Colossal Cave Adventure Preview: Digging in the Wreck

When Colossal Cave Adventure was first circulated among computer enthusiasts in the 1970s, I wasn’t even born yet. I have never had the pleasure of trying the original caving adventure, but I certainly enjoyed the fruits of its success. The legacy of Colossal Cave has not only spawned more text-based adventures like the ones that legendary genre pioneer Roberta Williams created as part of Sierra Online, but it’s also one of the predecessors to everything we play today that remotely touches the adventure genre. Even the Elden Ring might not exist without a massive cave.

So what does the reshaping of Colossal Cave mean in 2022? Text-based adventures have largely fallen by the wayside, so Roberta Williams and her husband, Ken Williams, approach the adventure in particular with their first time visualization. I’ve now had the opportunity to play the oldest excerpt from Colossal Cave Adventure both at GDC and now at Gamescom, with two hands-on previews in VR on Meta Quest 2 and a laissez-faire preview on the Nintendo Switch, for which it was just announced.

The Switch version seems to work well and offers a very attractive portable option, but of the two, the VR version is the most visually impressive in the way VR is able to capture the horrific nature of the Colossal Cave itself. Deep crevices stretch endlessly under my feet as I slide along a narrow rock wall; The bat fluttered anxiously over the head. A single blue bird perched gracefully on a branch while a beam of sunlight crept through the ceiling of the cave, close enough that I could almost touch it. As someone who rarely pulls their valve handle, moments like this remind me of what I love about technology.

At first, I was unsure of the controls. Hand tracking seems like it would have been a natural fit for a massive cavernous adventure, yet it’s all totally on target and buttons pressed. But after a few moments in the cave, I was sold on the more traditional adventure game icon system — an eye to look and hear the narration of something, a hand to interact, and an inventory of all my junk. Colossal Cave is absolutely full of stuff, with element interactions making up the core of the puzzles. There’s no reasonable way anyone could carry everything else, which is a pleasant nod to the era that came straight from games like Colossal Cave. Just make sure you don’t toss any of your stuff off a cliff, because it will be gone forever.

As someone who rarely pulls their valve handle, moments like this remind me of what I love about technology.

Despite the new format, this is still the massive cave adventure that fans of the original will remember, with the script still unchanged. Pointing your search code to anything and choosing will provide you with the familiar narration, nicely phonetically represented, that describes each of what you see and often adds additional context clues. It’s a great way to pay homage to the original Colossal Cave and the spirit of exploration on which it was based, even when this narrative has been translated into visual format.

And as far as I’m told, if you remember how to get every treasure, you’ll probably get them all here too with little trouble. There are some small creative touches, like the trash of previous adventurers littering the doorway, and new perceptions of dwarves doing some little new activity or the way the dragon moves, but everything I’ve been told leads me to believe this would be 100% faithful to entertain as much as possible. This could also be due to the accessibility mechanics – my original game at GDC in VR had abrupt inflections, but they were removed at Gamescom. I was told this might be added later, which is very welcome as I had some major vertigo in the second round.

Colossal Cave – Nintendo Switch Gallery

My primary criticism of this show for massive cave adventure, then, is that it may be too faithful to its original ideas. Nearly four decades of video game history has led to developments in design and technology that do much more than simply introduce actual tree models and voice actors. Simply put, translating the original text of the Colossal Cave into a space where you can move still feels a touch empty – once our brains filled the spaces between the cavernous halls, we are now intimately connected to one person’s specific vision of those halls, but without creative license or add-on. Just rocky wanderings from room to room, trying to solve the mystery of the mysterious answer why the blue bird near the entrance keeps flying away from us.

From what I’ve seen so far, I think Colossal Cave Adventure will be a nostalgic trip. It’s a nice thing so far, especially in VR, and even if the Switch Caves are less inspiring, it’s definitely a more convenient option. My biggest concern is that Colossal Cave Adventure might need a little more to entice a generation of adventurers accustomed to fast-paced combat and side quests to explore its dark, unforgiving halls back in the modern age. But then again, there’s perhaps just something admirable about the mysterious simplicity of Colossal Cave, and the effort to bring such a notable part of gaming history into a space where kids like me can get lost in for the first time.

Rebecca Valentine is a news reporter for IGN. You can find it on Twitter Tweet embed.

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