Colossal Cave Review - Screenshot 1 of 5
Captured on Nintendo Switch (Handheld/Undocked)

“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.

Colossal Cave Review - Screenshot 2 of 5
Captured on Nintendo Switch (Handheld/Undocked)

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.

Colossal Cave Review - Screenshot 3 of 5
Captured on Nintendo Switch (Handheld/Undocked)

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!)

Colossal Cave Review - Screenshot 4 of 5
Captured on Nintendo Switch (Handheld/Undocked)

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.

Colossal Cave Review - Screenshot 5 of 5
Captured on Nintendo Switch (Handheld/Undocked)

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.