Review: Colossal Cave

18 Jan 2023

The year was 1976.

The first VHS cassettes and their accompanying VCRs were newly available for purchase, everyone was dancing the night away to their favorite disco tracks, and programmer William Crowther had finished developing Adventure (later Colossal Cave Adventure): one of the earliest text adventure games ever made.

Crowther, an amateur cave explorer, based the title on his experiences exploring and mapping Kentucky’s Mammoth Cave with his ex-wife, Patricia P. Wilcox, as well as his fondness for Dungeons & Dragons campaigns. Across its sixty-six rooms, players worked through the cave via teleprinter and encountered myriad magical elements on their search for treasure.

Now, in 2023, Colossal Cave has received a fully-featured remake courtesy of developer and publisher Cygnus Entertainment on January 19, 2023 for PC, PlayStation 5, Xbox Series X|S, Nintendo Switch, and VR. Cygnus is helmed by Roberta and Ken Williams, the founders of the venerable, defunct Sierra Entertainment, marking the duo’s first return to the video game industry in over twenty years.

Unlike the text-based iterations that followed Crowther’s 1976 original, 2023’s Colossal Cave remakes the game’s concepts fully within the third dimension and from a first-person perspective. The game’s impressive legacy and the accomplished pedigree of the developers behind this particular remake are undeniable, but perhaps the most important question to be asked is whether or not Colossal Cave can stand on its own two feet in the context of modern gaming.

The PC version was played for the purposes of this review.

Speleological Storytelling

After beginning a new game in Colossal Cave, the narrator will (optionally) give you a brief rundown of what to expect out of the general gameplay loop. You’re to enter the cave at the end of the forest path and plunder the treasure contained therein before returning it to the shack at the game’s start. Nabbing the treasures, in addition to solving puzzles and witnessing certain events in the cave, will net you points for that playthrough while opting to take hints will deduct from your point total.

This is the player’s primary goal in Colossal Cave, but it also provides a general overview of the style of storytelling on offer. Given its nature as a puzzle-based adventure game, knowing less going into Colossal Cave provides a much better experience. I’ll avoid digging into the specifics to that end, but one can tell just from promotional materials that the cave is filled with many objects that aren’t strictly bound by the limits of any single genre or style. Pirates and trolls coexist in a world that will seamlessly transition from stony ruins to contemporary construction equipment and several shades in between.

At the start of a first playthrough, it can be tempting to label this mishmash of genres as being random or unthoughtful, but as you delve deeper it becomes an interesting side activity to fill in the gaps of lore and wonder just how things got to be the way they are down here.

Colossal Cave’s story elements aren’t exactly a masterclass in worldbuilding, nor are they cohesive enough to build to a greater eureka moment, but players are given just enough information to mull over while also being allowed to fill in the blanks on their own if they like.

As a result, the story here is more about your own personal experience and the paths you decide to take through the titular cave. There are individual stories to be found and the cave holds unexpected twists, but the narrative here is very much the one you make for yourself as you plumb its depths.

Epistolary Exploration

It should be emphasized early and often that, for all intents and purposes, Colossal Cave is an old game at its core. In spite of the entirely new visuals and means of player conveyance, all content and mechanics function as they did in the ‘70s original. This strict adherence to its predecessor grants a string of benefits to the remake, but it also serves as a through line for the issues that bog Colossal Cave down most.

Beginning with the positives, it can’t be understated how much the transition to a fully 3D game world has opened the game up in terms of accessibility. Being able to physically view the elements of a puzzle and the ability to navigate the cave directly make for a much easier time with forward progression, ensuring that the player is never quite as stuck as they could become in the original.

Colossal Cave also sports an optional hint system that allows the narrator to step in and ask if you’d like a helpful push in the right direction should you be stuck on something for an extended period of time. Exploration is also bolstered by a thorough (and once again optional) automapping feature, which keeps track of everything you’ve seen and is a godsend when trying to figure out where to head next. Additionally, the interconnectedness of the map and sheer number of routes are laid out in such a way that the more time you spend with the game, the more you’re rewarded for traveling quickly between two points when you need to.

When it comes to the core content of the game—the puzzles and the solutions to overcome them—most everything is left untouched from the original version. Though that might seem like a negative trait at first blush, Colossal Cave offers some very surprising and humorous solutions to many of its puzzles. At several points in my playthroughs, I would hit a new roadblock, step away from the game, and then promptly find myself brainstorming potential solutions to experiment with for next time. If that isn’t a testament to the staying power of the original design, I’m not sure what is.

Unfortunately, the stringent commitment to that original design is also the source of the game’s largest ills. The gameplay thrust emphasized to the player is centered around the earning of points in a single playthrough as a reward for solving puzzles, claiming treasure, and correctly dealing with the hazards of the cave colossal. The points tally is on constant display in the corner of the screen, reiterating its importance at every moment and gamifying the process by urging the player to do better next time.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with this approach, but any game that places a mechanical emphasis on replayability over general length has to provide a more variable experience on each go-round by definition, and Colossal Cave has several issues achieving that. It isn’t that the game is lacking in content that will only be found on subsequent playthroughs—it isn’t—but the discovery of that content is far less likely to provide much excitement after you’ve become somewhat familiar with the game.

When you first begin Colossal Cave, it’s easy to get wrapped up in the mystery of not knowing what’s waiting for you at the turn of the next corner as you attempt to work out the solutions to each puzzle. After getting a few hours of gameplay under your belt and coming to grips with how the game operates, however, the fun factor plateaus with a quickness. Though varied in specifics and genre, most everything there is to see in-game is overly consistent in tone, humor, or logic.

Even when you discover something new, chances are high that it’ll feel exactly like the last new thing you discovered, and repeatedly experiencing this feeling doesn’t make the prospect of future playthroughs very enticing. Moreover, the lack of updated situations and puzzles highlights the reality that basic fantasy and/or science fiction elements simply aren’t as impressive to experience as they were when tabletop RPGs were still in their infancy. This further contributes to the lack of oomph as you spend more time with Colossal Cave.

There are also classic gameplay elements that struggle in the transition to 3D. Certain passageways are designed to regularly spit you right back out where you entered, but actual progress can be made if you repeatedly walk into that passageway until the game allows you to continue. This type of rerouting makes sense in the slow pace of a text adventure, but breaks immersion in a first-person one.

Similarly irksome is the combat: a simple dice roll that could result in a game over. Sure, the game gives you tools to overcome the battles and they aren’t prevalent through an entire playthrough, but in a 3D game with a full range of motion, they feel unnecessary and mechanically uninteresting for the player.

All of these elements are important aspects of the original, but there needed to be at least some degree of mechanical revision to make them work in a new perspective and gameplay style. Without that, the gains made from this reimagining feel much less impactful than they might have otherwise.

Cavernous Cartography

It’s difficult to argue against Colossal Cave not being particularly pretty game. Most everything has a flat, somewhat blocky appearance that seems to aim for a cartoonish aesthetic, but doesn’t quite reach the point of being stylized enough to attain it.

The lighting and textures are perhaps the biggest culprit behind this feeling. It feels harsh and lacks a certain nuance in many areas, which is a shame for the way it undermines the overall higher quality of the modeling and animation work. When you remove lighting from the equation, most of the assets themselves sport a homegrown feel which lends itself nicely to that old school charm, and there’s absolutely something to be said for the variety of assets with the wide array of genres here.

As far as the sounds of Colossal Cave, the narrator’s performance readily steals the show. There’s a wide variety of dialogue and lines sourced from the original game that have been recorded, and they’re all delivered in such a way that’s consistently interesting to listen to without being a distraction from the atmosphere of the cavern itself.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the execution of the music. While most of the cave is quiet and atmospheric, entering certain areas will play a a tune that’s often highly recognizable. One of the earliest examples of this is the playing of “In the Hall of the Mountain King” by Edvard Grieg upon entering an area named precisely that. While its inclusion makes perfect sense given the reference, it detracts from immersion considerably, especially when the music unceremoniously cuts out as soon as you do something as innocuous as pause or pull out your map.

Finally, the lack of an option to adjust the field of view is a relatively significant oversight. It causes objects to feel incredibly close and navigation to feel claustrophobic in the more narrow passages of the cave.

Alack, Adventuring

Fundamentally, 2023’s Colossal Cave is the 1970s original transplanted into the third dimension with the scale and concepts to match. Even with quality-of-life features like optional automapping and hints, it’s all about pitting the player against puzzles both clear and cryptic in an environment that gives them very few concessions.

It’s certainly lacking in visual fidelity, and it’s far from a novel game in the contemporary era, but Colossal Cave does offer the opportunity to explore a fun mishmash of genres, solve some interesting puzzles on a quest for treasure, and experience an updated version of an important slice of gaming history besides. Would that I could end it there, but Colossal Cave is also a title that reveals its hand far too early.

It’s a very level game—enjoyable at first, but not very exciting after you’ve spent several hours with it. When you combine this with its emphasis on replayability over length and a paucity of mechanical revision, you get a lacking game with a highly contradictory price tag. These drawbacks are hefty, and they cause 2023’s Colossal Cave to be a difficult recommendation for those who aren’t already enamored with its text adventure roots.

~ Final Score: 6/10 ~

Review copy provided by Cygnus Entertainment for PC. Screenshots taken by reviewer. Featured image courtesy of Cygnus Entertainment.