“You are standing at the end of a road before a small brick building. Around you is a forest. A small stream flows out of the building and down a gully.”
Those are the opening sentences of the foundational 1976 text game Colossal Cave Adventure. Originally created by Will Crowther and extended by Don Woods, it ran on a mainframe computer hooked up to a teleprinter. The events of the game were communicated by literal printed text on actual dead-tree paper. Your mission is to find your way into a cave, find an assortment of treasures hidden deep inside – a gold nugget, an egg-sized emerald, that sort of thing – and return them to the brick building at the start.
As this modern-day update starts out, those opening lines are read aloud in a slightly plummy English voice with a suitable air of intrigue. With a naturalistic 3D environment and dual-stick first-person controls, you really feel like you’re standing at the end of that legendary road before the small brick building, the stream flowing off down the gully. The immediacy of the implied question still tingles like an eagerly blinking text prompt: “So, what are you going to do now?” The drive of pure exploration and discovery as we were transported into a vital moment of gaming history, mixed with the freedom of a modern control scheme, gave us goosebumps. That was before we started to play – which we’ll come to later.
Back in 1976, video games themselves were barely established, let alone genres and conventions or anything resembling modern environments or controls. However, despite the clearest descendants of text adventures being visual novels, point-and-click adventures, and indie interactive fiction, Colossal Cave’s basic compulsion loop of exploration and discovery can be felt in myriad modern classics. Playing Colossal Cave now, the historical route to games even as sophisticated as Breath of the Wild is unmistakable. There’s always the potential of something new and unseen just around the corner and, if you’re thwarted by a bad decision or bad fortune, there’s always the addictive potential of another try.
If you want some more game-history credentials to pique your interest, consider the design team behind this graphical reimagining: Roberta and Ken Williams. The Williamses are themselves responsible for highly influential early graphical adventures, having founded Sierra On-Line in 1979 (then called On-Line Systems) and produced such beloved series as Kings Quest and Gabriel Knight. To tie the whole thing together, Roberta Williams herself has said Sierra On-Line would never have existed if she hadn’t played Colossal Cave Adventure more than 40 years ago. It’s fitting then that Colossal Cave is what spurred her to re-emerge from retirement.
While none of the above is to be dismissed, the bad news is that this retro treasure is tragically stuck in the past. This modernisation is not some jazz rendition of Colossal Cave, using a different art form to deconstruct, play with, and explore the intricacies of the original. It’s more like a rap version of Colossal Cave made to entice youngsters by people who have only heard of rap music. The “modern” graphics are comparably modern – because they are graphics – but they look like something from two console generations ago. Movement, too, feels cold and clinical, like floating a camera through an abstract space, not walking into a cave complex. Colossal Cave plays nothing like a modern game. If it wasn’t riding on the coattails of history it would be inexcusably – almost unbelievably – poor.
It’s all the more damning when the game is presented with emphasis on the game design experience of Roberta and Ken Williams and “all the bells and whistles of modern gaming” they have brought to it. The primary and overriding design decision was clearly to adhere with absolute faith to the original text adventure. Randomness and deliberate, taunting frustration of the player abound. Randomising which of ten exits actually gets you out of a room was perhaps an amusing parlour trick in the 1970s, but today, it’s just bullying – especially when you consider that the exit is re-randomised with every attempt. It’s also a foolhardy move to present the player just two clear options: either continue to roll a 10-sided die or quit the game. If we didn’t need to write a review, we might have chosen the latter. (That room, by the way, is called Witt’s End. Crowther and the Williamses are laughing at us!)
One sensible concession to the modern world is the presence of a map – which the player would originally have had to draw for themselves. This provides some relief, although the way connections between spaces are depicted sometimes belies randomness or arbitrary blockades. This is sadly true of the 3D world itself, too. There are loading screens between different parts of the caves and in at least one case, we left a room heading upwards, paused on a black screen, then appeared a few steps into a room, apparently having come down not up. In a game which is openly seeking to confound you with its tortuous layout, this is just unfair. On another occasion we slipped through a crack in the wall and then, when we tried to return, the narrator informed us, “You can’t find the crack you just came through.” We could see it with our own eyes!
Other little niggles include using ladders. Don’t try to walk onto one, you might fall and have to restart the game. You must use the cursor to select the ladder, but not from too far away, which makes the cautious creep towards the ladder unnecessarily nerve-wracking. Another irritation is the constant presence of the cursor. Apart from always interrupting the view of the cave, it makes no distinction between points of interest. Pressing 'A' on some bits of scenery elicits useful – sometimes critical – descriptive text, whereas selecting most of the scenery will only repeat the general description of the area. This discouraged us from triggering the narration at all, undoing the central decision to recreate the original text with absolute purity.
They say a picture paints a thousand words, but Colossal Cave never needed a thousand words. On the other hand, one word can write a thousand pictures: in our heads, we can imagine a colossal cave, but here we only see a big hole.
Like its own mysterious underground complex, Colossal Cave is obscure and unfriendly, trickily hiding some scarce but valuable treasure. If it wasn’t for the fascinating source material, it would be jaw-droppingly bad. However, the source material is fascinating, and this remake is one way to engage with it. If, for that reason, you are willing to overlook both the outdated design elements you would expect and the bad design decisions and sloppy implementation you wouldn’t, there could be something here to enjoy. We certainly wouldn’t judge anyone who discovered an egg-sized emerald of fun in Colossal Cave, but neither can we seriously recommend it.
Seems like a game I’d enjoy. I do love a text adventure and grew up on old choose your own adventure books so seeing the core concepts of these genres brought into a 3D space is fascinating.
Despite the clear and concise warning to stay away... I feel oddly compelled to enter the cave! I'm going to stick this on the wishlist and wait for the inevitable price slash.
Yeah, as one of the old fogies who was THERE back in the text adventure days, I can't resist its call, and will probably be willing to overlook a lot. They tried to update it for a modern audience, but the original audience is still kicking and might enjoy it. (OK. I wasn't quite alive in '76, but I cut my teeth on text adventures at a very early age.)
I was excited after listening to the Eurogamer podcast, but was disappointed by the trailer. Bad review not a surprise.
I still have my map of the original game.
I love the original! A pity this version is so naff, those screenshots look horrendous. They should've got The Chinese Room to make it, that could've been much more interesting visually and for gameplay.
I never played any of the originals but this negative, kinda unfair, review makes me want to try it.
I was hoping for a game like this to come around and maybe, just maybe, we can finally decide we have "jumped the shark" on video game remakes. Let's close this chapter of video game history....Please!!
As one of the biggest Sierra adventure game fanatics around, this was probably my most anticipated game of the past year. I bought it on day one, and sadly.... did not like it. This, despite loving text adventures, including the original Colossal Cave (which I played as 'Jewels of Darkness'), and Kinq's Quest being my most beloved gaming franchise. The game was ugly, desperately suffering from bland art design. The UI was clunky and unpolished. The game design was rather.... boring. The narrator was great, though and despite its flaws, I did thrill to be playing a new game by Ken and Roberta Williams. That will not be enough to carry the enthusiasm of the average gamer, however. My hope is that the Williams simply use it as a training ground for breaking back into game creation, and that what they learned from the process will be used to strengthen future game endeavors. My fear though, is that a negative reception to the game will stifle their desire to pursue those future endeavors before they start.
I'm going to remake "Spacewar!" It's going to be so faithful to the original that you will need an actual PDP-1 to run it.
I would like to note that this game, that the whole review says is awful and unredeemable on every level, and is flawed in design, graphics, story, and every other aspect of gameplay ...
Is only rated 1 star lower then a fantastic collection of great games rating by someone who was crying because it was cheaper then the collection he paid for. A review Nintendolife has not retracted.
and that is why Lucasarts is better than Sierra.
@HeadPirate Which collection?
@nocdaes Love that a couple of people are reading this 4/10 review and still want to play the game. I’m really glad the very slender positives of it came out in what I wrote. Couldn’t in good conscience rate this as anything other than “Poor”, but it is truly one of the very best 4/10 games!
I waited for decades for Roberta to come back, and the result is a step back even from Sierra worst attempts. I'm still hoping for a decent Phantasmagoria HD full remake if the original video source is available in some salvage form.
What I don't get is why they didn't simply use Unreal Engine, which could have made the presentation infinitely nicer looking without too much customization or effort... I tossed this on my wishlist, but it'd have to drop a lot before I'll be tempted.
@HeadPirate That one was more expensive, not cheaper. If you want your opinion to be taken seriously, start with correct facts. He defended his score well and said to add 3 points if you didn't already have the previous collection. Reviewers factor in both content and context. Arguing against a review based on content only doesn't make the reviewer look bad but rather the review's critic.
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