The story of Sierra Entertainment is as timeless as its catalog, which includes multiple influential game changers. Iconic titles like Phantasmagoria and King’s Quest unlocked the code of possibilities for both developers and players, proving anything in your imagination can materialize in a video game. The ideas and dreams of Roberta and Ken Williams influenced so much of game development and publishing that it feels like a gift from the past to receive a 3D re-interpretation of a black-and-white text adventure game that ultimately gave life to Sierra.
The original title, 1976’s Colossal Cave Adventure, is already one of the most influential games ever, but Roberta and Ken interrupting 25 years of retirement to transform a text adventure into a brand-new experience is as inspiring as it is exciting. This new version of Colossal Cave is one of the most articulated text adventure games, a style it retains despite the new magical realism and storybook art style. A journey that takes place across the mysterious caverns buried beneath a seemingly isolated island, Colossal Cave remains powered by the text adventure playset tools and rules.
It’s impossible to separate the 47 years of distance between the two titles. Colossal Cave Adventure may as well be the bedrock in which the 2023 release is carved, but Colossal Cave is an exciting adventure waiting to be had by anyone okay with the dust and debris from all the game design excavations. You’re still solving text adventure problems but with intuitive controls, ambient music and sound effects, and a lantern of 3D graphics to light and guide your path.
Exploring the caves and isolated island above is a colorful journey full of treasure, magic, and wonder. Players are tasked with achieving the highest point total (of a possible 350) by collecting special treasures while uncovering the secrets and mysteries underneath the eponymous cave. Like the original, you’re likely to regularly get lost while utilizing trial-and-error tactics to find the next treasure or way forward. It always feels like you’re three steps behind, but with enough time and walking, you’ll eventually find your way.
Colossal Cave has players climbing ladders, opening doors, and, yes, even battling a dragon, all while completing as many crucial actions as possible. Colossal Cave retains a classic adventure game bump in that situations, characters, and items don’t always work intuitively, making it a test of patience for any stranded explorers. Though piecing the puzzles together can be confusing, I always felt properly rewarded and excited when I finally found the solutions. Seeing a massive, hissing snake vanish after completing one puzzle was a thrill. However, with little instruction or hint toward the solution, it took me a frustratingly long time to realize I needed to drop my recently acquired Black Wand before I could proceed.
In an age of having nearly every objective displayed on a HUD, it was refreshing to walk down the streams and through the darkness of Colossal Cave. I didn’t always know where to go or what to do, but I kept exploring and playing. I found myself lost a lot, but I always managed to find a weird item or path forward that gave me enough to continue.
For all its charm and flaws, Colossal Cave is a warm “Sierra” passion project that takes you to a simpler time when you were just dropped into a game with only an idea of what’s to come. All you know is what you’re told at the start: You’re exploring a cavern to see sights and collect treasure. It’s only at the end that you learn about the cute frame narrative wrappings. Exploring and finding treasure is fun nonetheless, but Colossal Cave tucks some immersive sim elements that add just a little more mystery at the end of the tour.
Cygnus made Colossal Cave with VR in mind, but playing it outside VR sacrifices little. The sound effects, ambient noise, and graphics all meet at the perfect intersection for technological compromises and art style. This should help the title remain even more timeless than the original adventure from all those years ago.
Colossal Cave isn’t for everyone, but it’s like a slow and meticulously designed theme park ride, all built around an old text adventure game, making for a fascinating experience. Whether you play it or not is probably more up to your personal sensibilities, but Colossal Cave remains an immersive excavation that’s more than worth the trip, even with all the old screws and rusty bolts binding the two periods of game history together.