Colossal Cave Adventure Preview: Digging Into the Wreck

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When Colossal Cave Adventure was first circulating among computer enthusiasts in the ’70s, I wasn’t even born yet. I’ve never had the pleasure of experiencing the original spelunking adventure, but I’ve certainly enjoyed the fruits of its success. Colossal Cave’s legacy has spawned not just more text-based adventures like the ones legendary genre pioneer Roberta Williams was inspired to create as a part of Sierra Online, but it’s also one of the progenitors of everything we play today that remotely touches the adventure genre. Even Elden Ring might not exist without Colossal Cave.

So what does it mean to remake Colossal Cave in 2022? Text-based adventures have largely fallen by the wayside, so Roberta Williams and her husband Ken Williams are tackling the adventure most notably by visualizing it for the first time. I’ve now had the chance to play the earliest snippet of Colossal Cave Adventure at both GDC and now at Gamescom, with two hands-on previews in VR on the Meta Quest 2 and one hands-off preview on the Nintendo Switch, for which it was just announced.

The Switch version appears to be running well and offers a very enticing portable option, but of the two, the VR version is understandably the more visually impressive in the way VR is able to depict the intimidating nature of the Colossal Cave itself. Deep chasms stretch into infinity beneath my feet as I slide along a narrow rock wall; bats flap anxiously overhead. A single blue bird perches gracefully on a branch as a beam of sunlight peeks in through the cave ceiling, close enough I can almost touch him. As someone who only rarely drags out her Valve Index anymore, moments like these remind me what I love about the technology.

At first, I was a bit uncertain about the controls. Hand tracking seemed that it would have been a natural fit for Colossal Cave Adventure, and yet everything is entirely aim and button presses. But after just a few moments in the cave, I’m sold on the more traditional adventure game system of icons – an eye to look and hear the narration for something, a hand to interact, and an inventory of all my junk. Colossal Cave is absolutely chocked with stuff, as item interactions make up the core of its puzzles. There’s no sensible way anyone could carry everything otherwise, and it’s a pleasant nod to the era that came directly out of games like Colossal Cave. Just make sure you don’t actually throw any of your items off a cliff, as they’ll be gone forever.

As someone who only rarely drags out her Valve Index anymore, moments like these remind me what I love about the technology.

Despite the new format, this is still entirely the Colossal Cave Adventure that fans of the original will remember, with all the text intact thus far. Aiming your Look icon at anything and selecting will get you the familiar, now gently voice-acted narration describing both what you’re seeing and often adding extra context clues. It’s a lovely way to honor the original Colossal Cave and the spirit of exploration it invoked, even as that narration has been translated to a visual format.

And as far as I’m told, if you remember how to get every single treasure, you’ll likely get them all here too with little trouble. There are a few small creative touches, like the trash of previous adventurers littering the entrance, the new imaginings of dwarves doing some slightly new activities or the catlike way a dragon moves, but everything I’ve been told leads me to believe this will be as 100% faithful a recreation as possible. This even may come down to accessibility mechanics – my original playthrough at GDC in VR had snap turns, but they had been removed at Gamescom. I’m told this may be added back in later, which would be extremely welcome as I experienced some significant vertigo on the second go-around.

My primary criticism of this rendition of Colossal Cave Adventure, then, is that it may be almost too faithful to its own original ideas. Almost four decades of video game history have resulted in far more advances in design and technology than the mere introduction of actual tree models and voice actors. Simply translating the original text of Colossal Cave into a space you can move in still leaves it feeling a touch empty – where once our brains filled in the spaces between the cavernous halls, now we’re tied closely to one person’s specific vision of those halls, but without creative license or addition. Just rocky wandering from one room to the next, and trying to puzzle out the obscure answer to why the bluebird near the entrance keeps flying away from us.

From what I’ve seen so far, I think Colossal Cave Adventure will be a nostalgia trip many will want to go on. It’s a lovely one so far, especially in VR, and even if the Switch’s caverns are less awe-inspiring, they’re certainly a much more convenient option. My biggest worry is that Colossal Cave Adventure may need a little something more to entice a generation of adventurers accustomed to fast-paced combat and sidequests to explore its dark, merciless halls again in the modern era. But then again, maybe there’s something admirable about the obscure simplicity of Colossal Cave, and the effort to bring such a notable piece of gaming history into a space where kids like me can get lost in it for the first time.

Rebekah Valentine is a news reporter for IGN. You can find her on Twitter @duckvalentine.

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Author: Rebekah Valentine

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