The original Colossal Cave was a completely text-based adventure game made in 1976 by Will Crowther and Don Woods. Now almost 50 years later, we are seeing this game reimagined in full 3D graphics with voice narration and you, the player, in control of the nameless character. Developed by Cygnus Entertainment and releasing on January 19, 2023, on Meta Quest 2, Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 5, Xbox Series X|S, as well as Steam, The Epic Games Store, Humble, Itch.io, and Amazon. This reimagining is the work of industry veterans Ken and Roberta Williams, as well as a team of dedicated and passionate people who are as enamoured by the adventure games of the 80’s and 90’s from Sierra On-Line as we the players. To say I was ecstatic when I heard Ken and Roberta were back making a new game was an understatement, and having now played the game, it was well worth the wait.
Aside from the Nintendo Gameboy, the PC was my first real foray into gaming. I learned how to play games by using the keyboard to move my characters and typing commands into games such as King’s Quest, Police Quest, Leisure Suit Larry, Space Quest and Quest for Glory. The sense of adventure and exploring the unknown was fantastic, and it helped that as I got older, the wit and puns in the writing got funnier. Fast forward to 2023 and here we are, able to play a game like Colossal Cave on multiple gaming platforms, including in VR with the Meta Quest 2! While I haven’t dabbled in VR gaming before, I can imagine a game like this being very immersive with the incredibly detailed interior areas of the cave to explore. This review focuses on the Steam version with mouse and keyboard.
It was a special moment hitting play for the first time, especially as a reviewer playing it before the rest of the world. When starting a new game, you are given the option to start a game with help or not, which does affect the number of score points you start with. I chose to get the help, and it loosely explains the overall objective of the game, that the cave is magical and at times the narrator will offer you some help but at a cost of points. For your first game, especially those that are new or haven’t played an adventure game in a long time, take all the help you can get in your first playthrough.
Upon entering the game world, the narrator will give you a short description of an area or room that you enter for the first time. Your mouse cursor defaults to an eye which you use to look at/describe the area or a specific item, and as you get close to an object, right-clicking changes the cursor from an eye to a hand to use or pick up something. We can’t jump in this game, so any vertical movement needs to be by a ladder or a sloped surface. Some items will prevent you from climbing steep slopes too. Our overall objective is to explore the depths of the Colossal Cave, collect treasures and try earning a maximum of 350 score points.
The score counter will be familiar to those who have played Sierra games before and rewards you for progressing through the game. There is no autosave in the game, so remember to manual save often. If you quit the game at any point, it gives you your score and number of turns it took, and rates your adventurer status, so remember to save each time you take a break. The in-game map updates each time you discover a new room/area, and the current room you are in is highlighted in green.
Seeing the items on the table in the wellhouse, my first thought was to pick up everything as I am an inventory hoarder in most games. I hovered over the food and water in my inventory and saw the eat/drink options, but something made me not go ahead with those. Every item has a purpose in the game, you just don’t know it yet. The lantern is your lifeline though, keep it on otherwise exploring in the dark will always end with you dying. If you do end up dying, the narrator says they can attempt to resurrect you, and if successful you will respawn at the game’s starting point and lose points for each death. I haven’t seen whether the resurrection attempt can fail.
As I explored further into the cave, I loved stopping to see the details in the environment around me. There are massive caverns with an eerie white mist, rickety bridges and walkways to cross, dwarves mining gold and some areas that looked like an Indiana Jones temple. The sounds of dripping water, the fluttering of bats as they scurried about their business, and other such caves noises made it feel alive and wonderous, urging you to explore every nook and cranny. There are moments of music here and there, though going into inventory or the game’s menu will stop the music track. I would have liked more ambient music as we explored, but the absence of music did bring my attention to all the other subtle sounds of the cave so it’s six of one, half a dozen of the other.
Eventually my inventory was full and if you drop a treasure item on the ground, or if you find a treasure but don’t have the inventory space for it, an icon will be displayed on the map for you to go back to. At one point a pirate materialised and stole the treasures I had in my inventory! There is a way to get the treasures back, but it is worth returning to the wellhouse regularly to prevent him stealing from you. Dropping treasures in the wellhouse magically places them in their correct space and secures them for you. My advice is to head back to the wellhouse regularly which is made easier by learning what XYZZY and PLUGH do in-game, amongst other magical phrases.
Some items you carry will weigh a lot so it will say you can’t climb whilst holding said items. You can either drop them or find an alternate route. The narrator helps give you options and sometimes, like when you’re repeatedly failing at trying something, you are given the option to ask for a hint but at the cost of a couple of points. I wanted to try earning the maximum number of points on my first playthrough, so I didn’t take the help initially. Once I rolled credits on my first play through, I finished on 311/350 points after around 3 hours which I thought wasn’t too bad. I immediately jumped back into a fresh game to try do better, and I found areas of the cave that I missed on my first run. Just remember to save your game before exiting otherwise you’ll lose your progress.
There were some sequences where you walk from room to room or into and out of an area a random number of times and it would eventually get to where I wanted to be. This reminded me of playing Legend of Kyrandia: Malcom’s Revenge in the mysterious jungle sequence hunting those bones and looking for the pirate cove. I did get stuck several times in Colossal Cave and used the old adventure game methodology of going back to the start and making sure I didn’t miss anything. Also, using items on things that you don’t think will work, can sometimes surprise you. If you want to preview the gameplay before diving in yourself, head here to find our first 45-minutes in the game.
I have been enjoying the renaissance of adventure games the last few years. Colossal Cave is a game I can highly recommend playing through multiple times. With Ron Gilbert producing an outstanding Return to Monkey Island, Dave Gilbert of Wadget Eye Games releasing a steady stream of amazing point-and-click adventures, and Lori and Corey Cole’s Summer Daze: Tilly’s Tale, plus a heap of other adventure game developers working hard these past few years on their passion projects, adventure game fans are in a very happy place right now.
Overall, Colossal Cave is a joy to play and discover the secrets of the cave. Sound design is excellent, and the puzzles are logical, with tricks and sequences that are fun to figure out. This is a triumphant return for Ken and Roberta Williams, with the whimsical adventurous gameplay we come to expect from their era of games. While I played this on Steam, it’s a game that will work well on all platforms, especially in VR and on the Switch. I hope this gives the Williams’ reason enough to keep making adventure games with their team at Cygnus Entertainment and can’t wait to hear what they work on next.
This review utilised a Steam key provided by Stride PR and Colossal Cave will launch on January 20, 2023, for us in ANZ on Meta Quest 2, Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 5, Xbox Series X|S, as well as Steam, The Epic Games Store, Humble, Itch.io, and Amazon.