getting the highest possible score, getting the best possible outcome. Anybody who’s played a Soulsborne or a Metroidvania knows this process. Even with trial and error, it’s possible to finish the game and reach the end in a few hours of dedicated play. And when you’re done, you can dive right back in, trying to beat that score, trying to do it in a single run, hoping those dwarves consistently miss you.

Yes, Colossal Cave is a remake, but it’s a remake which manages to make an old classic feel all new again. It’s the sort of game that manages to show all the new kids what grognards like me went through back in the early days of gaming without making it so onerous that players give up. You might not be at it very long during any given playthrough, but you’ll be back into it again before you know it.

“Troll, check. Bridge, check. Extortionate toll…uhhh, lemme check my pockets…”

Axel played Colossal Cave on PC with a review code. Colossal Cave is also available on PlayStation 5, Xbox Series X|S, Meta Quest 2 and Nintendo Switch.


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