One of my favorite companies to explore has always been Sierra On-Line. As a child of the 90s, many of their titles captivated my imagination, especially Torin’s Passage. Now that I think about it, there was a Sierra game to cover everything I was interested in. If I wanted to feel uneasy, I played Phantasmagoria. If I wanted to learn, I played the Dr. Brain series. If I wanted to be something only a powerful imagination could manifest, I could tackle any of the “quest” titles, such as Space Quest, King’s Quest, Police Quest, or Quest for Glory. However, my experience with Sierra was isolated solely to the 90s. Sierra’s history dates back to 1979, with the creation of On-Line Systems, and as such, my “adventure game” knowledge was lacking in many ways.
One day as I was perusing Twitter, I noticed that Ken Williams, the purveyor of many of my favorite childhood games, was working with Roberta to revitalize an amazing game that in many ways, was the pioneer of the adventure genre. This game was known as Colossal Cave Adventure and it was released in 1976 by William Crowther, and again in 1977 by Don Woods. It was designed for the PDP-10 computer, which if you are unfamiliar with it, is a rather large hulking piece of equipment, a mainframe computer! A simple game, with simple words. I feared I wouldn’t be able to “get into” the title, especially being so spoiled with VGA graphics, and yet here I was, enjoying myself. Text adventures, in any capacity, are an incredibly delicate art form.
With a few words you have to paint a landscape, with letters scrolling across a screen, you need to convey emotions, to instill fear when a Grue might be lurking in the darkness. The sheer responsibility of the designer to ensure that their story is told is a massive undertaking, and William Crowther knocked it out of the park. Returning to the Twitter remark, I noticed that Ken and Roberta were working on this title, and as a streamer, I wanted the opportunity to reach out to them and write this review about my experience with their revitalization project of the original game, Colossal Cave, slated for release this year. I was lucky enough to get a review copy, and per the PR firm’s request, spent 1 hour respectively playing not only the first iteration but the remake as well.
Colossal Cave Adventure (1979)
The original Colossal Cave Adventure (CCA) is a beast that genuinely surprised me. I’ve indulged in the original Zork trilogy as a young adult. While I’m used to the text parsers common with the era, Colossal Cave Adventure handled it slightly differently. It was more than just “You see a building, there’s a mailbox out front” and “You are in the Shire”. With Colossal Cave Adventure, I felt I had a whimsical companion guiding me through my adventure, through every step. I found this to be ingenious. The concept of the game was laid out in front of me, and embarking on a journey, I unlocked the metal grate, and for the first time in my life (and likely the only time) went on a spelunking adventure. Once inside, the actual game begins, and with that comes the tropes. Of course, there will be puzzles, of course, you’ll need to take the time to make a map, and of course, there will be enemies that try to kill you. All these tropes have been engrained in my mind from Zork, but again, CCA was different.
Would you believe me if I told you, despite the fact that I was looking at endless walls of text, I felt claustrophobic in the cave? The artistry of the creators conveys that emotion, the locations you walk through, and the enthralling urgency of when you encounter the dwarves. This game, as simple as it was, in my mind, set the baseline of what every other text-based adventure game should be. In the end, after spending an hour playing the title, I managed to snag roughly 108 points. Those overly aggressive dwarves gave me a run for my money, and the number of times knives were lobbed at my head, was innumerable. Despite my short play, I knew that booting up Ken and Roberta’s revision was next, and I knew what I wanted to see, and experience, for this review.
Colossal Cave (2023)
As excitement rose to the occasion for what I was doing, and in front of an intimate audience of roughly 15 people, I booted up the 2023 revision created by Ken and Roberta. The first time I heard the narrator speak, I knew I was in good hands. What was happening in front of me, was a 1:1 remake, in the Unity Engine, of the original game. The narrator’s voice is warm and welcoming. The mental landscape that I imagined playing the original iteration, unfolded in front of me. The mountains that surrounded the building reached the clouds, the water running in the building echoed through my headphones, and all the items I knew from the original game, were sitting on the table in front of me! Elated to see that the game was so beautiful, I rushed straight down to the grate with my keys, unlocked it, and entered the Colossal Cave. I do have “pros and cons” with the game, but in all honesty, they are all isolated to issues I had with the original game. I dropped into the quiet caves, I saw the goldenrod text “Xyzzy” and I chuckled. Based on my knowledge from the previous game, I knew where to go. However, as a testament to my patience and skill, my fate was still sealed by those pesky dwarves! For the life of me, I couldn’t think of simply “throwing the axe” at them! I think my time in the cave would have been much more enjoyable had I thought of that. But with an hour of both games fresh in my mind, it’s now time to write the review of Ken and Roberta’s take, on this classic landmark title.
Technical Execution – B
The engine that was used in the creation of this title, is a variance of the Unreal Engine. I want to say that as the version I played was a beta, the final delivered product might have improved artwork. If I’m to be very pedantic, the environments themselves, are wonderful, the issue arises with the secondary assets. The trees “look like trees”, rocks “look like rocks”, and garbage and other assorted items look like they were just “placed there” temporarily. The interface is gorgeous and in my opinion, for what the developers were trying to convey, they did a wonderful job. Even with my small issues, every single room was represented perfectly as it would have been in the original game. The user interface in the game is intuitive, easy to manage, and welcoming to new members taking their first steps in the Colossal Cave. In my opinion, even if you never played the original game, you would still have fun checking it out. I would even endeavor to say my kids might enjoy it!
Audio – B (Ambiance) / C (Music)
The music, for the most part, is non-existent and again this might be “unfair” because there is an ambiance that is used in the game. When you get closer to the surface, if you listen carefully, the ambiance changes from an open sprawling mountain pass to a confined claustrophobic area where there is a polarity shift. Sure you would want to hear the birds singing their songs, and the wind rushing outside the cave, but would you want to hear someone say “Hi there” in a dark lonely cave? I do see the potential for there to be some level of music or ambient scoring to supplement the gameplay. However, I rely on music to set the framework of my adventure, and without any, it sort of felt as if I was watching Alien again.
Overall Opinion & Relevance – A
You don’t need to be a video game historian to understand the importance of a project like this revitalization. The current market trend is identified by the “R’s of Doom”: “Remaster, Remake, Reboot”. Many companies elect to do this, and in that capacity, I feel they are lazy. However, this is not the case for CCA. When you consider the technological constraints of CCA in the 70s, there is an open invitation to remake the game for a modern audience, while also scratching a long-awaited itch for the casual player who might have encountered CCA as a child. To me, that’s the only time the “R’s” are forgiven. CCA as a text adventure, was a pioneer of the industry, an uncharted territory, a jumble of code that guided you on a legendary adventure using your brain as the monitor. It would be a disservice to NOT remake this game. This is why the gameplay itself is impeccable to me.
Taking something so important, inadvertently allowing it to quietly fade into obscurity, and then bringing it back for a new generation is a redeeming mark for those who gave a damn about Sierra, Ken, and Roberta. It will never sit well with me the direction Sierra took after the acquisitions of the late 90s and early 2000s, but this game is like a firm handshake from Ken and a warm hug from Roberta. It speaks to me, saying calmly “we never forgot about you sitting in front of a monitor, breaking curfew to escape the Labion Labor Mines.” In many ways, it brings me back to a time when life was a little bit more worth living.
Time will tell how the final build will look, but needless to say, it is definitely going on my backlog. Thank you to Ken and Roberta for allowing me to review the game!